Maya mythology is part of Mesoamerican 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.
The oldest 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 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 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'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 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.
- see also: Maya Death Gods
Creation of mankind
The Popol Vuh 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 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.
- see also: Maya Death Gods
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 may once have been 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, and, to a lesser extent, that of the Bacabs 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.
Bibliography and references
- Bierhorst,John, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. Oxford U.P. 2002.
- Bierhorst, John (ed.), The Monkey's Haircut and Other Stories Told by the Maya. New York: William Morrow 1986.
- Boremanse, Didier, Contes et mythologie des indiens lacandons. Paris: L'Harmattan. 1986. (Also in Spanish: Cuentos y mitología de los lacandones. Tradición oral maya. Editorial: Academia de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala.)
- Danien, Elin C., Maya Folktales from the Alta Verapaz. University of Pennsylvania, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia 2004.
- Gossen, Gary, Chamulas in the World of the Sun.
- Guiteras Holmes, Calixta, Perils of the Soul. The World View of a Tzotzil Indian. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe. 1961.
- Laughlin, Robert, Of Cabbages and Kings.
- Miller, Mary; and Simon Martin (2004). Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05129-1.
- Miller, Mary; and Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames and Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05068-6.
- Nicholson, Irene, Mexican and Central American Mythology. London: Paul Hamlyn. 1967.
- Read, Kay Almere, & Jason J. Gonzalez, Mesoamerican Mythology. A guide to the gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs of Mexico and Central America. Oxford 2002.
- Roys, Ralph L., The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 1967.
- Taube, Karl, The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Dumbarton Oaks 1992.
- Taube, Karl, Aztec and Maya Myths. British Museum 1993.
- Tedlock, Dennis, Popol Vuh. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Thompson, J. Eric S. (1970). Maya History and Religion. Civilization of the American Indian Series, No. 99. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-0884-3.
- Public domain translations of some important Maya texts, including Popol Vuh, Chilam-Balam.
- Representation of Deities of the Maya Manuscripts, by Paul Schellhas, 1904, from Project Gutenberg
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