In our home, stands a prized life-size panel of fine Belizean mahogany carved with an imposing figure of Hunaphu, one of the handsome hero twins of the Classic Maya creation myth, soundlessly striding with the axe that he furiously wields to help his brother Xbalanque defeat the lords of the underworld in a series of intense battles. Eventually transformed into the shining sun and moon, the ball-players become the new world’s steady sources of illumination, symbolically launching a fresh, enlightened age.
The pair are central figures in Mayan iconography and feature in a famous colonial document the Popol Vuh or Book of the People, recorded by the Spanish 18th century Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez from historical accounts of the K’iche’ people, and now housed in the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Many translations exist but there is a simple elegance and eloquent beauty to the phrases that read almost like poetry whether in the original K’iche’, the friar’s archaic Spanish or any of countless contemporary English variations. “In the beginning, nothing existed but the sky and the sea. Everything was empty, silent, and motionless,” one version recites. Another states: “This is the account of how all was in suspense, all calm, in silence; all motionless, quiet, and empty was the expanse of the sky.”
The narrative recalls: “There was neither man, nor animals, birds, fishes, crabs, trees, stones, caves, ravines, grasses, nor forests; there was only the sky. The surface of the earth had not appeared. There was only the calm sea and the great expanse. There was nothing brought together, nothing which could make a sound, nor anything which might move, or tremble, or could make a noise. There was nothing standing; only the calm water, the placid sea, alone and tranquil. Nothing existed.”
Portrayed as complementary forces, the hero twins represent the duality of nature be it life and death, sky and earth, day and night, creation and destruction. Among the legend’s trio of creator deities is the powerful Huracan, the ancient Mayan Weather God of wind, storm, and fire, who participates in ill-fated but well-meaning cycles of fashioning humanity, first from mud, then wood.
Summoning the elements after the Gods become angry with these early humans, Huracan causes a super storm and great flood to ravage the land and destroy the flawed generation with no souls, the Popol Vuh states. He blows his breath across the chaotic water, invokes the ground until it rose out of the seas and finally succeeds in creating modern people from maize on the third attempt. To separate the sky from the Earth he plants a tall ceiba or silk cotton tree, making space for all sacred life, with the roots sinking deep into the underworld, the trunk sustaining fertile lands and crops, and the branches ascending to the heavens.
Another prominent regional indigenous group, the Tainos, who spread out from South America across the Caribbean islands around 400 B.C would adopt the one-legged Mayan god of natural catastrophes as their “Hurricán” from the devil “hura” or wind, also dreaded as the Carib divine personification of evil. Hurrican was believed to control the fierce gales that regularly slammed their island homes including Trinidad, Hispaniola, now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos and The Bahamas.
Incorporated by the Spanish conquistadores into their vocabulary, there were dozens of different spellings for Hurrican or Hurakan by the late 16th century ranging from “hurlicano,” “hericano,” “furicano,” “foracane” and “herrycano” to “harrycain” and “hurlecane,” and even “hurleblast.”
William Shakespeare in his tragedies, “Troilus and Cressida” composed about 1602 and “King Lear” of 1608 would use the strange word making an early reference to waterspouts. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!/ You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/ Till you have drench’d our steeples” comes from Act Three of “King Lear”.
“Were it a casque composed by Vulcan’s skill, / My sword should bite it: not the dreadful spout/Which shipmen do the hurricano call, /Constringed in mass by the almighty sun, Shall dizzy with more clamour Neptune’s ear…” muses the Trojan Prince Troilus as he ponders punishment for love rival Diomed.
Some four centuries later, the Mayan and Taino God is in full and fearsome reign with the second maximum force Category Five cyclone in a fortnight to batter the storm-weary Caribbean, this month, as devastated countries and thousands of affected residents struggle to suddenly cope with the catastrophic loss of normalcy. Homes, livelihoods and entire territories lie ruined, broken and desolate. Hurricane Maria has followed Irma, smashing areas that were previously spared and bringing misery to some of those who had extended crucial help, as the staggering costs and still mercifully-low death tolls mount.
Just a week ago in the stunning aftermath of Hurricane Irma, Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit generously offered Antigua and flattened Barbuda, more than US$250, 000 in aid as part of an assistance package to Eastern Caribbean sister countries and Cuba. By last Monday, the roles had reversed as Maria mangled Dominica at the end of an extraordinary day, accelerating from a category one to five in mere hours. By that evening, the PM was posting a set of dramatic reactions on Facebook.
“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God!” wrote the 45 year-old Skerrit. Minutes later he admitted: “We do not know what is happening outside. We not dare look out. All we are hearing is the sound of galvanize flying. The sound of the fury of the wind. As we pray for its end!”
He continued: “Certainly no sleep for anyone in Dominica. I believe my residence may have sustained some damage” exclaiming: “Rough! Rough! Rough!”
Half an hour later, Skerrit flatly announced: “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.” Later, “I have been rescued.” In a subsequent post he referred to the “mind-boggling” damage and said: “Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.”
Dominica has been virtually cut off from the rest of the world with telecommunications down, but local amateur radio operators say nearly all of the properties have been hit. In an initial fly-over by the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, CDEMA on Tuesday, Executive Director, Ronald Jackson estimated 70-80 per cent of buildings were struck, with key hospitals, roads and bridges disrupted.
In Guyana, bizarre weather continued with the latest wooden house collapse and torn roofs at Bath Settlement, West Coast Berbice, Monday afternoon. Earlier in September, similar freak squalls were reported in Linden, Region Ten (Upper Demerara/Berbice) and further inland at Kako, Waramadong and Kamarang, in Region Seven (Cuyuni/Mazaruni). On 18th August last, a pregnant mother died in Jawalla, also in Region Seven, when the house she and her two daughters had sought shelter under during bad weather, caved in. That gale ripped through some 33 homes and left villagers traumatized, Stabroek News reported.
As we hurtle further into Hurrican’s tumultuous environment of extremes and the ongoing duality of our fragile existence haunts us, so too will our lament significantly deepen, like in Shakespeare’s Macbeth soliloquy of Act Five:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
ID hears of Hurricane Maria’s possible “tornadoes” an altered form of the Spanish verb “tronar” which means to thunder and roar, and to be furious and rage, hence the “Tronada” fireworks festival of Reus, Catalonia.