Here is a riddle that was posed to me by my friend and colleague, the meso-american shaman and poet Martin Prechtel:
“Into the fresh blond hair of the young rain deities,
The twins drop to retrieve their parents’ face.
One disappears in order to hold the other,
Whose death as well,
feeds the world in a jeweled return through smoke,
and a sigh of grief-spiced relief.”
In order to answer Martin’s cryptic riddle, I dug deep into the storied lifeways of several cultures searching for the twins referred to by the riddle. I finally zeroed in on the Mayan sacred text entitled the Popol Vuh. The complexity of the riddle ensured that in answering it I would have to read between the lines of this holy text, seeking strange correspondences and gradually gleaning various insights into the secret ways that practical, earthly information is held, or stored, in the oral stories of our indigenous ancestors….
Here, then, is my reply to the riddle posed by Martin:
Much as my own distant-time ancestor, Abraham, commanded by the God of Wind and Breath to sacrifice his only son, sets out with his beloved son to do accomplish that very sacrifice, climbing the mountain, laying Isaac on the pile of wood, and taking up the sacrificial knife to kill him – but is mercifully interrupted at the last moment by that same God, who now provides a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac; and just as this divine substitution (this freshly born metaphor) sets a startling new precedent for all the tribal peoples of that land (we no longer need humans be ritually sacrificed to the gods, henceforth a sheep shall be sacrificed and it will be as if it were our own beloved child…) so, in a similar manner, the maiden called Blood Moon, six months pregnant as a result of being spat upon by a skull growing like a gourd on a calabash tree, is ordered to be sacrificed by the Lords of Xibalba, but when the owl messengers take her off to perform the sacrifice, fully intending to cut out her heart and bring it back to those dark Lords, the owls at the last moment agree to spare her life – letting her gather and prepare a congealed clump of scarlet sap which the owls bring back and present, red and oozing, to the Lords, declaring that it is indeed Blood Moon’s severed heart. The Lords are delighted by the apparent gore of the sacrifice, and especially pleased by the aroma of the smoke given off by the sap when they dry the supposed heart over a fire. Here too is a precedent: no longer need human lives be sacrificed to the Xibalban Lords of Death; henceforth they will honored and petitioned not with severed human hearts, but with the burning incense that is made from clotted sap. A new era thus dawns…
But we are getting ahead of ourselves; let us sow the other seeds of the riddle’s solution. For it’s only by being spared by those soft-feathered messengers, and by the sly scam of the congealed tree sap, that Blood Moon is able to make her way up to the earth’s surface, where she finally gives birth to the twin boys who’ve been growing like a waxing moon within her womb. These twins, these hunters, are named Hunahpu and Xbalamque, and it is they – once they have grown into young men and have defeated Seven Macaw and his two violent sons, Earthquake and the lizardlike Zipacna, and have even turned their own brilliant half-brothers into monkeys – it is they who will descend to retrieve their parents’ face.
And why is their parents’ face lost down there, in that realm hidden below the earth’s surface? Because their two good hearted fathers, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu – themselves twins born to the old midwife and the old matchmaker – had naively journeyed down into Xibalba to play ball with the Lords of Death, and had been tricked there into losing even before the game could start, and so were sacrificed and buried by the deadly Lords of Xibalba in the western Place of Ball Game Sacrifice. Buried, that is, except for the severed head of One Hunahpu, which had been placed by the lords in the forking branches of a nearby calabash tree. Sensing the sacred head in its branches, the calabash begins fruiting for the first time – a wonder! – bearing a clutch of gourds indistinguishable from the severed head that sits among them.
Thus it was that when Blood Moon came to gaze in wonder at this tree of skulls, one of them startled her by speaking – the severed skull of One Hunahpu speaking with the voice of both brothers, of bothOne Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu – explaining that although they have been killed, a father’s face nevertheless lives on in the face of his children. And it is then that the head spits in Blood Moon’s hand, sowing the seed that will swell and finally sprout from her womb as young Hunahpu and his twin Xbalanque.
But are these two young hunters, these twins, already carrying their fathers’ faces? If so, it is only in a unripe form: to gain the mature visage of their parents – the esplendent countenance of their lineage – they too will have journey down into the underworld, into Xibalba, to confront the Lords of Death and avenge the fate of their ball-playing fathers.
And so when, after a wild and worthy childhood here on earth’s surface, the twins receive a summons from those dark Lords, Hunahpu and Xbalanque take leave of their mother and of their grandmother, the old midwife. But first they “plant” four green ears of corn at the center of their grandmother’s house, in the middle of her attic, for her to remember them by: when the corn dries out, they say, she will know they have died, and when the new corn sprouts, she will know they live again.
Is this not a crucial clue? The life and activity of these brothers, it would seem, displays itself here on earth’s surface as the life and activity of the corn, of the planted maize. And so we may wonder: are these twin brothers, descending now into the dense dark of Xibalba, are they perhaps the very heart, the very Rukux of the corn itself?
Watch now: they are slipping deeper into the dark. But their eyes are well accustomed to the dark, are they not? Of course, since throughout their childhood on earth’s surface things have also been rather dark, (although the bright feathers of a macaw sometimes shed a bit of local light). For there has as yet been no dawning; the round sun has not yet risen to cast its gaze unto the four corners of this sky-earth world. But the twins have taken with them their fathers’ round rubber ball (a kind of incipient sun) for they, too, are ballplayers eager to challenge the Lords of Xibalba to a game, and as hunters they have also their blow-guns, nascent rays or darts of the incipient sun – rays through which they may perhaps peer into the dark distances, and upon which they’ll be able to cross some deep chasms.
If we continue to watch the brothers we’ll see that they are far more savvy and sharp than their fathers; that they are able to meet and overcome every challenge that the Lords of the Underworld toss before them, outwitting even the chief Lords – those named One Death and Seven Death. They even win their first ball game against the Lords, and now watch: they survive the dark house by means of a macaw’s tail feathers and a firefly’s light, they survive the house of sharp knives, and the jaguar house, and even the bat hou – Wait! Oh no! One of the bats has just cut off Hunahpu’s head! – see, it’s over there, rolling onto the Xibalbans’ ball court!
But even here the twins will be triumphant: Xbalanque fashions a squash as a substitute head for his brother and then, during another ball game against the Lords using his brother’s severed head as the ball, Xbalanque swaps the squash head for the real one when the Lords are momentarily distracted, mistaking a bounding rabbit for the bouncing ball (much as a creature accustomed only to night might mistake the full moon for the actual sun). And it is only in the course of the continued game, when the substitute ball abruptly breaks open and spills its squash seeds upon the court, only then do the Lords realize that they’ve been duped, outdone once again by the two twins.
But now Hunahpu and Xbalanque – and this is most strange – seem abruptly to give up and surrender themselves to the Xibalbans. The twins agree to come see the deeply dug fire pit wherein the conniving Lords are roasting the ingredients for a mind-altering drink, and when they realize that the Lords intend to roast them as well, the twins abruptly clasp each other by the hands and dive headfirst into the flames – a joint self-immolation, a horror!
The Xibalbans rejoice at their deadly victory. They pick out the twins’ bones from the smoking fire and, following the instructions of two seers, they grind the bones into a powder (rather like the way corn is ground into corn meal) which they then sprinkle into a mountain river. But look: after five days, we see the twins reappear as two catfish within that river! And on the next day we see them in human form once again. But they are now disguised as vagabond entertainers, as itinerant acrobats and illusionists – able to burn down a house and then bring it back intact (one of their most popular feats), able even, it seems, to sacrifice each other and instantly bring one another back to life. The repeated performances of these wayfaring conjurers attract the attention of the two Xibalba leaders – One Death and Seven Death – who of course summon them to their court for a command performance. Dazzled by the twin’s skill, the two Lords demand to see the performers enact the dance wherein one sacrifices the other and then returns him to life.
This they do. Xbalanque takes up the sacrificial knife and severs his own brother Hunahpu’s head, rolling it out the door, and then – I cannot watch further! – cuts his brother’s heart from the dismembered body. My eyes are squeezed shut, trying to shut out this nightmare! But when I hear Xbalanque calling upon his brother to stand up, I pry open my eyes to see Hunahpu spring back to vibrant life, all in one piece, exultant! And now the two fiendish Lords, made giddy and excited by all this blood. And a bit jealous by the joyful resurrection, are eagerly demanding to undergo the sacrifice and resurrection themselves.
The twins are humbly consenting; they take up the knife. First they sacrifice One Death. Then they sacrifice Seven Death. But they do not return them to life. They leave them dead. And in this way, at last, they defeat the Lords of Xibalba.
Only then do the twins journey to the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, in hopes of reassembling and resurrecting their father, Seven Hunahpu, whose body and gristled head are both buried there. They put his parts back together, and try to restore his living face. But in order for them to do so, the slowly rejuvenating Seven Hunahpu must himself pronounce the name of every part of his face, and it seems he is unable to recall anything beyond “mouth,” “nose,” and “eyes.” And so the twins leave him in that place, easing his heart with the assurance that his rough suffering at the hands of the Xibalbans has now been made smooth, and that he’ll be honored and prayed to by all who are born in the gleaming light. For now, at last, the moment has been made ripe for the first dawning, and so our twin heroes are now slowly climbing up from Xibalba into the sky-earth world, and Hunahpu keeps rising…quietly floating into the sky as Venus, the morning-star, Sun-carrier! Listen: all is hushed on the earth’s surface, the leaves, the animals stunned into silence, the newly-made humans gathered on the ridges and in the valleys, watching. Already the morning star is fading, its shine dissipating under the influence of a wierd sensation we feel swelling within us, a kind of trance, or a kind of waking from trance, as – look! – it is again Hunahpu emerging from under the ground, but now as the dawning Sun itself! This delicious sensation, this Holiness we now feel spreading throughout our limbs is none other than the hunter Hunahpu, reborn resplendent from his long journey in the deathlands, now mounting up from earth’s surface into a sky steadily brightening with the radiance of his face.
And where is his brother? Where is Xbalenque? Wait. Patience… Let yourself enjoy the deepening warmth of Hunahpu as he makes his way up toward the zenith through the smoky mists now rising from the damp earth. But take care not to gaze directly into his incandescent face; feel instead the pleasure of that effulgence as it rebounds off the jeweled surface of the distant sea, sparkling into your eyes from the thousand dew drops suspended on spider webs and rolling like emeralds down the veins of the whispering leaves. Taste with your eyes the white-petaled fragrance of glistening blossoms, and the red fragrances, and the yellows, as the blazing one walks his road toward the west…And finally now, as he slips his toes beneath the western rim of the sea, turn your gaze toward the opposite side of the world. Do you perhaps notice, there, another cooler glow quietly welling up from those distant hills? Can it be that there’s another sun being born from the swollen belly of the eastern mountains? Yes. It is the underworld sun, the sun of the night, now crowning, now beginning to show us his gleaming face. It is the full moon. It is Xbalenque.
But now, after this jeweled return of our heros through the smoky mists of a new dawn, we must ask of the riddle: which exactly is the disappearance that it refers to – one twin disappearing, or (as is implied in the next line) dying, in order to hold the other? Is it perhaps this long disappearance of Xbalamque while his brother climbs into the sky and journeys across the blue toward the western horizon, Xbalamque waiting patiently for Hunahpu to sink down into Xibalba so that he, Xbalamque, can finally ascend, holding the reflected light of his brother in his own luminous countenance, each twin dying to make way for the other’s rebirth, again and again? Do we not witness the very same disappearance and dawning in the way each brother lies down and dies for the other, over and again, as they repeat their conjuring performance traveling as wayfarers throughout Xibalba?
Or, more specifically, is the disappearance mentioned in the riddle the last and most terrifying sacrifice of Hunahpu by his brother, in their command performance at the court of the Lords One and Seven Death? Or is it, perhaps, the beheading of Hunahpu by a bat in the frenzied house of bats? For it was then that Hunahpu received a second, seed-filled head made from a squash, and that this seed-head broke open, scattering it’s seeds on the ball court. And is it not this scattering, or sowing, of seeds that suggests, contrary to my instinctive revulsion, the necessity of Hunahpu’s losing his head? If Hunahpu and Xbalamque are not only the Sun and the full Moon, but are also the life of the corn, as was suggested by their consanguineous relation to the corn that they plant in their Grandmother’s attic – in the way their fortunes are mirrored in the drying-out of the corn, and in the sprouting of a new crop – then surely it’s necessary that one or the other of the twins had his seed-head severed, each year, in order to sow the seed back into the earth! Only in this way could one ensure the renewal and resurrection of the corn stalks in the coming season.
Perhaps, then, the oft-repeated sacrificing of one twin by the other during their time traveling as entertainers throughout Xibalba, and the resurrection that follows again and again on the heels of that sacrifice, shows the long, age-old repetition of this most elemental agricultural practice – the ancestors sowing the corn-seed into the ground from time immemorial right on up to the present – and the necessity of its continuance.
And the repeated burning of a house by the vagabond performers, only to bring it back unharmed – might this have to do with the fiery cooking of corn, and of the various foods made from corn, so that it can spread its nourishment into the world, replenishing the flesh of all those who eat it? For are we not made of what we eat? Are not we human beings made of corn, were not our first mother-fathers fashioned of corn? Of yellow corn and white corn ground into a fine powder by the old midwife, and mixed with water? Much as the bones of her twin grandsons, recovered from the fiery oven in which they initially immolated themselves, were ground into a fine powder and then mixed into the water of a mountain river by the Xibalbans – who unwittingly, by this mixture, enabled the first rebirth of those twins?
But wait – here is yet another possibility: that the repeated burning and resurrection of various houses by the traveling performers carries within its layers a teaching about the careful practice of swidden agriculture, wherein one prepares a four-cornered plot for growing corn by felling and burning the trees and the underbrush therein – setting fire to these plants which are, after all, spacious houses for many creatures – then feeding the soil with the nutrient-rich ashes from that conflagration, empowering the ground and making it fertile so she can better receive the living seeds that will soon be sown within her. The new crop of food plants, in this sense, is a resurrection of those that grew there before – a four-sided house of vibrant life being reborn from its own ashes!
If Hunahpu is not only the blazing Sun, and it’s herald the morning star, and if Xbalanque is not only the full moon, but if they are also, and at the same time, the animate life of the maize plant, well, then the jumbled clouds that water my thoughts momentarily part, and the necessity of all the deaths and resurrections that these twins undergo, and of their cycling journeys down into the dense underworld and back up into the open spaciousness of earth’s sky becomes as clear as a blue-sky day. Indeed, only on this hypothesis do I find a possible solution to the first line of the riddle, which has the twins dropping “into the fresh blond hair of the young rain deities,” in order to retrieve their parents’ face. For where are these young rain deities? I could find no mention of them at the crucial point of descent in the ongoing Story that is recounted in the blessed Council Book, the Popol Vuh(1) – only a migrating flock of hawks through which the twins descend into on their way to Xibalba.
But perhaps the dropping down of the twins to retrieve their parents’ face is also, at one and the same time, the dropping of the maize seeds into the earth, the sowing of the corn into the soil to be reborn afresh in the coming season – the corn kernels thus falling to retrieve the face of their parents, indeed to retrieve the face of all previous plants in their lineage, “…calling their parents’ face forth once again, that we might see it one more time.” When I now read that line, in a hummingbird’s small book filled with vast secrets,(2) and then discover (following the hummingbird tracks a bit further down the same page) that the Tzutujil “word for face and for the fruit, nut, seed, grain or the produce any plant puts forth is the same word,” well, then I realize that I am not crazy: the dropping of the twins to retrieve their parents face is also, yes, the sowing of seeds.
Of course these need not only be corn seeds; they could be calabash seeds, for instance, or squash seeds – since one of their parents has a head that is sometimes a calabash, and since one of the twins has traded heads with a squash.
But whatever else they may be, if the seeds being sown are also corn seeds, then at least for the first sowing of the year they will drop down at the beginning of spring, when the clutch of seed-stars we call the Pleiades are themselves dropping down into the ground for most of the night. At this moment the dry season is ending, and the first, young rains of spring are letting down their blonde hair, softening the earth with their moisture. Or perhaps their flowing hair is the blond thicket of hairs inside the husks of last year’s seed corn – husks that we now peel back in order to free up the seeds for sowing. In any case it’s at this moment in early spring that the digging stick will penetrate the earth’s surface, and so Hunahpu and Xbalanque, dismembered once again, will drop down through the light hair of the first rains, to be sown into the dark earth in order to enable a new dawn.