Encounter with an Ancient God
by Janice Van Cleve
As Samhain night approaches, our Women of the Goddess circle quickens into high gear. We collect old mattresses, blankets and cushions. We buy cases of garbage bags and rolls of duct tape. Don’t forget the red candles! We haul, we clean, we make architectural decisions on the fly. For this is the time of the year when we transform a simple basement into the Underworld.
We are so excited! On Samhain night we gather in silence, black-robed and -caped, in the living room. No lights shine nor music plays. No conversation passes between us. One candle only illuminates the room as we wait in nervous anticipation. At the stroke of the hour, the hostess rises to lock the door. Then she bids us line up at the head of the stairs and descend, one by one, as we are called.
Save for flickering votives in colored glass strategically placed here or there, the narrow passages of the Underworld are pitch black. Garbage bags by day become unearthly living walls at night. As we carefully feel our way through the maze, we encounter the Dark Goddess in several of her forms. She may appear to us as Hecate, Kali, Baba Yaga or Erishkigal. She may appear as the Fates, the Norns or as sorceresses and witches. Each challenges us before she admits us past her portal. At last, we all arrive in the Underworld chamber and conduct our rites, thankful for the cushions and other items that give us some comfort from the cold stone floor.
I am as excited as the rest, but my appreciation of the Samhain rites this year will be undeniably affected by an encounter I had in another underworld last month in faraway Peru. I was in Peru for an archeological expedition to various Inca and pre-Inca sites. One of many we visited was Chavin de Huantar, a mysterious temple complex hidden in a steep valley on the Amazon side of the Andes. The Chavin culture exerted enormous influence throughout the region of Peru about 400 BCE, around the time that Rome was just beginning. In the Americas, the Chavin invented the weaving of cotton and wool, engineering with stone and massive architecture. The complex itself is a combination of huge three-story block buildings and large sunken courtyards. The exterior of the buildings was originally decorated with carved heads and painted red. However, it was the interiors that I found most fascinating.
Inside the solid mass of stone were corridors, passageways and rooms in a series of underworld labyrinths. They were ingeniously constructed so that water was drained out and fresh air circulated in through small vents that tunneled through the rock to the outside wall. Linking the rooms were galleries with modern fanciful names such as Gallery of the Captives, Gallery of the Bats and Gallery of the Madman. Just enough electric lighting is installed to present the outlines of the chambers without taking away from their shadowy quality. It was in one of these underworld corridors that I encountered The Lanzon.
The Lanzon is an imposing idol of carved stone some 15 feet tall. It stands in a narrow chamber barely large enough to hold it. Passages less high extend in all four directions from the midpoint of this chamber so the viewer can see only the head and midsection of the idol. A gate prevents visitors from approaching too close. Light filters in from cleverly contrived roof openings above the statue, bathing it in a surreal glow.
The idol itself is a curiously rendered icon, etched into a smooth, wedge-shaped granite prism whose angle faces the viewer. The figure is of an anthropoid being with snakes for hair and fat smiling lips that display a proud set of finely spaced teeth and two fanged incisors. Long sharp fingernails grace its hands; the left one hanging at its side and the right raised as if in greeting. On its head is a tall crown of feline heads, and from its ears hang huge round pendants. Set edge-on to the visitor, the whole work cannot be appreciated at once, but only the portion in view from the corridor. From that position, one or other of the idol’s baleful eyes looks directly at you.
“It’s just an old stone,” I said to myself. But it wasn’t. It was a real idol. To it had been sacrificed human lives, their blood splattered all over the corridor where I stood. Into it had been fused human energy and power, and these I could still feel from it even after all the intervening centuries. It was strange and eerie to be aware of this undead presence, to acknowledge it and yet not be part of it. The Lanzon was the god of a people long past, not my god, yet worthy and real for the human potency with which they imbued it. It disquieted me, yet I felt a respect for it that was different from my own traditions, but for all that no less valid.
So as I approach this Samhain and prepare to enter the Underworld we will create, I am a bit more aware that there are deities and beings in the darkness beyond my ken. They are different. I don’t understand them. I don’t even know them. Yet they do exist, and as the veil between the worlds draws thin this night, I realize my view must be broader and open to the unexpected. No matter how many times I celebrate these rituals and how many roles I take, they still present a mystery. And now, because of my encounter with The Lanzon in its own underworld, I can appreciate the mystery of my own that much more.