Posted by: Johan Normark | September 27, 2009

Sacbeob 4: The Blister Black Christ of Ichmul

In April I wrote three posts on sacbeob (causeways). These posts lined up with another series of posts on posthumanocentric/polyagentive archaeology where I used causeways to explain my idea of polyagency. Since my dissertation I have elaborated upon posthumanocentric archaeology. I have ditched the polyagency term for the time being but I will reuse it in my future studies that focus more on “materiality” (I am beginning to dislike that term more and more, matter is simply enough, I am on Ingold’s side here). In my articles published after my thesis I have introduced much more Deleuzian/DeLandian stuff, which has taken me further away from my “original” ideas. The end product of this process will be published in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory sometime next year (with the causeways at Ichmul and Yo’okop as examples).

However, an opportunity has opened up to combine my approach with chaosmological ideas (chaosmos is from where chaos and cosmos emerge). This potential emerged when I begun to sketch on the similarities between “animism” in Ingold’s sense and “neo-realism” in DeLanda’s sense. I will post more on this later. This gives me reason to revisit data that I more or less dismissed in my thesis and in my published and upcoming articles. In my Cambridge Archaeological Journal article I was quite hostile to cosmological models based on direct historical analogies. It has mainly to do with the overall framework of a generalized Maya Culture and its associated cosmology rather than the fact that there are continuities here and there. One such possibility is the relation between the Classic period God L, the Postclassic period Ek Chuah, the Colonial Black Christ and merchants/travelling/roads/causeways throughout several centuries.

The triadic causeways (or the triple-triadic assemblage) at Ichmul are used as examples here.  These are three Terminal Classic causeways that connect central Ichmul with older settlement. At the termini, a new plaza and new structures were built, forming small triadic formations. These are most likely part of a joint construction effort, hence the reason why I see them as a triple-triadic assemblage. The origins of the causeways in central Ichmul are not known since they show evidence of having been used for Colonial, Caste War and modern constructions. However, if one traces their alignments further into Ichmul they all intersect in the altar area of the Black Blister Christ church. Early Colonial sources mention two cenotes in central Ichmul. These are nowhere to be found in the village today and the villagers do not know of their existence. If the Colonial source is reliable, then the cenotes may have been concealed by later structures (not completely uncommon in Colonial Mexico). The church(es) dedicated to the Black Christ is/are of special interest here.

The Black Christ is often related to trade, water, caves and cenotes (Navarrete 1999). The Black Christ is further believed to be a “syncretic” version of the Postclassic Yucatec merchant god of Ek Chuah, who was depicted in black colour (Flores and Normark 2004a; Navarrete 1999). It is believed that Ek Chuah was God M, a god that did not exist in the Maya area before the Postclassic (Taube 1992:88-89). Merchants travelling along the roads set up stones on which they sacrificed incense to the merchant god Ek Chuah in search for a safe journey (Landa 1959). Present travellers also leave stones at the crosses at the entrances to towns (Forrest 1997:227). However, God M/Ek Chuah shows similarities with God L, the Classic period merchant god, which also was painted black. This aged god was connected to the Underworld, cenotes, rain, and lightning (Taube 1992). The Black Christ is also found elsewhere. The most famous place is Esquipulas in Guatemala. Apart from visiting the Basilica of the Black Christ at Esquipulas, pilgrims stop at a nearby hill, crosses, and caves along a river (Adams and Brady 2005:311). The Black Christ has also appeared in a cave near Zinacantan (Manca 1995:224; Vogt and Stuart 2005:175).

Thus, it is possible that the current Black Christ church stands on a funnel-shaped cenote/cave. If so, this feature that was also the focus for the Terminal Classic causeway system. It may have been a important location, but maybe not the only one (remember that there may have been two cenotes at the site). In fact the Black Christ is believed to have been kept in the nearby L-shaped church during the 17th century when Ichmul became the centre for this “cult” (maybe this other church cover the other cenote?). The miracle figure was brought to Merida sometime between 1657 and 1676 and this led to Ichmul’s demise (Casares, et al. 1998:356). A new church, north of the monastery, began to be constructed in 1742 (Bretos 1987:196-198). This white church is where a replica of the Black Christ is kept today and it is also where the causeways intersect.

The Black Christ on the left side and the convent on the right side.

The Black Christ on the left side and the convent on the right side.

Now, I would not dream of creating a linear history where Maya religion becomes syncretised with Spanish/Catholic religion in order to explain this connection. A usual Mayanist strategy would be to bring in a general Maya cultural background to fill in the gaps (such as the lack of substantial Postclassic data at the site). But we need not rely on standardized cultural models. I see connections between various materialities and ideas without the overall cultural structure/model.

Brady (2004) argues that all Prehispanic sites have a natural or artificial cave to symbolize a center. Using such analogies may seem to rely on a cultural model, but here I see the Black Christ as part of a Deleuzian machinic assemblage that includes the Church as a widespread organization. This assemblage has overcoded earlier regime of signs associated with the location. The white church (and maybe the L-shaped church) may therefore stand upon a funnel-shaped cenote, as this is where the projections of the causeways would have intersected. The size of the church makes it possible for a funnel-shaped cenote to be located below and within the walls of the church. This means that the roof of a possible cenote would not have needed to support the weight of the church walls (Flores and Normark, 2005b: 96).

To be on the safe side, since no evidence currently exists of the existence of cenote(s) below the church(es), all we can say is that the location of causeway convergence was important for both Terminal Classic and Colonial assemblages (the triadic causeways and the church respectively). Now, I only need to figure out a way to combine chaosmological ideas with these buildings. No problem I hope.

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