City of Lightning: Tajín

Beyond the site's lobby, I followed a cobblestone path of alternating light and dark bands between the flanking hedges of dense foliage, a pointillism of red hibiscus blooms, purple bougainvillea bracts, and canary "crab blossoms" jutting candidly from the leafy mesh. Dark, warm clouds glided heavily overhead, as they would all day. Hence the modern name for this thousand-year-old site, inspired by the Totonac lightning god Tajín--though the Totonac were just coming northward when the city saw its twilight.

The particularities of Tajín began to emerge from the blending fog as I reached the path's end, parting to the ruined city. Four long, prismatic buildings of overgrown tiers framed the spacious rectangular quad of the ninth-century Plaza del Arroyo, the oldest and southernmost of the site's monumental architecture. Rows of shallow, framed niches spanned many of the stone-brick tiers, and the niches' upper frame flared outward to form a flat, tapering corner overhead, two hallmarks to the site's architecture.

I continued north toward the very center of the site, a jumble of building clusters, each following its own logic of orientation across a level between the formerly tiered platforms now reduced to grassy, rolling mounds bounding the central plaza.

The icon of the site was the Pyramid of Niches, an intricate monument upon stone-cut flooring toward the west end of Tajín's central plaza. Its shallow windowed niches were set in a row on all four sides of the pyramid's six extant tiers, and presumably upon its seventh had it remained intact. Series of the rectangular spiral fret, trailing with a three-stepped turn, were set in mosaic relief upon each balustrade flanking the façade's dilapidated stairway. The niches were estimated to have originally counted three hundred and sixty-five, another example of the Mesoamericans' obsession with time as a dimension of the sacred. While I just arrived, I had yet to satisfy mine.

I sought a quiet place away from the early-tourist bustle, a moment to communicate with the wispy souls in the ethers, a remnant from a time of temples and torch. I stole away to the site's northeast corner, where stood the remnants of a grand wall lain as a rectangular spiral fret. A span of cleared earth ran between the long edge of niches and the neat row of thicket on the north side, and I followed it all the way to its end, rising sharply into mounds of the wall still unexcavated. There I turned around, to behold my ultimate vista.

To my right the great fret's prominent niches ran along the north wall, its sharp cornice flaring outward to a plane eight feet above the ground. To my left an impenetrable tangle of trunks, weed, and vine marked the site's permissible limits. Thus I stood between the ruins of this ancient cult and the wilderness to which it was given--the locus of worship and the domain of its object. A natural harmony, sounded from the buzz of myriad insects and the murmur of spring birds, embraced me. And above the converging lines of relic, forest, and earth, there was a canopy of palm and tightly bunched deciduous trees crested across the remote path. Farther beyond, into the sagging clouds, rose the decisive peak of a vast, forested mountain whose slope swept across the eastern end of Tajín. It was the essential picture of Mesoamerican antiquity. In over twenty years of visiting archaeological sites in Mexico and Central America, no other view has felt so complete. The gods were close.

So I performed my daily devotion in this perfectly arranged seclusion. I was concise; I was focused, even as I cocked my head to listen whether encroaching tourists were traipsing upon the fret's inner platform. The full cycle lasted at least twenty minutes. I'd been too exhausted and too close to Rene to realize its powerful rendition the previous night; here I'd been given a supremely effective alternative for my ritual space. Tajín had a rustic land populated with houses of the sacred, untroubled by today's constant binging or incessant television. More than anywhere else in my journey, here I could face just nature and its spirits, unbridled, undistracted, and unfathomed. It was only five past eleven, and my visit was already fulfilling.

The last major area to visit was the elite acropolis above the central plaza, the northwestern residential compound known as "Little Tajín." Here the cornered spiral was abundant on the tiered stone palaces, even used to outline the wall niches ubiquitous to this site. Leaves crunched underneath and songbirds serenaded above as I stepped across the floor of square-stone tiling, overgrown with short, yellow grass and sprawling, slender trunks. A sharp lattice vaguely recalling the Tibetan eternity knot extended across the frieze of a sunken building. From this elevation only the highest peaks appeared behind the palaces of stone brick, islets of artifice in oceans of the wild.

Somewhere amidst all of this grand architecture, I imagined my friend Kichi climbing the roof of his house, corners of a small blanket tied as a cape around his neck as he intended to jump into flight. I climbed back down to the oddly clustered buildings among the central plaza.

Now I cannot speak of ancient Mesoamerican cities without mentioning their ball games, one of their most curious and interesting activities. The world's first team sport involved two teams trying to bounce a fast-flying ball of hard tree rubber within a court flanked by two tall stone walls and often shaped like a capital "I." Tighten enough rubber bands into a sphere the size of a softball, and you should have something of the orb's original weight, hardness, and spring. With the shoulders, hips, or a helmeted head, each player tried to strike the ball toward one of several sculpted markers along the length of the court--or through the vertical hoop projecting inward from either of the central walls. It was both spectator sport and religious divination as the ball became the sun weaving through the perils of the underworld, its skeletal minions in relief among the stone walls of the largest Tajín court.

The Tajín ball courts were especially renowned for their intricacy and number, seventeen at last count. Elaborately sculpted narratives of mythical and ritual events embellished the stone panels of the city's largest courts. Others were so low from the ground that the game itself would have been impossible, their presence only to mark a ritual space symbolizing the threshold to the underworld.

I could almost see it as I stood safely distant from the opening to the southern court, nestled between the central plaza and the Plaza del Arroyo. Far across the court's two-hundred-foot length stood a short pyramid. Were the court's underworld rift more open, I would have seen concentric, spherical ripples drifting within it--indecorous runners in the knit of time and space. Would they shift me into the netherworlds if I would cross? I had visited them at other times, and was not afraid. But then, after my long stay in their territory, I was never more knitted to the past ... and its affects.

As I stepped into the ball court space between the six-foot-high stone walls, I first walked between two imposing panels at their ends—rounded bas-reliefs depicting ritual processions of priests and attendants among abstract borders of trees and banners. These were all enclosed within a square frame of interlocking volute swirls and circular knots suggesting a dreamlike narrative picture with but slivers of unfilled space. The panel to my right centered on the priest's immediate plunge of a pointed flint knife into the chest of a seated human sacrifice, another attendant holding back his elbows, as a skeletal god descended from above to take its payment. Either wall had one such carved panel at each end and a third at the center, each panel displaying a confounding scene of supernatural activity in patterned ceremonial ambit: a genital bloodletting to a piscine water deity in a bathhouse, an eagle flying over a reclining human sacrifice, and even a rabbit-headed man accompanying two conversing priests. A short jug in a small pool of water appeared in relief beside the volute frame of each corner panel, whence rose the upper half of a colossal human skeleton, tender leaves sprouting from atop the skull and reptile eyes gazing into the ritual scene at play. I was not afraid.

I spread my arms out to the level of my hips, and my open palms faced forward to receive revelation. One looking in might have seen me gradually vanishing as I stepped farther toward the center of the court, deeper into the rift between the worlds, the Ultima Thule explored in but phantasmagoric episodes, as I slipped into another dimension of time. Black, shapeless clouds gusted like billows of soot, and coarse stars flickered like blinking eyes above the shadowy edges of the temples in this underworld side of the ancient city. Electric currents from old lightning gods hissed and leapt between the temples, their termini streaking and scorching the edifices' flared tiers. A large, earthen pot stood atop each paneled section of the ball court's walls, and from within each pot a titanic, wispy skeleton snaked upward into the air, its rockslide shrieks dissolving into the winds screeching through its luminous phantom bones. Their hunched columns arched toward me, their bony talons and gaping faces fixed upon me as I tread for this moment through the night side of Tajín. It faded away as I stepped out from the center of the court, to emerge from the underworld as did the sun each morning. I reappeared beneath the warm haze of mountain nimbus and the calming song of tropical spring birds.

Since the first day of my season in the Huasteca, I had witnessed earnest dedications from Mexico's old religion to the elemental gods, whom I saw in but their depictions, from paper cutting to stone sculpture. It was here in Tajín, however, that I could see something closer to their actual enormity, and the naked power they wielded in the shadow worlds beyond ours. I could see the gods closer to how they truly were. Noon hadn't even come yet. This is the real Mexico, and it is awesome.

I was not simply walking among highlights of an archaeological site. I was riding the stream of natural magic at the heart of all Mesoamerican religion, from the first temples to today's costumbre.

I could now return to the entrance to tour its museum, a gallery of sculptures, ceramics, panels, lintels, and frescos discovered around the city. Here, too, were stone reliefs of mythical beings that defied the boundaries between man and beast: fish with human heads; a man with a horned owl visage; and, upon the left bank of a ball court cross-section, a seated man with a canine head recalling the god Xolotl, the nagual spiritual companion of Quetzalcoatl. One cannot navigate the nether worlds, not even the Feathered Serpent, without guidance from or transformation into their nagual. But for what purpose?

As I was contemplating and photographing the mysterious symbols about the museum, I heard the treble of a rustic clay flute and the repeating four beats of a wooden drumstick against a round tabor resonating through the concrete of the site's colonnaded lobby. It was the song of the Voladores, who were preparing for their sky dance. I exited the lobby to return to the front yard, lined along its western side with a crescent of walk-in lockers, each an open shop of souvenirs ranging from kitschy plastic bows and arrows to more ornately painted sculptures carved from native wood and polished obsidian. The yard itself centered on a hundred-foot-tall metal pole, and six Volador dancers, dressed in red fringed trousers and sashes over white long-sleeve shirts, circumambulated it, stepping and rotating in procession upon a paved circle. The musician climbed the triangular metal rungs scaling the pole until its peak, upon which he sat as four of the other dancers climbed the poles in turn. Slightly below the peak lay a hollow square frame, and each dancer sat upon a side and tied one of the four ropes wound beneath the peak to his ankle, to the rhythmic tabor and the ululating flute sounding high atop. For seven minutes the musician simultaneously played them, fingering both in his left hand whilst tapping the drumstick with his right, as he kicked counterclockwise atop the pole. He sat on the pole and continued to play.

And then the four dancers began their descent! Each slung his rope across his side of the frame and plunged backward into the air. The unwinding ropes turned the frame clockwise as seen from below as the dancers hurled their arms over their heads and followed their spiral path toward the ground. It reenacted a Totonac myth of four Voladores who flung themselves into the clouds to transform into birds and summon the rains, all for agrarian intent. As the present dancers neared the ground, they pulled themselves upward and rode the last turns of the pole on foot. And as the dance completed, so did the flute and drum from above.

And so I return to the question: what is the purpose of traveling to the spirit places? Does it gladden many? Does it feed the hungry? Does it heal the ill? These are Teo's work, and if I would take it upon myself I must remember them. Mm-hmm.


I remained at Tajín until 6:30, the return to the temples like traveling through a dream with a real camera. Perhaps its power was my souvenir. I bought no other.

This was among my greatest days and finest moments in Veracruz. I ended it at Rene's house.