Some years ago I was talking with one of my mentors about a visit I’d made to Shiloh – a Civil War battlefield in southern Tennessee near Corinth, MS. I told him that it was spooky because it seemed that as I walked around the battlefield I could almost sense the presence of the men who bled and sweated in terror and died there in the mud.
My mentor is a college educated, modern renaissance-type man, and I figured he would tell me that I was just making things up or feeling things that I wanted to feel. Instead, he told me that he completely believed that blood poured out can sanctify a place and that especially sensitive people can feel that when they come near the place – sometimes even thousands of years later.
The same thing happened to me at Thermopylae in southeast Greece – the site of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae. In 480 BC, three hundred Spartan soldiers and a few of their allies bottled up a mountain pass and held off an invading Persian army of perhaps as many as a million men. If you’ve seen the dramatic Frank Miller movie version or read the most excellent Stephen Pressfield book, Gates of Fire, then you know that the Spartans and their allies successfully held that pass until they were betrayed to their deaths.
Walking across that battlefield – the remains of fortifications hastily thrown up 2500 years ago, the monuments to the Spartans on the hill where they made their last stand, the museum with literally hundreds of thousands of Persian arrow points unearthed at the site by archaeologists – seeing these things made the hairs stand up on my neck.
Maybe there really is something to this sanctification thing because I totally felt the blood that had been poured out on that hill.
Then just a few weeks ago I felt it again at the Mayan ruins at Chacchoben in Quintana Roo Province in Mexico. Many of us, I’m sure, have seen photos of Mayan pyramids in school books – large stones cemented in place into giant stepped pyramids, stairs ascending the center of each face of the pyramid, platforms and niches notching the sides of the pyramid, the whole thing blackened by centuries of leaf mold.
Just like the ancient step pyramid at Saqqara Egypt, these Central American pyramids were constructed as steps but then plastered smooth and uniform. In the case of the Chacchoben pyramids, and presumably other Mayan temples, they were smoothed using white limestone plaster. But these zealous Mayans were not satisfied with their gigantic temples rising gleaming white out of the jungle canopy – they painted their pyramids red.
Why red? To make them look like they were covered in blood. But why blood? Because they believed that blood poured out sanctified places. Blood obviously gave life and they wanted their religious edifices to have life.
The Mayans really did practice human sacrifice, and it really was done just like in the Indiana Jones movie – by extracting a still-beating human heart. But unlike in the Mel Gibson movie Apocalypto, the sacrifices were probably not performed atop the pyramid.
The temple pictured here faces to the east and stretching out below it is a large plaza, now sparsely populated with ferns and palm trees. In the center of the plaza below the pyramid rises a dais where religious ceremonies and sacrifices would have taken place. The plaza is large enough for the entire town to gather and the priests would have had a front-row view from atop the red pyramid.