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Votan is a legendary or mythological figure mentioned in early European accounts of the Maya civilization.


Origins of the Votan story

The story of Votan in Mexico dates back to at least the late 17th century. It was first published in Constituciones diocesanas del obispado de Chiappa (1702) by Francisco Núñez de la Vega, Bishop of Chiapas. According to Francisco Javier Clavijero:

F. Núñez de la Vega, bishop of Chiapa, says, in the preface to his Synodal Constitutions, that in the visit which he made to his diocese towards the end of the last century [i.e. the late 1600s], he found many ancient calendars of the Chiapanese, and an old manuscript in the language of that country, made by the Indians themselves, in which it was said, according to their ancient tradition, that a certain person named Votan was present at that great building, which was made by order of his uncle, in order to mount up to heaven; that then every people was given its language, and that Votan himself was charged by God to make the division of the lands of Anahuac. The prelate adds afterwards, that there was in his time in Teopixca a great settlement of that diocese, a family of the surname of Votan, who were the reputed descendants of that ancient populator. We are not here endeavoring to give the antiquity to the populator of America on the faith of the Chiapanese, but merely to shew that the Americans conceived themselves the descendants of Noah.[1]

In his account, Bishop Núñez de Vega also states that Votan belonged to the royal lineage of "Cham" (probably "chan" or snake) and that he established a kingdom called "Na Chan" (Snake House) on the Usumacinta River that eventually extended across Chiapas and Soconusco to the Pacific Coast.[2] Additional information can be found in a 1786 publication by Antonio del Río[3] that cites the same sources as Clavigero and speculates at length on Votan's identity and travels to the Old World.

Associations with the Old World

At a time when the origins of Pre-Columbian cultures were poorly understood, these clerics associated Votan with the Biblical stories of the Tower of Babel and Noah, speculating that he had come to Mexico from the Old World. This tradition has been perpetuated by additional fantastic speculations that have been sharply critiqued by subsequent scholarship. This includes the association of Votan with Palenque by Ramon de Ordoñez y Aguilar, a priest who had lived near the site and wrote one of the earliest descriptions of the ruins in 1773. Ordoñez apparently incorporated some of the information that had been collected earlier by Bishop Núñez de la Vega into a document called the Probanza de Votan. "This strange work contained some fragments from Ximénez and a confused account of Votan, culture hero of the Tzeltal Indians, who, according to Ordoñez, had built Palenque. Fantastic details described Votan's four trips back to the Middle East."[4] The Tzeltal are an ethnic group that occupies the region that includes Teopisca, Chiapas, about 113 km southeast of Palenque. In the late 17th century, two hundred Tzeltal families "of Votan's ancestry" are said to have been living in Comitlan.[2]

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