is part of Mesoamerican mythology and comprises all those 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.
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 the adventures of the Hero Twins
, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Yucatan 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 they are the results of an historical process in which Spanish narrative traditions interacted with native ones, some of these Mayan tales reach back well into pre-Spanish times. Now, at the beginning of the 21th 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
Some of the most fundamental tale types will be briefly discussed below.
The Popol Vuh describes the creation of the earth by the forces of 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 Humankind
The Popol Vuh gives a sequence of four efforts at creation. The fourth of these is 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.
Actions of the Heroes: Arranging the World
The best-known hero myth is about the defeat of the deities of disease and death by the 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, this myth is very likely once to 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 - wooes 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, 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 again becoming Sun and Moon.
A Pleyade of Origins
Within the framework of the above myths, but also in separate tales, 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 Pleyades, 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 steambath, etc.
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, one primarily depends on the depictions on temple walls and art objects (especially the so-called 'ceramic codex') for a reconstruction of pre-Spanish Mayan mythology.
It is 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 have only been preserved by neighbouring peoples; such appears to be the case with the narrative of the Maya maize god.
As the process of hieroglyphical decipherment proceeds, the short explanatory captions included within mythical scenes will hopefully be restored to their original eloquence, and make ancient narrative come to life more fully.
- John Bierhorst, The Mythology of Mexico and Central America. Oxford U.P. 2002.
- Didier Boremanse, Cuentos y mitología de los lacandones. Tradición oral maya. Editorial: Academia de Geografia e Historia de Guatemala.
- Gary Gossen, Chamulas in the World of the Sun.
- Robert Laughlin, Of Cabbages and Kings.
- Karl Taube, The Major Gods of Yucatan. Dumbarton Oaks 1992.