I love this unremarkable image for a couple of reasons: The central figure is a ceiba tree, the world tree or axis mundi in Mayan cosmology, which stands in the center of the Four Directions and is believed to lift up the sky. Its celestial correlate is the Milky Way, the Mayan highway to the heavens.
The power pole next to it is pure happenstance, of course, but it’s in the shape of the cross – a symbol that the Maya long used to represent the world tree (decorating it, as they still do in Chamula, with the flowering blossoms of the ceiba and the needles of the pine) – long before the Spanish arrived and introduced their cross, carrying the crucified Christ. They use it still today, in Catholic churches, where ancient Mayan belief and colonial religion come together in a fascinating amalgam.
While we were traveling in Guatemala we had the good fortune to see the ceiba flowering in Mixco Viejo, a remarkable highland site about two hours outside Guatemala City. I didn’t realize how remarkable the event was until I went digging for some background material on the ceiba as World Tree, and found this afterword by Linda Schele in Maya Cosmos, the book she co-authored with David Friedel and Joy Parker:
“It’s a ceiba,” I chirped and began looking for a branch low enough to see one of the blossoms up close.From Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path
What I saw stunned me, for in her hand [where she held a ceiba blossom] lay a perfect replica of the earflares worn by the Classic Maya kings. Suddenly I understood the full symbolism of so many of the things I had been studying for years. The kings dressed themselves as the Wakah-Chan Tree, although at the time I didn’t know it was also the Milky Way. The tzuk head on the trunk of the tree covered their loins, the branches with their white flowers bent down along their thighs, the double-headed elliptic snake rested in their arms, and the great bird Itzam-Yeh stood on their head.
I already knew as I stood under that young tree in Tikal that the kings were the human embodiment of the ceiba as the central axis of the world. As I stood there gazing at the flowers in Joyce’s hand, I also learned that the kings embodied the ceiba at the moment it flowers to yield the sak-nik-nal, the “white flowers,” that are the soul of human beings. As the tree flowers to reproduce itself, so the kings flowered to reproduce their world.
When I returned to Austin, I went to the Plant Resources Center of the University of Texas Herbarium and spoke to Dr. Carol Todzia about what I had seen. She helped me find out about the life cycle and natural history of the ceiba and exactly how unusual the little encounter was. Not only are ceibas so high that you usually can’t see the blossoms, I learned that they do not necessarily bloom every year. In fact, it can be as much as ten years between such flowerings. … The ceiba flowers in January through the first week or so of February. … The tree blossoms in the month just before Creation day on February 5, so that it was in flower when First Father raised it into the sky.
One more reason I love this image: the faint impression of the volcano Atitlan in the far distance. Shortly after I took this shot we hiked up a hill to the pilgrimage site of Dios Mundo, where new year offerings from the night before still lay smoldering, and the ancient stone head to which they were presented stood in alignment with the mountain and the ceiba in the distance.
All that, and plus I've just got a thing for trees.