Of Smoke and Darkness: Finding T’shuvah in a Mayan Purification Ritual

“The four arches represent four directions,” Don Eugenio, the ah-men, shaman, of Pac Chen, was explaining to me in Yucatec, “east, west, north, and south.”

He was pointing at a waist-high table set in the clearing of the jungle, the corners of which were connected by elevated twigs adorned with orchids and hibiscus blooms.

It was the early April of 2021, the pandemic was just beginning to wane, so we still had our facemasks on.

The flowers were freshly picked. Hibiscus grew across the lake in the village among the stick-wall and thatched-roof huts. The orchids climbed jade-green gum trees around us in the jungle. Well, we gringos call it jungle, but it isn’t particularly dense in Yucatan: the stony ground offers little soil. The Pac Chen villagers plant their corn not in rows, but in a visually haphazard pattern – wherever enough soil can be found. And they’ve done so for millennia.

“This… plataforma…,” said Mario, my guide and interpreter, searching for the right English word.

“The altar?” I suggested.

“Yes, the altar, it 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, in my tradition. I took off my hat as a sign of respect.

“Beneath the altar is Metnal, the underworld,” Mario continued.” I’ll take you there later.”

Upon the altar lay seashells containing 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, dressed simply in a plain white shirt, white pants, and leather sandals, his graying hair slicked back, 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 in the face. I stood with 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. I was soaking in the smoke, the words, the humid, tropical air.

Was the sunbreak a perfectly timed coincidence? Perhaps.

Was I transformed? No.

But I felt the pull of the ritual, not towards the heaven, but towards the earth, from which all the ingredients originated – the plants, the people, the rocks. In that sense, I felt I stepped into timelessness. 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. Where I am a natural ingredient.

In the underworld

A few minutes after we parted company with Don Eugenio, I took off my facemask, changed into swim trunks, rinsed off sunscreen and sweat in an outdoor shower, and followed Mario down a slippery stone path into a dark cave.

About 50 feet down spread out an even deeper darkness lit up by a couple of lightbulbs – an underground cenote. This was one of many cenotes that dot Yucatan – limestone pools, sometimes hundreds of feet deep. The water felt cool, refreshing after the humid heat outside, and a touch oily. It had clean, mineral taste.

“You’re lucky,” said Mario from the steps. “We don’t allow tourists to come here – it’s our special place. We only bring guests, like you. We come here to meet Chaac, the god of rain, who lives down there in Metnal. If we don’t offer him what he desires, at the right time, there will be no rain, no harvest.”

“How do you know the right time?”

“The ah-men knows.”

I dove underwater. This wasn’t my first time in Yucatan. I’d swam in a few cenotes, but never alone, never in the obsidian darkness. I did not feel Chaac’s presence, but this state of being spiritually alert while being in cool, clean water reminded me of 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.

Souls, Maya and Jewish

“We used to bury our people in that cave, at the bottom,” Mario mentioned as we were walking back to the village, facemasks back on. “We would keep them there for eight years, then remove the bones, clean them, and bury them in the ground outside for good.”

Mario was wise not to tell me that earlier. I suppressed a shiver.

“That was a long time ago, yes,” he clarified, noticing my reaction, “we don’t do that anymore. That cenote is the entrance to the underworld. That’s where the soul needs to go, but it takes time for it 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. “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. The next lifecycle? That depends who you talk to.”

“Do you visit your dead?”

“The 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.

“We have a day for that too. Everyone comes. We bring gifts to the grave and stay up all night.” “We bring small stones. As a matter of fact…,” I bent down and scooped up a handful of small limestone rocks. “Something to remember this place by.”

A path through the smoke

Mario brought me to a bridge across the narrow end of the lake, with the lotus flowers sticking up from its muddy bank.

“I want to take a picture,” I started down the slope.

“Don’t go in 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 pull her deeper into the water. We pulled them both out, and then we shot the crocodile. Around here, they only live in lakes, not in cenotes.”

“Well, that’s good news.” I stepped back away from the lake. “First, the dead, now the crocodile…”

“Do you know that some cenotes were produced by the asteroid?” Mario said, changing the subject.

I read about it, a ring of cenotes outlining the edge of the crater created by the a ten-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid crashing into the Earth off the coast of Yucatan. The energy released from the Chicxulub’s impact was 100 million times the energy of the H-bomb, the most destructive explosive made so far. That crash 66 million years ago 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.

“Though not the crocodiles,” he laughed back.

Finishing the ceremony, Don Eugenio gave me as a farewell gift an intensely yellow, unpolished rock of local amber. Even back home in California, it carries a subtle, piney scent that takes me back to Yucatan. The millennia-old indigenous ritual was meaningful, mystical, as was the immersion in Pac Chen’s sacred cenote, but this wasn’t my custom, my land, my nature, my G-d. Thinking back to it now, I realize that I appreciated the ceremony as an observer, from a respectful distance; I couldn’t stop comparing it to what we, Jews, do to purify, to pray, to bury.  

It is as if the purification smoke from Don Eugenio’s copal burner guided me back to my own path, reminding me of the preciousness, the beauty of my own tradition.

The village does not allow tourists to photograph during ceremonies or in the underground cenote. All photos above are mine except for those of a shaman and of the cenote at the top.