Jaguar Princess


CHANLA PEX, descendant of the Maya jaguar king B’alam, lives near a ruin in rural Yucatán.

She learns to read the Maya glyphs on the stone monuments. Archaeologist BURT WALLACE

calls her his Rosetta Stone and sponsors her for a college scholarship, but the gods will punish

her if she refuses their call to become a shaman. To avoid the  summons from the gods, she

must not spend the night in a sacred cave. While exploring a cave, she encounters a looter who

threatens her with a knife, binds her hands and feet, and leaves her to die in the dark. She

escapes from  the cave with a jaguar talisman. In a coming of age story, she must learn how to

combat modern thieves and how to control her abilities as a shaman.

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        The Yucatán Peninsula is a land without mountains, without metals, and without large

        domesticated animals. In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards with their guns and horses

        made an easy conquest, even though the Maya resisted them with ambushes, traps, and

        misinformation. Today, four million Maya live in the Yucatán and speak Yucatec, the Mayan

        language most like that spoken in classical times.

The northern Yucatán juts into the Gulf of Mexico like a large thumb and consists mainly of

lowland areas, with the driest areas in the northwest. A land with no surface rivers, it sits on a

horizontal bed of limestone above hidden caves and lakes connected by underground rivers.

More than three thousand sinkholes, called cenotes, penetrate the limestone shell. The cenotes

are important sources of water and come in many sizes and shapes, some large enough to support

fishing lodges and scuba diving schools, some only small wells for local farmers. The Caribbean

Sea to the east contributes to its warm and humid climate, and its heaviest rainfall occurs from

mid-May through September. In the drier north, the soil is porous and supports only tough skinned

and spiny vegetation. The southern area borders tropical jungle.

The Maya had a written language and valued books. A Maya codex is a manuscript book written on

a long strip of paper folded like an accordion and stored in an elaborately carved wooden box. Each

book (hu’un) was a work of art, the glyphs painted onto long strips of whitewashed bark paper

(huun) using brilliantly colored inks. Classical Mayan glyphs, somewhat like Egyptian hieroglyphs,

convey both sound and meaning. Diego de Landa, Bishop of Yucatán 1573-1579, listed symbols

keyed to the Spanish alphabet as given by the Maya priest, Nachi Aj Itz’aat. However, his list was

unusable: Mayan glyphs represented syllables, not alphabet letters, and he needed about 700 more

symbols. The Mayan glyphs remained largely undecipherable until the work of Yuri Knorozov

(1940s) and Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1960s).

The Maya were extraordinary astronomers, using only the unaided eye. The Dresden Codex, one of

three existing Mayan books, gives a table of heliacal rise/set phenomena for the planet Venus with

calculations correct to one day in 500 years. Because Maya codices included religious rituals and

beliefs, the Spaniards collected and burned them during the Spanish Inquisition at Maní in 1562. In

rural areas, the Maya still follow the old religion and traditions.



               Jaguar Princess: The Last Maya Shaman