The legend tells the story of Cuzan (“swallow”), a beautiful Mayan princess, daughter of Ahnú Dtundtunxcaán. Her beauty was known beyond the walls of the sacred city of Yaxchilán. When she was of age, her father arranged her marriage with prince Ek Chapat, the future lord of the Nan Chan Kingdom.
One day, her father returned from battle with many presents and with a redheaded warrior called Chalpol. The princess instantly fell in love with him. They swore to never forget each other and their shared passion, but when Cuzan’s father found out, he became enraged and ordered Chalpol’s execution. On the day of the execution, Cuzan ran to her father with tears in her eyes. She promised to marry Ek Chapat and not to see Chalpol ever again if he wasn’t put to death.
After consulting with his priests, he agreed not to kill Chalpol, but they transformed him into a beetle (called “Makech”) as a punishment. When her father showed the princess her lover turned into an insect, she took it into her hands and said “I swore to never forget you, and I never will.”
She ordered the best jeweler of the kingdom to encrust him with precious stones and tied him up with a little chain so she could wear him as a brooch and he could stay close to her heart.
“The Princess and the Makech” is one of the best known Mayan stories. As such, it has originated a curious custom in the Yucatan peninsula: Live beetles as brooches.
To get a jewel beetle
They are taken from their natural habitat in the rainforest to craft markets in Merida. You can find them in plastic buckets with pieces of wood inside and can probably take pictures of them for around of one dollar or get your own for $100 to $200 pesos (around $7 to $14 dollars). They are little beetles decorated with color crystals and a little chain with a pin glued on the other end that allows you to wear the makech as a brooch.
The sellers affirm they only need wood pieces to stay alive. They say they eat the fungus that grows on the wood and that they can live five years. But internet forums disagree: most of them survive only a few weeks.
Maria Elena Sanchez, president of the Teyeliz ecologic organization says that under this treatment, the insect “generally dies of hunger because there’s no way of feeding it.” “It’s an unbearable cruelty that should not be committed on any animal, even an insect” she said.
There are no studies indicating that these beetles are endangered, but as time goes by, they are becoming more difficult to find, because of factors such as rain, cold weather and deforestation.
“It was more prevalent before. We don’t wear the huipil or other traditional clothes as much nowadays and although the makech is not worn anymore, many people buy them as pets” added Arelly Tamayo from the Esencia Maya store.
She says that among tourists, her customers are usually children that “convince their parents to take them as pets”.
The real tradition
“They bring them “naked” and then we glue the stones (like Swarovski crystals) with cold silicone so their shell won’t get damaged” Tamayo said.
They say that in the days of the ancient Maya, the makech were used by kings to decorate their clothes. Back then, the makech were encrusted with real jewels.
The Huni municipality is one of the best known places for the decoration of the beetles. They find them on top of logs in the woods, where they are common. Many people feel it is important to follow this tradition because it symbolizes reincarnation.
Although the origin of this tradition is a Mayan legend, historians have no proof that the ancient Mayans used the beetles as ornamental jewelery.
“The Mayans respected every animal species. They even praised some animals as sacred beings, common in many Mesoamerican cultures.” Said Juventina Sanchez Huitzil, promotor of customs and habits of the Valladolid City Hall.
The first written references of this tradition are from the 20th century, when rural men gave to their wives undecorated beetles with strings as a token of love. There is no proof that these creatures were being decorated until the 80’s.
Preserving a legend
“We have always said that traditions that go against preservation can and should be changed”, Noted Maria Elena Sanchez de Teyeliz.
She also pleads for other alternatives to preserve the legend of “the Princess and the Makech”: from selling craft imitations of the beetle to its representation in other artistic disciplines such as painting, comics or cinema.
There are two alternative endings to the makech legend: One relates that after some years, Chalpol was turned back into a human by a sorcerer and then he married the princess. The other version tells that the one turned into a beetle was the princess Cuzan.
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