Sacred Mayan Crossing, 2012
Accompanied by the deep sound of conch shells, rhythmic drumbeats and the chants of Mayan priests, and with the heady fragrance of copal incense in the air, more than 300 oarsmen boarded their wooden canoes in the caleta or creek at Xcaret at dawn on May 18 and set sail bound for the island of Cozumel. They are participating in the annual sacred journey called the Travesía Sagrada Maya or Sacred Mayan Crossing, which emulates the pilgrimages the Maya made thousands of years ago to worship at the shrine of Ixchel, the goddess of the moon, fertility and childbirth. A journey of enlightenment that holds particular significance in 2012 as one cycle in the ancient Mayan calendar draws to a close this December and another one begins, ushering in a new era.
Xcaret is the site of the Mayan port of Pole, an important trade enclave in ancient times and the departure point for the pilgrims who would journey there from all over the Yucatán to make the perilous crossing to Cozumel. On the island they would consult the oracle and request help from the goddess.
The goddess of fertility and childbirth, Ixchel was the wife of Itzamna, the venerable god of learning. Her name is derived from “Ix” or female and “Chel,” which means white-skinned in Maya and is thought to refer to the moon. Her lunar association gave her power over the waves and tides and as such she was the patron of the sea and of fishing. Her power could also be malignant and could result in floods and destruction. She had different manifestations, sometimes depicted as a young woman or as an old crone in the Dresden Codex, and is said to have taught women the art of weaving. The most important shrines in her honor were on the island of Cozumel and there was a smaller temple on Isla Mujeres.
Today’s Seafarers on a Quest
After months of hard training and getting up at dawn, the modern-day remeros or oarsmen participating in the Sacred Mayan Crossing are embarking on their own personal pilgrimage. They come from Playa del Carmen and the Riviera Maya, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Yucatán and other parts of Mexico. Some are Mayan, others were drawn by challenge of the canoe voyage, others are seeking inner peace, but all share an unbreakable bond, a love of the sea and of this timeless land.
In fragile canoes made from hollowed out tree trunks, defying winds, waves and powerful ocean currents, they are following the ancient maritime route to the holy island known to the ancient Maya as Cuzamil or Cutzamil, the “land of the swallows.”
The celebrations began the evening of May 17 with the representation of a Kii’wik or ancient Mayan market against the candlelit backdrop of the temples in the archaeological site in Xcaret Park. Painstakingly reproduced to be as authentic as possible, it pays tribute to the importance of trade in Mayan culture and the role of Pole as a major port on the maritime route through the Caribbean. Merchants show their wares, including feathers, shells, jade, salt, honey, cotton, copal or pom and barter for them with cacao beans, a lucrative cash crop and the accepted currency throughout the Maya World during the Post-Classic period of Mayan history (1250 – 1519 A.D.).
A purification ceremony for the oarsmen followed later in the evening and each one made an offering of copal to the goddess Ixchel and was blessed by the priests.
The ritual drew to a conclusion with Mayan dances symbolizing fire, rebirth, life and death, the young goddess Ixchel, the exploits of the Heavenly Twins who defied the Lords of Death, and the planting of a ceiba, the sacred Mayan world tree, which links the heavens, the earth and the Underworld.
Setting Sail at Sunrise, Cozumel Bound, May 18
As dawn broke on May 18, Mayan priests and rulers blessed the oarsmen and bid them farewell as they departed for Cozumel, their canoes laden with offerings for Ixchel.
The crossing can take between six and eight hours depending on sea and weather conditions and the oarsmen arrived on Cozumel at 11:30 a.m., May 18, making landfall in the Caletita next to the lighthouse. The Halach Uinic or Mayan lord and his subjects welcomed them ashore and later they make their way to the ancient shrine of Ixchel.
In the evening at 8 p.m. in Chankanaab Park, the ancient rites in honor of Ixchel are reenacted. Ah Puch, the God of Death makes an entrance in a sign that time has stood still and mankind has disappeared. The oarsmen and couples who wish for children then pray to the goddess for fertility, new life and the restoration of balance in the cosmos. Ixchel will speak to the supplicants through the oracle or priestess who is her voice, giving them a message of hope for the new baktun or cycle, the dawn of a new era of harmony and consciousness. The New Fire ceremony, a ritual for renewal is also performed.
The Return Journey, May 19
At dawn on May 19, the islanders gather to send the pilgrims on their way with their message of renewal and rebirth. The fleet sets sail towards the west, bound for Playa del Carmen, site of the ancient port of Xaman-Há. They are due to arrive at Playa Fundadores next to the Ferry dock between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. and will be welcomed by the Mayan ruler, the head priest and women from the community, eager to hear the words of Ixchel and receive her blessing. There are celebrations with dances and music to mark the beginning of the new era.
This is the sixth time the Sacred Mayan Journey has been organized by Xcaret with the cooperation of the authorities in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. The anthropologists, archaeologists and historians working at the Riviera Maya’s famous park’s have done exhaustive research to make this journey into the past as authentic as possible.
Photos courtesy of Travesía Sagrada Maya