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In the Maw of the Earth Monster

Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use

Edited by James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer

Publication Year: 2005

As portals to the supernatural realm that creates and animates the universe, caves have always been held sacred by the peoples of Mesoamerica. From ancient times to the present, Mesoamericans have made pilgrimages to caves for ceremonies ranging from rituals of passage to petitions for rain and a plentiful harvest. So important were caves to the pre-Hispanic peoples that they are mentioned in Maya hieroglyphic writing and portrayed in the Central Mexican and Oaxacan pictorial codices. Many ancient settlements were located in proximity to caves. This volume gathers papers from twenty prominent Mesoamerican archaeologists, linguists, and ethnographers to present a state-of-the-art survey of ritual cave use in Mesoamerica from Pre-Columbian times to the present. Organized geographically, the book examines cave use in Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Maya region. Some reports present detailed site studies, while others offer new theoretical understandings of cave rituals. As a whole, the collection validates cave study as the cutting edge of scientific investigation of indigenous ritual and belief. It confirms that the indigenous religious system of Mesoamerica was and still is much more terrestrially focused that has been generally appreciated.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Chapter 1: Introduction: A History of Mesoamerican Cave Interpretation

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pp. 1-17

This volume attempts to bring together a selection of the most recent field research on ritual caves and the latest interpretations of their meaning and significance for modern and Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples. To appreciate the significance of this volume, one has to recognize that the interpretation of cave use within a framework of religion and ritual is a relatively...

Part 1: Central Mexico

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Chapter 2: Rites of Passage and Other Ceremonies in Caves

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pp. 21-34

Some of the most important rituals in people’s lives are rites of passage, defined by Van Gennep (1960) as rituals that mark the transition from one status to another, or those rites that accompany each change of place, social position, and age. These rites are not restricted to the passage of a person from one social status to another in the course of that individual’s life, but also ‘‘mark...

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Chapter 3: The Cave-Pyramid Complex among the Contemporary Nahua of Northern Veracruz

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pp. 35-68

In June 1998, a combined group of Nahua and Otomí people from northern Veracruz, Mexico, undertook an elaborate pilgrimage to two caves at the peak of a distant, sacred mountain in order to appeal for rain.1 The caves are the homes of water and thunder spirits, and the pilgrims brought offerings to assuage the spirits’ apparent anger. Probably as a result of El Niño, the region...

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Chapter 4: Constructing Mythic Space: The Significance of a Chicomoztoc Complex at Acatzingo Viejo

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pp. 69-87

The concept of a sacred landscape in which indigenous people attached special significance to geographic features appears to have been of central importance to Mesoamerican cultures from the earliest times. Mountains, large rocks, caves, springs, rivers, trees, roads, features along the seashore, or landmarks with strange or unique forms were identified with mythological events...

Part 2: Oaxaca

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Chapter 5: Pre-Hispanic Rain Ceremonies in Blade Cave, Sierra Mazateca, Oaxaca, Mexico

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pp. 91-116

Although Oaxaca is one of the great karstic regions in Mesoamerica, relatively little archaeological investigation has been undertaken in its caves.To date, only four major archaeological caves have been reported in any detail. Our knowledge of Oaxaca is particularly incomplete because the cave sites are located among only two or three ethnic groups (Figure 5.1). Pre-Hispanic cave use is currently known from the...

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Chapter 6: Sacred Caves and Rituals from the Northern Mixteca of Oaxaca, Mexico: New Revelations

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pp. 117-152

The rugged landscape of the Mixteca in western Oaxaca, Mexico, consists of uplifted limestone blocks capped with volcanic tuffs that enclose a number of sedimentary basins. Over the ages, flowing water has sculpted deep canyons and numerous caves and caverns. Some of these caves are truly spectacular in terms of size and the antiquity...

Part 3: The Maya Region

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Chapter 7: Some Notes on Ritual Caves among the Ancient and Modern Maya

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pp. 155-185

Caves and hills or mountains are arguably the most prominent natural features of the Maya landscape, and they have for centuries been the focus of ritual and communal activities. Whether we look at the karstic limestone lowlands, the piedmont regions to the south, or the volcanic terrain of the highlands, caves and hills have long provided essential models for an interrelated set of crucial concepts in cosmology and...

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Chapter 8: Shamans, Caves, and the Roles of Ritual Specialists in Maya Society

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pp. 186-222

As physical spaces that can be glossed under the Yukatek term ch’e’en, rockshelters, underground passages, and springs all represent places in nature appropriated by the Maya for exercising religious activities related to earth deities and ancestors. Until the 1990s, however, ch’e’en did not form an integral part of most discussions of Pre-Columbian Maya society. Since the 1980s, caves have become increasingly recognized...

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Chapter 9: Cave Stelae and Megalithic Monuments in Western Belize

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pp. 223-248

Investigations by the Western Belize Regional Cave Project (WBRCP) have documented three caves in western Belize that contain vertically standing megalithic monuments. Because these monuments resemble stelae found in Maya sites, we are applying the term ‘‘stelae,’’ although we recognize that the cave examples in western Belize are shorter than most surface-site monuments and bear no...

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Chapter 10: A Cognitive Approach to Artifact Distribution in Caves of the Maya Area

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pp. 249-268

The cognitive maps that classify and organize the external world must be assumed to leave traces in the archaeological record. Although this fact should be a foregone conclusion, the taphonomic and spatial characteristics of artifacts found in Mesoamerican caves are rarely analyzed with the goal of discovering what those guiding principles were. This kind of approach, which fits...

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Chapter 11: Cluster Concentrations, Boundary Markers, and Ritual Pathways: A GIS Analysis of Artifact Cluster Patterns at Actun Tunichil Mukna., Belize

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pp. 269-300

This chapter analyzes the spatial patterning of artifact deposition in the Main Chamber of Actun Tunichil Muknal, an ancient Maya ritual cave located in western Belize. The aim of my research is to demonstrate that by taking a cognitive-processual approach, an intensive study of a single site can increase our knowledge of cave ritual and aid in our understanding of ancient Maya spatial cognition...

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Chapter 12: Ethnographic Notes on Maya Q’eqchi’ Cave Rites: Implications for Archaeological Interpretation

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pp. 301-327

As this collaboration between a cultural anthropologist and an archaeologist demonstrates, the ethnography of current ritual practices involving sacred caves reveals a range of interpretive possibilities for archaeology in dealing with the ideology manifest in ancient Maya sacred geography. This chapter presents work with rural Q’eqchi’ Maya and others whose ritual is centered on sacred sites known as the Tzuultaq’a...

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Chapter 13: A Lacandon Religious Ritual in the Cave of the God Tsibana at the Holy Lake of Mensabok in the Rainforest of Chiapas

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pp. 328-341

This chapter presents for the first time in English an article by Jaroslaw Petryshyn, ‘‘Ein Lakandonischer Gottesdienst in der Höhle des Gottes Tsibaná am Heiligen See vonMensabok in den Tropischen Urwäldern von Chiapas,’’ originally published by the Archiv für Völkerkunde in Vienna (Petryshyn 1968a).1 I have translated the text...

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Chapter 14: Beneath the Yalahau: Emerging Patterns of Ancient Maya Ritual Cave Use from Northern Quintana Roo, Mexico

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pp. 342-372

The northernmost reaches of inland Quintana Roo have long escaped archaeological scrutiny. Located between the more celebrated areas of Yucat

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Chapter 15: Caves, Karst, and Settlement at Mayap

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pp. 373-402

Mayapán was the capital of most of northern Yucatán during much of the Late Postclassic Period. The city was the seat of a ‘‘joint government’’ (mul tepal ), or political confederacy, that ruled a regional state for about two hundred years (ca. AD 1250–1450) before the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in 1542. According to native and Spaniard alike, the founding, governance,...

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Chapter 16: Concluding Comments

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pp. 403-411

As the first edited volume on Mesoamerican ritual cave use, the collection of chapters presented here is significant in a number of respects, particularly to the nonspecialist who may not have been aware of the development of this subfield since 1990. The first change is simply in tone. The chapters presented here differ from the earlier...


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pp. 413-438

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797352
E-ISBN-10: 0292797354
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292705869
Print-ISBN-10: 0292705867

Page Count: 448
Illustrations: 145 b&w figures
Publication Year: 2005

OCLC Number: 606125759
MUSE Marc Record: Download for In the Maw of the Earth Monster

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Indians of Mexico -- Religion.
  • Caves -- Religious aspects.
  • Indians of Mexico -- Rites and ceremonies.
  • Mayas -- Rites and ceremonies.
  • Mayas -- Religion.
  • Mayas -- Antiquities.
  • Mexico -- Antiquities.
  • Indians of Mexico -- Antiquities.
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