The Mayans conceived the earth as resting on the back of an aquatic creature which would had risen to the surface, envisioned as a turtle or a crocodile. In one of the figures found from classic Mayan times, we encounter a turtle stone figure which is a diagram of space as well as of time. Perhaps that figure represents the origins of dry land and the origins of time. As many other civilisations, the Mayans envisioned a period of time as a continuous path that returns to its starting point. In one of the diagrams found from Classic Mayan times, we observe a square shape written counterclockwise with rows and dots, punctuated by divinatory dates, and the diagram can be read in at least four different ways of counting the time: two of them being counting 260 days or 52 years of 365 days each.
One of the sources of Mayan myth are the books of Chilam Balam, or of Jaguar spokesman, a Mayan prophet who lived during the Spanish invasion. He wrote nine books and each book had the name of a city. They are all anthologies of works committed to alphabetic writing. The language was prose but poetic in their phrasing. The content of the books are origin stories, prophecies, song texts, rituals, almanacs, medical treatises, chronicles and detailed descriptions of historical events, a rich source of Mayan culture. In one of the works, the Chumayel manuscript, we find five chronicles organising events according to the score of stones in which they occur or were predicted to occur. The authors used a mixture of history and prophecy, they re-examined prior history for a pattern of destiny. In fact, they were preserving history by giving to it a prophetic reinterpretation. In one of the stories, they spoke about the death of the rain priest, Napot Xiu, a priest who might have been the leader of Xiu pilgrims, who sought to end drought by sacrificing at the mouth of the well, at Chichen Itza. They went through Locoms territory and were offered hospitality, but they ended up being killed by them. In another story, in Yucatan, local officials called leaders and put them to the test with a question and answer oral exam. The language of that test is metaphorical rather than literal. The questions are riddles and therefore the answers require an understanding of the metaphor. The man in command would have asked questions in Suyua language and the leader would have been put to the test. If the person put to the test was part of the lineage of the lords, would have known the answers, if not, would have failed. This story suggests that pilgrims might have been put to the test with riddles such as these ones.
In one of the stories of origin, the author attributes the story to the first sage, Melchisedek and to a prophet, Napuctun. In the Chumayel manuscript, the latter prophesied the arrival of the Spanish invaders. In the story appears a character called Dios, DS, who is the first man to walk on the earth. Female family members though were already there, the grandmother, the maternal aunt, paternal grandmother and sister-in-law. The female characters discovered his footprints and followed them, measuring the intervals between them. From the second step, they started walking along with him for 20 days, giving a name to each day as it came. These are the origins of their divinatory calendar.
During Yucatan colonial times, healers, who treated a wide variety of herbs and words, continued using ancient gods. Among the mentioned deities were the four gods of the four directions and the compendium in which they are mentioned is called “ritual of the Bacabs”. Some of these practitioners used alphabetic writing to create collections of curative incantations. Each incantation had a preface naming the illness and describing the corresponding incantation as an oration or dialogue, or else referring to its intended effect on the illness by calling it a trap or destroyer. The writers of the incantations added instructions for their proper use and even suggested the tone of voice to be applied. Symptoms treated were various, some kind of madness: lack of judgement, spasms, frenzy, fury and shameless lust. This parallels astronomical allegories. Running through the Milky Way is a dark rift, the black road that leads to the underworld in the Popol Vuh. This contrasts with the ecliptic way followed by the sun, moon and planets, which is the path followed by the sky’s brightest stars. Those following the dark rift would end up mad, those following the ecliptic way were on the right path.
Incantations to treat illnesses involved exposing the ill patients to their identity, addressing them by name, and tracing them back to their birth at the beginning of the present world. These steps laid the ground work for exercising the illnesses, which means not only removing them from the patients, but also throwing them all the way out to the edges of the living world or down into the realm of death. As in many other native cultures around the world, we always find chaos, as that period between eras, and at the end of periods, a period of darkness that separates the destruction of the previous world from the ordering of the present one.
Besides the book of Chilam Balam, there is another important book to mention and written by the Mayas. A group of authors, who were masters of ceremonies or principal conveners of banquets from the k’iche, masters of ceremonies at weddings, were principal speakers on these events. They were mothers of the word, fathers of the word. They created and spread the original book, council paper book, or the Popol Vuh. Readers were considered seers and speakers, producing a performance and an account, the lighting of all the sky-earth. The book itself starts on mythic, divine times, when the only calendar was a divinatory one, when the sun, moon and planets did not exist yet. There are various chapters on the Popol Vuh, but Dr tedlock focussed on the episode in which the twin brothers, born from a divine deity from the underworld, encountered the monster Seven Macaw, a monster believed to represent the sun. The twin brother names are Hunahpu and Xbalanque, or the Blow-gunner and the Jaguar sun.
The introduction of the Popol Vuh is one of the most poetic passages of the whole book. Even though is written in prose, it combines a play of multiple meanings with multiple structures implying verse. Gods are treated as mother and father of life and of humankind. They are described as plate shapers, bowl shapers, they give form to space separating the plate of the earth from the bowl of the sky. The first god is the Great White Peccary and Coati and their names are Xpiyakok and Xmukane (matchmaker and midwife). They both take the role of diviners. Their sons are Jun Junajpu and Wuqub Junajpu, One and Seven Hunahpu, fathers of the twin brothers and those who established the custom of venerating the dead.
The book mentions of a primal world in which calm prevails. The sky and the sea are already separated, right from the beginning, and the earth is already there, hidden beneath the sea. The first work of the gods is to raise the earth from the water. A dialogue occurs between the gods at the centre of the sea. Present at the meeting are the maker, modeller, bearer, begetter and resplendent Plumed Serpent, also Heart of Sky joins them, together with Thunderbolt Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt, which are stones of celestial origin. The first question made by those gods went around sowing and dawning, which had a double meaning, planting and sprouting seeds, and sunset and sunrise. The second question brought up was who was going to be the provider, the nurturer, whose answer was Human work. These human sowings and dawnings are metaphorical, as underlie the twist of sowing and dawning of plants and the dawning and sowing of celestial lights.
The first action of the gods was to make a dry place in the midst of the sea. We have here the idea of the earth appearing from the water as a process that lends a cyclical movement to the picture: the clouds come from the mountains, then conceal the mountains, then part to reveal the mountains again. The Mayas measured the surface of the earth by laying out a rectangle formed by four points on the horizon, the points of sunrise and sunset in the solstices of winter and summer. The gods also focussed in creating human beings able to speak, to walk, to pray and to make offerings to the gods at appropriate times and places, humans who would be guided by a calendar and who would have the ability to recognise sacred locations in a four-sided, four-cornered world. They made four attempts, failing on the first three, when they created animals, human figures made of mud and then made of wood.
In one of the Popol Vuh episodes, the twin brothers avenge their fathers’ murders, which were committed by the lords of Xibalba, the lords of the underworld, by bringing their father to live again, then leaving their father on the grave and promising that that day would be the first one for human existence, the date to start honouring the dead, to venerate them. The narrators are saying that the dead can speak, to the extent that written words can be given voice. But visible though the written words of the dead may remain after they themselves have decayed, it is not in the power of such words to reconstitute the full presence of living faces. Written signs are skeletal remains of the past. Before that, there is a divinatory day related to Hunahpu, which appears to be in the Popol Vuh when the twin brothers avenge their fathers death and put their dead skeletons together.
The twin brothers’ fathers played ball with the lords of Xibalba and failed the test, so they were sacrificed. One of them was beheaded and the head became part of a tree, which was visited by one of Xibalba lord’s daughter, who took the sap of the tree spitted by the beheaded One Hunahpu and became pregnant, giving birth to the twin brothers. She was destined to become the moon goddess. The skull who spits on her explained to the moon goddess that in the future the dead will live on through their daughters and sons. The moon goddess was believed to be a trickster, who tricked the Xibalba messengers, the owls, sent by the lords of Xibalba. The owls, who were sent to kill and to extract the moon goddess heart, were tricked into using tree sap instead, for Xibalba’s lords sacrificing rituals. All of this has a meaning because the twin brothers also became tricksters. They tricked their brothers to climb a tree and the latter were turned into monkeys. Then the twin brothers shot at Seven Macaw, bringing him down of a tree, fall that brought a hurricane which reduced the wooden people into monkeys. Then they defeated the Seven Macaw sons, and then the lords of Xibalba. They were summon to play ball with the lords of Xibalba, but the twin brothers never revealed their names to the lords, which saved them from death. Then they were sent to the five houses of horror (darkness, one with knives, one with cold drafts and falling hail, one with hungry jaguars and one with killer bats). Hunahpu head was cut off in the last room and used to play ball, but Xbalanque recovered the ball and put it back into his brother body. Then they were asked to jump on fire and were burned, turning them into ashes. However, the brothers managed to organise for them to be sprinkle into a river, appearing anew as if the transition between one solar year and the next one had successfully happened. After ceremonial dances, the twin brothers finally tricked the lords of Xibalba to sacrifice themselves. The lords of Xibalba saw their powers much reduced, resulting in a future in which the only victims of the lords of Xibalba will be wrongdoers.
All of this has also an astronomical meaning. The head of One Hunahpu is placed on the tree as the first appearance of Venus as evening star and the coming to light of the twin brothers relates to Venus return to the easter horizon. The Venus calendar is also present when the moon goddess is sent to plant corn and is helped by the spirit guardians of the crop.
Another interpretation of the Popol Vuh, is that the lords were concerned about what they have created, so they reduced their sight. Besides, they decided that humans will multiply and die. The first four humans / ancestors did not acquire knowledge by disobeying the gods but were rather deprived of knowledge by gods, who did not wish them to come too close to a divine level of greatness. The gods took back their knowledge and withdrew to a distance, and they have stayed at a distance ever since. Instead of speaking plainly to humans, they sent messages by way of signs in the sky or by ominous cries or sudden movements of animals, or with dreams, or by enigmatic outcomes of divinations. Humans could reach those messages only by praying or making offerings. The decipherment of messages became an art. This became the way Mayans understood their world, how they interpreted the sacred and the profane, and all their ceremonies and rituals went around those parameters of thought.
Based on the book “2000 years of Mayan Literature” by Dennis Tedlock.
Pictures taken from photographs by the author of this article.