The Maya Xultun Tarot - Chapter 1 by xultun

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                       Xultun Tarot

Concepts are coined and negotiable values; images are life.
                                                              —C. G. Jung

Tarot is a dream that stands still.
                                                          —Joanna Young

T   he Xultun Tarot was created by Peter Balin in 1976. It is also known as the
    Maya Tarot or the Maya Book of Life. It consists of twenty-two cards of
the major arcana plus two cards representing the masculine and the feminine
principles (Figure 103) and fifty-six cards of the minor arcana. I shall use the
noun “Maya” to refer to the people and adjective “Mayan” to refer to the lan-
guage, however “Mayan” is commonly used for both. The Maya “x” is pro-
nounced “sh” so Xultun is pronounced “shool-tun.”


Tarot cards first appeared in Renaissance Italy in the 14th century and were
known as tarocchi cards. In the 17th and 18th century the tarot fell into disre-
pute but was revived by late 19th century esoteric movements such as the Or-
der of the Golden Dawn.1 However, with this esotericism the cards and their
interpretations tended to become more arcane as with, for example, the
Rider-Waite or Crowley decks.2 For want of a better term, I shall refer to the
historical and modern tarot of this lineage as the “European” tarot. In the last
twenty or thirty years there has been an explosion of New Age tarot decks.
Unfortunately, most of these have little or no connection to the underlying ar-
chetypal structure of the tarot and are often a collection of pictures that reflect
the author’s conscious intent.
   Early European decks, such as the Marseilles Tarot, give us a clearer view
of the tarot. Unlike many later tarot they are not burdened with self-conscious
symbolism nor do they attempt to make the cards conform to a particular
metaphysical or psychological theory. I shall take the Marseilles deck as repre-
sentative of European and modern tarot in general and refer to its more famil-
iar images alongside the images of the Xultun Tarot.3
   So what is the tarot? The tarot is an aide-mémoire for the soul. It is an arche-
type in itself as well as a series of archetypal images that tell the story of the
stages of spiritual and psychological development that are possible over a life-
time. It is the story of the flowering of the soul and how it participates in the
great cycles of creation. It is a symbolic depiction of the soul’s journey from
spirit to substance and back to spirit, from heaven to earth and earth to
heaven, and finding heaven on earth and earth in heaven. If we look at the ma-
jor arcana in Figure 103 we see the Great Light at the top of the deck above the

1 The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical order active in Great Britain dur-
ing the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Members included Algernon Blackwood, Aleister
Crowley, Bram Stoker, Evelyn Underhill, A. E. Waite and W. B. Yeats.
2 The Rider-Waite Tarot was painted by Pamela Colman Smith from the instructions of Ar-
thur Edward Waite, a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. In the early 1900s, he com-
missioned Smith to illustrate a set of cards for him. They were first published in 1909 by the
Rider company. The Thoth Tarot was painted by Lady Frieda Harris between 1938 and 1943
according to instructions from Aleister Crowley. After Crowley’s death, a follower pub-
lished the work in 1969.
3 The Tarot of Marseilles, Maritxu de Guler. See

                                   Xultun Tarot                                    3

Fool and the Sorcerer. At the bottom of the deck we see the zigzag design sym-
bolising the earth. All the human action happens in between and in the pro-
cess both spirit and substance are changed.
   The tarot embodies two principal archetypes. First, the archetype of the
Self and how it manifests over a lifetime. Jung defined the Self as the organis-
ing centre of the psyche or the “God-image within.” Shortly before his death,
he said to the soldier and writer Sir Laurens van der Post, “I cannot define for
human beings what God is, but what I can say is that my scientific work has
proved the pattern of God exists in every human being. And that this pattern
has at its disposal the greatest transforming energies of which life is capa-
ble.”4 Second, the archetype of number which Jung said was the archetype of
order become conscious.
   Although the tarot is generally thought to have originated in Europe we
should bear in mind that when an archetype emerges from the collective
unconscious it arises in different places and cultures and historical times. The
form of the archetype may be different but the essence is the same. We see the
same archetype that underlies the tarot in the Cabala with its 22 Sephiroth, al-
chemical manuscripts like the Rosarium Philosophorum with 20 woodcuts and
Splendor Solis with 22 paintings, the biological structure of DNA and the 20 or
22 amino acids, the Maya vigesimal system based on the number 20, and the
teachings of the Twenty Count.
   The practice of divination, the opening of discussions between the visible
and non-visible worlds, is an archetype. All cultures have had divinatory
tools: the cracks in the heated tortoise shell that became the I Ching; the bones
of the Xhosa sangoma; the haruspication of entrails by the Roman augurer; or
the seeds of the Maya daykeeper. Some indigenous medicine people in the
Americas carried a medicine item similar to the Xultun Tarot in their medi-
cine bundles. These “cards” were made of sandpaintings on thin wood and
covered with animal glue and contained something from each of the Mineral,
Plant, Animal and Human Worlds. It was known as the Book of Life or the
Children’s Fire.
   The tarot is a gift, not from any individual consciousness or particular cul-
ture, but from the spirit or, in psychological terms, the collective unconscious.
It was not invented but emerged at different times and places in response to a
need for balance and beauty. Not balance between humans but for humans to
be able to hold the balance between nature and spirit within themselves. An
oracle not only helps us see ourselves through spirit’s eyes but also allows
spirit to see itself through our eyes. The tarot allows spirit and nature to come
into balance through the intercession of humans, a theme we shall return to
throughout the book. Rilke wrote:

4 Quoted in a book review by Valerie Harms of Nancy Ryley, The Forsaken Garden: Four
Conversations on the Deep Meaning of Environmental Illness, Wheaton: IL, Quest, 1998,
 4                                THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

     Take your well-disciplined strengths
     and stretch them between two
     opposing poles. Because inside human beings
     is where God learns.5

    Although Western culture emerged from the last physical Ice Age over
 10,000 years ago it has gradually succumbed to a spiritual Ice Age over the
 last 2,000 years. The tarot first appeared in Europe when it was being ground
 under the glacier of Christianity and had been almost completely severed
 from its indigenous and instinctual roots by 5,000 years of “progress” and
“civilisation.” When spirit and nature become estranged in a rational culture,
 as had occurred in medieval Europe, the result is that divination and other
 non-rational pursuits have to live in the shadows. At the same time they be-
 come increasingly needed, not to foretell the future but to bring about balance
 between spirit and nature, this world and the other world, head and heart.
    The Maya say that in hard times what needs to be preserved has to be “dri-
 ven into seeds.” Seeds are small places where big things can hide and the spiri-
 tual DNA can be saved to feed a time beyond our own. The seed flowers
 when the conditions are right or when their beauty is most needed. I use the
 term beauty here not in its aesthetic sense but in its indigenous sense of what
 nourishes the soul and feeds the holy. The soul cannot live without beauty.
    The tarot as we know it today appeared in Europe during the time of the
 Renaissance. The accepted medieval history of Europe and the New World
 has been challenged by Gavin Menzies in his books 1421: The Year China Dis-
 covered America and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and
 Ignited the Renaissance. He convincingly demonstrates, for example, that al-
 most every mechanical drawing that Leonardo da Vinci made was derived
 from the great books the Chinese brought to Florentine Italy; and that the Chi-
 nese circumnavigated the globe almost a hundred years before Columbus
 crossed the Atlantic or Magellan rounded Cape Horn, both using derivatives
 of Chinese maps.6 More relevant to our theme is that the Chinese arrival in
 Venice in 1434 contributed significantly to what Western culture claims as its
 own—the Renaissance. By the same token, this book challenges the West-
 ern-centric notion that archetype of the tarot belongs solely to one geograph-
 ical place and one historical period, although the modern form did emerge in
 14th and 15th century Italy.
    Jung said, “The ideal of spirituality striving for the heights was doomed to
 clash with the materialistic earth-bound passion to conquer matter and mas-
 ter the world. This change became visible at the time of the ‘Renaissance.’”7 It
 was a time when scholars had returned to the only roots they could find that

 5   Rainer Maria Rilke, Just as the Winged Energy of Delight.
 6   See and
 7   CW 9ii, Aion, § 78.
                                  Xultun Tarot                                  5

they thought were “civilised” enough and were in the neighbourhood—classi-
cal Greek and Roman culture. Their desire was to be reborn into an age of
light out of the ignorance and superstition of what they called the “Dark
   The brilliant but highly specialised consciousness of the Renaissance later
became the “Age of Enlightenment” of the 17th and 18th centuries. This philo-
sophical and cultural movement, seen in the writings of John Locke, Rene Des-
cartes and Thomas Hobbes, for example, had an abiding faith in the power of
reason to engender progress and enlightenment. However, this enlighten-
ment came at a price. What was of the earth, the feminine and nature fell into
the collective shadow. Just as a dream compensates for the one-sidedness of
personal consciousness so archetypes compensate for the one-sidedness of cul-
tural consciousness. The tarot emerged from the collective unconscious dur-
ing the Renaissance as a compensation for the historical excesses of what was
to become “Western” culture.


The Xultun Tarot is similar to other tarot decks in that there are twenty-two
major arcana and fifty-six minor arcana. However, it differs in several impor-
tant ways.
   The names and numbering of the Xultun cards differ from the European
tarot. The equivalent names are shown in Figure 95. Rather than Roman nu-
merals, the Xultun cards are numbered at the bottom of each card using the
Maya notation where a “dot” is one and a “bar” is five.
   The Xultun is the only tarot where the major arcana, when laid out, form a
picture. This is not an artistic convenience but a reflection of the fact that the
tarot is an interconnected whole with multiple cross-connections between the
cards. Although the illustrations in this book show a two-dimensional pic-
ture, the Xultun Tarot is actually a spherical, 3D hologram. Each card reso-
nates with all the other cards in specific patterns that we shall explore further
in the Loom of Time chapter.
   As well created a richly cross-connected web, the cards also form a linear
sequence that tells the story of the transformation of the soul. Many interpreta-
tions of the tarot lean towards considering the cards individually in isolation
from each other rather than as part of a coherent and connected developmen-
tal sequence. Because the European tarot do not emphasise the developmen-
tal sequence of the cards they have blurred the difference between the first
and second halves of the deck. The cards in the first half, from the Priestess (2)
to the Balance (11), have more to do with personal and collective processes
whereas the cards in the second half of the deck, from the Hanged Man (12) to
Planet Earth (21), are more concerned with impersonal, archetypal processes.
   The Xultun Tarot was the first tarot not based on traditional images de-
rived from the medieval European tarot or the Western occult tradition. The
6                                  THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

                          Figure 1. Box lid, Xultun Tarot (first edition) 1976

imagery and teachings of the Xultun Tarot are indigenous to the Americas so
the cards are less encrusted with the layers of European tarot interpretation
that have accrued over the centuries.
   Finally, because of its imagery the Xultun Tarot reveals more clearly the ar-
chetypal pattern that underlies all tarot decks (see also Chapter 8).


Peter Balin was born near New Plymouth, New Zealand. A self-taught artist,
he travelled widely and by the mid-1970s was living in Los Angeles. In a talk
he gave in 1977 he relates how, on the evening of December 21, 1975, some
friends came to his house and one of them had a tarot deck. It was the first
tarot deck he had ever seen and Balin thought it was sort of medieval and
uninteresting. Later in the evening one of his friends suggested that he should
draw a tarot deck but Balin thought it was a silly idea and said so. Right in the
middle of his protestation:

    Something occurred which had never happened to me before in my life, and
    which is extremely difficult for me to explain. The only way that I can do so
    is to say that it approximated a colour slide going on in my brain. That is all
    of a sudden, I was telling her how crazy I thought she was, and the next min-
    ute… Voom! I should say about like that, it’s very difficult to describe be-
    cause it was not quite like that either. But this large thing appeared in my
    head it seemed, or somewhere inside of me, I just really don’t quite know

8   Peter Balin, The Way of the Sorcerer, pp. 2–5.
                                      Xultun Tarot                                7

                    Figure 2. Card back, Xultun Tarot (first edition) 1976

    The image was of the twenty-two cards of the major arcana assembled to
 make one picture and all the figures were in Maya dress. The next morning
 Balin had a tremendous urge to paint. He took a sleeping bag to the art gal-
 lery where he worked and slept on the floor. He painted almost day and night
 for three months. Balin said, “Apparently I had a lot of the qualifications nec-
 essary to be able to make this deck. One of [which] was that I knew nothing
 about the Tarot. Because if I did, obviously I would be tripped up by what I
 knew. There would be a great battle in my head.… Within a year of the time
 that the original cards were painted, they were printed and out on the market.
 Obviously something somewhere felt that it was very important to get these
 cards out.”
    The first edition of the Xultun Tarot was printed by the George Banta Print-
 ing Company in Menasha, Wisconsin in 1976. The cards were larger (136 x 89
 mm, 5.5 by 3.5 ins) than those of most other tarot decks. During that year
 Balin travelled to Mexico on a bus and ended up sitting next to Frank Waters,
 novelist and author of Book of The Hopi (1963) and Mexico Mystique: The Coming
 Sixth World of Consciousness (1975), for the six hours of the journey. After he re-
 turned to Los Angeles to finish painting the cards he received a postcard from
 Mexico. It was from Waters and had rounded corners and the single word
“Hola!” (Hello! in Spanish) written on it. Balin realised that this postcard
 would be the ideal size and proportion for the Xultun cards.
    The deck came as a boxed set with the major arcana of twenty-two cards
 and the minor arcana of fifty-six cards, two additional feathered serpent repre-
 senting the feminine and the masculine, and an insert briefly describing the
 cards and layouts. The box (Figure 1) was in brown with the Ruler in white
 and lettering in black. The back of the cards were also brown with two feath-
 ered serpents facing in opposite directions (Figure 2). Balin flew to Menasha
 to proof the cards prior to printing and ensure the colours were true to his
 original paintings. (The major arcana was one single painting and the minor
8                           THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

                  Figure 3. Box, Xultun Tarot (Kahurangi edition) 2010

arcana were painted in sets of four). But, having been preoccupied with the
painting of the cards during the year, he had given little thought to the box.
As a result, the design of box in Figure 1 was done at the last moment. Balin
was dissatisfied with it and redesigned it in green with a gold feathered ser-
pent winding around the box. He then hand-covered the remaining 4500
brown boxes of the original print run of 5000 with the new design. Subse-
quently, these decks were given gratis to the new publisher in Los Angeles,
Wisdom Garden Books. The original cards in the brown box are now
hard-to-find and a collector’s item. No decks with the re-covered boxes have
ever been found.
   For the 2010 edition Kahurangi Press have reproduced the cards in their
original size and vivid colours. And, in cooperation with Peter Balin, they
have redesigned the back of the cards in cinnabar red with a new feathered
serpent design (Figure 3) and the box in green with a blue feathered serpent
encircling it (Figure 4).
   Historically, almost all tarot decks were named after their creator but Balin
didn’t want the deck named after him. So he made a list of Maya place names
and selected Xultun, the name of a Maya site near Tikal in north-eastern Gua-
temala. Tikal, occupied for about a thousand years but abandoned by the 9th
century, was first discovered by Europeans in the mid-1800s. Xultun is a large
Early Classic Maya site about 45 kilometres northeast of Tikal. The site con-
tains a thirty-five metre tall pyramid, two ballcourts, twenty-four stelae and
several plazas. It is the largest Classic Maya site that has not yet been
                                           Xultun Tarot                          9

                    Figure 4. Card back, Xultun Tarot (Kahurangi edition) 2010

   Sometime later, Balin discovered that the word xultun means “a storage
place” where the Maya stored water or maize.9 The limestone of the Yucatan
peninsula is so porous that no water collects on the surface. The only sources
of water are a few cenotes—deep, steep-walled sinkholes with water at the
bottom. So the Maya had to dig bottle-shaped cisterns or xultun beneath the
ground. These had broad, sloping surrounds, plastered with limestone, to fun-
nel rainwater into the cistern. The bodies of human sacrifices were thrown
into abandoned xultun and in shamanic healing ceremonies the conjured evil
spirit was cast into a xultun. So the Xultun Tarot is a storage place, a container
for the light and the dark, and a repository for seeds of knowledge.
   Another other use for the xultun was as a star-tube. The Maya created a so-
phisticated astronomical calendar for marking the progression of time. For
them, time was alive and events were conducted on dates that were most
charged with ch’ulel or life force. To make therir calendrical calculations they
observed the movement of the stars during the day as well as at night. The
Maya priest sat at the bottom of a xultun looking up at the sky through its nar-
row neck. Here, even at midday, he could see the stars quite clearly overhead
(Figure 5). In the early 1600s the Italian astronomer Galileo used a similar
method for observing stars during daylight by sitting at the bottom of a deep
well. So when we open the Xultun Tarot we are looking through the star-tube
of the tarot, in the daylight of consciousness, at our stars—the patterns of our
soul’s movement in time.
   A number of images in the cards are similar to those in the Codex Nuttall.
This codex, known formally as the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, was made in the
14th century and is one of a small number of known pre-Hispanic codices. It
is made of deer skin and comprises 47 leaves. The codex contains two narra-
tives: one side of the document relates the history of important centres in the

9   Peter Balin, The Way of the Sorcerer, p. 12.
10                                THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

                    Figure 5. Maya priest star-gazing in a xultun (Madrid Codex)

Mixtec region of the Oaxaca highlands, while the other, starting at the oppo-
site end, records the genealogies, alliances and conquests of the Mixtec ruler,
Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw who died in the early 12th century at the age of
fifty-two. The codex probably reached Spain in the 16th century. It was first
identified at the Dominican Monastery of San Marco, Florence, in 1854. Later,
Sir Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche of Haryngworth (1810–73), loaned it to
the British Museum. After his death his family donated it to the Museum in
1917. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard first
published it in 1902 with an introduction by Zelia Nuttall (1857–1933). Inter-
estingly, niney-nine images of the Codex Nuttall are painted on the exterior
walls of the Edward R. Roybal Health Centre, 245 South Fetterly Avenue, Los
    Balin had lived for some months in a small Maya village with many ruins
close by. He became familiar with how the local people dressed and the partic-
ular way they tied their sashes. He spent the summer of 1972 sketching im-
ages at Tikal. The first six figures in the cards (Fool, Sorcerer, Priestess,
Consort, Ruler and Priest) are all drawn from wooden lintels in Temple III at
Tikal as are the glyphs running across the base of the platform that the last
three figures stand on. The glyphs between the second and third rows come
from Stela 26 at Tikal. Additional designs are taken from Stelae 1 and 31.10 A
stela (Latin for standing stone) was an upright stone slab or pillar often
carved with glyphs. Maya called them tetun, or “tree-stones.”


The English word indigenous comes from the Latin, indigenus, meaning born
of a land or to a group of people who have ancestral connections to a geo-
graphical place. Worldwide, there are over 5,000 distinct indigenous cultures

10   Stuart Kaplan, The Encyclopaedia of Tarot, pp. 287–290.
                                      Xultun Tarot                                       11

in over seventy countries. Generically, indigenous peoples are referred to as
Aboriginal, Native, or First Nations. Maori are the indigenous people of New
Zealand who came here in seven great wakas (ocean canoes) from Hawai’iki.
All Maori can trace their ancestry (whakapapa) back to one of these wakas. In te
reo Maori (the Maori language) the word maori means normal, natural or ordi-
nary. Maori refer to themselves as tangata whenua, meaning People of the
   Up to about 1,000 years ago most of the world had an indigenous
consciousness and lived an indigenous way of life. These were farming or
hunting and gathering cultures self-supporting. They were non-urban, either
settled in a region or nomadic, and community-oriented rather than individu-
alistic. Now, indigenous peoples living a mostly traditional lifestyle comprise
only about five percent of the earth’s population. The European “discovery”
of the Americas was the beginning of the colonisation and decimation of in-
digenous cultures world-wide. In colonial times indigneous peoples were re-
ferred to as “savages,” “primitive,” “backward” or “uncivilised.”
   I will use the term indigenous to indicate not a race, people or culture but a
particular consciousness or world-view. The characteristics of this world-
view include the interrelatedness and livingness of all creation, a close rela-
tionship to the natural and the spirit world, and the attachment to a particular
place, land or territory. I shall use the term “Western” to refer to the
Judeo-Christian-Islamic economic, scientific and religious tradition that has
lost its indigenosity and has now become globalised. The opposite of Western
however is not Eastern but indigenous. Western culture has long had a fasci-
nation with Eastern cultures on account of their different “civilisations.”11
Both East and West are similar in their estrangement from their indigenous
roots however the East has retained more of a connection.
   The creation of the Xultun Tarot and the recent resurgence of interest in
tarot in general, is a similar compensation to that which occurred during the
Renaissance. But this time the compensation is not just a local European af-
fair. The spiritual DNA that is contained in the seeds of the European Tarot is
needed for the planet itself. Beginning in the 1970s, aroudn the same time as
the creation of the Xultun, many indigenous elders around the world began to
respond to the increasingly dangerous state of imbalance on the planet by
sharing knowledge that had been previously kept hidden. In Aotearoa/New
Zealand12 the Waitaha elders say:

     We are Waitaha. Until now we have hidden our beginnings, and all that fol-
     lowed, in the shadows. In this way we protected our knowledge in the

11 Japan, China or India, for example. Japan and China were long closed to the West but In-
dia became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire because of its “advanced” cul-
ture. One could not imagine, say, Bushman or Aboriginal culture being held in the same re-
gard by Queen Victoria.
12 In Maori, Aotearoa means “The Land of the Long White Cloud.”
12                              THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

     silence of the Whare Wananga, the School of Learning of Waitaha. Tuatara,
     the Keeper of the Knowledge, guards the trails of the mind and spirit that
     gave us life.13 We lead you past Tuatara, our ever vigilant kaitiaki [guard-
     ian], and invite you to share the words and the wisdom of our ancestors.
     For it has been decided it is time for our treasures to be brought in to the
     light.… We kept safe this knowledge of the Tides of Life that flow from
     Marama, the Moon. Our Star Walkers joined the stars to the land. These
     kete [baskets] are the treasures of the peoples of the Nation of Waitaha. We
     have kept them safe through sixty-seven generations, for they are the sacred
     songs of our ancestors. Now we share them with all born of these moun-
     tains, and all who call this land home, for you are of this land as we are of
     this land.14

   Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma or shaman, says, “Ultimately
I saw that the lore of my people was destined to die with those of us who
knew it, and that it would then die forever. I felt I gradually recognised that
by breaking my oath—something originally made to protect the sacred lore in
times that were very different from these times—I was doing something for
my own people, preserving the eternal wisdom that has been carried on for
centuries; and also doing something for mankind as a whole. For there are
people of many lands and many races who share in this wisdom and learn the
wonder of these stories—they existed for the good of our people, but also
now for all people.”15
   Lorraine Mafi Williams, an Aboriginal elder says, “In 1975 our elders
prophesied a shift, and have been preparing our people for it… the ancient
teachings are being revived by the elders around the Earth.”16

Twisted Hairs

Beginning in the early 1970s, with the publication of Carlos Castaneda’s
books, a loosely-connected body of teachings which had previously been an
oral tradition became accessible to the public. Since the mid-1970s they have
been taught by Harley SwiftDeer Reagan and written about by various
authors such as Teisha Abelar, Lynn Andrews, David Carson, Florinda Don-
ner, Jamie Sams and Hyemeyohsts Storm.
   The source of knowledge was a teacher or teachers to whom the author ap-
prenticed or a tradition or lineage from which the teachings came. For An-

13 The tuatara is a lizard-like reptile that is a “living fossil” found only on a few islands off
the coast of New Zealand. The species is the sole survivor of an order that became extinct
about 200 million years ago even before the dinosaurs disappeared. It has a highly devel-
oped third or pineal eye on top of the head.
14 Ngati Kowhai o Waitaha, Song of Waitaha: The Histories of a Nation, p. 10.
15 Credo Mutwa, Song of the Stars, p. xiii.
16 Cornelius Van Dorp, Crystal Mission, p. 297.
                                   Xultun Tarot                             13

                     Figure 6. Twisted hair name glyph of Tikal

drews it was Agnes Whistling Elk and Ruby Morning Star from Saskatche-
wan, for Castaneda it was Don Juan and Don Genaro, for Storm it was
Estchimah and the Zero Chiefs, and for Reagan, who studied with Storm, it
was Navajo medicine man Tom Two Bears Wilson and the Twisted Hairs
Medicine Council of Elders.
   Traditionally, Twisted Hairs were medicine people, shamans and storytell-
ers who travelled throughout the Americas (Turtle Island). What differenti-
ates a Twisted Hair from a traditional medicine person is their ability and de-
sire to seek knowledge from outside their tradition. These men and women
gather knowledge from every direction of the wheel of life in order to find
their own centre and come into alignment with the Creator. Hair symbolises
knowledge and a Twisted Hair is one who braids knowledge from all tradi-
tions and ways into his or her Path with Heart and makes it their own knowl-
edge. Their purpose, their dream, is to preserve the beauty and integrity of
the web of life that has been dreamed by the consciousness of this planet.
They hold the breath and the blood of this first dream, so that we can feed it,
remember it and dream their dream onwards. The Xultun Tarot holds many
of the Twisted Hairs teachings in symbolic form.
   As well, the name Xultun has Twisted Hairs associations. The site of
Xultun is about 50 kilometres northeast of Tikal near the border with Belize.
The area was settled as early as 800 BCE but the city of Tikal itself was not
founded until six centuries later. It grew to become the largest Maya city with
a population of 90,000 people at its height but was abandoned around 900 CE.
Tikal was the name used by the local Itzá Maya people and means “Place of
Voices” or “City of Echoes.” But this is not the original name of the city. The
name glyph of Tikal (Figure 6) was recently deciphered by epigrapher David
14                             THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

                     Figure 7. Card back, Xultun Tarot (first edition) 1976

Stuart as Mutul.17 The glyph appears in the Sorcerer card (Figure 28). A name
glyph was like a national flag or coat of arms for a Maya city-state. The central
part of Tikal was called Yax Mutul which means “Great Green Bundle.” The
surrounding area over which Tikal ruled, which likely included Xultun, was
referred to as Mutul which means “knot of hair,” “hair bundle,” or “hair
twisted or coiled and tied into a bun.”18 The Temperate Man, the number 14
card, is one of the most important cards in the Xultun Tarot and he is a
Twisted Hair.19


The Maya are the predominant indigenous people of Central America. They
live in Belize, the Yucatan of southern Mexico, the western areas of El Salva-
dor and Honduras, and in Guatemala where they make up two-thirds of the
population. The Maya are, in fact, many different peoples (for example,

17 Peter Matthews, Maya Hieroglyph Dictionary. Da-
vid Stuart is Linda and David Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the Uni-
versity of Texas, Austin.
18 Martha Macri, Mutal, a possible Mixe-Zoque toponym, Glyph Dwellers, 12, 2000, p. 1.
19 For those who remember The Band, listen to Robbie Robertson’s Twisted Hair, on his Mu-
sic for the Native Americans (Capitol, 1994), lyrics by David Carson.
                                        Xultun Tarot                         15

Quiche Maya, Tzjutzil Maya) and speak many different languages such as
Yucatec, Cakchiquel, Chol and Chorti.
   Archaeological evidence of the Maya goes back to 1500 BCE but the height
of historical Maya culture was from 300 BCE to 900 CE, the so-called Classic pe-
riod (Figure 7). Great ceremonial centres such as Palenque, Copan, Tikal, and
Uaxactun were built without the use of the modern wheel or metal tools.
Their temples, pyramids and platforms were built of a rubble core, bonded
with cement and faced with limestone plaster painted in bright colours.
Thatch-roofed temples stood at the top. The Maya did not build great cities
like Teotihuacan in Mexico of the same period but their temple sites included
large plazas, courts for ball games, and stone carvings. The people lived in
simple thatched dwellings near their temples.
   At the height of the Classic period the temple cities may have had popula-
tions of 5,000 to as much as 100,000 in the case of Tikal and El Mirador. Each
large city had one ruler (lord or ahau) who usually ruled over the city and the
surrounding region for life. Upon his death, a son or brother took over. In
some cases, the ruler’s wife might be next in line. The accession of rulers, and
each twenty years of their reign, were commemorated with stelae bearing
their image and describing their lineage, and the events and achievements of
their reign.
   The Maya developed a very accurate calendar that arose out of their under-
standing of the numinous nature of time. They created a mathematical system
based on the number 20 and were the first culture to develop the concept of
the zero.20 Maya calendars used a 20-day month and a 360-day year. They
measured spans of time in periods of 20 years, 400 years (20 x 20 years) or
larger multiples up to millions of years. Using some of their temples as obser-
vatories, like the one at Chichen Itza, they tracked eclipses and the move-
ments of Venus with great accuracy. The passages of Venus were used in the
timing of battles and warfare. They also developed a hieroglyphic (Greek,
hieros, sacred; glyph, carving) system of writing that has been decoded only in
the last few decades.21 The hieroglyphs were carved on stelae or written in
folded books called codices.
   The images in the Xultun Tarot show what the historical Maya wore. Cloth
woven on a backstrap loom was used for loincloths as in the Temperate Man
card. Women wore a huipil, a roomy dress worn over a long underskirt. In hot
weather the women went bare-breasted in the underskirt as in the Lovers
card. Hair was often tied in a scalp lock as in the Sage card. Ceremonial cos-
tumes were elaborate with jaguar skins, ornamental backracks, woven head-
bands, high-backed sandals, capes, and jade ornaments. The Consort has a
headdress made of shell or jade plaques mounted on a wooden or mat frame
with long feathers on the crown and a Jester God at the front. The animal

20   Hyemeyohsts Storm, Lightningbolt.
21   Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code.
 16                                THE MAYA BOOK OF LIFE

 headdresses often lacked a lower jaw thus making the wearer’s face visible as
 in the Priest card. Ceremonial bundles containing sacred objects and dou-
 ble-headed serpent bars were carried by rulers, as in the Ruler card. Thrones
 were covered with jaguar skins as in the Warrior card.
    About 900 CE the great Maya centres were abruptly abandoned, probably
 as a result of the worst drought for 7,000 years following centuries of warfare,
 overpopulation and deforestation.22 Some Maya migrated into the Yucatan
 and during the Post-Classic period, from the 10th century to the arrival of the
 Spanish in the 16th century, the Yucatan cities of Uxmal, Mayapan and
 Chichen Itza flourished. A Toltec migration or invasion from the valley of
 Mexico to the north strongly influenced their art styles.
    In 1519 Hernan Cortes with eleven ships, five hundred soldiers (or “Con-
 quistadors” as they became known) and twenty horses, landed at Cozumel in
 the Yucatan. Within a few years they had conquered Central America and sub-
 jugated both the Maya and the Aztec. In 1549 Diego de Landa, a Spanish Fran-
 ciscan friar, was sent to the Yucatan. In his zealous attempts to catholicise the
 Maya and eradicate all heathen practices de Landa set about destroying their
 religious artefacts and killed and tortured many of the Maya. He is the main
 reason that so few Maya codices exist today. On one occasion in July 1562 de
 Landa burned 5,000 idols and 27 codices at Mani in the Yucatan. He wrote,
“We found a large number of these books and as they contained nothing in
 which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned
 them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them
 great affliction.” The Maya response to the attempted Christianisation of their
 culture was to simply continue what they had been doing for centuries but
 clothing it differently. Over the centuries Catholicism has been seamlessly
 and colourfully assimilated into many Maya religious ceremonies.
    For centuries after Spanish colonisation the Maya continued to be increas-
 ingly marginalised peasants in their own lands. In the 1980s over 150,000
 Maya were killed by death squads from both sides of the Guatemalan civil
 war between the right-wing military government and left-wing guerrillas. In
 1992 the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Rigoberta Menchu, a Maya rights
 activist from Guatemala. On the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’
“discovery” of the Americas, she was the first indigenous person to be
 awarded a Nobel prize. Since the signing of a peace accord in 1996 there has
 been a renaissance in Maya cultural identity.

 22   Richardson Gill, The Great Maya Droughts: Water, Life, and Death.

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