The oldest myths date from the 16th century and are found in historical sources from the Guatemalan Highlands. The most important of these documents is the Popol Vuh or 'Book of the Council', which contains Quichean creation stories and some of the adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Yucatán is an equally important region. The Books of Chilam Balam contain mythological passages of great antiquity, and mythological fragments are found scattered among the early-colonial Spanish chronicles and reports, chief among them Diego de Landa's Relación, and in the dictionaries compiled by the early missionaries.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, anthropologists and local folklorists have committed many stories to paper. Even though most Maya tales are the results of an historical process in which Spanish narrative traditions interacted with native ones, some of the tales reach back well into pre-Spanish times. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the transmission of traditional tales has entered its final stage. Fortunately, however, this is also a time in which the Mayas themselves have begun to salvage and publish the precious tales of their parents and grandparents.
Important Mythical Themes
In Maya narrative, the origin of many natural and cultural phenomena is set out, often with the moral aim of defining the ritual relationship between mankind and its environment. In such a way, one finds explanations about the origin of the heavenly bodies (Sun and Moon, but also Venus, the Pleiades, the Milky Way); the mountain landscape; clouds, rain, thunder and lightning; wild and tame animals; the colours of the maize; diseases and their curative herbs; agricultural instruments; the steam bath, etc. The following more encompassing themes can be discerned.
World Creation and World End
The Popol Vuh describes the creation of the earth by the wind of the sea and sky, as well as its sequel. The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel relates the collapse of the sky and the deluge, followed by the raising of the sky and the erection of the five World Trees. The Lacandons also knew the tale of the creation of the Underworld.
Creation of Mankind
The Popol Vuh gives a sequence of four efforts at creation: First were animals, then wet clay, wood, then last, the creation of the first ancestors from maize dough. To this, the Lacandons add the creation of the main kin groupings and their 'totemic' animals. The creation of humankind is concluded by the Mesoamerican tale of the opening of the Maize (or Sustenance) Mountain by the Lightning deities.
Actions of the Heroes: Arranging the World
The best-known hero myth is about the defeat of a bird demon and of the deities of disease and death by the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Of equal importance is the parallel narrative of a maize hero defeating the deities of Thunder and Lightning and establishing a pact with them. Although its present spread is confined to the Gulf Coast areas, this myth may once have been part of Mayan oral tradition as well. Important mythological fragments about the heroic reduction of the jaguars have been preserved by the Tzotziles.
Marriage with the Earth
This mythical type defines the relation between mankind and the game and crops. An ancestral hero - Xbalanque in a Kekchi tradition - who's the daughter of an Earth God; the hero's wife is finally transformed into game, bees, snakes and insects, or the maize. If the hero gets the upper hand, he becomes the Sun, his wife the Moon. A moralistic Tzotzil version has a man rewarded with a daughter of the Rain Deity, only to get divorced and lose her again.
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