Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 44.djvu/680

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
64
THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

Xtabai is a wicked, deceitful phantom, said to haunt the highways at night. It appears as a beautiful woman, always combing her luxuriant locks with a plant that the natives call "the comb of Xtabai." This lovely being generally runs away when any one approaches, but, if a lovesick laddie does succeed in clasping her in his arms, she instantly transforms herself into a sack of thorns that rests on two duck's feet. After embracing this prickly arrangement the deluded youth is ill with fever.

Another much-dreaded nocturnal, unsubstantial individual is Balam, god of agriculture, an old fellow with a long beard, said to walk in the air and whistle as he goes. Should his people fail to make offerings to him, he would vent his spleen by afflicting them with sickness; therefore, the first fruits of the field are for him. The corn first ripe is scattered upon the ground, and pies, the crust made of corn, are also prepared for the god to enjoy at his leisure. These pies are seasoned with enough red pepper to torment the palate of any number of balams (leopards). One pie is put in each corner of the field, three being sprinkled with a liquor called balché. The fourth is left without this sauce, possibly for the benefit of any teetotaler friend who may happen to call.

Balché is a liquor made by soaking the bark of a tree thus named in a mixture of honey and water. When fermented and kept some time it is very intoxicating. The Indians use it in all their ancient rites and ceremonies, and the Fans of equatorial Africa make liquor in the same way.

Catholics in name, the Mayas in fact prefer to render homage to any stone figure that once ornamented the temples of their forefathers. We have seen one, kept in a cavern underground, that served as a personification of Balam, for it represented a man with a long beard, and to it they make offerings of corn. As a work of art the figure is worthy of notice. Its antiquity can not be doubted, similar ones being sculptured on pillars at the entrance of a very ancient castle in the famous ruined city of Chichen. The figure in the cavern is on its knees; its hands are raised to a level with the head, palms upturned. On its back is a bag containing a cake of corn and beans, the whole cut from one block of stone. This statue is now black, owing to the incense and candles with which its devotees smoke it. Previous to sowing grain they place before it a basin of cool beverage made of corn, also lighted wax candles and sweet-smelling copal, imploring the god to grant them an abundant harvest. When the crops ripen the finest ears are carried to the smoke-begrimed divinity by men, women, and children, who within the cavern dance and pray all day long, some of their quaint instruments serving as accompaniment to the Christian litanies which they chant without having the vaguest idea of their meaning.