The Phenomena Papers

Justus: Why do leaves change color in autumn?

Sean :  Mushrooms

Jeremy : Impact of Eastern Thought in America

Michael : Mayan Culture Set in Stone

Philip : Dragons

Aimée : Hawaiian Volcanoes from a Scientific, Cultural, and Artistic Point of View


Hawaiian Volcanoes
From a Scientific, Cultural, and Artistic Point of View
The Hawaiian Islands are the most visible part of an enormous mountain range that stretches for over 1500 miles northwest across the Pacific Ocean floor.  This mountain range is made up of volcanoes and remnants of volcanoes.  The submerged volcanoes on the northwestern end of the chain are about 70 million years old while the volcanoes on the southeastern end are still being born.  They all come from one point which is called a geological "hot spot."  This hot spot, unlike continental volcanoes where magma comes from in-between the plates, is located in the middle of a plate.  Slowly, layer by layer, magma builds a volcanic mountain on the ocean floor.  At the same time, the oceanic plate carries the volcano northwest.  As time goes on, the volcano "ages" and its eruptive activity slows until finally it’s cut off completely from its source of molten rock.  This is very different compared to the continental volcanoes because they are made by the spreading apart of collision of tectonic plates that "float" on the mantle’s surface.  If one of the plates is forced under another, the friction melts the edges, causing violent explosions of a mix of melted oceanic crust and melted granitic continental crust.  These types of volcanoes can be developed in a few explosions into a steep-sided cone.  This is much different to the oceanic volcanoes where they are slowly built up with fluid lava flows of magma.
        The hot spot is now located under the island of Hawaii, also called the "Big Island" where its two active volcanoes are still being supplied with magma.  The island is made up of five volcanoes:  Kohala, the oldest and now extinct volcano, forms the northwestern corner of the Big Island.  It stopped erupting about sixty-thousand years ago and is now scarred with deeply eroded valleys formed from years of rain and wind.  Southeast of Kohala lies the highest island mountain in the world, Mauna Kea, now dormant, at 13,796 feet.  It has not erupted for about 3,000 years.  Southwest of Mauna Kea is the 8,271 foot high Hualalai volcano which may be on the verge of old age with its last eruption in 1800-1801.  The two youngest and still active "shield" volcanoes, which rose above the ocean surface less than a million years ago, are Mauna Loa and Kilauea.  They are called "shield" volcanoes because of their shape.  This is a result of the magma welling up in a huge chamber one to three miles below the summit and when pressure pushes the magma to the top, it erupts, first erupting in the summit cauldera and then moving through the rift zones.  Rift zones are areas of weakness caused by gravity’s pull on the mountain and the plate movement.  Eruptions through rift zones usually last days, weeks, or even months until the magma is somehow obstructed and can no longer flow through.  Mauna Loa is 13,667 feet high and Kilauea is 4,078 feet high. These two volcanoes’ lava flows come from the cauldera, down the rift zones and slopes of the volcanoes, and down towards the ocean.  This is why the Big Island is continually growing.
         Lo’ihi, a new island that hasn’t been born yet, is in the form of a submarine volcano which, in several thousand years will reach the ocean’s surface.  It lies against the undersea mountain of Kilauea.  At a depth of 12,000 feet, it still has another 3,000 feet before reaching the ocean’s surface.  Lo’ihi’s volcano has already developed a summit cauldera, rift zones, and shows evidence of recent eruptions.  This is another example of the slow, continuous process of the earth’s moving plates and the hot spot which continually creates volcanoes.

 The Hawaiian people and their culture are deeply connected to the nature that surrounds them, including the powerful volcanoes.  In the Hawaiian religion, gods and goddesses appear in everything and each have a specific relationship to nature.  They are worshiped through chants, dance (hula), and festivals.  The gods and goddesses have elaborate stories of love, betrayal, jealously, destruction, creation, and trickery.  One of the most famous goddesses, known for her fiery and explosive temper, is the volcano goddess, Pele.  Her hair is said to be the lava that flows down the volcano and there are also thin filaments of stretched out basaltic glass formed during times of strong winds and high fire-fountaining that are scientifically named "Pele’s Hair."  Her tears, also scientifically named Pele’s Tears, are the tear-shaped lapilli glass that is formed from molten basaltic lava drying in the air as a result of a fire fountain.  Her spirit lives in the Halemaumau crater on Kilauea.  Although she is a very jealous goddess whose fiery rages destroy, they also give life to new plants and create new land.  Pele is said to have approached the islands from the northwest and journeyed down, giving birth to each island.  Families who sacrifice the bones of their dead loved ones to Pele, become guardians of the rites to the volcano goddess.  They claim her to be their ‘aumakua or ancestral family god who guards and protects them.

 The spectacular volcanoes are one of the things that inspire the most beautiful art form in Hawaii, the hula.  Hula is the Hawaiian dance that goes back to ancient times in Hawaii.  There are two forms of Hula: Hula Kahiko (ancient dance) and Hula ‘Auana (modern dance.)  Hula expresses the peoples’ love for their land, the ocean, the animals, their gods and goddesses, and each other.  Pele plays an important role in many of the dances where her incredible stories are told through the powerful moves of the men and women dancing.  When performing a Pele Kahiko (Pele dances are usually performed in the Kahiko style because of her ancient roots), dancers wear a fiery red pa’u skirt and top with their long jet-black hair wildly flowing down their backs.  Before performing, women dancers braid their hair into thousands of small braids so that when taken out, the hair is larger and more wild.  Before a Pele Kahiko, the Kumu (teacher) and or the dancers chant about Pele and of the story they are going to tell.

 As you can see, the Hawaiian volcanoes are a spectacular part of Hawaii culturally, artistically, and scientifically.  Scientists and people from all over the world travel to Hawaii to study the volcanoes and experience its rich culture and beautiful ecosystem.


Beckwith, Martha.  Hawaiian Mythology.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1970.

Frierson, Pamela.  The Burning Island.  San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Knipe, Rita.  The Water of Life: A Jungian Journey Through Hawaiian Myth.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989.

Keali’i, Jon.  Volcanoes of Hawaii.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989

Sahlins, Marshall.  How "Natives" Think.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Hamilton, Rosanna.  "Hawaiian Volcanoes."  1995  Online.  Internet.  20 Oct. 2002.

Olson, Bob and Gayle.  "Hawaii Volcanoes."  1995  Online.  Internet.  20 Oct. 2002.

Tilling, Robert.  "Eruptions of Hawaiian Volcanoes."  1987.  Online.  Internet.  20 Oct. 2002.

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Phenomenon draft 3

We were walking down 35th street between a row of huge trees vibrant with the colors of autumn: red, orange, and gold.  Awed by this beauty that seemed to stem from a tree's desire to be beautiful, we walked in silence until my companion turned and asked me, "why do leaves change color in Autumn?"  I told her...

Autumn, the season between summer and winter, is a Latin word that came into common use in the 1600's.  The word is believed to be Etruscan in origin, and is commonly replaced with 'Fall' because the falling leaves, a name which also dates to the 1600's. (Ayto)
It is a phenomenon that increases in distinction the further from the equator you go.  Due to the earth's placement on its axis; higher latitudes receive the sun's light more directly in the summer, causing longer, warmer days.  The approach of autumn means the earth's rotation has changed sufficiently to bring an area to a different angle to the sun, and under more diffuse sunlight the days begin to cool and grow shorter. In addition, as the land becomes colder than the air, cool wet air coming from the ocean condenses and drops increased rain.
The plants that thrive in the summer respond to the coming of winter with a decrease in activity. Deciduous trees can sense the longer, colder nights and the increase in rainfall, and respond by changing leaf color, and then dropping their leaves altogether. (Lanner)
Trees drop their leaves in autumn to preserve energy: it requires energy to grow and maintain leaves, but during summer, when there is less water from rain and more potent sunlight, leaves are sources of energy, making the growth and maintenance  a balanced exchange.  As daylight wanes and the sun provides less warmth, it become less beneficial to expend energy in the growth and maintenance of leaves.  Furthermore, as rainfall increases, leaves become less necessary to gather energy from sunlight.  As the tree withdraws the chemical chlorophyll - which is green - from the leaves into the trunk, another chemical, Carotenoids -  which contains more red, yellow, and brown - predominates, and the leaves change color. (Lanner)  Eventually, the tree withdraws all production energy from the leaves, they drop altogether, and the tree waits, bare, for the end of winter.

We were walking down 35th street between a row of huge trees vibrant with the colors of autumn: red, orange, and gold. Awed by this beauty that seemed to stem from a tree's desire to be beautiful, we walked in silence until my companion turned and asked me, "why do leaves change color in Autumn?"  I told her...

For the artist, autumn is both a humbling example of natural beauty and a symbol of transition.  All the other seasons stand alone as metaphors: winter for death and oblivion, spring for fertility and renewal, and summer for fullness and light. These seasons have an inner fullness, but autumn's meaning is as a bridge. (Vries)
That nature should engage in such a display of color and beauty before the starkness of winter is the reason fall is not a solemn season, but a time of celebration.  It is a last hurrah for nature before her winter quiet.  Though there is beauty in snow, and beauty in ice, it has none of the warmth of the green of summer or the riot of fall.  How would you know images from art were meant to be autumn, if not for the trees in color?
For those who seek out nature for artistic inspiration, trees in autumn are an impressive display of a variety and beauty that lay hidden within until the coming of the appropriate time.  This makes fall also a metaphor for hidden beauty and value, a vein of gold beneath the ground.
Autumn's metaphor as transition stems from its position in the year.  Spring means both birth and rebirth, but it is winter, not autumn that stands for death, and summer that stands for the fullness of life.  Late summer/ early autumn is often the harvest, and symbolizes plenty - represented by the cornucopia -  but that plenty is tempered by the need to save for the coming cold. (Vries)  So autumn serves as the transition from feast to famine, and from youth to age and death.  In some views this lends a certain nobility, and tragedy, to the wondrous changes in the colors of fall.

We were walking down 35th street between a row of huge trees vibrant with the colors of autumn: red, orange, and gold.  Awed by this beauty that seemed to stem from a tree's desire to be beautiful, we walked in silence until my companion turned and asked me, "why do leaves change color in Autumn?"  I told her...

Autumn's greatest significance is as the harvest time.  It is the time when all the people of a community join together to help each other, to ensure the harvest gets done.  And when the food is harvested, if it has been a good year, autumn is a time of feasts and celebrations of thanksgiving for another winter with enough to eat, and for the help of one's neighbors.  This fostering of community has become ritualized in autumn celebrations all over the world, from China to the Slavic countries of Eastern Europe.
Autumn is also seen as the dying - but not the death - of the year, which correlates symbolically to the twilight, not death, of a human life.  Therefore, autumn is a time to honor elders, as they are in the autumn of life, and not yet its winter.
The changing colors of the leaves are nature's contribution to these celebrations.  It is a time of such natural beauty that nature herself seems to be bestowing blessings on these communities and peoples.  The dropping of the leaves can symbolize a community's need to return to the interior life.  Once the celebrations are over, weather demands that people move inside, and there is an inward movement of the soul that reflects the outer world.  If summer is a time for outward, or extroverted, activity, the coming of winter symbolized by the bare tree is an outward sign that the time for inward, or introverted, activity has come.  It is an act of casting off the colors of celebration and nursing an inner life until nature signals a return to the world.


Lanner, Ronald M. Autumn Leaves: A Guide to the Fall Colors of the Northwoods.  Creative Publishing Int.'l, 1990.

Vries, Ad de. Dictionary of Symbols and Imagery.  Amsterdam, North-Holland Publishing Co., 1984.

Ayto, John. Dictionary of Word Origins.  New York, Arcade Publishing, 1990.

Cotterell, Arthur. A Dictionary of World Mythology. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979.

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Voyages of Discovery and Understanding
Perspectives Paper
Mushrooms in Art, Culture, and Science

Mushrooms have always been somewhat of a mystery.  Art tends to embrace the mysterious quality of mushrooms, often using them as symbols of wonder and surreality.  Cultures have embraced them as gourmet eating or medicinal wonders, feared them as bearers of sickness and death, or they have embraced or feared them for their hallucinogenic properties.  Science has attempted to uncloud some of the mystery of the mushroom, but in comparison to most other biological sciences, mycology (the study of fungi) is far behind and even from the scientific perspective there is much more that is unknown than is known about mushrooms and fungi in general.
 Perhaps the most famous artistic image of a mushroom in modern western culture is that of the "toadstool" in Lewis Caroll's book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, on which the caterpillar sat who gave Alice some advice and from whom came the famous line "".  There are hundreds of different versions of this illustration but to the left is the original by John Tenniel.  Mushrooms in art are portrayed in many different ways that range from the ordinary to weird to fantastic to psychedelic (and in many other ways of course) as shown below in that order from left to right.  Even in the most "ordinary" artwork, though, such
as the still life on the left, mushrooms seem to bring some small sense of mystery, danger, or strangeness.  Fungi are very unique and strange organisms and they inspire some very unique and sometimes strange art or at least bring a sense of this to any art they are included in.
Throughout human history fungi have played an important role in many cultures.  Certainly many mushrooms have been eaten and considered delicacies by many civilizations.  Some of the mushrooms that fall into this category include morels, porcinis, matsutakes, truffles, and many more.  Today matsutakes sell for as much as $200 a pound in Japan and black truffles are very expensive as well.  There are also many mushrooms that are used for dying fabric and they make very beautiful colors.
Mushrooms have also been feared by many cultures though, because of deadly poisonous varieties and their mysterious nature.  Some of the reasons mushrooms seem so mysterious are that they sometimes appear suddenly overnight, some look very strange (some are even luminescent), and some are hallucinogenic.  Throughout history there have been many accounts of purposeful and accidental consumption of hallucinogenic fungi.  In an article in the journal Science (vol. 192 - April 2, 1976), Linnda Caporael makes a circumstantial but strong case that the incidents around what we now know as the Salem witch trials of the late 17th century were caused by the effects of ergot, a fungus that attacks rye grain.  Ergot is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea.  LSD is a derivative of ergot and the effects of ergot poisoning are similar to the effects of LSD including hallucinations.  Consumption of ergot-contaminated food "can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms..., delusions..., crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms."5
 Many cultures have used hallucinogenic mushrooms for spiritual purposes including the Native American, and the Aztec and Mayan civilizations.  These Mayan "mushroom stones" (pictured below) are dated between 1000 and 300 B.C..  The meaning of these stones is unknown but there are many myths about mushrooms including this Mayan myth about their origin: "...Quetzalcoatl, the fair-haired man-god, with eyes the colour of jade, ran through Mexico, the sacred mushrooms, teonanacatl, are supposed to have sprung from the blood of his cuts."4  There is much evidence of mushroom use in the Mixtec kingdom as well.  On the left is a part of a Mixtec illustration in which "Nine deities receive instructions from Quetzalcoatl on the origin and use of sacred mushrooms."4  There are also many accounts of the Aztec civilization using hallucinogenic mushrooms in their ceremonies.  "During the coronation feast of Moctezuma in 1502, teonanactl (the divine mushroom) was used to celebrate the event...War captives were slaughtered...Their flesh was eaten...Raw mushrooms were given to the guests...causing them to go out of their minds...these men were so inebriated that many took their own lives...They had visions and revelations about the future."4  These are just a few accounts of the many important, strange, and varied roles mushrooms have played in civilizations throughout history.
Scientists have described about 100,000 fungi, yet it is estimated that these represent less than one tenth of the Earth's mycota (fungi).1  From these 100,000 there are over ten thousand known species of mushrooms.  A mushroom, however, is not really an organism.  A mushroom is actually more analogous to a fruit such as an apple hanging on a tree than to the tree itself.  The organism that creates these fruits consists of a system of hyphae (long tubular structures that form the architecture of almost all fungi) that grow mostly in the soil, humus, and in dead or living trees.  Many also connect to roots of plants.  These connections are called mycorrhizae and they facilitate a symbiotic relationship between the fungus and the plant in which the fungus receives synthesized sugars (food) from the plant and the plant benefits from improved water and nutrient uptake through the fungal structure. More than 90% of all modern plant species typically form mycorrhizal relationships.1
 Fungi have an incredibly complex and strange array of reproductive behaviors that I won't go into here except to say that their main avenue of sexual reproduction is the formation of mushrooms.  What triggers a fungal colony to create these strange and wonderful fruits is not entirely understood and varies from species to species.  They do not always have a regular cycle of fruiting every year like a fruiting plant.  The sudden appearance of fully grown mushrooms overnight after a rain can be explained by the fact that a lot of mushrooms are fully developed under ground in a sort of "egg" shape and only require enough moisture to expand to their full size.  They, therefore, aren't technically growing overnight.  All the cells already exist.  They are just filling with water and expanding.
 Fungi and their fruits (mushrooms) are certainly very strange and wonderful beings.  I am sure they will continue to play important cultural and environmental roles in the future as well as continuing to make fascinating subjects for art and science.  They have certainly fascinated me tremendously as well as providing me with many delicious meals.

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The 20th century was a time of many tumultuous changes. There may have been more turbulent or horrible eras in human history, but perhaps none with so many drastic changes in so little time. Some massive changes, like the causes and effects of WWI and II, the detonation of the atom bomb, and the first attempt at a world government (United Nations), were obvious then and now. Others, like the microchip revolution and the inventions of the radio and telephone, were mocked at first but quickly became accepted as amazing changes. But I'd like to talk about a quiet revolution, a silent player behind the scenes. In some ways, just as powerful as an atomic blast. But instead of quickly blowing people up, it slowly and silently blew peoples minds. I'm talking about the introduction and spread of Eastern Thought in 20th century America, and its effects thereupon.

First of all, when I refer to Eastern Thought, I should clarify that I am referring to the artificially lumped together philosophy and culture of Asia, particularly India, China and Japan. From these exotic locales we have absorbed a reflection of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Feng Shui, the Book of Changes, Confuscism, Taoism, The Art Of War, to name but a few belief systems and interpretive perspectives imported from the East. These very words were on but a small handful of Americans' lips before the 20th century, and now you can't run away from them. How did this all happen?

In the 19th century, trade between the West and East became more extensive. European nations often forced Asian nations to trade with them, as Asia had little to gain from Europe at that time and certainly were of the belief that the Europeans were barbarians that were to be undermined and duped whenever possible. This belief mostly stemmed from Asia's relative isolation from the West for thousands of years. Other than middle eastern silk and spice caravan routes, which traded with Arab and African nations for many years, the Asian nations developed independently of outside influence of thought. So when Europeans encountered the Chinese, for example, they were dealing with people who had little in common with them. The Europeans, being even more xenophobic than the Chinese, particularly in regard to the disrespect shown to any non-Christian, naturally viewed  the Chinese as a lot of dumb barbarians with stupid and evil beliefs, with a great deal of potential capital that could be taken from them. This resulted in an escalation of trade wars, which culminated in the Britain vs. China Opium Wars, fought over control of the opium trade and a savage attempt to enslave the Chinese into Opium addiction while at the same time attempting to force them to buy tobacco. Obviously, not too many Englishmen were concerned with these strange new religious beliefs of the Chinese when there's a few pounds to be made.  The only Europeans who really paid attention to eastern religions since Marco Polo were Christian priests, who certainly did not look upon them in a favorable light, nor did they grasp their contents.

But some of the writings of the priests endured; although having missed the point of much of Eastern thought, the contents were not much appealing to anyone. Buddhism was portrayed as hopelessly pessimistic and depressing, and Taoist and Shinto beliefs were outright silly in the hands of their incompetent translators. It wasn't until a few Zen priests, both from Japan as well as a few within the Japanese-American communities, came into contact with a few Anglo-Americans who would then spread the word to others.  One of these was Alan Watts.

Alan Watts was a former Episcopalian priest in England, which he fled for California. Having shed his Christianity, Watts came in contact with Japanese Zen monk D.T. Suzuki in California. This changed his whole perspective, and immediately (due to his charismatic nature) began discussing with people the virtues of this exotic mode of thought. Along with a few other key people, notably Robert Thurman, the first American inducted into the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism and friend to the Dalai Lama, Watts spread Zen teachings to young and old. Part of the attraction of people to Zen was it's drastic difference to Western thought, who many were starting to suspect as worthless if the atom bomb is its culmination.

With its combination of Jazz culture, including the introduction of marijuana to the white community, and bohemian culture, the Beatniks embraced Zen as a far more laid back and far out ideology than the square fundamental Christian culture it was escaping. Zen was instrumental in bringing people together that otherwise would have nothing to do with each other. Picture any other reason that there would end up being Beatnik writers Allen Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac in the same room as a Japanese monk and a Lost Generation poet. Zen was a driving force behind the counterculture of the late 1950's to early '60s. This culture eventually became the hippies and civil rights activists, including Dr. Luther King Jr., who was enamored of the ideas and techniques of Indian civil disobedience master Mahatma Gandhi.

Eastern thought altered the attitudes of many musicians, artists and writers as well. Jazz music was a wonderful bedfellow of the this new approach to life. Jazz musicians such as John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock were now Buddhists and incorporated these new ideas into there music. Writers like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and later Ram Dass wrote books that were profoundly influenced by eastern exposure. Artists ranging back to the Dadaists of the early 20th century were influenced by Japanese art.

Eastern thought had a profound influence on science. In psychology, suddenly Freudian concepts of the self were no longer acceptable to many psychoanalysts. New ideas, many taken from the east, began to describe the self as a construction of the ego, as well as the limitations of perception. Within physics, which in the 20th century took some of its most bizarre twists yet, was influenced by eastern thought as early as the Manhattan Project. J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the key scientists working on the detonation of the first atomic blast, was fluent in ancient Sanskrit. When he witnessed the first mushroom cloud, he was heard by his collaborators muttering over and over a line from the Hindu Rig-Veda, "I am become death, the shatterer of worlds." He suddenly understood what it meant to him, and immediately went about attempting to repair the damage he had unleashed upon the world. Later, a book detailing the similarities between quantum physics and ancient modes of eastern thought appeared in 1975. Called "The Tao of Physics" by Fritjof Capra, the book touched off a revolution in both eastern seekers and physicists struggling to understand the seeming incongruities of the world they were discovering. To this day it is a springboard for many the heated debate.

Apparently the exoticism of Eastern thought is still alive and well. It is the major selling springboard for thousands of companies who market eastern wisdom to relieve the masses of their cash. Eastern thought is one of the biggest pulls of the New Age movement, and still draws in ordinary people of all walks of life. From easy-to-read manuals on Buddhism, to Tai Chi classes at the YMCA, to Asian art collecting; this Asian fetishism ranges from the truly liberating to the false masters and lecturers meditating all the way to the bank.

As you can see, while it may have been a quiet revolution, Eastern thought has had a vast range of influence over America in the last hundred years. It has been patient as a Buddhist monk in its spread, like the wind or a whisper, but nevertheless a force that has had a profound impact on history.



1. Music: John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Mahavishnu Orchestra.

2. Canoeing Up Cabaga Creek: Buddhist Poems 1955-1986
    By Philip Whalen, Miriam Sagan, Robert Winson, Allen Ginsberg
    Parallax Press, 1996

3. Waiting For The Man: The Story Of Drugs And Popular Music
     By Harry Shapiro
     Helter Skelter Press, Revised 1999


1. The Opium Wars: The Addiction Of One Empire And The Corruption Of Another
    By Frank Sanello and William Travis Hanes
    Sourcebook Trade, 2002

2. Zen & The Beat Way
    By Alan Watts
    Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1997

3. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, And The I-Ching
    By Terence And Dennis McKenna
    Harper San Francisco 1994


1. The Tao Of Physics
    By Fritjof Capra
    Shambala Publications, 1975 (Revised 2000)

2. Brotherhood Of The Bomb: The Tangled Lives And Loyalties Of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence,
    And Edward Teller
    By Greg Herken
    Henry Holt And Co., 2002

3. Zen Physics: The Science Of Death, The Logic Of Reincarnation
    By David J. Darling
    Harper Collins, 1999

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Mayan Culture Set in Stone


The task of stone carving requires skill, time, and patience.  Stone carving can be traced back to ancient times, long forgotten.  The Willendorf Venus sculpture of Europe (a small, stone figurine of a rather plump woman) dates to about 30,000 years old (Cremo/Thompson).  Since that time, mankind has well perfected the art of sculpting stone.  From the Egyptian hieroglyphs carved in highly polished black granite about 1800 B.C. (Hancock) to the Byzantine Era Roman sculptures carved in marble starting around 337 A.D (Dunn) to the incredible complexity of sculpture within the 562 A.D. cathedral in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia (Mainstone), humans have strived to capture the spirit of living and dying in stone renderings.  When one thinks of ancient stone carving, they cannot exclude people such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Britains, South and Central Amerindians, and the South Pacific Easter Islanders.  Of course these sites are most famous to laymen, but students of man’s antiquities know better ? that all races of people have carved stone for architectural, historical, and artistic purposes for many, many years.

Part 1: The science behind ancient stone sculpting

 One such stone-carving people of the past are the Classic Era Mayans who flourished in Belize, Guatemala, and the Yucatan Peninsula areas of Mexico from about A.D. 300-900 (  Mayans are known for their architecture and city planning, their mathematics and calendar, and their hieroglyphic writing system (Lexico LLC).  They sculpted incredible renderings out of sandstone, limestone, jade, quartz, and terra cotta clay.  Most commonly used was limestone, which according to Friedrich Mohs is a rather soft stone.  In 1812, Mohs developed a scale of hardness for minerals in which he placed Talc at 1 and Diamond, the hardest substance, at 10.  According to his scale, limestone (calcite) is a 3.  Limestone was plentiful in most of the Mayan settlements.  There were usually quarries right outside the city where they would get the blocks for construction (Benson).  The process was believed to be as follows: They would chisel away the stone around the block that they wanted and then cut beneath it, freeing it from the bed.  The stones pulled from the quarry would be refined by chipping and flaking them down to a flat surface (Benson).  The Mayan people also used mortar on their construction projects.  They made the mortar by burning limestone in a very technical process.  They layered the limestone with wood and put a cylinder or pipe up the middle of the stack.  Next they burned the pile to make the mortar (Benson).  To the Mayans the outside appearance of their buildings was much more important than the inside.  The temples were decorated with roof combs, which sat at the top outermost edge along the front side of the temple (Stierlin).  Mortar was used to finish the outside of buildings, coat floors, and make sculptures.  Mortar also helped keep everything in place (Benson).  Unfortunately, in more humid areas the stucco deteriorated quickly due to the dampness.

The Mayans were not just sculpting functional objects.  They were masterful artisans and have preserved in stone what they looked like, images from their history, their beliefs, and their language.  It would have been very easy for the ancients to carve limestone if they were in possession of iron, but the iron age was still far in the future.  Iron has a rating of 5 on the Mohs scale, making it ideal for working limestone.  One thing they did have was obsidian: about 6 on the Mohs scale.  Obsidian tools could be formed into myriad shapes by chipping away at it.  Also notable is that obsidian can hold an edge thinner than a modern razor blade.  To work stone they used tools made of flint, obsidian, granite, limestone, and quartzite (Stierlin).  These were the chisels used to work the stone that the Mayans quarried for building and decorative purposes.  For polishing stone, they used ever-finer grains of sand, mixed with water and rubbed over the surface to give their sculptures a smooth reflective quality (Carroll).  If they were sculpting quartz or jade, they most likely used river sands mixed with water, beginning with coarse grains and working down to a powder-like sand, to finish off the final smooth polish as in the case of the crystal skulls found in Labaantun and other ancient sites (Morton/Thomas).

 It should be mentioned, from personal experience, that the time it takes to execute a stone sculpture from beginning to end is quite lengthy.  It can take several days of straight carving with a motorized power tool to produce an intricate carving no larger than a closed fist in a medium such as limestone.

Part 2:  The art forms and style of ancient Mayan sculpture

The Mayans were a people that created a style all their own.  Their hieroglyphs, lines and curves, and architectural qualities are distinct from that of other Central American ancient civilizations.  Their glyphs depicting people, celestial bodies, and animals were stylized rather than anatomically correct as was the case with Classical Romans.   Pictographs (pictoglyphs, pictograms, etc.) are a very basic system of writing and almost universally the first type developed by a culture.  The Mayan system probably began in this way, but eventually progressed into a syllabic system.  This type of system made each vowel and consonant combination a separate and specific symbol.  Eventually, their system combined syllables into complex pictographs known as hieroglyphics.  Once this level of sophistication is attained, any language can be written using the same symbols as long as the types of sounds match the Mayan sounds.  This is common for most languages with only a few exceptions (Braman).

Mayan scribes were employed by the kingdom to capture Mayan history and beliefs.  A scribe is someone who knows how to write.  This was quite an accomplishment because Mayan symbols are hard to tell apart from one another.  To the untrained eye they appear to be complex bubble letters.

These symbols are either carved into stone, or written on Mayan books called "Codices". These were vividly colored and lengthy histories, stories, legends, and astronomical data compiled through the ages.  With such a wealth of knowledge one can easily see the advanced civilization with which we are dealing.  Unfortunately, much of this knowledge has not survived.  Spanish priests and missionaries were responsible for both its preservation and its destruction (McNelly).

Mayan architecture, while strong, precise, and functional, was not without flare and embellishment.  One of their ball courts (at Chichen Itza) was even constructed with acoustic ingenuity.  A whisper from one end can be heard clearly at the other end 500 feet away and through the length and breath of the court. The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of day/night (Van Kirk).   The Mayan city of Uxmal achieved its greatest glory between 800 and 1000 AD.  Exquisite carving, mosaics, and other decorations typify many of the structures in Uxmal, which represent some of the finest of achievements of what is known as the Puuc architectural style (Mayaland Tours & Resorts).

A recent excavation in the Mayan city of Tonina has uncovered an exquisite frieze in pristine condition.

MEXICO CITY - A stone frieze uncovered at a 1,500-year-old Mayan temple complex is evidence that a book of Mayan history and cosmology written after the Spanish conquest may indeed be authentic, archeologists say.
   The bas-relief stone carving was found near the Acropolis, a 226-foot main pyramid at Tonina, in the southern state of Chiapas. The 15-acre temple complex is believed to have been the last capital of the Mayan empire.
   The carving, about a square-yard in size, depicts four Mayan 'governors' representing the lords of the underworld just as they are described in the Popol Vuh, a book that long was believed to describe the Mayan version of their history.
   Archeologist Juan Yadeun, director of excavations in Tonina, unearthed the frieze in September and announced his findings in a statement Saturday.
   "In the Popol Vuh and other ancient texts there are descriptions of four governors representing the power structure and iconography of power among the Classic Maya," Yadeun said.   The frieze - the first of its kind to be found - "represents a whole conception of the universe," he said (Stevenson).
Named by indigenous people in Tzeltal, Toniná means the House of Stone. Metaphorically, the name refers to the home of celestial lights and deities of time: Toniná was a site of calendars and rituals.
Iconography of this site is representative of two eras, which are clearly identified by references to particular deities: the first and oldest period, from 300 to 700 AD, was responsible for portrayals of birds belonging to the underworld and was governed by deceased and flayed suns. Celestial lights and felines, as well as the morning and evening stars mark the second epoch, from 700 to 900 AD (MayaSites).
According to a 1978 essay by Mayan researcher, Randy Johnson, stelae were both stylized and technical and the principal written chronicles of this lost civilization, as well as the key to their highly advanced cylindrical system:

The production of such monolithic stone monuments, called stelae (singular stela, or stele), with their dated texts of hieroglyphs, defines the beginnings -- and the end -- of the Classic Period of Maya Civilization, from about 300 to 900 AD. This golden age was also characterized by polychrome pottery and use of the corbelled, or 'false' arch in architecture. The stelae remain the principal written chronicles of this lost civilization, as well as the key to their highly advanced cylindrical system.
Other Mayan centers erected stelae much earlier and in greater profusion, but the stelae at Quiriguá are unsurpassed in their style and technique. Like most Mayan monuments, they were erected to commemorate the passage of time, and significant historic events. During its brief period of erecting stelae, from the early 8th century until 810 AD, Quiriguá was one of only two cities to regularly erect monuments marking the end of five-year periods -- the quarter-katun, or hotun.
These huge stone monolithic sculptures, weighing up to 65 tons, were artfully carved without the benefit of metal tools. Stone chisels, driven by other stones or wooden mallets, were the only tools available; and yet the Mayan sculptors achieved not only a high level of artistry, but also a remarkable degree of naturalism and refined detail. The sandstone used at Quiriguá is considerably harder than the limestone found at most other Mayan sites, and held the artist to relatively more simple designs than the rococo detail achieved, for example, in the more manageable andesite at Copán. Quiriguá also has numerous excellent examples of a fairly rare form of 'longhand' Mayan glyphs which use full animal and human figures, instead of smaller symbols or variations on abbreviated 'head-type' glyphs to represent the same meanings.  There are only three other known examples of the full-figured glyphs in the entire Mayan world.

Another structure that warrants mention for its artistic qualities is the pyramid of Kukulkan at Cichen Itza.   The pyramid was oriented toward the trajectory of the setting equinoctial sun in just such a way that a pattern of light and shadow would be cast upon the western side of the northern stairway, thus creating the shadow image of a great undulating serpent with seven coils.  The image of the serpent lasts for about 20 minutes and reaches from the tail at the top of the balustrade down to the ground, where a giant sculpted serpent head with gaping jaws completes the image (Hancock).

Part 3: Cultural significance of Mayan sculpture

Classic Mayan culture reached its height about A.D. 800 and declined soon after, but Mayans inhabited their old empire -- what is now Guatemala, the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas -- through the Spanish conquest and still do so today (Stevenson).

It all began when the gods inscribed their great signs on the stelae of time. It was on the day Thirteen Ajaw.   ~ A Mayan Life by Gaspar Pedro Gonzalez.
According to researcher Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth, one of the most important cultural aspects of Mayan society was its connection with the seasons and with the passage of time.  The Mayan calendar was the center of Mayan life and was probably their greatest achievement. The Mayan calendar's ancestral knowledge guided the Mayans’ existence from the moment of their birth until their death and beyond; little escaped its influence.  Since the beginning of human civilization there has been a very close link between astronomy and the development of the calendar. The importance of this connection is evident considering the need to determine the times for the most basic functions of early societies such as agriculture and the celebration of religious events.
The most ancient calendars were probably based on lunar observation since the Moon's phases take place in an easily observed interval (Hellmuth).
Another important aspect of Mayan life was their multitude of gods, spirits, mythical heroes, and revered characters that formed the backbone of the ancient Mayan belief system.
Events were important enough to capture in stone, such as the appearance of Quetzalcoatl, (Feathered Serpent) the great civilizer.  In the Mayan area along the Pacific Coast of  Mexico, the Pipil culture at Santa Lucía Cotzomalhuapa arose in the late Early Classic period with strong interest in death & ball games.   Many Mayan carvings refer to these two things with stylized glyphs and architectural embellishments.
Iconography is employed in an attempt to decipher these stone carvings and codices and answer many questions about Mayan culture.  Iconography is the study of design motifs, which are usually abbreviated abstracted references to more complex entities, states of being, or aspects of the cosmos. Since flowers, fish, reptiles, deer, felines, monkeys, and other creatures were part of the cast of characters in Maya myths, both whole creatures, composites (mixtures such as the feathered-serpent), and partial representations occur (Morton/Thomas).
Through a closer study of the sculpture, glyphs, and architectural embellishments of this culture we can easily see a people rich in resources, art, spirit, technology, and skill.  Due to the durable stone medium being employed in building and sculpting, we can still know the story of this culture and what life was like more than 1,100 years ago.  We can see by the style added to their lettering, architecture, and sculpture that these were an artistic and creative group of scribes and priests who represented the interests of the Mayans in this rather permanent form.  We can also know that the ancient Mayans venerated great people, events, and ideas in the same way we do today in sculptures such as Mount Rushmore, The Lincoln Memorial, and the Viet Nam Memorial.  As time continues we will only learn more about this high culture.  Most scientists and researchers are convinced that we have found only a fraction of the artifacts and structures that hide in the jungles and forests of Mexico.  Time will tell the story.

And what will earth’s future inhabitants say about us if all that remained one day were those things which we valued enough to set in stone?


- Hancock, Graham Heaven’s Mirror.  New York: Random House 1998
- Dunn, Jimmy Alexandria: The Byzantine Period.  InterCity Oz Inc. Online Nov., 2002.  <>
- Mainstone, Rowland J. Hagia Sophia; Architecture and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church.  Hungary: Thames and Hudson 1997

Part 1
- Section: Maya Prehistory. Alacritude, LCC.  Online Nov. 2002.  <>
- Mayans.  Lexico LCC.  Online Nov. 2002.  <>
- Benson, Elizabeth P.  The Maya World.  New York:  Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1967.
- Stierlin, Henri  Living Architecture:  Mayan.  New York:  Grosset & Dunlap, 1964.
- Carroll, Mark  Stone Carving Tutorial.  The Sculpture Studio.  Online Nov. 2002.  <>
- Morton, Chris and Thomas, Ceri Louise The Myster of the Crystal Skulls.  London: Harper Collins Publishers 1998

Part 2
- Braman, Mike Mayan Writing.  Olathe East High School, Kansas History Home Page.  Online Nov. 2002  < >
- McNelly, N.A.F. Mayan Hieroglyphic Syllabary and Glyphs.  Online Nov. 2002 <
- Van Kirk, Wayne Mayan Ruins and Unexplained Acoustics.  Wayne Van Kirk.  Online Nov. 2002 <>
- Mayaland Tours and Resorts  Mayan Sites.  Mayaland Tours and Resorts.  Online Nov. 2002  <>
- Stevenson, Mark "Associated Press"  Athens, GA: Banner-Herald Nov. 17, 1997  <>
- Randy Johnson Quiriguá: A Maya Legacy in Stone.  Randy Johnson.  Online Nov. 2002  <>
- Hancock, Graham Heaven’s Mirror.  New York: Random House 1998

Part 3
- Stevenson, Mark "Associated Press"  Athens, GA: Banner-Herald Nov. 17, 1997  <>
- Gonzalez, Gaspar Pedro A Mayan Life.  Mexico: Yax:Te' Press 1995
- Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth Iconography.  Maya Art & Books.  Online Nov. 2002  <>
- Morton, Chris and Thomas, Ceri Louise The Myster of the Crystal Skulls.  London: Harper Collins Publishers 1998

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Dragons are simply…well, cool beyond words can say.  They have enraptured  mankind’s imagination for millennia.  It can be said that they have an incredible variety  of depictions while still being dragons.  Like all great objects which catch our fancy, they  can, and of necessity, do, suffer reinvention after reinvention.

Today, especially in children’s books, we have made them look cute, friendly, and  explicitly lovable to largely pander to that market.  They may have become yet another  imaginary friend with which to milk sales, but it just display’s the dragon genre’s  versatility.  Dragons can endure many indignities—even commercialization and  sissification.

If you want to see the stereotypical eastern interpretation of the dragon, tune in to  DragonballZ sometime.  Take a good look.  This kind of dragon’s lean, green, and  serpentine.  It even comes complete with whiskers, which if this aspect were not so  steeped in tradition, people would complain that it makes the said dragon look  unnecessarily sinister.

As we in the West love to bash our heritage so much, we find time to grouse  about how here dragons have long been portrayed as nasty, vicious brutes working on the  side of evil.  My response to this is stop being so sensitive.  Everybody needs villains,  and dragons look the part.  They happen to be lizards.  Lizards are carnivores.  In case  you have not been paying attention to contemporary culture, carnivores (cats, foxes, etc.)  are typically portrayed as the enemy, same as decades previous, to markedly few protests.   This observation, however, has seldom been appreciated as it likely ought.

Cultures create villains, and it is easy to portray them as such in their giant,  serpentine-like form.  They are imaginary creatures, unlike all those poor Russkies  Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have been mowing down  for the last couple decades.  Critics should rest in the assurance that the species being  slain was never real.


Or were they?  Big lizards; dragons.  Hmm…connection?  Think about it.  I have  others have.  It makes sense, does it not?  Could the tradition of dragons simply stem  from dinosaurs?  Well, I just so happen  to have read up a fair amount on that very  possibility.  After all, you know what they say if the glove happens to fit.  It is simply a  very logical question to ask.

Everyone and his brother knows that dragons spout flame, but the question is,  could a lizard do that?  Well, scientists looking at the bones of some dino species have  noticed certain unaccounted skull cavities, which has sparked speculation that they were  there for certain gases which combined to form a flume of fire.  Beyond that, there is one  kind of lizard, I believe an iguana specifically, which scientists have noted had all the  equipment to throw flames if things were hooked up just a tad bit different.  It kinda  makes you wonder.

 Also, folks have found unfossilized dinosaur bones, which mean that they have to  have lived pretty recent.  They even found hemoglobin in the bones, no less.  Topping  even that, it seems an expedition to  Alaska even found some "fresh" frozen bones  complete with sinew.  All of this would go a long, long way to offer a reason for all these  legends over "really big lizards," don’t ya think?  Well, certainly not to your surprise, I  happen to think so.  It just makes too much sense for me to think otherwise, if the truth  were told.


It would certainly explain Australian Aboriginal tales of large-sized bipedal  lizards wandering around ages ago.  It sure is a sight I’d pass on to my kids, and I happen  to have a fairly high confidence in an aborigine’s ability to determine between a bipedal  kangaroo and a bipedal lizard with really sharp teeth.  I think it is really patronizing how  we belittle them.

In I do believe within the twelfth century AD the Chinese emperor had an official  post of dragon keeper.  At any rate, it would be very, very interesting to see what  "dragons" resided in those royal pens?  Crocs or gators?  Possibly, but there are specific  Chinese words for those kinds of big lizards.

Dragons may, alternatively, have simply have been conjured up from uncovered  dinosaur skeletons in the Middle East, though.  They have a lot of them there, so it is  fairly possible that some of them gave rise to the concept of dragons.  Regardless of just  how they got here, though, dragons have certainly have had a cultural impact wherever  they have gone.

In the great epic poem Beowulf, a dragon slaying is the final victory heroism  Beowulf, the hero, accomplishes.  As I said earlier, western tradition holds dragons to be,  well, villains to be conquered.  The poem of Beowulf has had a huge role in the forging  of this tradition.  Tales like that of Saint George and his dragon followed, but Beowulf is  older, and hence receives the honor and attention of being a first, which really is pretty  appropriate.

In the east, they lionized the dragon a bit more in their tales, to say the least,  making the dragon even into a king.  At one point in the tale of the Monkey King, the  Monkey King confers with the Dragon King.  No doubt there are other tales regarding  dragons in that part of the world, but I have to tell you, I am no expert on oriental fairy  tales, so I cannot wax further on this tack.



Demi, Demi’s Dragons and Fantastic Creatures, New York: H.Holt, c1993

Rose, Carol, Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and   Myth, New York: Norton, 2001, c2000

Zhang, Song Nan, A Time of Golden Dragons, Toronto, Ontario: Tundra Books, c2000


Davis, Buddy, The Great Alaska Dinosaur Adventure, Master Books, August 1998

Barrett, Norman S., Dragons and Lizards, London; New York: F Watts, c1991

Currie, Philip J., and Koppelhus, Eva B., 101 Questions about Dinosaurs, Dover        Publications, 1996


Fu, Shelley, Ho Yi the Archer and Other Classic Chinese Tales, Shoe String Press, 2001

Beowulf: A Verse Translation, New York, NY: Icon Editions, c1991

Gilroy, Rex, Mysterious Australia, Nexus Publishing, Queensland, 1995

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Voyages of Discovery and Understanding

The Evergreen State College