Did a Thousand-Year-Old Mayan Priest Living in a Cave Save an American Archaeologist?

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In a plot sounding like something from a fantasy novel, a 1931 newspaper article details the story of an archaeological expedition in the Yucatan that led to a surprising encounter with an ancient Mayan priest in the dark recesses of Loltun Cave.

This strange story was originally published on January 3, 1931 by the Modesto News-Herald. The account includes original photographs of the expedition and extended selections from a renowned archaeologist’s hand-written notes.

Robert Stacy-Judd was a California-based architect and archeologist on a six-mile trek through the Yucatan with a party of explorers. They were on their way to a massive system of caverns known as the Cave of Loltun – which at the time was largely unexplored, but today is known as the largest cave system in Mexico.

Stacy-Judd recorded the event in his journal:

“We stored our equipment upon a safe ledge, lighted our torches and descended into a blackness that was almost tangible. Very soon, we discovered that the ceiling of the best-known passage – one described in detail by previous explorers — had fallen in and that we must seek a new shall for descending to a lower level.”

“We crawled through a long tunnel on our hands and knees, sometimes lying flat and squirming through the narrow passage, and finally emerged into another large cavern that resembled the nave of a large cathedral.”

The explorers were captivated by their discovery, and began taking pictures and detailed notes of their surroundings. They filled their canteens from the underground river and continued trekking deeper into the darkness.

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Before long, they were running low on fuel for their torches and decided they would have to head back. That’s when the sickening reality of their predicament dawned on them: They did not recognize their surroundings and could not find a way back to the surface.

Stacy-Judd’s account continues:

“I shouted to my nearest guide to follow me – and started forward. My amazement increased. For there arose from the sold rocks, apparently – a human head. Just a head – and it appeared to be saved. Then, inch by inch, the body emerged into view. I was speechless with wonder when finally there stood before me in the arc of my flashlight, a very old man.”

“But his dark, wrinkled face showed absolutely no expression of surprise at my presence. He stood still, with a peculiar tilt to his figure as I approached him, an uncanny light gleamed from his deep-sunken eyes, a half smile twisted his lips. He had a scraggly gray mustache, but was beardless, by which feature I knew him to a full-blood Maya.”

“What I had first supposed was a shaved head, proved to be a thin half-gourd that he wrote as an improvised skullcap, from beneath the edges of which flared a thatch of course, iron-gray hair. Heavy white eyebrows stood out beneath the gourd. He wore a clean, white shapeless garment that was secured about his spare figure by a twisted vine, with the back of it gathered up loosely between his legs and fastened into the belt of vines.”

“His bare, shrunken legs had a series of heavy wrinkles beneath the bony knees, and the claw-like hands, gnarled and heavily veined, hung loosely at his sides. he wore sandals with thongs laced criss-cross around his legs, exactly as pictured by the ancient Mayas on the bas reliefs on the walls of ruined buildings.”

The story continues with the old hermit telling Stacy-Judd’s guides he’d foreseen their arrival in the cave in a premonition, and he’d come to help them back to the surface. Feeling as though they had no other options, they followed the old hermit as he led through a series of narrow passages in the dark underground, eventually back through the caverns they had passed through earlier, and ultimately back to the entrance of the caves.

With the expedition now safely back above ground, the old hermit quietly turned and went back into the caves, never to be seen again.

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As the archaeological team discussed this strange experience amongst themselves, their guides explained that the old man must have been an ancient Maya Hol-Pop, a thousand-year-old bodyguard of Maximilian who lived deep within the caves to guard sacred relics and a secret gold stash. He had become almost completely blind from the centuries of living in darkness.

It’s a fascinating story, and the photos and first-hand accounts relayed in the newspaper article definitely add to the intrigue:

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So, Who Was This Blind Old Hermit?

A thousand-year-old Mayan priest? That certainly seems unlikely, though there are people who believe in the powers of ancient Mayan mysticism, and some who claim that understanding the many secrets of Mayan astrology can unlock magical powers – perhaps even supernatural longevity or immortality.

Is it possible that the man was descended from a family that maintained the ancient Mayan traditions unaware or unconcerned that the civilization had long since abandoned its great cities and been largely assimilated into the Mexican culture around them? Similar stories have been shared of encounters with individuals who are far-enough removed from social influence that they were unaware that they were living in a world that no longer existed – like the Japanese soldier still fighting in World War II in the Philippines 29 years after the war had ended.

We’re unlikely to ever know this old hermit’s backstory, but we can at least be grateful he was there to help.

 

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