Some Facts Regarding The Temple Of The Bearded Man At Chichen Itza

by Paul Goldberg

Some Facts Regarding the Temple of the Bearded Man At Chichen Itza.

By Lester Tell[1]

At one end of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is the North Temple, also known as the Temple of the Bearded Man. On the back wall of this structure is a portrayal of a tall, fair-skinned, bearded figure that differs from the typical portrayal of Mayan warriors and priests. Through the years there has been speculation as to the origin and meaning of this image. It is known that the priests portrayed here are associated with the feathered serpent Kukulkan.[2]

E.H. Thompson[3] attributed the figure to a legendary Toltec chieftain who conquered the Yucatan. He was said to have been fair-skinned and bearded. His symbol was the feathered serpent. Other stories have come down through the years that spoke of visitations by fair-skinned bearded divinities.

We have come into possession of a document that suggests another possible explanation for the image at the North Temple. This document is comprised of fragments of a letter written by an obscure Kabbalist, Jacob Levi of Burgos, Spain. Jacob Levi was known later in life as Jacob the Blind.

Little has come down to us regarding Jacob Levi. He was born in 1098 in Leon; the date of his death is unknown. His name has been associated with Abraham Abulafia, a proponent of ecstatic Kabbalah. From descriptions found in the small amount of extant writing available, it appears that Jacob Levi was able to enter a mystical state by the contemplation of various combinations of Hebrew letters while exercising control of the breathing. This trance-like state was believed to result in one’s soul leaving the body with the ability to undertake a journey.

Jacob developed a small circle of followers, one of whom was Avner of Burgos. Avner was considered to be a Neo-Platonist. As is seen in much Neoplatonic writing, he speaks of reality as being generated by a series of emanations from the godhead. The Sephiroth—the Kabbalistic term for these emanations—were frequently imagined as taking the shape of a tree.[4] In Avner’s one surviving piece of writing there is the following reference to his teacher, Jacob the Blind:[5]

“Towards the end of his life, after the blindness overtook him, the master would speak of souls of the righteous taking flight and attaching to the tree.[6] As Jacob Levi, blessed be his name, spoke these words he would be overcome with ecstasy and wonder.”

Some theosophic aspects of Avner’s thought regarding the nature of the Sephirot appear to have been taken up by the Zohar, but the ecstatic aspects which Avner received from Jacob Levi were forgotten.

Jacob Levi most likely wrote the above-mentioned letter around 1130 C.E.[7] The contents illuminated some of Avner of Burgos’s comments regarding his master. It unexpectedly added another possibility as to the origins of the Bearded Man image on the North Temple at Chichen Itza.

Below are the salient parts of the material:

“In the year 4890 in the month of Elul with the help of the Holy One, may His Name be exalted, while contemplating the sacred letters in a certain way with the breath, I accomplished what I had long hoped for. My soul was separated from my body and I flew through the heavens as if in a chariot and visited a peculiar country. It was hot and steamy; overrun with greenery. In the city of this wondrous place was a pyramid such as existed in the land of Egypt from whence our Teacher Moses, blessed be his name, brought us forth.”

He goes on to describe his time in Chichen Itza where he encounters Kukulkan, the feathered serpent whom he associates with Samael, the serpent in the Garden of Eden:[8] 

“I sojourned there for 40 days and came to know the priests of the people of the city of that pyramid and saw many things, some wondrous, some evil. The city is large, filled with myriads of buildings and temples. Like the Moabites, the people engage in idol worship. There is a feathered serpent who flies through the air like Samael who descended into the Garden of Eden [may the Holy Name protect us from evil]. There are sacrifices made on an altar at the top of the pyramid and in a body of water. Heaven forbid that the words to describe the horror of these sacrifices should pass my lips.”

Presumably, Rabbi Jacob is referring here to human sacrifice which was known to have occurred both in a chamber in the pyramid [El Castillo] at Chichen Itza and in the ‘sacred cenote’.[9]

“We sat under the heavens and the priest told me that the bright band of stars across the night sky that we say is the river of fire from Daniel’s dream[10] was to them a tree where the world began. From this tree came forth all things that men know. When I heard these words, I looked up and saw the heavenly lights glittering with color. They began to swirl and dance and then there came into being a magnificent tree which we know to be the Sephiroth—the divine emanations of that which is beyond thought and words. This I saw with my own eyes.”

Jacob the Blind’s vision of the night sky is a representation of the Sephiroth as a tree. This is, as noted, a commonly occurring motif in Kabbalistic material. On the back wall of the temple is a representation of an elaborate tree said to be the Mayan version of the axis mundi—the ‘world tree’. Some Mesoamerican scholars believe the Milky Way, when in vertical position, was thought by the Mayans to be this ‘world tree’.[11]

The images inscribed on the temple wall are believed to portray a narrative of the ascension of the rulers of the city.[12] If Jacob Levi did indeed encounter the priests and inhabitants of Chichen Itza, the occasion of his visit might well be memorialized as the bearded man pictured on the wall of the North Temple.

The events related above, had they occurred, indicate a contact between Spain and the New World several hundred years before the era of the Conquistadores. Such events might also imply a Judeo-Mayan connection heretofore unrecognized.


[1] From The Modern Antiquarian: 49, pp. 140-144 [1994]. This communication was published by Dr. Tell in what was apparently the final issue of this journal. [P.E.G.].

[2] The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

[3] Journal of American Antiquities Society; October 1933

[4] See e.g. Sholem, G: Kabbalah, Keter Pub. House, Jerusalem, 1974.

[5] MS 127: Rider University Library.

[6] See Sefer Bahir 119 where similar language can be found

[7] Tell, L: Modern Antiquarian; 43; 1989, pp. 34-50.

[8] He [i.e. Samael] flies through the air [Targum to the book of Job]: The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906.

[9] For example see J. Eric S. Thompson: Maya History and Religion, 1970; University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, Oklahoma.  A cenote is a naturally formed sinkhole found in abundance in the Yucatan. Human remains and other sacrificial objects have been recovered from the ‘Sacred Cenote’ at Chichen Itza. Note: J. Eric S. Thompson is not to be confused with E. H. Thompson—see above. Both men were noted Mayan Scholars.

[10] Daniel 7:10 i.e. the Milky Way.

[11] Freidel, Schele, Parker: The Maya Cosmos. 1993; Quill, William Morrow. NY.

[12] Ibid. Freidel, Schele, Parker.

~

Bio:

Paul Goldberg is a practicing physician near Philadelphia (United States). He has a long time interest in the commonalities between myth and religion. He would like to explore how speculative fiction might work well when intentionally based on myth. This is his first publication.

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