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Mayan Magic

The Yucatan with its Mayan temples and pyramids is a magical land. But what these buildings reveal, is that the Maya seem to have placed major emphasis on magic.

Philip Coppens


Magic: sleigh of hand, or utilisation of an invisible force? The magician will do the former, but will leave the audience with the impression it is the latter – which later he will normally feverishly deny, if his audience feels that the “trick” could only have been “out of this world”.

Monte Alban, where an intricate network of tunnels is believed to have aided the magic performances of the Mayan priests.

Magic today is experienced as entertainment and its history does not seem to extend further back than a few centuries. But does it? Though it is largely unresearched territory, magic once belonged to the dominion of the priests. It were magi(cians) who visited Jesus by following the star of Bethlehem and many of the miracles that Jesus performed, including water turned into wine, are famous magic tricks that exist today – and existed in his time. But as these tricks would straightforwardly invalidate the divine nature of Jesus’ “miracles”, it should not come as a surprise that the role of magic and religion is scarcely discussed.
Of all ancient cultures, the Mayans may have been the one culture where magic was practiced more than anywhere else – within a religious context, that is – or perhaps it is the fact that the Mayans were the most recent of the great civilisations, and hence their magic tricks are easier to retrieve.

Though magic is trickery, it leaves the audience with a sense of otherworldliness, in which the magician – the priest – has been able to use a divine power, to create a feat that to the eye seems impossible in this dimension. Though it is trickery, it “opens the mind” of the audience, literally opens it to other religious experiences and a belief that there is more to this world than has previously met their eyes.
An important role of the priest is to tell the myths. Often, these myths are supernatural in themselves. The story of a talking decapitated skull that prophesizes is one trick that must have appealed to the Mayan priests, as it is a central feature of their creation myth. At the same time, it is a magical performance that was performed at the turn of the 19th century, on the prominent magical stages of Europe and America.

The Pyramid of the Dwarf at Uxmal

“Talking heads” is not the only trick that must have appealed ancient cultures. Another one must have been levitation, and of course contact with the dead. There is a strong connection between the spiritualist movement of the end of the 19th century and magic; Houdini himself was involved with the spiritualist movement before turning magician. Some such tricks were even named after their Greek counterpart, such as the “Modern Delphic Oracle”. Even apparitions of ghosts have been successfully created; in this instance, this trick was written down as early as 1558, by Baptista Porta, in Natural Magic.
Though it does imply that all these ancient sites were “magical”, it is clear that magic must have been used on occasion, or as a “support act”. At the same time, magical acts have been at the origin of many inventions, including automatons and apparently even the light bulb. Magicians need to have all aspects of the material world at their disposal, to mix it and turn it into a supernatural display; in the 20th century, the preferred medium has become the television/film, where computer animated graphics have made the “magical tricks” into a next level. But in the end, magic is about an apparent supernatural event, and in origin, it is just another form of ritual.
Many magic tricks share components in common with mythology. The return from the death, such as the lady in the coffin sawn in half, or the basket trick, mimic the resurrection of Osiris. The ancient Egyptians may have used the trick to illustrate or portray their mythology. Equally, the Indian rope trick portrays the climbing of the World Tree, the sacred pole.

The cruelty ascribed to the Aztecs, in which a high priest was seen to rip out a man’s heart from his chest, while the man was still alive, may have been a similar display of magic. It falls in the same category as an identical trick performed by the American magician David Blaine, performed on television. During an interview with Johnny Carson, Blaine ripped out his own heart – so to speak. The bloody spectacle was not universally well received by the American audience… but as a trick, it is a major performance.
A century ago, magic acts were much bloodier. And whereas the magician’s assistant is now almost always a woman, at the time, it was often a child – its limbs more able to twist and turn in the awkward directions that the magician is required to force them into to make the spectacle seem real. In Mayan magic, dwarfs may have been used either as the assistant, or as the magician.
In "Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan", John Stevens recounts stories of the human sacrifices performed at the highest temple of the House of the Magician. With the victim still alive, the priest would rip out the heart with a flint knife, and throw the body (allegedly still moving) down the steep steps.

Depiction of a dwarf at Monte Alban

It is, in fact, the presence of the dwarf that is a major “giveaway” that the Mayans used magic. The main feature of the Mayan complex of Uxmal, in the Yucatan, is the above mentioned Pyramid of the Magician, also known as the Pyramid of the Dwarf. From this name, it would suggest that the dwarf was the magician.
One legend stated that when a specific gong was sounded, Uxmal would fall to a boy "not born of woman". One day, a dwarf boy sounded the gong and struck fear into the ruler, who ordered him to be executed. The ruler promised that the boy’s life would be saved if he could perform three impossible tasks, one of which was to build a giant pyramid in a single night. The boy achieved all the tasks, and became the new ruler.
Further south, at Tikal, there is a depiction of the local lord admiring himself in a mirror held by dwarf. Two other dwarves sit beside the bench, drinking from a bowl.

Monte Alban, near Oaxaca, is another centre where archaeologists believe provisions were made for magical displays. Though now sealed off from the public, an underground network of small tunnels connects the various temples and platforms of the spectacular site – a mini Machu Picchu. The purpose of the small corridors seems to have been so that people could walk from one platform to the next, without being seen. Was it therefore a classic trick of disappearance and reappearance elsewhere that was performed on these stages?
The small dimensions of the network leave the possibility that the network was used by dwarfs. But was he the magician or the assistant? The suggestion would be that he was the magician, for often twins were used with magical acts, with one of the twins disappearing and the other twin appearing elsewhere – rather than one person running from one place to the other.

There are several depictions of dwarfs in Monte Alban. The Maya saw dwarves as mas, “hobgoblins”, who became servants of the king because they could tap into the supernatural. Even today, scholars note that many Mayan shamans continue to see dwarves in their vision. Often, the dwarves are the instructors, informing the shaman of the tasks; they are his spirit guides.

Where did these dwarves come from? Experts now are more and more inclined to conclude that the cause of dwarfism within the Mayan community was a genetic mutation, possibly the result of inbreeding. Was this merely the side effect of too much accidental inbreeding? Or was this inbreeding done deliberately, to have a constant supply of magicians – to maintain the link with the supernatural world?