Maya mythology

Maya mythology

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Mayan mythology is part of Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and...

n mythology and comprises all of the Mayan tales in which personified forces of nature, deities, and the heroes interacting with these play the main roles. Other parts of Maya oral tradition (such as animal tales and many moralising stories) do not properly belong to the domain of mythology, but rather to legend and folk tale.

Sources


The oldest written myths date from the 16th century and are found in historical sources from the Guatemalan Highlands. The most important of these documents is the Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands. The title translates as "Book of the Community," "Book of Counsel," or more literally as "Book of the People."...

 or 'Book of the Council', which contains Quichean creation stories and some of the adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

Yucatán is an equally important region. The Books of Chilam Balam
Chilam Balam
The so-called Books of Chilam Balam are handwritten, chiefly 18th-century Mayan miscellanies, named after the small Yucatec towns where they were originally kept, and preserving important traditional knowledge in which indigenous Mayan and early Spanish traditions have coalesced...

 contain mythological passages of great antiquity, and mythological fragments are found scattered among the early-colonial Spanish chronicles and reports, chief among them Diego de Landa
Diego de Landa
Diego de Landa Calderón was a Spanish Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán. He left future generations with a mixed legacy in his writings, which contain much valuable information on pre-Columbian Maya civilization, and his actions which destroyed much of that civilization's...

's Relación, and in the dictionaries compiled by the early missionaries.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, anthropologists and local folklorists have committed many stories to paper. Even though most Maya tales are the results of an historical process in which Spanish narrative traditions interacted with native ones, some of the tales reach back well into pre-Spanish times. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the transmission of traditional tales has entered its final stage. Fortunately, however, this is also a time in which the Mayas themselves have begun to salvage and publish the precious tales of their parents and grandparents.

Important mythical themes


In Maya narrative, the origin of many natural and cultural phenomena is set out, often with the moral aim of defining the ritual relationship between mankind and its environment. In such a way, one finds explanations about the origin of the heavenly bodies (Sun and Moon, but also Venus, the Pleiades, the Milky Way); the mountain landscape; clouds, rain, thunder and lightning; wild and tame animals; the colours of the maize; diseases and their curative herbs; agricultural instruments; the steam bath, etc. The following more encompassing themes can be discerned.

Creation and end of the world


The Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands. The title translates as "Book of the Community," "Book of Counsel," or more literally as "Book of the People."...

 describes the creation of the earth by the wind of the sea and sky, as well as its sequel. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel relates the collapse of the sky and the deluge, followed by the raising of the sky and the erection of the five World Trees. The Lacandons also knew the tale of the creation of the Underworld.

Creation of mankind


The Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands. The title translates as "Book of the Community," "Book of Counsel," or more literally as "Book of the People."...

 gives a sequence of four efforts at creation: First were animals, then wet clay, wood, then last, the creation of the first ancestors from maize
Maize
Maize known in many English-speaking countries as corn or mielie/mealie, is a grain domesticated by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica in prehistoric times. The leafy stalk produces ears which contain seeds called kernels. Though technically a grain, maize kernels are used in cooking as a vegetable...

 dough. To this, the Lacandons add the creation of the main kin groupings and their 'totemic' animals. The creation of humankind is concluded by the Mesoamerican tale of the opening of the Maize (or Sustenance) Mountain by the Lightning deities.

Actions of the heroes: Arranging the world


The best-known hero myth is about the defeat of a bird demon and of the deities of disease and death by the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Of equal importance is the parallel narrative of a maize hero defeating the deities of Thunder and Lightning and establishing a pact with them. Although its present spread is confined to the Gulf Coast areas, various data suggest that this myth was once a part of Mayan oral tradition as well. Important mythological fragments about the heroic reduction of the jaguars have been preserved by the Tzotziles.

Marriage with the Earth


This mythical type defines the relation between mankind and the game and crops. An ancestral hero - Xbalanque in a Kekchi tradition - woos the daughter of an Earth God; the hero's wife is finally transformed into game, bees, snakes and insects, or the maize. If the hero gets the upper hand, he becomes the Sun, his wife the Moon. A moralistic Tzotzil version has a man rewarded with a daughter of the Rain Deity, only to get divorced and lose her again.

Origin of Sun and Moon


The origin of Sun and Moon is not always the outcome of a Marriage with the Earth. From Chiapas and the western Guatemalan Highlands comes the tale of Younger Brother and his jealous Elder Brethren: Youngest One becomes the Sun, his mother becomes the Moon, and the Elder Brethren are transformed into wild pigs and other forest animals. In a comparable way, the Elder Brethren of the Popol Vuh Twin myth are transformed into monkeys, with their younger brothers becoming Sun and Moon.

Reconstructing Pre-Spanish mythology


The three surviving Mayan books are mainly of a ritual and also (in the case of the Paris codex) historical nature, and contain but few mythical scenes. Although a sort of 'strip books' may once have existed, it is very much to be doubted that mythical narratives were ever completely rendered hieroglyphically. As a consequence, depictions on temple walls and movable objects (especially the so-called 'ceramic codex') are used to aid reconstruction of pre-Spanish Mayan mythology.

A main problem with depictions is to define what constitutes a mythological scene, for any given scene might in principle also represent a moment in a ritual sequence, a visual metaphor stemming from oral literature, a scene from real life, or a historical event. At this stage of our understanding, it is, in any case, clear that the Twin myth - albeit it in a version which considerably diverged from the Popol Vuh - already circulated in the Classic Period. In some cases, ancient Mayan myths may only have been preserved by neighbouring peoples; the narrative of the principal Maya maize god
Maya maize god
Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the traditional Mayas recognize in their staple crop, the maize, a vital force with which they strongly identify. This is clearly shown by their mythological traditions. According to the 16th-century Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins have maize plants for alter egos and man...

, and, to a lesser extent, that of the Bacab
Bacab
Bacab is the generic Yucatec name for each of the four pre-Spanish, aged Maya deities of the interior of the earth and its water deposits. The Bacabs have more recent counterparts in the lecherous, drunken old thunder deities of the Gulf Coast regions...

s are cases in point. As the process of hieroglyphical decipherment proceeds, the short explanatory captions often included within the scenes will hopefully be restored to their original eloquence, and make ancient narrative come to life more fully.

See also

  • Maya religion
    Maya religion
    The traditional Maya religion of western Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico is a southeastern variant of Mesoamerican religion. As is the case with many other contemporary Mesoamerican religions, it results from centuries of symbiosis with Roman Catholicism...

  • Bacabs, God K
    God K
    God K is the Schellhas-Zimmermann-Taube designation of a codical Maya deity representing lightning . In earlier, especially Classic depictions, his main characteristics are a blade or torch running through his forehead, and a serpent for one of his legs...

    , Chaac
    Chaac
    Chaac is the name of the Maya rain deity. With his lightning axe, Chaac strikes the clouds and produces thunder and rain. Chaac corresponds to Tlaloc among the Aztecs.-Rain deities and rain makers:...

    , Maya maize god
    Maya maize god
    Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the traditional Mayas recognize in their staple crop, the maize, a vital force with which they strongly identify. This is clearly shown by their mythological traditions. According to the 16th-century Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins have maize plants for alter egos and man...

    ;
  • Hero Twins;
  • Maya moon goddess
    Maya moon goddess
    The traditional Mayas generally assume the moon to be female, and the moon's phases are accordingly conceived as the stages of a woman's life. The Maya moon goddess wields great influence in many areas. Being in the image of a woman, she is naturally associated with sexuality and procreation,...

    , Goddess I
    Goddess I
    Goddess I is the Schellhas-Zimmermann-Taube letter designation for one of the most important Maya deities: a youthful woman to whom considerable parts of the post-Classic codices are dedicated, and who equally figures in Classic Period scenes...

    ;
  • Maya Death Gods
    Maya Death Gods
    The Maya death gods, known under various names, belong to only two basic types, respectively represented by the 16th-century Yucatec deities Hunhau and Uacmitun Ahau mentioned by Spanish Bishop Landa. Hunhau is the lord of the Underworld...


External links

  • Public domain translations of some important Maya texts, including Popol Vuh
    Popol Vuh
    Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands. The title translates as "Book of the Community," "Book of Counsel," or more literally as "Book of the People."...

    , Chilam-Balam.
  • Representation of Deities of the Maya Manuscripts, by Paul Schellhas, 1904, from Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks". Founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books...