Picture of a reed boat at the Floating Islands, on Lake Titicaca.

The Sacred Meaning of the Reed: From Houses and Boats to Rituals, Ceremonies and Portals

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Many cultures around the world either place a special importance on the hollow-stemmed reed plant or recognize a certain “place of the reeds” within their territory. Legends of the Hopi tribe in Arizona, for instance, tell of the previous world-age that was decimated by a great flood, mythological variations of which exist in most cultures across the globe. The few virtuous Hopis who still followed the ways of the Creator escaped the rising waters by crawling up through a bamboo reed that pierced the sky and stuck up into the next world like a kiva ladder. (A kiva is a subterranean, communal prayer-chamber.) This happened at an actual location called the Sipapuni in the bottom of Grand Canyon. In an alternate version of the legend, the Hopi escaped the deluge by sailing eastward on reed boats across the Pacific Ocean to dry land. In a ceremonial context, the Hopi use smaller reeds to make a storage case for a woman’s wedding robe woven of white cotton that will be buried with her after her death. The first village settled on the Hopi Mesas was called Songòopavi (Shongopovi), literally “place of the reeds,” and the tribe still has a Reed Clan. In addition, this clan is associated with the celestial “Heart of the Sky” god named Sótuknang. In fact, the Hopi word for the Milky Way is songwuka, literally “the big reed.”

Figure 1. Hopi bride carries a reed mat that contains her wedding blanket. She wears this blanket at the naming of her first child. In the end it becomes her shroud.

Aztecs and the Place of the Reeds

Mesoamerica also has a number of locations designated by the reed. The ancestral home of the Aztecs was known not only as “place of the herons” but also the “place of the reeds.” The Aztecs initially assumed that Hernando Cortés was the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl making his prophesied return. Cortés and his conquistadores arrived on the Atlantic coast on Easter 1519, which was the Aztec year Ce Acatl, or One Reed. This year marked the end of a fifty-two year cycle when the world would either be renewed or destroyed. Sadly for the Aztec leader Moctezuma of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), the latter occurred.

The apotheosized chieftain of the Toltecs of northern Mexico was called Mixcoatl, or “Cloud Serpent.” About 900 AD his son, who was named Ce Acatl Topiltzin (a.k.a. Quetzalcoatl), founded the city of Tula, or Tollan. Its name again means the “place of the reeds.”

Figure 2. Atlantes (Toltec warrior statues) at Tula, Hidalgo, known as “place of the reeds.”

Figure 2. Atlantes (Toltec warrior statues) at Tula, Hidalgo, known as “place of the reeds.”

The late Linda Schele, expert on Mayan iconography, speculates that the original “place of the reeds” was the Gulf Coast swamps of the Olmec heartland, where civilization, writing, the arts, and organized warfare for this whole region began. Later the name was applied to the major Toltec center of Teotihuacán. Maya cities with this same identification include Uxmal, Copan, Tikal, and Utatlán.

Lake Titicaca and the Islands of Reeds

In Peru, the pre-Incan Uros people living around Lake Titicaca claim to be descendants of the builders of the Tiwanaku (Tiahuanaco). Some archaeologists estimate this grand city to be an astounding 15,000 to 20,000 years old. The Uros still reside on floating islands made of totora reeds. As the bottom of the islands rot away, they add more reeds to the top. This quintessential reed culture lives in reed houses, sails on reed boats, and weaves reed handicrafts. Totora was also used by the people of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for thatching and to make swimming floats. North and South America are not the only places where the reed gained cultural significance.

Figure 3. Uros island made of reeds near Lake Titicaca.

Figure 3. Uros island made of reeds near Lake Titicaca.

Egypt and the Field of Reeds

Similar to the Greek Elysian Fields, the ancient Egyptian afterlife was called the Field of Reeds. An oasis called the Faiyum southwest of Giza was probably the naturalistic origin of this concept. Some of the vignettes in the Egyptian Book of the Dead depict the “heron of plenty,” otherwise known as the phoenix, perched on a small pyramid. It is interesting to note that the hieroglyph of a heron on a pyramid corresponds to the word bah, meaning “to flood, to inundate.” This, of course, is just the type of environment where reeds grow. In papyrus illustrations of the Field of Rushes we also find either the falcon or a small, human-headed bird representing the ba, sounding the same as the word bah previously mentioned. The ba, or “soul,” perches atop a pylon, which is a massive rectangular gateway to a temple or hypostyle hall. Thus, the pylon is a perfect symbol for a portal or stargate. In addition, the walls of the Field of Rushes were made of iron, presumably meteoric iron, which further stresses its celestial meaning.                                                  

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