Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Mayan Creation Myth

The Popul Vuh (trans.: Book of the Council) records the Mayan creation myths as written down in the middle of the 16th century. For roughly 2000 years the Mayans did well in Central America with a warrior culture relying on slave labor and a rather sophisticated government. They had a two-king system, which is projected backwards to the twin brothers who play a role after this excerpt.

The creation is quite psychedelic with its weird style, emphasis on verbs, and lack of pronoun antecedents: “Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, it still sighs, still hums…” (491). Creation is the joint project of the sky and water forces: Heart of Sky and Plumed Serpent — once again, the mythological logic of it taking two to create. Naming is a magical act: “it was simply their word that brought it forth” (492).

The peopling of the earth is a dramatic tale.

They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters, they had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings. But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder. They just went and walked wherever they wanted. Now they did not remember Heart of Sky.

And so they fell, just an experiment and just a cutout for humankind. They were talking at first but their faces were dry. They were not yet developed in the legs and arms. They had no blood, no lymph. They had no sweat, no fat. Their complexions were dry, their faces were crusty. They flailed their legs and arms, their bodies were deformed.

And so they accomplished nothing before the Maker, Modeler who gave them birth, gave them heart. (493)

So this mindless batch are wiped out by a flood. It’s difficult to determine if the next part refers to a second experiment or if it’s still the first batch being harassed. But it’s vivid!

Everything spoke: their water jars, their tortilla griddles, their plates, their cooking pots, their dogs, their grinding stones, each and every thing crushed their faces. Their dogs and turkeys told them:

“You caused us pain, you ate us, but now it is you whom we shall eat.” (493)

The grinding stones, fed up with their lot in life, rebel and grind their owners’ flesh. Even the tortilla griddles get into the act:

“Pain!” That’s all you’ve done for us. Our mouths are sooty, out faces are sooty. By setting us on the fire all the time, you burn us. Since we felt no pain, you try it. We shall burn you,” all their cooking pots said, crushing their faces. (494)

So here’s the question. One can easily understand the moral of part of the story: treating your dogs bad is a poor idea, and not taking care of your turkeys is not wise. But tortilla griddles? I’m offending the sensibilities of my cooking pots and tortilla griddles if I put them on the fire to make tortillas which is what they are for in the first place?! What to do about the tortilla griddles — that’s the big mythological question.

The truth is that you should appreciate and care for even inanimate things in your possession. Cleaning your kitchen utensils is a way of honoring the Maker. Don’t even try to tell me you don’t have some inanimate object in your possession that you consider “sacred.” For me, it’s some prefab bookcases that I bought in grad school and lugged to my apartment and to everywhere I’ve lived ever since. They are practically worthless monetarily and in fact a burden now. I can easily get rid of these and already have superseded them with much more useful and glamorous bookcases. But THEY ARE SACRED so get your damn hands off my bookcases!

It’s the same thing, or should be, for tortilla griddles.

The last line of this excerpt brings up another rather vast mythological theme:

So this is why monkeys look like people: they are a sign of a previous human work, human design — mere manikins, mere woodcarvings. (494)

It turns out that our predecessors and the race of creatures who functioned as the failed experiment were monkeys. Apes are a recurring mythological theme because they creep us out by blurring the categories between human and animal. [See Apes.] We’re assured in this myth and others that we are worthier than they, but the warning against accomplishing nothing before the Maker lingers.

The Popul Vuh. (Excerpt.) Writing About the World. 2nd ed. by Susan McLeod et al. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1995. 491-494.

Creation Myths