This is an interesting article on an archaeologist who found a series of caves where ancient Maya worshiped and that he believes recreates the path through hell mentioned in ancient text. It’s a pretty awesome discovery. Apparently he found it by going through records of the Spanish Inquisition wherein indigenous Indians were tortured until they revealed the location of caves where they still practiced their religion. Gotta love that Spanish Inquisition. Torture and evil and death, but good records!
One thing keeps bugging me about this article, though. The guy who found these caves is convinced that the Mayans made the caves to fit the story of the path through hell. That they found some caves that were suitable enough, then fashioned them into the appropriate torturous ways and chambers exactly as the story describes. But it makes more sense to me that the account of the path is based on the cave.
Perhaps my bias in mythological education is showing (more Western and Egyptian than anything else), but it seems like a lot of the accounts of the underworld or hell or whatever are actually about initiation, transformation, etc. Like the poor initiates who had to wander around under Glastonbury Tor high on mushrooms until they were frightened to death or came out later having passed through the path to the land of the dead and lived. It makes more sense to me that the cave existed and was perhaps fashioned before the tale of the path to the underworld, and that the story itself may be part of an initiation ritual. Or even a transformation one — going from childhood to adulthood, adulthood to elder status. Death is often an allegory for transformation in mythological terms.
However, as I said, most of my knowledge of this symbolism comes from Western sources. The Maya may have had a completely different set of symbols and meaning. I still think the cave came first, though.