Feed the Spirits and They'll Feed You: Petroglyphs in Nayarit, Mexico

For ancient peoples, before our age of relative abundance, it was all about fertility.

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By David Hammond

The petroglyph, a carved stone image created centuries ago, was a figure of a human body with a corn stalk for a head. As we looked at this picture carved on a rock, a woman came out of the jungle, almost soundlessly, and placed a small piece of tortilla upon "maize man" before going back into the trees. She had offered food to a spirit that represented corn, perhaps the most important food in the ancient Americas; it was a way of honoring that spirit and giving thanks.

When traveling in Mexico, we usually stay at airbnbs, but for this trip we stayed at Four Seasons, Punta Mita, in the state of Nayarit. One big advantage of spending a few nights at a luxury resort is that the service is extraordinary. I'd mentioned that I wanted to see the petroglyphs, which I'd found out about through some deep Googling. The morning after I'd arrived, the hotel had found me a driver willing to take me to this sacred site – which was no small task as the site is hard to find, unmarked on the roadside and largely unvisited even by the local population.

After stopping at the stone picture of the maize man, we made our way down to the riverbed where there were dozens of other petroglyphs, some along the river, others on rocks in the river bed itself. When the river rose in the rainy months (May-October), these petroglyphs are under water, which is part of the place's powerful symbolism.

On one of those soon-to-be-submerged rocks was the image of two horizontal slits with vertical lines coming down from each. A friend suggested that the vertical lines might be tears, and that is likely an accurate interpretation. Tlaloc, the ancient Mexican god of rain, was frequently portrayed as having tears flowing from his eyes, and there was a close association between tears, rain and fertility. To the right of these "eyes" is a squiggly line that I interpreted to be a snake, also associated with water and fertility. That both these symbolic stone pictures are sometimes covered by water reinforces the powerful fertility message of this magical space.

For ancient peoples, before our age of relative abundance, it was all about fertility. If there wasn't enough water, there would be no crops, and whole civilizations would either die in place or move somewhere else. It's not terribly surprising, then, that some of the ancient rock carvings are focused upon honoring the forces that helped food grow and life continue. To honor these local spirits, we offer them food, even if it is just a scrap of tortilla left on a stone image.

Returning to the Four Seasons that night, I enjoyed some locally caught seafood. Looking out over the darkening Caribbean, I thought about the people who lived in the area long ago and made carvings in stone and offerings to honor the natural forces that made the land fertile. I silently thanked the spirits of the place; it was a little like, for the first time since I was a kid, saying grace.  

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