Saturday, March 10, 2012

Dennis Tedlock, "White Sparkstriker," Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya

Today the quetzal hides in the misty forests on the slopes where cypress and pine begin to give way to the lowland jungle, not far from Great Hollow with Fish in the Ashes. Perhaps he got his red belly from being so close to “him who goes along getting hot,” there on the battlefield. When the one-quetzal banknote is held up to the light, a watermark appears beneath the printed bird. It takes the shape of a ghostly bust of Black Butterfly.

Black Butterfly’s body is brought to King Quiché.

King Quiché invites Peter Pallid to his court.

Peter Pallid comes to the court, and King Quiché and all his subjects are baptized.

All, that is, except one. It is White Sparkstriker who escapes, double and all, untouched by the water, unmarked by the cross. A daimon with no horns, no tail, no trident, but marked by the color red. Whenever the red daimon is not giving advice to Black Butterfly in a play, all over again, she/he hides in the forests of cypress and pine, in caves and canyons, and is sometimes seen on a back street late at night. One shoe is missing, the shoe don Mateo of Middle keeps inside his divining bundle.

Don Mateo brought his bundle with him today, up here on Tohil’s Place on the day Eight Bird, but he doesn’t need to open it and show us the shoe. We all got a good look at it long ago, at his insistence. It’s a smooth, heavy, reddish stone of igneous origin, about the size of a rabbit’s foot, and very much in the shape of a shoe.

All right then, but if all the rest of White Sparkstriker is red as well, why the name? And the answer:

“Sometimes, in a dream, White Sparkstriker is dressed entirely in silver. But the clothes don’t quite touch the body, and the body is red.” Silver is made with fire, and silver or red, this daimon stays close to the fire.

There’s something right there in the name, too. Back when the New World Book was written, the word “sparkstriker” all by itself, k’oxol, was the term for stones that were used to strike fire. So White Sparkstriker escaped into the forest with her/his own kind of fire, not the distant fire of Sun, not the fire off the wooden foot of Tohil as he spins in his sandal, but fire made with sparks that fly off from stones. Today she/he carries a stone ax that strikes lightning. And don Mateo says a stone is left behind when lightning strikes the ground.

So here it is again, in these very mountains:


A bit of familiar folklore, this. A notion that turns up all over the world, long since spiritualized by mythologists, or psychologists. Or else traced backward through time and across continents to some anonymous and imaginary person of remote antiquity, possess of an original mind—a person whose home, so the story always seems to go, was somewhere near the middle of the Old World.

thun•der•bolt     A flash of lightning imagined as a bolt hurled from the heavens.

So says the desktop dictionary. Even so, there are meteorologists and geologists who know the thunderbolt as a physical object, if a troublesome object that doesn’t quite belong to either of their sciences. They have a term for this object, a term that appears elsewhere in the same dictionary:

ful•gu•rite     A tubular body of glassy rock produced by lightning striking exposed surfaces.

Wherever lightning strikes sandy soil it leaves behind a fulgurite, a twisting glassy mass encrusted with glassy beads.

Some neighbor of don Mateo’s, watching from a distance, once saw lightning strike a small red person up in a tree, but afterward could find no body beneath the tree, nor stone. Perhaps that person had a stone ax, but who knows whether the lightning came to it, or from it, or brought the ax with it. Wherever the person went, there went the stone.

Everyone who lives in these mountains has heard of White Sparkstriker, whether or not they’ve ever caught a glimpse of her/him outside the play. But no one gives the name Tohil to anyone or anything they see today, much less the name Tahil, left behind a thousand years ago. These names turn up only in archives, in excavations—and yet, once we’ve read them, even spoken them aloud, we move a little closer to catching a glimpse of Tahil the lightning-striking ax, or hearing an echo of Tohil whose name some people once heard as Thunder. Tahil/Tohil, with one odd foot. This hard little shoe that weighs in the hand. It looks like something smelted from ore. If we read this shoe as a sign, a character recovered from a shattered inscription, it tells us Tohil got his sandal really hot.

Or else Sun got Sparkstriker’s shoe really hot. Never again has Sun felt so hot as on that first day. After all, that was the only day Sun himself has ever been seen. In the words of the Book,

“Since he revealed himself only when he was born, it is only his reflection that now remains.” The scribes who transposed these words from New World characters into Old World letters felt the need to add an interpretation—or, to phrase the matter more the way it is phrased in Quiché, they felt the need to tell the reader what these words would say if we could hear what was hidden inside them, namely,

The sun that shows itself is not the real sun.

There are people down around the Great Hollow today, people reckoned in the Book as relatives of the Quiché, who at least allow us the sight of Sun for half of each day. They say that when he reached noon on the day of his first appearance, he placed a mirror at the center of the sky and then doubled back, unseen, to the east. During the second half of that day only his reflection was seen, and so it has been on every day since.

“Reflection,” those people say, and so says the Book. Lemo’ is the word, and it’s also the term for mirror. But this mirror reflects, during the second half of the day, what Sun did during the first half. Or else it reflects, during our own times, what Sun did only once, and long ago. Coming here among these Mayan nations, we seem to have entered a world where reflections are not simultaneous with the things reflected. Reading the Book, we may guess that reflections ceased to be simultaneous the moment vigesimal beings lost their perfect vision:

“They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon.”

And what about the reflection in an ordinary mirror, seen close up? Leaving the land where they say lemo’ and coming back home won’t help. If any face is the true face of a vigesimal being, it’s the one we all see in the mirror.

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