Flower Mountain: Concepts of Life, Beauty and Paradise in Ancient America

December 6, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am

The 2003 Lewis K. Land Lecture

Dr. Karl Taube
University of California, Riverside

Reviewed by Michel Quenon

A record breaking audience attended this year’s Land Lecture which returned with a Mesoamerican theme presented by noted scholar Dr. Karl Taube. His premise: that a concept of afterlife encompassing paradise, music, dance and flowers, was widely shared among Uto-Aztecan speakers, in an area extending from El Salvador to the American Southwest. Extensively documented by sixteenth century texts, the Aztec “Flower World” was inhabited by the souls of the dead transformed into birds and butterflies.

Until recently, it was thought that for the Classic Maya, the afterlife was spent in Xibalba, a watery underworld realm inhabited by strange and fearsome creatures often depicted on codex-style vases. However, Dr. Traube’s research shows that this was not the case: the utopian flower-world concept was already present among the Classic Maya. In reality, it seems that the initial journey into Xibalba was followed by rebirth into a paradise populated with trees, flowers and wild animals, the access to which was provided by Flower Mountain. This is supported by two glyphic expressions frequently found in association with the death of an elite: och ha’ (“enter the water”), referring to entering Xibalba and och b’ih (“enter the road”), meaning the road to a flowery paradise. Both  concepts are also present in the iconography.

For example, on the sarcophagus lid of the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, Pacal dressed as a young maize god is being reborn from the jaws of a monster (Xibalba) into the realm of a flowery paradise complete with a World Tree on top of which is perched the Celestial Bird, with the background covered by a multitude of jewels.

On an Early Classic incised vase in the Museum für Völkerkunde in Berlin, the rebirth of a dead ruler is depicted using two metaphors, that of a maize god being reborn into the shape of a cacao tree, and as a reborn sun. Both scenes take place on a Flower Mountain with zoomorphic heads decorated with flower blossoms. An och b’ih (enter the road”) expression appropriately complements the iconography.

Depictions of flower mountains are found on burial walls (Rio Azul Tomb 1) and on stucco masks at the base of pyramidal structures (Uaxactun E-VII sub). The breath of these zoomorphic mountains often takes the form of a serpent, the scent of flowers is also depicted as a serpent — usually bejeweled to denote its precious smell — or as a bird feather. A mural recently discovered at San Bartolo, Guatemala and dated to the First Century A.D. depicts the maize god receiving a basket of tamales and a gourd of water from the maw of a Flower Mountain (see the December 2003 issue of National Geographic Magazine for photos and drawings). The mural portrays four couples standing on a plumed serpent extending from the mouth of the cave. This plumed serpent, representing the breath of Flower Mountain, is itself decorated with flower blossoms on the body and snout.

Serpents symbolizing breath emanations are often found on pyramidal structures. At the previously cited Uaxactun Structure E-VII sub, a Flower Mountain features the earliest plumed serpent balustrades known in Mesoamerica. Another very well known example is that of the El Castillo pyramid at Chichen-Itza.

But serpents emerging from pyramidal structures are not restricted to the Maya world. The circa 200 A.D. temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan portrays the plumed serpent as a rattlesnake covered with quetzal bird feathers. Dr. Traube suggests that the Quetzalcoatl temple is another Flower Mountain and its plumed serpents are in fact depictions of the aroma of the flower blossoms adorning the structure. For the Aztec, Quetzalcoatl embodies the winds of spring and summer. The quetzal feathers on its body identify these winds with the eastern Maya area from which trade winds originate, bringing rains and growth to the  Central Mexican plateau.

Flower mountains are frequently depicted in Teotihuacan art, on vessels, murals and the lids of censers. Flower Mountain is a place where the ancestors dwell, a place of transition and emergence. It is where one is reborn and where sustenance is received. ♦