Mayan Myths & Legends…

Maya Hero Twins. Painted by Lacambalam. Motif taken from an ancient Maya ceramic. Image credit: Lacambalam, (CC BY-SA 4.0).


Mayan Myths & Legends…

Maya Hero Twins. Painted by Lacambalam. Motif taken from an ancient Maya ceramic. Image credit: Lacambalam, (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The myths and legends of the Mayans came from the traditions and religion of a three millennium old, ancient civilization that existed in the region of Mesoamerica. Mesoamerica is the region comprising of Mexico and Central America. When the Spanish invaded the Mayans territories, most of their texts were burned. However, some of these legends managed to survive. The Mayan mythology sheds some light on the ancient culture and also, it commemorates the age-old traditions of the great Mayan civilization. Often, the Mayan narratives are set out such, that it defines the relationship between humankind and its environment. One can find explanations on the origin of the Sun, Moon, and the Milky Way; rain, thunder, lightening, animals, diseases etc. These stories, however, have more than one version.

1. Flat Earth and jaguars

The Bacabs as depicted in the Madrid Codex by Maya Preists, PD image.

The Mayans believed that the Earth was flat with four corners and each corner stood for a cardinal direction. The center was green and each of the four directions had other colors; east-red, west-black, north-white and south-yellow. And, at each corner there was a jaguar of different colour called bacabs, that held up the sky. Mayans also believed that the universe was divided into thirteen layers and each layer had its own god.

2. The legend of the Aluxes

The Aluxes (pronounced ah-lu-shes), were tiny beings made out of clay. Once they were created, they were given offerings and prayers to make them come to life. These creatures were hidden so that they could protect their owner that way. They are agile and light like the wind therefore they are scarcely spotted. Aluxes were faithful to their owners but mischievous to strangers. When properties of their owners are given to others, the aluxes would appear and scare the children. Therefore, to appease them, the new owners would gift them with food, honey, corn and cigarettes. Even today, the aluxes are believed to protect the Mayan towns and some believe that the aluxes bring light to the world. The Mayans also believed that if the aluxes were respected, they in turn would protect the people and their belongings.

3. The creation of the Earth

There are various stories on how the Earth was made. One version of the Mayans story is like this.

Before the Earth came into being, there was only two gods, Tepeu the Maker and Gucumatz the Feathered Spirit. They shone with bright blue and green feathers, while everything else around them was black. These two came together to create the world. Whatever they thought of came to life; when they though Earth, land formed and they though mountains, pines, valleys, sky and water, and all of these appeared. Thus the Earth was formed.


4. Creation of Life on Earth

Once the gods Tepeu the Maker and Gucumatz the Feathered Spirit made the Earth, they made beings to care for their creations and to praise them. They then created all creatures that roam the Earth today. However, these animals could not speak however much they tried. They could only bark, howl, bleat twitter, roar or moan. The disappointed gods decided to create better beings, ones who could do proper worship.

The made the first race of men from wet clay and gave them life, but they crumbled apart soon after when they tried to speak. A second race of men was created, carved from wood. The second race of men was stronger and able to walk, talk and multiply. However, these men did not have minds; their hearts were empty and they had no memories of their creation. Moreover, when they spoke it was empty and meaningless, so they could not praise the gods. Therefore, the Tepeu and Gucumatz sent a great flood to destroy them and ordered the animals to attack and tear them to pieces. Few of them managed to escape to the woods. They became monkeys and the gods left them there as an example to the next race of men.

The gods thought for a long time, but could not come up with the perfect material to create man. The animals brought them a stack of corn, which the gods ground to a paste and formed four men. They seemed perfect, sturdy and they had minds rich with feelings and thoughts. Their first act after their own creation was to thank their creators Tepeu and Gucumatz for their lives. The gods were pleased.

The new race of man could see forever, trees, mountains and to the edges of the Earth. They could see and understand the gods’ entire creation. The gods decided they knew too much and took away some of their vision. The men now could only see things close to them, and thus their greater understanding of the world was weakened. Despite this the men still praised the gods. The gods made four women for these men. These eight humans were the ancestors of all Quiche men today.

5. Heaven, Earth & the Underworld

Author: Oluf Bagge, PD image.

The Mayans believed, like many people, that the heavens were above and the underworlds below and the human world was in-between. There are 13 layers piled above the Earth – the heavens. The Earth itself rested on a turtle or reptile floating in the ocean. Four brothers known as Bacabs held up the heavens. Below the Earth is the realm called Xibalba – the underworld with nine layers. The three realms are linked by a giant tree, whose branches reach to the heavens and the roots reach into the underworld. The gods and souls of the dead travel through the worlds along this giant tree.

6. Legend of the Dwarf in Uxmal

Uxmal Yucatan by Esparta, (CC BY 2.0).

Long ago, there lived a very old woman in the ancient city of the Mayans. She was the oracle in the city. She could not have children. Therefore, she asked the god Chic Chan to bring her the shell of a large turtle. Several months later, a tiny, green dwarf with red hair was born. One day the dwarf decided to make a big gourd that would function like a type of rattle. There was a prophecy stating that people who played a similar instrument would become the new king. This angered the king who ruled at that time, leading him to challenge the Dwarf to a dual.

The king had the dwarf face three tests. For the first test, the king asked the dwarf the number of trees in his palace and the dwarf succeeded this test. For the second test, the dwarf was told to bring a male turkey that could lay eggs. The following day, he brought a man who appeared to be pregnant to prove that it was impossible to do the same with a turkey. He earned points from the judges. For the third and final test, the king asked Saiya to place a hickory on his head and then to break it with a spearhead. The dwarf passed this test as well and he challenged the king to do the same. The king, unfortunately, died due to his pride. Thus, the dwarf was declared the king. As king, he built the famous temple called ‘the governor’s house’. He built a house for his mother that he called ‘the house of the elderly mother’. Both these buildings can be seen in the Mayan ruins of Uxmal.

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