MAYA MYTHOLOGY & RELIGION
We know the Mayan calendars, the 260-day Count, The Tzolk’in, 20 days repeated 13 times and numbered from 1 to 13 in 20 successive counts. It is really mentioned once but at the same time the clear allusion to the four directions and the center leading to the reference to one of the oldest Mayan glyph, probably even older than Mayan and coming from very far in time, the “quincunx” that can be found in some other glyphs like that of the eighth day Lamat/rabbit or that of the eighteenth day Etz’nab/Flint.
It is very difficult to penetrate such symbolism because there is no one today that knows about it directly, as an heir and descendant of such religious beliefs and practices. And I am not sure it is correct to believe the center is a point especially if we take into account the interpretation of “quincunx” as being a representation of a pyramid. The center is a vertical line with a zenith, the Sky referring to the Heart of the Sky, to Quetzalcoatl, and with a nadir Xibalba, the territory of the Xibalban Lords of the underworld from whom the newly created human species has to free themselves.
The most intriguing question is that of the self-sacrifice, sacrifice and blood culture and civilization that justify rites and rituals of blood offerings or heart offerings. Even the divine or quasi-divine ancestors of the Maya tribes go through a ritual of sacrifice, especially Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the latter sacrificing the former by dismembering, beheading and then heart extraction, just before calling him back to life. And this is a trap to lure the main Xibalban Lords, One and Seven Death, to demand the opportunity for both of them together to go through such a sacrifice, from which they will not be resuscitated.
This book then is essential and this edition is richly illustrated and it has a great corpus of notes, bibliography, and index. At the same time, I am surprised by the list of the 20 days that does not correspond to the one I standardly work on, that or Michael D. Coe and of the Codex Borgia. I also regret that the list is given in two languages, Quiché and Yucatan, and not in English. Actually, Michael D. Coe does the same but only in Yucatan Maya. On the other hand, Bruce E. Byland, in his presentation of the Codex Borgia only gives the English translation for the names of the day. Only Maya requires some research with a dictionary to know what the names mean. Only English requires another type of research to know what they are and mean in Maya, because most glyphs when they are not phonetic syllables, have several meanings clustered together. And we cannot always know what is meant though Maya is definitely for me a synthetic third-articulation language moving from a totally glyphic writing system to a syllabary writing system. And some words can correspond to several different glyphs and are thus different in writing from what they are in oral practice, as far as we can reconstruct it.
So, enter this book, in this edition or another. There are several on the internet in free open access. Here are some personal remarks on this book.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
DENNIS TEDLOCK, Translator — POPOL VUH,
The Definitive Edition Of The Mayan Book Of The Dawn Of Life And The Glories Of The Gods And Kings –
A TOUCHSTONE BOOK — 1965–1996
Some compare this book to the Christian or Jewish Bible. I guess some compare it too to the Quran. Such comparisons are unfair to this book because they cast it into a mold that has little to do with the Mayas and Mayan religion, mythology or culture.
We could definitely compare some motifs or patterns in the story with those of the Bible or the Quran, but the patterns only have the meaning the general architecture in which they are cast provide them with and this meaning is not the same in the three books concerned here.
First of all, this book does not state at any time there is only one God. There are many Gods in this story even if maybe Quetzalcoatl is the main one, even if we could consider this is the beginning of the emergence of monotheism in this book, but really nothing but a sketchy beginning, especially when we know Quetzalcoatl is dead, he was sacrificed for the Maya world to stabilize and develop, though it is not clear whether it is a self-sacrifice or a formal heart-rending sacrifice performed by a priest of some kind. Note this sacrificed God, not son of God, of course, is supposed to come back from the East.
The second element is about the creation of the world, or rather the creation of the human species. The least we can say is that the creator who is maybe one, maybe several, was or were very sloppy and had to start all over again several times. These gods are not almighty far from it. But the most surprising element is that God appears to have many qualities, or names, and at times these qualities or names are seen as separate maybe even over several entities. Over the total watery world, “in the dark, in the night” (translation problem or fair translation? The dark is a clear characteristic that is defined easily as the absence of light, but the night is nothing but the other side of the day, night implying day from which it has been discriminated: so how can it be before daylight has been provided to differentiate day from night),
“only the Maker, Modeler alone, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green.” (p. 64)
This is a beautiful story but is the Maker one or many? But is darkness defined as opposed to already existing light? But how come quetzal feathers exist before the creation of life? And the next sentence is even more mysterious:
“Thus the name, ‘Plumed Serpent.’ They are great knowers, great thinkers in their very being.” (p. 64)
We then come to an essential element of the cosmic vision of the Mayas. Their cosmos, their universe is vertical and going up you get into the sky and you consider the Heart of the Sky which is the Sovereign Plumed Serpent again. We will find later an underworld, Xibalba, and the emergence of humanity will come from a rebellion of the first humans against the lords of this underworld with the support of the Gods of the Sky, of the Heart of the Sky. And this Heart of the Sky has many names:
“named Hurricane. Thunderbolt Hurricane comes first, the second is Newborn Thunderbolt, and the third is Sudden Thunderbolt. So they were three of them at Heart of Sky who came to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent.” (p. 65)
This ternary pattern is typical of all religions before Judaism (a binary vision: “God and his Spirit” of Genesis) and Islam (God is one and only one and Mohammed is only his Prophet). Judaism emerged from various religions whose pattern was ternary. Christianity reintroduced the trinity but we can wonder if it was a reintroduction by Jesus himself or if it was a rewriting of the Jewish reference of Jesus to his Father and the Holy Spirit (only two, and father is a normal metaphor for God in Judaism), a rewriting introduced later by some disciples, apostles or not. What is interesting is that this book cannot be reduced to a single numerical pattern. Note however that Hurricane refers to the wind and in the Maya tradition, there are four winds corresponding to the four cardinal directions. We will find them later represented as a crossroads of four roads with four colors, “red, black, white, yellow,” (p. 95). Traditionally they are red for east, black for west, white for north, and yellow for south, and along with the upwards (Sky) and downward (Xibalba) directionality of the center, then heart, brings the cosmic vision to six, though traditionally again this center is reduced to a point, and then the four directions and the center form a “quincunx,” the oldest glyph found in Mesoamerica, similar to the eighth day, Lamat/Rabbit, and the eighteenth day, Flint/Etz’nab, of the Tzolk’in calendar. It is also an aerial view of a pyramid. The full six-directional vision is that of a textile shuttle, and note this vision will be recaptured by William Blake though Blake will redesign it inside out and outside in. But that’s another story.
Note here that the “heart” is really sacred, divine, and that must bring in our minds two remarks. Blood is sacred and divine and blood is the best offering to this Heart of the Sky with self-sacrifice generally by puncturing one’s penis with a jade sacrificial knife. No women can do that. Women are side-tracked. At best you can also puncture your tongue or your ears, but that is a second choice. This simple fact is a sign of a post-Ice-Age agricultural society that has pushed women out of the picture, or at best on its side. The second remark is that the heart itself is sacred and divine and the best act of subservience and obedience to the Gods is to offer one’s heart to him or them with ritual sacrifice. This centering cult on self-sacrifice and sacrifice is the very starting point and center of the vision. God is not seen as going along with his Spirit, but as the heart of the sky and we have to take this word literally. And this multiple-facetted god is redefined again this time as a nonary entity: “Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt, Sudden Thunderbolt, Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter.” This male figure is all-male up to its seventh characteristic. But his last two features are female. A male cannot bear or cannot beget any child. Note though, in spite of what some may think, this Plumed Serpent is not the first creator in this cosmos because he is himself a newborn and to be born he has to come from a bearer, and this bearer has to be impregnated with the future newborn. Of course, we are working on a translation but these are intriguing and there is no possible comparison with the Bible. In the Bible, God is introduced as existing in the watery dark world along with his spirit without any mention or allusion to any origin at all. Here the main multiple-facetted god has been born to existence and is himself the bearer and begetter, hence he is both the newborn and the bearer, or shouldn’t it be the bearer and the newborn. He is the mother, the father and the son all in one multiple facetted God we are dealing with here.
This chaotic creation starts a series of pairs of humans. In a group of four, Xpiyacoc, Xmucane, Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote. The mason and sculptor who invoke the first two, ask them to count days and to count lots, meaning to attach fate and the future to the days of the calendar. But at once they enter that very future. Xpiyacoc and Xmucane are declared to be respectively the grandfather and the grandmother (note the text gives the other order first and then specifies the order the way I have just given it. They invoke then the other two, Hunahpu Possum and Hunahpu Coyote with a long series of pairs of words ending with “Grandmother of Day, Grandmother of Light. Yet these people were manikins, woodcarvings and “there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds.” (p. 70) So the decision was taken to destroy them. And yet Seven Macaw survives in his vanity: “I am their sun and I am their light, and I am also their months.” (p. 73) That’s when the manikins were destroyed by a flood, the famous flood that is the rising of the water after the Ice Age: 120 meters altogether submerging the coastal platform that had been open, inhabited and covered with vegetation for more than 20,000 years. It pushed humans away from the eastern coast (a fundamental migration stated in this book, and later on recalled as an initiating rite to the rising sun, to dawn as a metaphor for the development of modern humanity.
Seven Macaw survives, but not for long. I will jump now to the second part, the story of Seven Macaw and his descendants. This Seven Macaw has a wife, Chimalmat and they had two sons, Zipacna and Earthquake. Let them define themselves
“Here I am: I am the sun,” said Seven Macaw. “Here I am: I am the maker of the earth,” said Zipacna. “As for me, I bring down the sky, I make an avalanche of all the earth,” said Earthquake.” (p. 77–78)
That’s when Hunahpu and Xbalanque come into the picture. The first encounter with Seven Macaw makes Hunahpu lose one arm, ripped off by Seven Macaw. Then the two boys invoke a grandfather and a grandmother, Great White Peccary and Great White Coati, to approach Seven Macaw. He and his wife die because the grandfather and grandmother take care of his broken jaw and teeth and they deprive him of his metal. His wife dies too.
Zipacna during that time is bathing on the coast when 400 boys come along. He helps them carry a log but they are suspicious. So they make him dig a deep hole and they bury him in it though they are mistaken as for his death and he kills them all. But he then encounters the two boys and these trick him into chasing a crab in some cave or crack in the mountain and he is turned into stone. During that time Earthquake is enjoying his earth-quaking power. He comes across the two boys who pretend they are going hunting in the mountains. He joins them and they get some birds. The two boys prepare one for him with gypsum on top. Earthquake eats it but after that, he cannot walk anymore and the boys bury him. That’s how Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeated Seven Macaw and his two sons.
What is interesting here is the pattern of two sons against two sons. The first pair have a father and they are a triad of bad people, the mother being totally marginal. The second pair invoke two grandparents when necessary but they are not really part of this quartet because the grandparents are there to kill Seven Macaw, thus saving the mission of the two boys. We assume they are twins. But it is not said that clearly.
That binary pattern is going to continue. Xpivacoc and Xmucane have two sons, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu. One Hunahpu has two sons too, One Monkey and One Artisan. Seven Hunahpu has no children, he remains a boy. One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu just throw dice and play ball every day in pairs, we assume with One Monkey and One Artisan. The triple God Hurricane-Newborn-Thunderbolt-Sudden-Thunderbolt sends a falcon as a messenger. The four of them go on playing but along the road to Xibalba, the underworld. They are met by One Death and Seven Death, two lords of Xibalba. This underworld is governed by twelve Lords that go in pairs. By their names and by their functions they are entirely dedicated to killing people and making them suffer. The six pairs are One and Seven Death; Scab Stripper and Blood Gatherer; Demon of Pus and Demon of Jaundice; Bone Scepter and Skull Scepter; Demon of Filth and Demon of Woe; and Wing and Packstrap (who make people die in the road, meaning by sudden death). One and Seven Hunahpu go on to Xibalba, whereas One Monkey and One Artisan stay behind. The latter pair will be defeated by Hunahpu and Xbalanque later.
The Lords of Xibalba send four messengers, four owls: Shooting Owl, One-Legged Owl, Macaw Owl and Skull Owl. One and Seven Hunahpu accept to follow them. They are submitted to extreme tests, when they arrive, in the Dark House, Rattling House, Jaguar House, Bat House, Razor House. They had received a lit up cigar and torch and they were supposed to bring them back at the end in the same original state they had received them, which of course they could not do. So they were sacrificed and buried. One Hunahpu’s head is hanged in a tree along the road.
Then we have the story of Blood Moon, a maiden whose father is Blood Gatherer. She gets pregnant from the skull/head of One Hunahpu by just talking to it. Her father who is connected to the Lords of Xibalba wants to know the father. She refuses to tell. She is sent to sacrifice by her father. The Military Keepers of the Mat have to do the sacrifice, but Blood Moon reveals the identity of the father to them. So they cheat and she finds refuge with the grandmother of One Monkey and One Artisan. Blood Moon explains her situation to the woman who is now her grandmother-in-law. After a first refusal, she accepts the grandchildren who are Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These get into some rivalry with their brothers, One Monkey and One Artisan. The two older ones climb in a tree but can’t get down. The two younger ones tell them to let the tail of their loincloth hand behind and they are turned into monkeys and they skip away in the forest. The mother-in-law asks the younger ones to call the older ones back by playing the song Hunahpu Monkey. They come back three times but the grandmother laughs each time. They try a fourth time to call them back but they do not come back. They became animals. Hunahpu and Xbalanque, while trying to cultivate a garden unsuccessfully, capture and torture a rat who tell them they have to recuperate what belongs to their father One Hunahpu. And that is the last leg of this binary story. Their descent to Xibalba and their vengeance. Having learned from their predecessors the tricks of the Lords of Xibalba, they can respond, mostly with magic, to the various houses
Their grandmother sends them a message via a louse that is swallowed by a toad that is swallowed by a snake and that is swallowed by a falcon who delivers those it has swallowed to the two boys who can thus get the message. This quaternary pattern is emphasized by the swallowing process and then by the delivering spitting out or vomiting. Before leaving, they plant two ears of corn in the middle of the grandmother’s house for them to dry to show their death in due time. They cross the two rivers Pus River and Blood River on their blowguns. They came to the crossroads of the four roads, Black Road, White Road, Red Road, Green Road. There they summoned a mosquito spy who went first to bite the people he met there in order to make the Lords of Xibalba who were there speak their names. The first two people were wooden manikins and they did not respond, but then the twelve Lords responded to the bites and from one to the last they reveal their names. So when the boys meet them they can greet them by names, the twelve of them. They refuse to sit on the cooking stone slab presented as a bench. Then they defeat every house they enter. Dark House first where they accept to deliver, after letting themselves be defeated in the ballgame, four bowls full of red petals, white petals, yellow petals, and whole flowers before the end of the night. Then Razor House where they pacify all the knives and call for the ants which get into One and Seven Death’s garden and steal the petals and the flowers they deliver in four bowls as requested.
In Cold House, they simply shut the cold out and survive. In Jaguar House they pacify the jaguars by giving them a pile of bones. In the Midst of the Fire, in a house of fire, they are only toasted and simmered, not burned. Inside Bat House they sleep in their blowguns. Hunahpu though sticks his head out to see if dawn is coming and a bat snapped his head off. Xbalanque then summons all the animals and ask them to bring their food. They bring rotten wood, leaves, stones, earth, and then unspecified food till the last one brought by the coati: a squash that becomes the simulated head of Hunahpu with brains provided by the Heart of Sky, Hurricane. To finish the simulated head a possum makes four streaks that make the early dawn red and blue. In the ball game then the rabbit is supposed to lure the Xibalbans away after Hunahpu’s real head is kicked into the game as if it were a ball that, after two rebounds, ends up among the ball bags. The rabbit runs away after the ball supposedly, the Xibalbans run after him and Hunahpu can recuperate his real head. The squash becomes the ball and the game can start again and they make equal plays on both sides. But two knowers are called in, Xulu and Pecam who describes the death of the two brothers in an oven. The two brothers walk hand in hand into the oven and die there together. Their bones are ground and spilled in the river.
“They just sank to the bottom of the water. They became handsome boys; they looked just the same as before when they reappeared.” (p. 132)
And yet on the fifth day they reappear. Seen in the river as two catfish first, then they become two vagabonds dressed in rags. They dance, the Dance of the Poorwill, the Dance of the Weasel and Armadillos, Swallowing Swords and Walking on Stilts, performing miracles. They mutually sacrifice themselves one for the other, and yet get back to life. The Lords of Xibalba invite them and ask them to perform a show for them. To entertain the Lords, the two vagabonds sacrifice a dog that comes back to life after dying. They set fire to the home of the lord, with all the Lords inside. They are not burned and the house is reconstructed. Then they perform a human sacrifice, hold up the human heart and then bring the person back to life. Then Xbalanque sacrifices Hunahpu. Legs and arms are cut off. The head is decapitated. The heart is dug out and presented in a leaf to the Xibalbans. Xbalanque dances and orders his brother to come back to life and he does. That’s when the trap works. One and Seven Death ask them to sacrifice them both. Which they do but this time the two Lords do not come back to life. Then all the Lords submit and accept their defeat. And the two vagabonds reveal their names, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They reveal their fathers’ names, One Hunahpu, killed by the Xibalbans who then lose their greatness and brilliance.
During that time the ears of green corn they left in their grandmother’s house dried up when they died in the oven but then the corn plants grew again.
“Then the ears were deified by their grandmother, and she gave them names: Middle of the House, Middle of the Harvest, Living Ears of Green Corn, and Bed of Earth.” (p. 139)
Note the binary quartet. That’s the mention of a Maize God who is in fact associated to the resurrected father of the two brothers, a father who is one but as a member of a pair since he is One Hunahpu and is associated to Seven Hunahpu. This One-Seven pair that appears too in One and Seven Death, is mysterious, except that 1 + 7 = 8, bringing us back into the binary pattern 2–4–8. But this final renascence is concluded by a last miracle:
“And then the Four Hundred Boys climbed up, the ones who were killed by Zipacna.” (p. 142)
We have to note that this 400 is the only mention of the vigesimal counting base of the Mayas in the form of 20 x 20 = 400. The writing of numbers by the Mayas would clearly show this complexity. So in a way we have to consider the resurrection of the 400 Boys is the institution of Mayan mathematics which is also the basis of the Mayan Calendar. Note here the second figure of this calendar, 13, has never appeared in this story. The closest was the set of twelve lords in Xibalba emphasized when the two brothers met the Lords for the first time by the revelation of their names by the mosquito and then by the twelve personal greetings addressed to them. But thirteen remains a mystery. It will only appear in the next part as the “thirteen allied tribes” but it will never be clear specified who they are in the next sections of this book.
I will stop here because in the next sections it is rather the history of the establishment of the Maya nation or empire and we are no longer dealing with a myth but rather a mythologized real history. In this historical description, the Quiche (should be Cauec) Lords are attributed fourteen generations with nine lineages, great houses, and nine rulers. The Greathouses’ generations are counted up to eleven with two addenda that are not clear, and nine declared lords of the great houses but only eight listed, though a note clarifies this discrepancy as being the result of the translator cutting off the sixth lord because he is identical to the fourth (Chief of the Reception House) though the note says that this sixth lord should have been Chief Yeoltux Emissary, thus bringing the number of lords back to the announced number of nine. The third lineage is called again the Lord Quichés (which is correct) and have nine lords but no generations at all. In the same way, the next chapters present four Founders or four humans who are the fathers of the Maya people: Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Not Right Now and Dark Jaguar, who have four wives, respectively, Red Sea Turtle, Prawn House, Water Hummingbird and Macaw House. But these four main lines in the Maya people only have three gods for the first three lines: Tohil, Auilix, and Hacauitz. Dark Jaguar does not have a god. And this Dark Jaguar will more or less be sidetracked little by little and the four original humans only give three separate lineages: Jaguar Quitze and the nine great houses of the Cauecs, Jaguar Night and the nine great houses of the Greathouses and Not Right Now and the four great houses of the Lord Quichés. Note this list (p. 149) is in contradiction with the listing of the generations that calls the first lineage the Quiché lords. But one thing is clear. The fasting and penance doing of the Lords are based on the twenty days of the calendar, here translated as “scores” and they fast and do penance during multiple scores of days:
“For nine score days they would fast, and for nine they would do penance and burn offerings. Thirteen score was another of their fasts, and for thirteen they could do penance and burn offerings before Tohil and their other gods. They would only eat zapotes, matasanos, jocotes; there was nothing made of corn [it would be better to say “maize”] for their meals. Even if they did penance for seventeen scores, then for seventeen they fasted, they did not eat. They achieve truly great abstinence. This was a sign that they had the being of true lords. And there weren’t any women with them when they slept.” (p. 192)
If you follow the progression we have 9 scores, then 13 scores and then 17 scores. 9 is not as such part of the calendar but 9 is present in many sections when speaking of the houses and their lords. 13 is the number of scores (the basic sets of twenty days) of the Tzolk’in calendar. But 17 is nothing at all: I did not find it anywhere in this book. The second calendar is the Haab and it counts 18 scores of days plus five. So this book remains mysterious and does not solve some problems. We can see the Mayan counting system emerging and we can see the Tzolk’in calendar emerging but many other numerical elements are mysterious.
I will conclude with the last sentence of Part Three:
“And so they [the Four Hundred Boys] came to accompany the two of them [Hunahpu and Xbalanque], they became the sky’s own stars.” (p. 142)
And that conclusion makes Hunahpu and Xbalanque be like the sun and the moon, at least in symbolic treatment. The illustrations are absolutely amazing and beautiful.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU