Mayan Mythology – An Overview

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Mayan mythology was a variety of factors, including colorful, all-encompassing, brutal, gorgeous, naturalistic, deeply spiritual, and symbolic. There are also countless perspectives we can observe it from. We can use the lens of the Spanish colonizers who spread not just foreign viruses through Mesoamerica but also incalculable myths and clichés about Mayan mythology throughout the world. Alternatively, we can try and go through the original sources and myths to see what exactly Mayan mythology was all about.

Who Were the Mayan people?

The Mayan empire was the largest, most successful, and most scientifically and technologically advanced culture in all of America. In fact, many would argue that it was centuries ahead of the biggest and richest Old World empires too. The different periods of the development of Mayan cultured can be seen in this table:

A COMPLETE TIMELINE OF MAYAN CULTURE AND ITS DEVELOPMENT
Early Preclassic Mayans1800 to 900 B.C.
Middle Preclassic Mayans900 to 300 B.C.
Late Preclassic Mayans300 B.C. to 250 A.D.
Early Classic Mayans250 to 600 A.D.
Late Classic Mayans600 to 900 A.D.
Post Classic Mayans900 to 1500 A.D.
Colonial period1500 to 1800 A.D.
Modern-day independent Mexico1821 A.D. to present day

As you can see, the Mayan civilization can be traced back nearly 4,000 years and that’s only as far as we can tell as of today. The Maya had several ups and downs over the ages but their culture continues to live on to this day, albeit mixed with Spanish and strong Christian influences in modern Mexico.

What hampered the Mayan progress before the colonial period was a lack of certain natural resources such as cattle, metal, and fresh water in the Yucatan Peninsula. However, while this placed a natural ceiling to the progress the Mayans could achieve, they managed to accomplish more scientific, engineering, and astronomical advances with what they had than most other empires ever managed.

In addition to all this, the Mayans were also a deeply religious culture with a rich mythology that seeped into every aspect of their lives. Many modern clichés and myths depict Mayan culture as brutal and “barbaric”, however, if juxtaposed with any Old World religion, including the three Abrahamic religions, there really wasn’t anything “brutal” the Mayans did that other cultures weren’t doing on a regular basis as well.

So, can we give a biased and objective overview of the Mayan mythology? While a short article certainly isn’t enough for one of the largest and richest mythologies in the world, we can certainly give you some pointers.

Pre-Colonial vs. Early Colonial Mayan Mythologies

When it comes to examining Mayan mythology, there are two main types of sources one can use:

  • The few preserved independent Mayan sources anthropologists have managed to find, as well as all the archeological evidence we have from Mayan ruins. The most famous examples here are the Popol Vuh and other documents found in the Guatemalan Heights, including the famous K’iche’ Creation Stories. There are also the Ycatec Books of Chilam Balam discovered in the Yucatan Peninsula.
  • Spanish and other post-colonial chronicles and reports that try to describe Mayan mythology from the point of view of the Christian conquistadors.

In the later 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, there have been many anthropologists who tried to commit all oral folk tales of Mayan descendants to paper. While most such efforts genuinely attempt to avoid any biases, it’s only natural for those to be unable to fully encompass the four thousand years of Mayan mythology.

It’s also worth mentioning that there are many different ethnicities and regions within the larger Mayan group. There are Tzotzil Maya, Yucatec Maya, Tzutujil, Kekchi, Chol, and Lacandon Maya, and many others. The ancient Olmec civilization is also viewed by many scholars as a Mayan culture.

Each of those often has different myths or differing variants of similar myths, heroes, and gods. These differences are sometimes as simple as multiple names for the same gods and other times include entirely contradictory myths and interpretations.

The Basics of Mayan Mythology

There are several different creation myths in Mayan mythology, depending on who you ask. Like the rest of Mayan mythology, they tend to detail the ritualistic relationship between humankind and its environment. Mayan cosmology does this for the heavenly bodies too as well as for all natural landmarks in Mesoamerica.

In other words, everything in the world of the Maya is a person or a personification of a deity – the sun, the moon, the Milky Way, Venus, most stars and constellations, as well as mountain ranges and peaks, rains, drought, thunder and lightning, the wind, all animals, the trees and forests, as well as agricultural instruments, and even diseases and ailments.

Mayan mythology depicts a universe with three layers – underworlds, earth, and heavens, in that order with the heavens above earth. The Maya believed that the heavens was made up of thirteen layers, stacked upon one another. The earth was believed to be supported or contained by a giant turtle, beneath which was Xibalba, the name of the Mayan underworld, which translates as place of fright.

Mayan Cosmology and Creation Myths

All of the above is exemplified in the several Mayan creation myths. The Popol Vuh documents tell that a group of cosmic deities created the world not once but twice. In the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, there is a myth about the collapse of the sky, the slaying of the Earth crocodile, the erection of five World Trees, and the erection of the sky back into place. The Lacandon Maya also had a myth for the Underworld.

In these and other tales, every element of the Mayan environment is personified in a particular deity. For example, the earth is a crocodile called Itzam Cab Ain who caused a worldwide flood and was killed by having his throat cut. The sky, on the other hand, was a giant sky dragon with deer hooves who spewed water instead of fire. The dragon caused a world-ending deluge which forced the world to be remade again. These myths embody how the environment and everything in it played an important role in the lives of the people.

The Creation of Mankind

The Mayan myth of the creation of humanity is fascinating in its connection to monkeys. There are versions of the myth, but the Maya believed that humans were either turned into monkeys or made by monkeys. Whether this came by coincidence or from some innate evolutionary understanding, we don’t know.

According to one myth described in the Popol Vuh as well as in various preserved vases and ornaments, humanity was created by two monkeys named Hun-Choven and Hun-Batz. The two were Howler Monkey Gods and are also called Hun-Ahan and Hun-Cheven in other sources. Either way, in their myth, they got permission to create humanity from the higher Mayan gods and they did so by sculpting us from clay.

In another more popular version, the deities created humans out of wood but because of their sins, a great flood was sent to destroy them (in some versions, they were eaten by jaguars). Those who survived became monkeys and from them all other primates descended. The deities then tried again, this time creating humans from maize. This made them nurturing beings, as maize was an important aspect of the Mayan diet.

Most Famous Mayan Gods

There are many major and minor gods in Mayan mythology as well as countless demi-gods and spirits. Even those we are aware of tend to have different names depending on which Mayan sub-culture and tradition you’re looking at. Some of the most famous deities include:

  • Itzamn – The benevolent lord of the heavens and the day/night cycle
  • Ix- Chel – The Mayan moon goddesses and a deity of fertility, medicine, and midwifery
  • Chac – The powerful god of the rain, weather, and fertility
  • Eh Chuah – The violent god of war, human sacrifice, and death in combat
  • Acan – The god of the Mayan balche tree wine and intoxication in general
  • Ah Mun – The god of corn and agriculture, usually depicted as young and with a corn ear headdress
  • Ah Puch – The malevolent god of death and the Mayan underworld
  • Xaman Ek – A god of travelers and explorers, professions which the Mayans had to perform without the help of riding animals

Key Mayan Heroes and Their Myths

Mayan mythology is home to many heroes with a few of the most famous ones being the Jaguar Slayers, the Hero Twins, and the Maize Hero.

The Jaguar Slayers

Jaguars were arguably the biggest wildlife threat to the Mayan people throughout most of their history. A group of Chiapas Mayans had a collection of myths about the Jaguar Slayers. These heroes were experts at catching jaguars in “stone traps” and burning them alive.

In most myths and on most vase and ornament depictions, the Jaguar Slayers are usually four young men. They often sit on boulder-like altars to represent their stone trap ingenuity.

The Hero Twins

Called Xbalanque and Hunahpu in the Popol Vuh, these two twin brothers are also called The Headband Gods.

Some myths describe them as two ball players and they are famous as such today, but that’s actually the least interesting part of their story.

Another myth tells the story of how the Hero Twins defeated a bird demon – a tale that’s been retold in many other cultures and religions across Mesoamerica.

A second tale shows the two brothers tending to a dying deer. The animal is covered with a shroud with crossed bones on it. The deer is believed to be their father Hun-Hunahpu and the transformation into an animal to be a metaphor for death.

The Maize Hero

This hero/god shares several myths with the Hero Twins and has his own adventures too. Also called the Tonsured Maize God, he is believed to be the father of the Hero Twins Hun-Hunahpu. He is said to have had an aquatic birth and subsequent aquatic rebirths after his death.

In another myth, he proposed a musical challenge to a turtle rain deity, and he went on to win the challenge and leave the turtle’s abode unharmed.

In some myths the Tonsured Maize God is also shown as a moon god. In such myths, he’s often portrayed nude and in the company of many naked women.

Wrapping Up

Today, there are around 6 million Maya who continue to be proud of their heritage and history and keep the myths alive. Archeologists continue to find new information about the Mayan civilization and its mythology as they explore the remains of the great Mayan cities. There is still much to learn.

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