Looking for a complete introduction to Mayan Mythology in just a few minutes? You’ve come to the right place! Read on !
Most historians believe that the Maya are the descendants of the Olmecs, from whom a group broke away around 1500 BC and then came to settle in the Yucatán. Gradually they occupied the entire Yucatán peninsula up to the Pacific coast.
The cultural evolution of the Maya can be divided into 3 periods.
- Pre-classical from 1500 BC to 250 AD.
- Classical from 250 to 950
- Post-classical from 950 until the Spanish conquest.They developed writing and numerical systems, they studied the stars and they invented an advanced calendar system.
The mythology of this people is very rich but little known because most of their books and writings were burned by the Spanish during the conquest.
Only four codices:
- Dresden Codex, probably the most important,
- Codex of Madrid,
- Codex of Paris,
- Codex of Mexico,
have come down to us, but there are also books that were written after the Spanish conquest, such as the Popol Vuh.
The Maya imagined a complex pantheon of main gods like Hunab Ku or Kukulkan and secondary whose exact attributions we do not always manage to identify.
The many priests serving the deities were feared and venerated by the people and their influence was felt in all social classes.
The Maya believed in an afterlife and depending on the actions of the deceased in his earthly life he would find himself in paradise or in the underworld after his death.
The creation of the world according to Mayan mythology
As one of the most important pre-Spanish colonization peoples in South America, the Maya had a highly developed mythology. In Mayan mythology, the creation of the world has great similarities with the creation of the world seen by Aztec mythology. This can be explained by the geographical proximity (the 2 peoples being neighbors) but also by their origins; the Aztecs and the Maya having common ancestors.
The 13 Heavens
In Mayan mythology, the sky was not a single entity but was divided into 13 levels each ruled by a deity.
The Muan bird, a kind of barn owl, resided in the highest celestial level.
Little is known about these celestial levels. However, as with the Aztecs; certain souls could reside in the Heavens by fulfilling certain very strict criteria.
According to some Maya, the Heavens were supported at the 4 corners by deities with immense physical power: the Bacabs.
The creation of the Earth
Like the Aztecs, the Maya believed in the existence of cycles of creation and destruction: for the Maya, each world prospered for 5,200 years before being destroyed and another one taking its place.
In this mythology, it is the creator God Hunab Ku who shapes the first world.
This world is then populated by dwarfs who build cities. Named Sayam Uinicob (expert men), these Dwarves build their cities in the dark because the sun does not exist yet. The end of this species originates from the first rays of the sun that turn the Dwarves into stones. This world is then destroyed by a great flood.
A second world is then born. This one is populated by a new species: the Dzolobs. We know nothing about this species except that its representatives are qualified as “transgressors”. We can therefore imagine that this species has not respected one or more rules set up by the Gods. This world will be destroyed by a flood from the mouth of the Great Celestial Serpent.
The third and last world is the one that saw the birth of the Maya and still exists today.
To create this world, the 4 Bacabs and 3 deities (Tepeu the worker, Gucumatz the lord with the coat of green feathers, and the Huracan) met.
The Huracan spoke the word “Earth” and threw a lightning bolt, which caused the Earth and the Mountains to emerge from the water and be covered with plants.
The Gods wanted to be honored, so they decided to create animals. Seeing that the latter could not speak, the gods condemned them to be hunted down and devoured.
The creation of Men
Always wishing to be honored, the Gods set about creating Humans.
They shaped the humans with clay. They could move and speak but they could not turn their heads and were destroyed by water.
The Gods decided to destroy them and try wood. This time the humans could speak, reproduce and build. However, they were stupid, devoid of feelings and ignored the Gods. The latter destroyed their creation again.
Then 4 animals (a coyote, a parakeet, a kite and a wild cat) came to the Gods and showed them the corn. The 8 Humans (4 men and 4 women) fashioned from the corn were perfect: they were intelligent and honored the Gods. However, the gods were worried because the humans were as knowledgeable as they were. The Gods decided to obscure the vision of the humans in order to concentrate on their daily lives.
The Maya were born, the name Maya being translated into French as “Maïs”.
As for the Heavens, the Mayan infraworld is very close to that of Aztec mythology.
For the Maya, the infraworld is composed of 9 levels, each one being ruled by one or several deities.
Most of the Maya had to pass through the infraworld after their deaths, even if they were “good people” (the Maya infraworld is therefore not the equivalent of hell in monotheistic religions).
In addition to the souls of the dead, the infraworld also hosted celestial bodies such as the Sun (at night) and the Moon (during the day).
The Maya believed that the Cenotes (natural chasms produced by the collapse of the ceiling of a cave) were entrances to the underworld. In the province of Yucatán in Mexico, there are about 10,000 of these Cenotes. In these places, the Maya practiced rituals and sacrifices having for goal to move away the evil or to honor the Gods of the inframonde.
Myths, customs and legends in the land of the Maya
Pre-Columbian cultures and civilizations are very popular with the public. The Yucatan, homeland of the Maya, has many things to teach us.
First of all, it is important to know that the Maya are not an extinct people. A large part of the population of the Yucatan, of neighboring Belize or Guatemala is descended from the Maya and speaks the Maya language, Nahuatl. South of Tulum, on the coast, near the border with Belize, Chetumal is one of the centers of Mayan culture. It was in this region that the Spaniards faced the strongest resistance in the sixteenth century; then, in the nineteenth century, the indigenous peoples revolted against Mexican rule and for some years now, Chetumal has been home to a modern museum about this civilization, the Museum of Mayan Culture.
One of the most surprising things about the Maya was their astrological culture. They were able, with the naked eye, to estimate the length of the solar year with greater precision than our Gregorian calendar. But what interests us today are the legends and rites that are omnipresent among the Maya. As in all countries, legends were part of everyday life, here are some of them.
THE LEGEND OF SISAL of the Mayan mythology
Sisal is a variety of agave that grows in the Yucatán region (where it is called henequen). It was discovered and cultivated by the Mayan people in the Merida region. The sisal leaves are used to make ropes and strings and when the Spaniards arrived in the Yucatán, they changed the name of the fiber to “agave sisal” and mechanized the production process and began to export sisal all over the world.
Legend has it that the great doctor priest Itzamná pricked himself deeply with an agave thorn, which upset him greatly. So, to avenge him, one of his followers attacked the plant and reduced it to mush. Being only a mass of fibers, thus was born the fiber of sisal.
According to the legend, the Maya discovered the virtues of this cactus and began to make the ropes that they would use to make fabrics and thus make the Yucatan rich. For centuries, the Maya wove their hammocks from this fiber. Until cotton, industrially manufactured in the 1920s, softer and more pleasant to the skin came to dethrone sisal.
If the legend is perhaps invented, the history of the henequen is true. The Yucatan was for a long time the only place on earth where this cactus was cultivated, before the Brazilians planted it on their land.
THE LEGEND OF THE ALUXES of the Mayan mythology
The “Aluxes” are small creatures with the appearance of children and a prankster’s mind.
It is said that in the corn fields of the Yucatan, the “Aluxes” were interested in the way the fields were treated by humans. If the fields were mistreated, the “Aluxes” would send a flurry of diseases, fevers and madness, all carried by the wind, or “bad air” in Mayan. However, if the Aluxes were given food and treated politely, they would tend the fields and generate a good harvest in return.
The “Aluxes” thus became part of everyday life. If, for example, a Mexican loses his car keys and finds them an hour later, the Mayans say that it is the prankster spirit of the “Aluxes” that is responsible.
Today, Mexican farmers who ask the “Aluxes” for help and protection must build them a small house.
It is said that these beings are descendants of the Dwarves of Uxmal created by the ancient Mayan priests and only come out of the caves at sunset.
THE LEGEND OF THE MAYAN HUMMINGBIRD
The legend of the hummingbird tells us that the gods created all the animals and assigned each one a specific job to do on Earth. When the distribution was complete, they realized that they had forgotten one. They needed a messenger to carry their thoughts and desires from one place to another. Having no more mud or corn to create this new messenger, they decided to do something special for their messenger. They took a Jade stone on which they carved an arrow symbolizing the path to be traveled and they blew so hard on the stone that the arrow gradually broke off and flew into the air in the form of a multi-colored hummingbird.
Hummingbirds became so popular that man began to capture them, but the Gods, angered by this disrespect, condemned to death any man who dared to capture these precious creatures. So to make it more difficult to capture the hummingbird they endowed it with an incredible velocity and if a hummingbird were to be captured, the bird would die. It is normal, it is a work of the Gods. The hummingbird should be free to fly and do its work in peace, letting people admire its beauty and speed.
The Mayans believe that these birds bring messages from the beyond and that they may be manifestations of the spirit of a deceased person. So if you see a hummingbird approaching your head, leave it alone, it is there to give you a message and to take your wishes directly to their destination.
Teek Paal Kó (the manatee): A Mayan legend
This is the legend of Teek Paal Kó, the manatee that met the conquerors.
Long ago, a tribe lived happily on a Mayan island. The tribe was called Kohunlich and the island was called Cuzamil, (Cozumel, today). The chief of the tribe was Chief Nachán Ca and he had a daughter named Zazil Ha who loved to swim in the ocean.
One day, on the beach, the princess met a strange animal that was trapped in a fishing net. Being naturally kind-hearted, she freed the animal and brought it to Chactemal, (Chetumal in southern Quintana Roo).
The animal was a baby manatee called Teek Paal Kó.
It looked like a child, was playful and enjoyed the company of the tribe. Sometimes he would use his chubby face to splash the children. Teek Paal Kó grew so much that soon his body was bigger than the fishermen’s boats.
Chief Nachán Ca went to see Teek Paal Kó and was so surprised by the animal’s softness that he shouted “mato, mato, mato”, “beautiful” in Mayan, hence the name manatee.
Teek Paal Kó was like another child in the village. He would come to the shore, let the other children climb on his back and take them swimming in the sea. The manatee used a loud sound to communicate with the children since manatees do not have vocal cords.
However, one day, the Spanish landed on the island with their very large ships and fought to enslave the Maya people. The Kohuinlich people had to flee from the foreign invader.
The manatee was left alone, crying but its sounds could not be heard until Zazil Ha’s hideout.One evening, while Teek Paal Kó was eating grass on the shore, a conqueror approached him. Teek Paal Kó did not move because he was used to people. The conqueror threw a spear at him and that was the day the manatee sadly learned that not all men were so kind.
From that moment on, living in fear of being killed, Teek Paal Kó lived underwater, coming to the surface only to breathe. He left and never returned to the place not on the beach of the princess.
One day, the sky became very dark and a terrible storm broke out. The river that connected the lagoon to the ocean overflowed and Teek Paal Kó was swept ashore. However, a familiar figure approached him: a huge manatee, his mother. She was sent by Izt Chel, goddess of fertility and the moon, to save him. The mother manatee embraced her child and, together, they disappeared into the waves to return home away from humans.
Man is considered the biggest predator for manatees. These animals are slow and very passive, so they end up being the perfect prey for hunters.
Nowadays, there are more manatee deaths than births. They can be natural, accidental or caused by humans. The manatee population is currently estimated at only 2,600 and is limited to southeastern Mexico, covering the coastal areas of the Gulf from Veracruz to Chetumal. They also live in rivers, ponds, swamps and Cenotes. Manatees found in this region are the only ones to survive in both fresh and marine waters.
THE TEMAZCAL of the Mayan mythology
The name of this ancient indigenous ritual related to traditional Mexican medicine comes from the combination of two Nahuatl words describing the place where it took place. In the language of the Aztecs, temas meant bath and calli, house. The temazcal is therefore literally a bath house where the temazcal, a treatment that involves sweating, takes place, much like the Roman baths, sauna and hammam in other cultures.
The ancient tradition of temazcal was fairly widespread among the Aztecs, Mayans and Zapotecs. They considered temazcal a “medical” treatment that could relieve, depending on the herbs used, skin diseases and respiratory problems.
Some practices were more specifically applied to pregnancy and childbirth. After the arrival of the Spaniards, the conquerors, outraged by the idea of this ritual bath that brought together naked men and women in an enclosed area, tried unsuccessfully to limit temazcal before banning it completely.
These sessions take place in a kind of brick hut that often takes the form of an igloo. The heat is generated by the introduction of incandescent volcanic stones on which the shaman or the temazcalera, as the woman who presides over the temazcal is called, throws water in which herbs with various virtues have been marinated.
According to tradition, the temazcal represents the uterus, and the burning stones that are introduced into it symbolize the sex of the man. The low doorway that allows entry into this dark, hot and humid space reinforces the allegory and the idea that each temazcal session brings about a kind of rebirth.
Mystical or not, therapeutic or not, this experience is interesting, if only because it allows a moment of reflection or meditation. Even if you don’t necessarily feel all the spirituality of the thing, the fact of remaining quietly in the dark for more than 90 minutes allows you to reconnect with yourself, and to savor the detoxification benefits of sweating.
THE CHAMAN of the Mayan mythology
The word shaman is used to designate the person who can enter into contact with the spirit world for the good of others. It is the people of his community who recognize him as such for his ability to communicate voluntarily with the spirits and thus obtain support, strength, healing,…
Etymologically, this term derives from “Saman”, a word of the Tungus people (Siberia) which can be translated as “the one who knows”, “the one who leaps, who agitates, who dances”,… Since the 20th century, the word shaman (also written “shaman” or “shaman”) has been used to talk about people who assume this role, whatever part of the world they live in.
Thus, shamanic practitioners from different traditions, Mongolian, Yakut, Chinese, Nepalese, Amerindian, Korean, aboriginal, Turkish, Hungarian, Shuar, Celtic, Inuit,… are today globally called “shamans”.
The shaman is a specialist in altered states of consciousness and becomes the intercessor between human beings and the natural and supernatural world.
According to his tradition, he sets up rituals, ceremonies, is guided by the sound of the drum, by spontaneous songs, by inspired speech, experiences trance phenomena, ecstasy, uses plants (?), “medicines”,… He practices healings of the soul and the spirit.
Among the first peoples, he can cumulate several functions: healer, seer, oracle, artist, priest, … Shaman, curandero, medicine man, shamanic practitioner, … all share a deep respect for nature, a love of Life and its mysteries, a sensitivity to the visible and invisible worlds.
The shamanic practitioner voluntarily enters a modified state of consciousness and explores subtle realities (called “non-ordinary realities”) to access the causes of imbalances that create pain, fatigue, stress, sleep disorders, pathologies, addictive behaviors, etc. With the help of his allied spirits, he restores balance and harmony, and the free circulation of life forces.
The end of the Mayan mythology
The Mayan mythology will last 3 000 years during which it will know many transformations (introduction of Gods of the Aztec pantheon, divination of the sovereign…). The beginning of the Spanish conquest of the Mayan territory in 1523 signs the beginning of the end for the Mayan mythology. The Spaniards imposed Catholicism on the locals and destroyed most of the Mayan sacred places and objects. Despite this, the descendants of the Maya still practice a Catholicism mixed with ancient beliefs of Mayan mythology.