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A Lost World on the Map

Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest: An Interpretive Journey Through the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2

edited by Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions
University of New Mexico Press, 479 pp., $65.00

About two thirds of the way through Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest, a new book of descriptions and interpretations of a sixteenth-century indigenous painting from central Mexico, the historian of religion Vincent James Stanzione describes at some length a four-day voyage of initiation in the mid-1990s, on which he accompanied twenty-two young Maya men from their highland community on the beautiful shores of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, to the lush lowlands and back again. All along the way, he reports, the pilgrims stopped for prayer, reflection, and ceremonial drinking at the very same spots where their fathers and forefathers before them had prayed and offered sacrifices.

The young men, who were members of a cofradía— traditional organizations that are linked to the Catholic Church but are devoted to a community’s own religious practice—started their trip with empty carrying frames strapped on their backs. On their arrival in the tropics they stole into lowland orchards to stage a symbolic hunt for fruit. Now pregnant, as Stanzione puts it, with their bounty, they began the punishing hike back to Santiago Atitlán. At the entrance to the village, as some of them cried with exhaustion and relief, they were welcomed by their young brides, whom they would be able to lie with now that they were men, able to offer the gift of their own fertility, as embodied in the fruit.

It is a beautiful story, beautifully told, but should any reader feel inspired by it to travel to a Maya community in order to serve an apprenticeship there in the deep ceremonies of life, Stanzione warns:

Now that paved highways have been built [from Atitlán to the tropics], now that most of the town’s residents are Evangelical Protestants, now that the cofradía system is all but dead, now that marriage is not as important to the people of Santiago as it once was, this “costumbre” or ritual of bringing home the fruit is no longer performed.1

Stanzione, who arrived in Santiago Atitlán some twenty years ago and has lived there since, is fortunate to have been present for the last enactments of a ritual strongly rooted in the preHispanic past, for it is precisely in the decades that he has been in Guatemala that, after centuries of existence, the cofradía system has finally collapsed. It embodied a vision of the order and place of things and humans in the world, with such strong roots in the pre-Hispanic past that epigraphers, like the groundbreaking Linda Shele, have been able to use Maya communities’ rituals and daily practice to decipher pictograms carved in stone a thousand years ago.

The drastically increased rate of change is being felt not only in Guatemala: the religious vision, languages, dress, forms of production, daily round of duties, and network of obligations that bound together the Tzeltal, Otomí, Guaraní, Araucano, Inuit, Arhuaco, Ianomame, Ayoreo, Rarámuri, Kolla, Navajo, Arara, and Ojibway, to name a few, have been losing ground like the ice on the North Pole. Soon our only access to Amerindian modes of thought—and, too, Amerindians’ only access to a record of their thought, their own recording of their history—may be through artifacts and accounts belonging to the past. We can be sure that few accounts will be more expressive and intriguing than the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2.

The mapa, a breathtaking tableau roughly 1 x 2 yards in size, was painted on the beaten bark of the native amate, or mulberry tree. It was created by painters who spoke the Nahuatl language from the nation-state of Cuauhtinchan—Eagle’s Nest—in the decades immediately following the conquest of Mexico. Many post-Conquest maps were used by Indian communities to affirm their land rights before colonial authorities. Because much of the subject matter of the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2 is unusual for this genre, we do not know this painting’s original purpose; in fact, even what one half of the mapa is a depiction of (a pilgrimage? municipal limits? a spiritual journey?) is a matter of intense discussion in several of the fifteen essays that make up Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest. But the artists’ accomplishment is to have provided a thrilling, exquisite, and mysterious register of their spiritual universe as it was before conquest broke it apart.


In the late 1990s Ángeles Espinosa Yglesias, the extremely rich daughter of the Mexican banker Manuel Espinosa Yglesias,2 bought one of the few hundred surviving paintings produced in Mexico in the half-century following the Conquest. The painting that Espinosa Yglesias acquired from the private collection of a Mexico City family was richly detailed, but it was so damaged by moisture, rot, and vermin that large parts of it were impossible to read.

Nevertheless, it was clearly a drawing of a place and, the painting stated in careful Latin letters, it referred to the now vanished community or city-state of Cuauhtinchan (“Place of the Eagle’s Nest”).3 Paths could be seen in the painting, represented by a trail of delicate footprints. Human beings, chichimecas—which means “barbarians”—bustled up and down the length of the map dressed in animal skins. Frequently, they appeared in the company of far more civilized men dressed regally in tilmas—one-shoulder cotton cloaks. There were dreadful scenes of human sacrifice—which a document destined for the eyes of a colonial authority might reasonably have avoided—and, oddly, a scene representing the ritual decapitation of a butterfly, a grasshopper, and a snake. Personified mountains were depicted, with devilish heads where their summits would be. There were naked men—perplexed-looking naked men—turned topsy-turvy by a whirlwind, and also a flying goddess leading warriors out of a cave.

Its beauty literally stunned me,” Espinosa Yglesias wrote of the mapa a few months before she died last year. Thinking that the information locked in its images should be decoded, she asked John Coatsworth, who was at the time the director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, for help. In addition, she commissioned restoration work on the painting from the Mexican conservator Marina Straulino, who, using state-of-the-art imaging techniques, made visible many sections of the painting no longer accessible to the naked eye. Straulino also created a digital version of the newly legible map.

Meanwhile, Coatsworth turned to Davíd Carrasco, a historian of religion who is the head of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive at Harvard. Carrasco put together a team of scholars of history, anthropology, ethnobotany, and archaeology, among other disciplines, and included in the group the estimable Keiko Yoneda, who has spent decades studying and identifying each figure in an early reproduction of the painting. The team met once in Mexico to examine the document, and a second time at Harvard. The result is the magnificent volume Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest, which, in addition to the fifteen essays, contains copious illustrations, a poster-size image of the mapa itself, and life-size fold-out reproductions of each of sixteen portions of the whole (see the illustration of Section P on page 63).

How do we know that a person is Indian? How does that person know him- or herself to be Indian? Some academics argue that there is no such thing as a common Indian heritage throughout the Americas; others point out that in most of these countries a great many people are native Americans, genetically speaking, even if they dress like punksters or in business suits. Liberals in the nineteenth century, including the Indian president of Mexico, Benito Juárez, equated cultural Indianness with backwardness, while an all-too-modern world treasures the idea of museum-quality Indians who will remain forever untouched by time, greed, or mall culture. Regardless of the arguments for or against Indianness, it might be generally agreed that a culturally distinct Amerindian will have inherited significant elements of a view of the world that antecedes the Conquest and the arrival of Catholicism. It seems clear, as well, that many of the surviving elements found in different ethnic groups and cultures throughout the hemisphere coincide tantalizingly with each other—enough to be seen as distinguishing characteristics.

One such element is the notion of a world in which all living beings have animal and/or spirit counterparts endowed with magical powers. These beings, and the universe they occupy, can be seen with our own eyes, provided we know how to read the signs. Frequently, a reader of the signs will have recourse to fasting, dance, or hallucinogens to reveal the parallel universe. This shaman, most often a man, is frequently titled the Speaker, and what he speaks when he is in a trance are messages from the parallel world, as well as the history of the tribe and its heroes, all of which form the chain of continuity that holds the community together—a community that includes both its present members and the ancestors who created it.

It would appear that on the left-hand side of the painting the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan No. 2 describes the story of the ancestors’ journey to establish the community, and, on the opposite half, the physical and magical borders of the Cuauhtinchan state they founded. Thus, the mapa would be not so much a map as an epic narrative, an evocation of the barbarian ancestors and of the divine beings who guided them on their journey: first, out of the primal cave of Chicomoztoc, from which the Nahuatl-speaking people believed that human beings emerged; then, through the holy city of Cholula, where they would become civilized (and perhaps learn to sacrifice butterflies and snakes instead of people), and finally on to the sacred Nest of Eagles, where they would stake their claim.

In the closing essay, the book’s two editors, Davíd Carrasco and Scott Sessions, point out the importance of the city that occupies a central space on the map—the sacred center of Cholula—as a “changing place”: a place where identities are transformed. They describe the circuitous path traced on the left-hand side of the painting as a ritual labyrinth of a type common both to initiatory ceremonies and to voyages of discovery. Vincent James Stanzione, evoking the four-day pilgrimage from Lake Atitlán that he participated in, argues that the right-hand side of the mapa could well be a real map—a guide for pilgrims who traverse every year a ritual path in the real world. The left-hand side recreates the initial voyage that the ancestors make over and over again in the parallel word.

The Cuauhtinchan of today is a small town in central Mexico of some eight thousand people, not far from the city of Puebla’s atrocious industrial belt. The lovely colonial cities of Tlaxcala and Cholula are also near, and, visible behind them, the snow-capped volcanos Popocatépetl and Iztacíhuatl. It is a highland region whose fertile plains, pine forests, and spiky vegetation are depicted in the mapa and described with close attention by the modern ethnobotanists whose essays are included in the book.

  1. 1

    Stanzione describes this voyage at greater length in his book Rituals of Sacrifice (University of New Mexico Press, 2003).

  2. 2

    He owned the Banco Nacional de México until its nationalization in 1982 by President José López Portillo.

  3. 3

    There are five from Cuauhtinchan, number two being vastly superior in artistic value.

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