The Mayan Sacbe System Analyzed as an Information Web

Steve Mizrach

Diagram 1. The Cross

diagram 1


Allan Burns argues in his 1994 article, Nine Mayan Prophecies, that anthropologists should make the effort to try and organize their presentation of ideas around the indigenous conceptions of the people with whom they are working. In this article, Burns uses the structure of a trinity of trinities, an important Mayan number. In this paper, I use the organizing principle of a quaternity or cross, since the cross is an important Mayan symbol and further appears cross-culturally in many other cases. Since Burns also argues that the Maya are an open community, I suppose I will not offend many Mayans by putting a Greek god at the center of this cross (Diagram 1.)

In this paper, I seek to analyze the sacbeob or "white roads" of Yucatan. Burns further argues (in "The Road Underground") that roads have always been an important part of Mayan life, since much of Mayan everyday discourse has to do with roads; and this is supposed to reflect the fact that due to their familiarity with roads, the Maya people have for a long time led a dual rural-urban existence. While this article primarily tries to argue that the Mayans were not strangers to the sort of cosmopolitan, urban civilization "brought over" by the Spaniards to the Yucatan, I found more interesting the fact that it shows that for the Mayan people, roads were important in a metaphorical, even metaphysical, sense. They felt anguish when the Spaniards destroyed these roads, as "blood came forth" when they were severed. This insight gave me the key to realizing that the sacbe road-system might have functioned in a conceptual, as well as literal, way.

In other words, while the remnants of the terraced causeways found by archaeologists may have been physical roads for the transport of people and goods, I do not feel that the physical road in itself is the sacbe. Rather, the sacbe is the conceptual alignment or connecting link between two (or more) sites and other points, perhaps other sacred spots or horizon points of astronomical significance - and this path was a "white road" not because it was built from white stone, but instead because the color white may have signified one of the centres of the sacbe network (perhaps T'Ho/Merida) and also tied in with ethnoastronomical beliefs about the Milky Way as a cosmological road. The function of the sacbe system was to carry a type of information that, for reasons I will discuss later, I shall call "Kulkulcan." This information at once constituted knowledge of the integrity of the system as a whole and the power of the ruler to vivify the network and keep it fertile both in the natural and cultural sense. Since I believe that the points of intersection (nodes) for the sacbe system - crossroads - were of key importance, the metaphoric structure that shapes this paper is the cross.

Further, I put Hermes at the center of this cross for numerous reasons. One is that many people consider Hermes to be mythologically equivalent to the Mayan god Itzamna (for whom the city of Izamal is named) who, like Hermes, is also the patron of medicine, writing, and learning. Another is that Hermes is the basis both of the words hermetic (occult, secret, or sealed knowledge) and hermeneutic (the discovery of patterns in texts.) Further, Hermes was the Greek god who at once was the patron of commerce (trade) and travel, and for that reason was a god of crossroads which were often marked by phallic stones known as herms (in this way he parallels the Haitian lord of the crossroads Legba, who, like Hermes, was a psychopomp who led souls between this world and the next.) Most importantly, perhaps, Hermes was the messenger god of communication, and thus to this day his symbol of the caduceus (two intertwined serpents with wings at the tip) signifies both travel and healing.

The arms of the cross -- Kulkulcan (Quetzelcoatl, the feathered serpent), the Sacbe (white road), World Wide Webs (both ancient and modern), and Santiago -- may seem to have nothing to do with this multifaceted Greek deity, but in fact their presence will be explained too in good time. The point to be emphasized here is that the Mayan system of long straight paths interconnecting sites of pilgrimage and rulership is not unique; it is paralleled by other systems found in other countries. Such 'symbolic information networks' covering the landscape can also be found in the geomantic systems of widely disparate cultures and lands.

Why the cross is an important symbol to the Maya is also a matter of some dispute. Most seem to think that, as described in the Popul Vuh, it marks the cardinal points as delineated by the equinoxes and solstices (and perhaps the zenith and nadir of the sun as well.) Each of the cardinal points is then often associated with a particular color, saint, Chaac, or wind (austral, poniente, septentronial, or oriente.) At the center of the cross is then the Ceiba or world-tree which is the vertical (veridical) axis connecting heaven, the earth, and the underworld. However, Dr. Milbrath argues in her paper that the cross may also represent either the constellation of the Southern Cross (which appears at an auspicious point in the Mayan calendar), or, more importantly, the intersection of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.


There have been a lot of arguments over the historical identity of the man-god Kulkulcan. Many legends seem to suggest that he may have been a Toltec priest who tried to abolish the rites of human sacrifice among his people in the 11th century, and was driven out of Tula as a result. Many Maya believe he then came to Yucatan and founded several cities, as well as the art of drinking cacao and other forms of knowledge before leaving for the east in a raft of snakes. However, most scholars think that the man Kulkulcan may have been in reality a priest of an earlier deity known by the same name. It may be that the deity Kulkulcan can be better thought to represent the force of nature (as Huracan, governing the wind and water) and also the civilizing knowledge carried by the sacbes. As the feathered serpent, Kulkulcan at once represents the Earth (as a snake, regenerating and shedding his skin) and Heaven (by his wings, which shows he carries the elan vital of heaven to earth.)

There are two primary sites in Yucatan thought to have been founded by Kulkulcan - Mayapan and Chichen-Itza. It turns out that although no physical road has been found between the two sites, they may have been aligned along a sort of ideological/terrestrial axis that might be called the 'Kulkulcan route.' Although I'd need to look at a highly accurate geodetic site-survey map to prove it, it appears to me that this Kulkulcan Route also passes through the significant site of Oxkintok as well as X-Can in the east and through the ruins of Quihuitzlan on the coast of Veracruz (Olmec territory.) I would argue that perhaps this Kulkulcan Route may have been one of the central axes for the network which carried the sacerdotal information (the rains are coming!) represented by Kulkulcan, who is often identified with the planet Venus, central to Mayan cosmology.

What I am trying to suggest here are that the sacbes are not just merely the physical roads found covering the landscape. Since Kulkulcan has feathers, he does not need to walk; but the paths for him between the many sites must be straight. Archaeologists often puzzle over why the sec been a Toltetions of road that comprise the entire sacbe cannot be found - thus leading them to doubt if they ever existed. What I am suggesting is that the sacbe or white road is not the physical road. Rather, it's the path which exists on occasion physically, but often only really ideologically between the critical nodes of the Mayan landscape. The sacbe or white road is the earthly reduplication of a celestial circuit, if you will, carrying the heaven-to-earth information/force of Kulkulcan to and fro.

The various legends of underground tunnels or heavenly umbilical cords connecting different sites in Yucatan are obviously not to be taken literally. Rather, they imply a metaphorical and mythical connection, and further that very likely some type of physical alignment exists between the sites (likely terminating in the rising or setting point of some planet or star on the horizon) which at some points may actually be physically covered by a dirt or stone terraced road. The key is not just the sacbes themselves, but the places where and how they interconnect. For that symbolic interconnection of the landscape is what maintains its vitality and integration, with itself and also with the cosmos. And the carrier of the message of integration might be called Kulkulcan.


The point I hope some anthropologists would be able to see is that the geomantic system I am describing as possibly existing in Yucatan is really not unique. In Britain, many archaeologists have also found long straight alignments known as 'leys' which, just as in the Yucatan, 1) are said to be the roads that are walked by spirits and faery-beings (aluxes) 2) are thought to interconnect sources of water (esp. holy wells and underground springs) 3) are called dragon paths (such as the famous Ley of St. Michael, which passes through many churches honoring the dragon-slayer) and are thought to carry a sort of 'serpent current', so named because of its property to regenerate the land and the way it undulates between polarities 4) often are the alignments on which Christian churches were placed, because inevitably those churches are placed on top of the older ritual (pre-Celtic/pre-Spanish) sites and 5) usually have their node or intersection points marked by crosses.

Perhaps the closest parallel might be found between the two Mesoamerican cases - Peru and Yucatan. Like the sacbes, the ceques of Peru often interconnect huacas or holy sites which pilgrims still visit and make offerings to today. Further, like the sacbes, the ceques were seen as extensions of the ruler and his power to vivify the land. Just as in the Yucatan, the ceques are seen as paths through which the 'rain-serpent' passes, bringing winds and rain and causing the weather to move. They also serve to delineate the boundaries and water rights of extended kin, just as in the Yucatan, and at the same time are paths to the ancestors and the world of the dead (who walk the paths at certain times of the year, such as the Dia de Los Muertes.) And both Peru and the Yucatan seem to attach a special significance to the Milky Way, which is known in both areas as the Road of Santiago.

I've already mentioned the Hermetic system of Greece, but we can see yet more parallels to Yucatan in the Chinese form of geomancy called feng-shui, literally, 'wind and water.' Likewise in ancient China, the emperor was thought to transmit the 'good news' of heaven throughout the land, and if he was impious or impure, disasters and famine would result. Chinese geomancers would use a special astrological compass to make sure that buildings were sited and aligned properly, so as to exist in harmonious connection and interrelation with civilization and with nature. The Chinese meridians or channels were thought to carry five kinds of ch'i, each thought to correspond to different planets and constellations, colors and cardinal directions, and natural features of the landscape. They also visualized the force that brought rain and replenished the waters and travelled along these paths as a dragon, or winged serpent.

The Haitian people see the cross-roads (kafou) as a place of great spiritual power and danger, much like the Maya. Where important rues cross and meet are places where the barrier between this world and the next one is very thin. Further, the crossroads are places were the ancestors and the dead who live in the Abyss (the waters under the earth) can be called forth. Earth from the crossroads is placed on the graves of the dead to keep them from becoming zombi. Like the Maya, the Haitians often walk the rues between the kafous on certain saints' days, with the saints often corresponding to an earlier pre-Christian (and likely celestial or astronomical) loa or deity.

In many of these cases, the microcosm (routes of pilgrimage and processsion) deliberately duplicated the macrocosm (the wanderings of the planets and constellations.) The circling of the labyrinth by pilgrims in Christian churches mirrors the whirling of the lesser stars around Polaris. Many Chinese temples are laid out in ways that emulate different constellations. The ritual walking of landscape figures (such as those found on the Nazca plain) is thought to be important in invoking the 'astral' powers to which they correspond. Indeed, many archaeoastronomers have followed the lead of Santillana and Von Dechend in suggesting that within many key myths in ancient cultures are recorded important celestial transitions. Therefore, with the Mayan sacbes and these other road-systems, ethnoastronomy is often an important key.


Dr. Milbrath notes in her paper that the Maya people of Chan Kom refer to the Milky Way as the "ZAC BE", or white road, using the same word as is used to refer to the artificial roads covering the landscape. In other Maya areas, the Milky Way is also called the XIBALBA BE, 'underground road', or road to the underworld. This suggests a strong parallel to Peru, where the Milky Way is called the Road of Souls, and is the world-tree used by shamans in their ascent and descent. Some ceques in Peru meet the Milky Way at the horizon, suggesting that they are its terrestrial continuation. Most interestingly, in both Peru and the Yucatan, the Milky Way is also known as the Road of Santiago, which seems to be a derivation of the pilgrim route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the role of which was inevitably integral to the Spanish Reconquista. Santiago or St. James seems to be at once a Christianized thunder and rain god (he is called Boanerges, son of thunder), and also a conqueror of paganism (he is called Moor-Slayer, and many Spanish churches in the New World show him trampling Indians underfoot on his horse.)

Why is Merida known as the White City? Many people think this honorific arises from its cleanliness or its architecture. But I suspect the ultimate origin of the name may have been pre-Hispanic. It is possible that Merida (T'Ho) might have been one of the key hubs of this 'galaxy' of white roads. There are other towns in the area associated with colors -- Izamal is known as the yellow city, Valladolid the green city, and Ekbalam is of course the city of the black (or maybe shining) jaguar. Since the Maya associated the different colors with the cardinal directions, it's possible that each of these sites were cardinal centres of the sacbe system. I can't prove it; but Merida is said to have a number of legendary tunnels leading to nearby towns like Mani and Oxkintok leading from under its cathedral (where the pre-Hispanic temple stood). And Izamal is said to have four sacbes leading out from its centre toward the four cardinal points -- one of which, the road to Ake, has definitely been found on the ground. Curiously, modern Izamal is also laid out architecturally with a series of quaternities oriented around its central convent, and the seal of the city is a rain cloud floating over five aligned pyramids.

Why does the Mayan legend exist that when the Spaniards cut the sacbe in two, "blood came out?" Well, it turns out that there was another Mayan legend of the CUXAM SUUM -- a sort of cosmic umbilical cord that linked Tulum, Coba, Chichen, and Uxmal, and circulated blood between them. I suspect we are seeing hints and pieces of an earlier, more integrated belief system, organized around the following conception. The divine energy descends down the Milky Way (symbolized by the so-called diving gods), the spine or navel of the world; from there it enters the branches of the Ceiba (World Tree) into one of the hubs (T'Ho, Izamal, or wherever) or nodes; and from there it is dispersed along the arteries of the sacbe network. We can call this energy information because it represents the news that all parts of the system are linked in harmonious order, i.e. the 'circuit' has not been broken. In the Yucatan peninsula, Santiago is also Chaac, the god who brings the rain and the storms.

This does not rule out the use of the sacbe paths for more literal forms of information-transmission. For example, the pyramid at Acanceh is said to have had a 'whisper dish' at the top at one point, which could carry acoustic messages to nearby pyramids miles away. But I suspect they had a more important allegorical or metaphorical importance. Some of the north-south sacbe routes in Yucatan also intersect, at their more distant apices, with earlier Classic sites like Tikal and Palenque. This may symbolize the unbroken connection with the Mayan past. I suspect that while the function of the sacbe system is partially forgotten, there are survivals of it in the curious processions between villages made by Maya people in honor of the days of saints which seem curiously similar to older, planetary deities which may have formerly governed the roads. The sacbe system is not just a question of archaeology and antiquity: aspects of it (like the Mayan calendar) may still be functioning today.


Today, in our era of new information technology, we are busy erecting our global communication networks and World Wide Webs. But in the Yucatan peninsula the Mayan people succeeded in dealing with the same problem that computer network managers face today: how to keep their 'network' of culture and civilization from 'crashing.' Their solution was to create their own sort of world-wide web -- one that symbolically linked the Mayan world in a web of interconected ritual centres, through which passed people, trade, knowledge of the arts and sciences, and another type of sacerdotal information I have called "Kukulcan." The problem then, as today, was to maintain an information network where the number of nodes and links would lead to the most secure and efficient reciprocal exchange of information. In thinking of information today, we inevitably think only in terms of secular 0's and 1's, and not in the older sense of the word which corresponds to the 'good news,' say, of apostolic Christianity -- prophetic and apocalyptic information, too.

With the sacbe system, the Maya people came up with the right 'kludge' to keep their post-Classic civilization integrated and functioning. The apocalyptic imagery surrounding the destruction of the sacbes should not be taken literallly; blood came out not because some physical roads were pulverized but instead what the Maya saw as the metaphorical arteries of their living world were blocked and cut off. People no longer walked the sacred routes, or honored the spirits and deities to which they belonged, and so they became ghastly haunts of aluxes and half-forgotten things. But this didn't mean the end of the system. In half-remembered ways, the Maya still speak of the paths between their cities, now driven underground by the Spanish conquest, waiting for Kulkulcan to return and revive them. But as indigenous people work at creating their own networks of communication using the new technologies of radio, Internet, and multimedia, one cannot help in thinking that trickster Hermes may yet come back in another guise, and the blood of the stars will once again flow.


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