“We used to bury our people down there, at the bottom,” said Mario, my twenty-something Yucatec Maya guide, a history major from the University of Valladolid Yucatan nearby, as he pointed at the cave’s dark mouth, dropping underground at about a forty-five-degree angle. “We would keep them there for eight years, then remove the bones, clean them, and bury them in the ground outside for good.”
“Why there?” I asked. “Why not in the ground to begin with?”
“This cave is the entrance to the underworld, to Metnal,” he explained. “We placed the bodies there because the soul needs time to separate from the body. But then, once it’s free, it never dies. It lives there in Metnal, waiting for the next lifecycle, and then the next, and the next.”
“We believe some of that too,” I said, surprised by the commonalities. “In the Jewish culture, we return the body to the Creator as quickly as we can, but our souls are part of Him, they do not die. But this cave, Mario—I don’t remember seeing anything about it on the website.”
“It’s because we take tourist groups to that big cenote by the lake. But talking to you, I feel that you’d really want to see this one. It’s a special place, sacred to us. We only bring here guests that we choose ourselves. You look like the right type of guest. So shall we?”
I felt ambivalent about this change of itinerary. The tour was supposed to include a meeting with the ah-men, the Mayan shaman, and a relaxing swim in a cenote, one of many limestone pools that dot Yucatan. Not the skeletons.
“Ah, you, norteamericanos, are always afraid of the bones,” he grinned. “You won’t see them. That was a long time ago, yes, but we don’t do that anymore. And what’s so special about the bones? It’s just bones. The souls are already in their next lifecycles.”
I decided to go for it. I rinsed off my sunscreen and sweat in an outdoor shower, changed into swim trunks, and followed Mario down a slippery stone path to the underground cenote.
The change in light from the chalk-bright, tropical morning outside to the velvety dimness of the cave was dramatic. It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to an even deeper darkness spread out below and lit up by a couple of bare bulbs.
“You’re lucky,” said Mario over his shoulder as we walked the last few steps. “Like I said, we don’t usually bring tourists here. This is where we come to meet Chaac, our god of rain, whose home is down there in Metnal. If we don’t offer him at the right time what he desires, there will be no rain, no harvest.”
“How do you know the right time?”
“The ah-men knows.”
I stepped into the water, which felt cool, refreshing after the humid heat outside, and a touch oily, and dove under its still, glossy surface. This wasn’t my first time. I’d swum in a few cenotes, but never alone, never in the obsidian darkness. Cenotes can be hundreds of feet deep, and here, the darkness felt bottomless.
I didn’t feel Chaac’s presence, but this state of being spiritually alert while being immersed in cool, clean water brought me back to my kids’ conversion ceremony many years ago, when I would submerge them, one at a time, into the living waters of the community mikvah, as the three rabbis chanted the blessings behind the partition. That water was a similar conduit, invisible yet direct, to the divine.
I dove again into these black depths which tasted of minerals, and suddenly the phrase “out of the depths” surfaced in my mind, and then one line started to pull another from my memory. I couldn’t recall the whole verse, just some snippets:
“Out of the depths I call You … Listen to my cry, Lord … hear my plea for mercy…. Yours is the power to forgive … I look to the Lord … I await His word more eager than watchmen await the morning … than watchmen await the morning….”
These were excerpts from Psalm 130, as I checked later in my hotel, one of those fifteen special Songs of Ascents, shirim ha-maalot, as they are known in Hebrew. The ascents were both physical and metaphysical: the Jewish tradition says these particular psalms were sung by the pilgrims who ascended the paths to Jerusalem three times a year to bring their offerings to the Temple, and by the Levite priests at the Temple itself. Today, Psalm 130 is recited in full during the High Holidays, but some of its lines are read at the morning service twice a week, every week, the entire year.
The morning we await so eagerly in the psalm is the dawning of the divine light that makes the harvests grow, but also sparks understanding, meaning, and peace in the soul. “For with You is the source of life, [and] in Your light we see light,” as it says in a quote from another psalm, Psalm 36, which I recite every morning as part of birchot ha-shahar, my morning blessings.
Just some snippets of psalms, but they were enough to remind me how strongly I was missing the light, not just the physical light one-hundred feet above me, but the inner sunlight invisible to others, how much I was yearning to see it and to merge with it.
“Do you visit your dead?” asked Mario as we were walking back towards the lake beyond which lay his village Pac Chen.
“Oh, absolutely. Our tradition says to do so on the anniversary of their deaths, and also in the fall, between our two main holidays.”
I thought of the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then remembered that it is the same time as when we read “Out of the Depths.” A coincidence?
“We have a day for that too. We bring gifts to the graves of our loved ones and stay up all night. Everyone comes. Dia de Los Muertos, we call it.”
“We don’t stay at our loved ones’ graves overnight, but when we go, we try to bring small stones from the land of Israel, or some other special place we have visited. As a matter of fact,” I bent down and scooped up a handful of small limestone rocks. “This’ll be something to remember this place by.”
We reached a bridge across the narrow end of the lake, where the lotus flowers were sticking up from its muddy bank.
“Hold on a second, I’ll take a picture,” I started down the slope.
“Don’t go there! We recently killed a crocodile there. A tourist went swimming, and it grabbed her by the ankle. The lady was screaming so much! Good thing it was a young crocodile, didn’t know how to hunt, how to drag her deeper into the water. We pulled them both out and then shot the crocodile.”
“Wow, it keeps getting better.” I stepped back away from the lake. “First, the dead, now the crocodile…”
“Do you know that cenotes were produced by the asteroid?” Mario said, changing the subject.
“I read about it,” I said.
The cenote ring on Yucatan’s map roughly outlines the edges of the crater created by the ten-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid crashing into the Earth off Yucatan’s coast sixty-six million years ago. The energy released from the Chicxulub’s impact was one-hundred-million times the energy of the H-bomb, the most destructive human-made explosive so far. That crash caused a mega-tsunami with waves up to a mile high, and led to the climate changes which wiped out three quarters of the Earth’s species.
“You guys killed the dinosaurs,” I joked.
“We may have, but not the crocodiles,” he laughed back.
Don Eugenio, the ah-men of Pac Chen, was dressed simply in a plain white shirt, white pants, and leather sandals, his graying hair slicked back. He was waiting for us by a wide, rectangular table set in the clearing of the forest. The tour ad described Pac Chen as an “authentic, traditional village in the Yucatan jungle,” but the latter was a misnomer. Despite plentiful water and sunshine, Yucatan forests aren’t particularly dense: the stony ground offers little dirt. Even corn, a Mesoamerican staple, has a hard time finding enough soil to grow. For millennia, the Pac Chen villagers have been planting their corn not in rows, but in a visually haphazard pattern— wherever enough soil can be found between limestone plates.
“This is our altar. The four arches that you see connecting its corners represent four directions: east, west, north, and south,” Don Eugenio began to explain in Yucatec, after polite introductions were exchanged. Mario was translating his words into English.
Indeed, arched twigs adorned with the garlands of orchid and hibiscus blooms spanned the corners of the altar. The flowers, I noticed, were freshly picked. Hibiscus grew abundantly across the lake in Pac Chen among the stick-wall huts with thatched roofs. The orchids climbed jade-green gum trees around us in the forest. They looked as if they were arranged on tree trunks by a human hand, but in fact they just clung to them wherever they could to absorb nutrients from the humid, tropical air.
“The altar,” continued Don Eugenio, “represents the world in which we live, the world of our reality. The arches rise to point to the world above us.”
Olam ha-ba, the world to come, I thought, translating the concept into my tradition.
“Beneath the altar is Metnal, the underworld.”
“We’ve already been there,” I said to Mario.
He nodded, but didn’t smile.
Upon the altar lay seashells filled with red achiote seeds, pepitas (pumpkin seeds), and opaque rocks of locally-mined amber. In the center, a thick pillar of copal smoke emanated from a stone-hewn incense burner.
Don Eugenio raised up the copal burner and began incantations in Yucatec. At that very moment, the sun came out from the rainy clouds and hit me straight in the face.
Was the sunbreak a coincidence or a perfectly timed occurrence? I don’t know, but I stood in the forest clearing with my face to the sun and my eyes closed, as Don Eugenio circled me with the burner, invoking the purifying blessings, enveloping me in a smoke reminiscent of camphor and bay leaf.
Soaking in the smoke, the unfamiliar words, I felt I was stepping into timelessness. Even though I couldn’t understand the Mayan liturgy, I felt the pull of the ritual, not towards heaven, but towards the earth, from which all the ingredients of the ceremony—the plants, the people, the rocks—originated. It’s the same pull I feel when I walk in the Judean desert, and every rock and scraggly bush seen for the first time seems familiar. There I am a natural ingredient.
Here I was, as Mario said it correctly, a guest. I couldn’t descend to Metnal’s dark depths, nor ascend to Mayan heaven. I was appreciating the ceremony as an observer, from a respectful distance, and I couldn’t stop comparing it to what we Jews do to purify, to pray, to bury. This was paradoxical: a Mayan ceremony was evoking in me the feeling of teshuvah, a sacred return to the Jewish tradition.
Finishing the ceremony, Don Eugenio gave me a farewell gift—an unpolished rock of local amber of intense, golden-orange hue. Even back home in California, it carries a subtle, piney scent that takes me back to Yucatan, to the millennia-old Indigenous rituals I’d witnessed, that were meaningful, mystical, sacred, yet weren’t my rituals, my land, my nature, my G-d.
And yet I’m thankful for this experience. It is as if the dark waters of the cenote and the purification smoke from Don Eugenio’s copal burner guided me back to my own path, taking me back to the preciousness, the beauty of my own tradition. I wasn’t transformed, but I was reminded. ◆
This piece is from the Winter 2022-2023 issue of Parabola, DARKNESS & LIGHT. The full issue is available to purchase on our online store.