Oh, Maya Gods!


I saw a mention of the Popol Vuh, a Mayan book of myths, at Intelligent Life, as well as a link to an animated narration. Since I haven’t said much about Mayan mythology, I might as well address this. When the Spanish conquered what is now Guatemala, they destroyed most of the artifacts of Mayan culture they could find, but the stories of the Popol Vuh (literally “Book of the People,” often translated as “Book of the Community”) continued to be transmitted orally. In 1701, Father Francisco Ximénez found a copy of the book written by someone who was able to transliterate the old Mayan language into Latin characters, and he translated it into Spanish. While Ximénez’ translation has been lost, a copy of it still exists, having been rediscovered in 1854. It remains our main source for Mayan beliefs, and includes a creation story, tales of godly heroes, and a genealogy used to promote the divine right of kings.

The main creator of the world is known as Heart-of-Sky, who made everything by merely thinking and speaking. There are other gods as well, however, two of the most prominent being known as Grandmother and Grandfather, or Xmucane and Xpiacoc.

Picture of Xmucane by Andy Pacoriek
When the gods seek to make mankind, which they intend to be a species that can honor and worship them, they first try using earth and mud. These people soon dissolve, though, and the next batch is made of wood. The wooden people lack hearts and souls, so the gods destroy them with a flood. The people who actually work out are made of corn.

The heroic exploits more or less begin with Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu, or “One-Hunter” and “Seven-Hunter,” the sons of Xmucane and Xpiacoc. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the numbers is, but they appear in the names of the death lords Hun-Came and Vucub-Came (One-Death and Seven-Death) as well. It seems to be a way to show importance, as in both cases the Seven is clearly subordinate to the One, but I couldn’t say why there are no brothers numbered two through six. When the lords of the underworld, known to the Mayans by the name Xibalba, thought that the brothers were playing their ball game too loudly, they tricked the two of them into coming down to Xibalba and playing against them. And may I say that I find the name “Xibalba” has a cool sound to it?

The lords used a ball with blades, though, and killed the brothers. The story doesn’t end there, though, as Hun-Huahpu’s disembodied head was able to impregnate Xquic, the daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba, by spitting on her hand.

Xmucane reluctantly adopted Xquic’s sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, which seem to roughly translate as “Hunter” and “Jaguar Deer.”

When the twins discover their father and uncle’s sporting equipment and take to playing ball themselves, the lords of Xibalba summon them as well, hoping to use the same tricks that they did on the elders. Hunahpu and Xbalanque manage to overcome all of the traps of the underworld, however. Even when Hunahpu was beheaded by a bat, Xbalanque had the animals help him construct a replacement head from a squash, and managed to switch the two with assistance from a rabbit. After they had given a thorough thrashing to the lords of Xibalba, they buried their father’s remains, and then ascended into the sky to become the Sun and Moon. I’m not sure which was which.

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7 Responses to Oh, Maya Gods!

  1. patricia says:

    I had read Popol Vuh, many people thought that Popol Vuh is not 100% mayan, it mixed with christianitiy. But I disagree with those people, because today archeologists had discovered the sculpture of one of Popol Vuh two boys on ancient walls dated back before the coming of the spainards, this means Popol Vuh created by Ancient Mayans long before the arrival of the Spainards.

    • Nathan says:

      It can be hard to tell when the only sources available are post-Christian. It’s like how our main source for a lot of Norse mythology is Snorri Sturluson, even though he was a Christian who was somewhat disparaging toward Norse religion.

  2. Pingback: Goddess Xmucane « Journeying to the Goddess

  3. dj latigo says:

    You did a nice extract of the history of the Grandmother and Junajpu and Xbalamke :)

    But forget about Bourbourg’s, Recinos’ and subsequents translations. The one that was endeavored by Luis Enrique Sam Colop -a native k’iche’ linguist and writer- with the aid of Carmack, Lutz and Tedlock, is by far the best translation -if not the definitive one-.

    Warm regards from Guatemala.

  4. A sign of Peace to fellow readers of the Popol Vuh.. May the mythic journey continue to ignite the primordial imagination!

  5. Pingback: Bat Out of Xibalba | VoVatia

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