Even as other parts of the World the ancient history of America is also still
a more or less white spot in historical perspective.
Hunters roam the landscape, subsisting on large mammals and gathering plants
and other natural resources. Incipient agriculture begins about 5000 B.C., and
over the next thousand years includes low-intensity crops such as chili peppers,
avocados, and beans.
Excavations in the Tehuac valley in central Mexico have uncovered small
cobs of Zea maysmaize, or corndated to around 3000 B.C. It probably has little
nutritional value at this stage, but by 2000 B.C., corn is one of the staple
crops of Mesoamerican society and remains so for thousands of years.
ca. 7000 B.C.American Archaic cultures
are those that occur between Paleoindian hunters and the peoples who have realized
some combination of pottery making, burial mound construction, and garden technology.
The combination varies from area to area.
ca. 5000 B.C.Settlements are established
on the shores of the resource-rich lakes in the Basin of Mexico, where early
gardening efforts are undertaken.
ca. 4000 B.C.Shell-mound sites are
occupied in the coastal estuaries of the Soconusco region of the Pacific coastal
plain of Mexico and Guatemala.
ca. 3114 B.C. Mythic base date (August
13, 3114) of the Maya Long Count Calendar.
ca. 3000 B.C.An early form of corn
is identified in the Valley of Tehuac in southern Puebla/northern Oaxaca states,
and subsequently evolves into a highly productive plant food.
ca. 2800 B.C.Ceramics of the Monagrillo
complex are present in small settlements around Parita Bay in central Panama,
an area of rich coastal resources. Technologically conservative, Monagrillo
ceramics are made for many hundreds of years.
ca. 2300 B.C.Tlapacoya (also known
as Zohapilco), a significant island community on Lake Chalco in the Basin of
Mexico, yields the earliest yet identified ceramic figurine in Mesoamerica.
The hunter-gatherer lifestyle gives way almost completely to sedentary agriculture.
Villages around the Basin of Mexico and the Soconusco region of coastal Guatemala
establish trade routes and social organization becomes increasingly complex.
Rapid development of the Olmec site of San Lorenzo, Veracruz, after 1200 B.C.,
includes massive basalt sculptures. An iconographic system with its roots in
the Gulf Coast spreads across Mesoamerica, as evidenced in the ceramics of central
Mexico and in monumental sculpture and carvings as far south as Honduras and
ca. 1800 B.C.Sedentary village life
is widespread and pottery is abundant.
ca. 1600 B.C.Villages along the Coatzacoalcos
River drainage on the Gulf of Mexico flourish based on abundant riverine resources
and fertile soils.
Established villages expand in the Soconusco region of the Pacific coastal
plain of Guatemala and Chiapas (Mexico).
ca. 1400 B.C.Luxury goods such as
ceramic figurines, stone bowls, and greenstone beads are placed in burials in
villages of the Soconusco region.
The people of San Lorenzo modify the form of the natural plateau upon which
the center is built. Rising above the Coatzacoalcos River drainage in southern
Veracruz, the plateau becomes home to the dominant city of the coastal lowlands,
the impressive capital of an innovative people now known as the Olmec.
Highland villages in central Mexico produce numerous sophisticated works
of ceramic, notably small, detailed female figurines. Certain villages, such
as Tlatilco and Tlapacoya in the Basin of Mexico and Las Bocas in western Puebla,
begin to establish precedence over their neighbors.
A ground and polished greenstone celta tear-shaped ax or adzeis placed
as a dedicatory offering below a large residential mound at Paso de la Amada,
a major village in the highlands of Chiapas. Ground stone celts are used as
agricultural tools throughout much of Mesoamerica. They take on a revered, symbolic
role, thought to be based on their primary function as tools.
ca. 1350 B.C.The first public building
in the Valley of Oaxaca is constructed at the major regional center of San Jos
Mogote. It is a stuccoed wattle-and-daub structure built on a platformlike foundation.
ca. 1250 B.C.At San Lorenzo, ceramics
of distinctive white, gray, and black surfaces are produced, often the result
of specialized firing techniques. These colors come to be identified with Olmec
ceramics, as do certain design motifs, wherever they are found.
ca. 1200 B.C.The beginning of the
period known archaeologically as the Middle Formative, one of particularly significant
development in Mesoamerica.
Within the precincts of the Red Palace, a large earthen and wood structure
with red-stained sand floors and pigmented walls, the Olmec of San Lorenzo control
raw materials and the production of stone sculpture. Volcanic stone, a rare
commodity imported into the floodplains of the Gulf Coast from the distant Tuxtla
mountains, is used and reused for large, unprecedented three-dimensional sculpture,
including multi-ton stone heads.
ca. 1050 B.C.Olmec stylistic traits
are present in ceramics and greenstone figurine fragments in the Soconusco region
of the Pacific coast.
Fundamental cultural patternsmaize agriculture, precisely aligned site plans,
the construction of pyramids and plazas, and images defining the ruler as the
central figure connecting the natural and supernatural realmsspread across
the region. Gulf Coast and central Mexican sites carry the Olmec tradition.
By 400 B.C., the artistic and cultural dominance of the Gulf Coast wanes. In
Oaxaca, the earliest known calendrical glyph occurs around 600 B.C. at the Zapotec
site of San JosMogote. The influential site of Teotihuacan in central Mexico
is established circa 150 B.C.
ca. 950 B.C.Olmec San Lorenzo loses
political power and population. Sixty miles to the southeast, another Olmec
center on the floodplain, the island site of La Venta, gains both.
ca. 900 B.C.Chalcatzingo, in the central
Mexican highlands, remodels the natural landscape into a series of broad terraces,
and carves ritual scenes in low relief on living rock. At other central highland
centers such as Tlatilco and Las Bocas, ceramic vessels and figures in Olmec
style are present. Trade networks between important regional centers are considered
to be active. They are thought to occasion numerous pan-Mesoamerican cultural
The layout of the ceremonial heart of La Venta, a specially oriented pattern
of juxtaposed mounds and open plazas, is established. Such layouts will be usedwith
regional and temporal variationsin building sacred Mesoamerican centers for
more than 2,000 years.
ca. 800 B.C.A large earthen pyramid
is constructed at La Venta, possibly conceived of as a sacred mountain. Burials
at La Venta contain significant grave goods. Small carefully fashioned figures,
personal ornaments, and celts of green jadeite and other greenstones are among
the mortuary offerings.
ca. 600 B.C.Major buildings at San
JosMogote in the Valley of Oaxaca are built of masonry. A carved relief is
set in a corridor floor that depicts a slain figure with a hieroglyph for "1
Earthquake" between its feet. It is the earliest recorded date in Zapotec, the
Oaxaca hieroglyphic system.
ca. 500 B.C.Monte Alb is established
on a defensible hill above the Valley of Oaxaca, and grows rapidly into the
major regional center. The populations of valley-floor villages such as San
JosMogote are much diminished.
ca. 400 B.C.Two calendars, a 365-day
solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar, appear to be in use.
Many of the large carved stone sculptures and monuments at La Venta are damaged;
the city loses political power and population, and is gradually deserted.
ca. 300 B.C.Cuicuilco, now the largest
center on the high plateau of the Basin of Mexico, has substantial public architecture,
including a circular, stone-faced pyramid.
In western Mexico, deeply buried tombs at the bottom of shafts are in use.
Located in the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima, the tombs contain
ceramic figures and vessels in great quantity. The stylistic names assigned
to the ceramics correspond to the names of the modern states.
ca. 200 B.C.Defensive walls are constructed
on the north and west sides of Monte Alb. Low-relief carved stones with depictions
of slain victims are set into the walls of Building L; known as Danzantes, from
the contorted postures of the figures, they number more than 300. Also incorporated
into Building L are Stelae 12 and 13, with hieroglyphs carved in an apparent
early Zapotec text.
ca. 150 B.C.The Xitle volcano erupts
in the southern Basin of Mexico, overwhelming Cuicuilco and instigating resettlement
of peoples further north in the basin.
ca. 100 B.C.The settlement of Teotihuacan
in the northern Basin of Mexico grows. Close to perpetual springs and obsidian
sources, it is well situated for irrigation agriculture and has active obsidian
workshops. Obsidian, a volcanic glass, is essential in Mesoamerica for the making
of toolspoints, knives, and scrapers.
32 B.C.The Long Count date 18.104.22.168.18
(September 3, 32 B.C.) is carved on a stone monument, Stela C, at the Gulf Coast
site of Tres Zapotes, a major Epi-Olmec community.
Teotihuacan becomes the dominant political and economic force of Mesoamerica.
Boasting the largest urban population in the region, it controls the nearby
and highly important obsidian mines. Teotihuacan apparently sends a military
force into the Maya region at the end of the fourth century. The hilltop center
of Monte Alb expands to control the Valley of Oaxaca. Farther to the west,
in Colima, Nayarit, and Jalisco, lively and elegant ceramic sculptures are placed
in shaft tombs. On the Gulf Coast, inheritors of the Olmec tradition develop
a still poorly understood hieroglyphic writing distinct from the Maya and Zapotec
ca. 1 A.D.Teotihuacan in the Basin
of Mexico grows rapidly as rural populations move in, possibly coerced into
ca. 50 A.D.The grid pattern of the
city plan is established at Teotihuacan and the focus of sacred building is
on the so-called Street of the Dead, where permanent construction of public
architecture (such as three-temple complexes) begins. The Pyramid of the Sun,
the largest structure ever raised in ancient Mesoamerica, is initiated over
a narrow, tunnel-like cave adjacent to the street. Caves are associated with
the origins or emergence of life in Mesoamerican thought. The city becomes a
Monte Alb grows quickly and dominates, apparently by force, the Valley
of Oaxaca. Much of the mountaintop on which it is built is leveled to form the
great Main Plaza; temples and palaces on its perimeter are constructed or enlarged
and surfaced with white lime plaster. Tomb construction and burial contents
become more elaborate.
ca. 150 A.D.The Pyramid of the Moon
at the north end of Teotihuacan's Street of the Dead is enlarged, and the axis
of the city center shifts south with the building of a large permanent market
structure, the Great Compound, and a religious/governing center, the Ciudadela.
Teotihuacan is a major marketplace, and controls much of the essential trade
in obsidian in central Mexico.
A relief-carved stela found at La Mojarra in the Papaloapan River drainage
of Veracruz depicts a grandly dressed personage and bears a long inscription
in what is thought to be an Epi-Olmec script.
ca. 200 A.D.The talud-tablero, a particular
architectural profile used on sacred temple platforms, appears on the Temple
of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan's Ciudadela. The talud-tablero profile
will be widely used in the city and elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Teotihuacan controls
the Basin of Mexico.
Building J at Monte Alb incorporates the "conquest" reliefs believed to
name the numerous Oaxaca locations claimed as subject to the hilltop city. I-shaped
ballcourts are present at Monte Alb and the ballgame is thought to have had
a role in resolving disputes.
ca. 250 A.D.Wall paintings, done in
a fresco technique, embellish temples near the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan;
eventually, frescoed walls appear throughout the city. Permanent apartment compoundswalled,
one-story building groups that become the standard residential unitare initiated.
Many are occupied by the city's hundreds of craftsmen. Future building efforts
center on residential construction; about 2,000 apartment compounds will make
up the city.
The shaft tombs of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Colima in the west of Mexico are
no longer made on the grand scale of previous centuries.
ca. 378 A.D.In Guatemala's Pet,
the ninth recorded ruler of the Maya city of Tikal, Chak Toh Ich'ak I (Great
Jaguar Claw), dies on the day a foreign warrior named K'ak Sih (Fire-Born)thought
to be from Teotihuacanarrives. The following year, a new ruler is invested
at Tikal, Yax Ain I (First Crocodile), who has strong ties to Teotihuacan, and
there is much subsequent Teotihuacan presence at Tikal.
ca. 400 A.D.Architectural details
and ceramic vessel forms at Kaminaljuyin the southwestern Maya highlands and
in the Tiquisate region of Guatemala's Pacific coast indicate a strong Teotihuacan
ca. 450 A.D.Royal tombs at Monte Alb
contain numerous large, complex funerary urns of ceramic. The urns are thought
to depict deceased ancestors. A specific neighborhood, known as the Oaxaca barrio,
exists in Teotihuacan for people from Monte Alb.
The fall of Teotihuacan in the seventh century precipitates a period of dislocation.
Many peoples are uprooted to new territories, forming new political and trade
alliances, and creating eclectic art styles. A number of smaller cities in central
Mexico compete for control and prestige. On the coast of the Gulf of Mexico,
El Taj develops into an extensive site and appears to have been the center
for important ceremonial games. In the Valley of Oaxaca, small regional centers
increase their power at the expense of Monte Alb, and the Mixtecs have a growing
presence. By 900 A.D., the Toltec culture is the new centralizing force in Mesoamerica.
ca. 500The city of Teotihuacan covers
about eight square miles, with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000.
Major construction activity in the city subsides, while production of prestigious
craft goods for local use and export flourishes. Large quantities of ceramicscylindrical
tripods, figurines, and multipiece incense burnersand greenstone, calcite,
and obsidian human figures and masks are manufactured in specialized workshops.
The Teuchitl tradition of circular structures flourishes in the highland
valleys of west central Jalisco. Elite ceremonial and administrative centers
are constructed of circular, truncated pyramids arranged in large circles often
associated with ballcourts.
Cholula in the fertile Puebla-Tlaxcala valley thrives. Its Great Pyramid,
Tlachihualtetl ("man-made mountain"), is enlarged; stairs on all four sides
allow access to the summit. Subsequent enlargements will make it the largest,
continuously used structure in ancient America.
ca. 550Elite tombs in regional centers
in the Oaxaca valley feature door jambs and panels of stone carved with scenes
and Zapotec hieroglyphs recounting the genealogies of the ruling lords.
ca. 600On the north central frontier
of Mexico, the Chalchihuites culture exploits the mineral resources along the
foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Mesoamerican culture traits are transmitted
into the United States Southwest.
Teotihuacan's influence over the rest of Mesoamerica ceases.
Cantona, located east of the central Mexico highlands and Teotihuacan's main
competitor for control of the obsidian trade, builds fortifications.
ca. 650Principal temples and elite residences
in central Teotihuacan are burned, and carved cult objects smashed, perhaps
the result of an internal political and economic crisis. Many apartment compounds
are abandoned, but parts of the site remain inhabited until about 900.
In central Veracruz, a number of regional centers produce vast quantities
of ceramic sculpture for ritual purposes, among them Remojadas, Nopiloa, and
ca. 700Xochicalco in western Morelos
develops into an important regional center. Its art and architecture combine
elements of traditional Teotihuacan style with aspects of contemporary styles
from the Oaxaca, Maya, and Gulf Coast regions.
El Taj dominates on the Gulf Coast, where the ballgame is the focus of
ritual activity. The site has no fewer than seventeen ballcourts; hundreds of
portable sculptures associated with the game, known as yokes, hachas, and palmas,
have been found throughout the north central Gulf lowlands.
ca. 750 Tula Chico is founded in the present
state of Hidalgo in the northern Basin of Mexico. The city's population is composed
of many disparate ethnic groups.
ca. 800Major construction ceases at Monte
Alb and its population declines rapidly. Political power in the Oaxaca valley
shifts to smaller centers on the valley floor, among them Yagul, Mitla, and
ca. 800Well-preserved mural paintings
at Xochitatl-Cacaxtla in the Valley of Tlaxcala provide evidence of the presence
of powerful Maya groups in the heart of central Mexico. Xochitatl-Cacaxtla
controls trade routes between the Gulf Coast and the central highlands.
The city of Tula covers an area of about two-and-a-half square miles. Like
Teotihuacan, its plan is a uniform grid, oriented north-south, with streets,
terraces, plazas, and residential compounds. New architectural elements include
colonnaded halls, atlantean sculptures, chacmools, skull racks, and warrior
figures on columns and murals. Toltec culture and religion, which includes new
gods, among them Quetzalcol and Tezcatlipoca, spread rapidly throughout Mexico
via trade and conquest.
Metallurgy is introduced into western Mexico, probably through long-distance
contact with much older South American traditions.
ca. 850Catastrophic destruction and rapid
abandonment occur in most flourishing central Mexican city-states, a result
of local revolt and/or military conquest, perhaps at the hands of the Toltecs.
ca. 900Toltec Tula is the powerful capital
of a state that integrates the diverse peoples of Mexico into a new cultural
system. Its trade network stretches from Costa Rica to the United States Southwest.
Metalworking is practiced and its popularity grows. Turquoise becomes an
important luxury material.
A new polychrome ceramic ware in the Cholula area combines bright colors
ca. 925The Toltecs reach Yucat, introducing
new architectural forms and imagery. Toltec influence is particularly strong
at the site of Chich Itzin northern Yucat.
Countless cities and small city-states exist in central Mexico; populations
increase substantially. The city-states engage in constant warfare while trying
to expand their political and economic base. Most are unable to establish themselves
in larger domains or empires. Long-distance trade grows, and traveling merchants
have an important place in the social hierarchy, as do professional soldiers.
Stylistic features and symbols spread throughout large areas. About 1200, numerous
Nahuatl-speaking groups from northern Mexico migrate to central Mexico, where
the Aztec culture will coalesce. One of the northern groups, the Mexica, rises
to prominence in the fifteenth century as rulers of the Aztec empire.
ca. 1000Tula, at the height of its cultural
and political influence, is the largest city in central Mexico, covering some
five square miles with a population of about 60,000 persons. At its center,
the sacred precinct features two large ballcourts and two stepped pyramids.
One, known as Pyramid B, is decorated with carved relief panels showing feathered
serpents, prowling jaguars and coyotes, and eagles with human hearts in their
ca. 1070A small Mixtec city-state in
the Mixteca Alta of highland Oaxacathe Tilantongo kingdomexpands under the
rulership of Lord 8 Deer Jaguar Claw. A warrior, he conquers several towns and
forges alliances through marriage. His spectacular exploits are subsequently
recorded in pictorial manuscripts. Three survive today: the Codex Bodley, the
Codex Zouche-Nuttall, and the Codex Colombino-Becker.
ca. 1100Nahuatl-speaking peoples begin
migrating toward central Mexico. They are led by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli
("Hummingbird on the Left"), his image borne on a priest's shoulders. Aztl
("Place of the Herons"), an island in a lake in west or northwest Mexico, is
said to be their point of origin.
ca. 1150In the far north, the city of
Casas Grandes (also known as Paquim is an important exchange center for luxury
materials from both the north and the south. Casas Grandes' own distinctive
ceramic wares are traded throughout the region.
ca. 1175The violent destruction of the
central Mexican city of Tula coincides approximately with the arrival of Nahuatl-speaking
peoples from northern Mexico.
ca. 1200The Huastec people of the northern
Gulf Coast, linguistically related to the Maya, create highly individual forms
of stone sculpture and ceramics.
ca. 1250Cholula to the east of the Basin
of Mexico is conquered by the northern Tolteca Chichimeca people and a new ceremonial
precinct is built around the Pyramid of Quetzalcol. Cholula's Great Pyramid
was the focal point of religious activity for over a thousand years.
ca. 1300A new geometric, vividly colored
painting stylepossibly originating in Cholulaappears, primarily used on ceramic
vessels and in pictorial manuscripts. Named Mixteca-Puebla for the regions of
its greatest concentration, depictions include gods, religious rituals and symbols,
as well as events relating to dynastic histories. It is widely disseminated
throughout central Mexico.
In the west, the Tarascan people of the Pzcuaro Basin assume control of
some northern trade routes. Talented craftsmen, they produce fine ornaments
of gold, silver, and paper-thin obsidian (a volcanic glass).
ca. 1325The Mexica people settle on a
marshy island in the Basin of Mexico's Lake Texcoco after almost 200 years of
wandering. Naming their city Tenochtitlan, they build a sanctuary dedicated
to their tribal/war god Huitzilopochtli and to the ancient rain god Tlaloc.
ca. 1350In the Oaxaca Valley, Mixtecs
marry into Zapotec royalty, increasing their local power. Mixtec metalsmiths
produce exquisite gold ornaments valued throughout Mexico.
ca. 1371In the Basin of Mexico, Tezozomoc
becomes king at Atzcapotzalco, then the most powerful city-state in the region.
He assumes control of neighboring Tenochtitlan and names Acamapichtli its king.
ca. 1372Acamapichtli enlarges Tenochtitlan's
main sanctuary, building two temple pyramids side by side. He forges political
alliances through strategic marriages.
ca. 1391Huitzilihuitl, son and successor
of Acamapichtli in Tenochtitlan, expands the economic and political power of
the Mexica in the Basin of Mexico.
ca. 1400The Tarascan state expands rapidly,
stretching between two of Mexico's great rivers, the Lerma-Santiago in the north
and the Balsas in the south. The region is rich in resources, including copper,
gold, silver, obsidian, and onyx marble. The capital, Tzintzuntzan, has a population
of approximately 35,000 persons.
Ceremonial centers along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, including Abaj Takalik,
Izapa, and Kaminaljuy grow in size and stature. Pyramids and monumental stone
sculpture at different sites provide evidence for connections with the ancestral
Olmec style. In the tropical lowlands of the Pet, the villages of Nak'be and
El Mirador emerge as major centers. Hieroglyphic writing appears by the dawn
of the first millennium, and the Maya establish the architectural, sculptural,
and iconographic systems that dominate their artistic production.
ca. 900 B.C.The beginning of the era
known archaeologically as the Middle Preclassic period in the Maya area.
Public structures, including a large earthen mound, are built at La Blanca,
a village in the Soconusco region on the Pacific coast. The mound groups are
not centrally organized.
ca. 800 B.C.Public architecture is
present in the Pacific piedmont community of Abaj Takalik together with stone
sculpture in Olmec style.
Numerous villages exist in the tropical lowlands of the Pet region of Guatemala,
among them, Nak'be, El Mirador, and Tikal.
ca. 600 B.C.The community of Nak'be
prospers. Public architectural projects are undertaken.
Ballcourts of an open-ended type are present at three centers on the Grijalva
River in Chiapas.
ca. 400 B.C.Located in the fertile
Valley of Guatemala in the Maya highlands, the center of Kaminaljuybecomes
important for trade.
A great building effort is undertaken at Nak'be with the construction of
large stone-faced platforms and pyramids. A limestone slab, or stela, with a
low-relief sculpture of two dignitaries is apparently placed in association
with a stone altar, an early example of an important Maya practice.
ca. 300 B.C.Although Nak'be loses
prominence to neighboring El Miradorto which it is joined by a limestone causewayit
continues to expand its sacred buildings. Enormous stucco-surfaced limestone
masks embellish a major temple, the first occurrence of a longlived Maya religious
ca. 200 B.C.Monumentally scaled public
buildings are raised at El Mirador. These include a three-temple complex on
a common platform, a much used architectural arrangement in subsequent times.
Tikal grows larger and construction begins on a great masonry platform located
on its highest hill. Base to a number of pyramid temples, the platform and temples
will be enlarged many times. Known today as the North Acropolis, it will be
the sacred heart of Tikal for centuries.
Relief sculpture or stelae (as they are known in the Americas) are carved
and erected at Izapa in the highlands. They are positioned in association with
altars and major architectural features. Rulers and mythic beings are depicted
in the sculptures.
ca. 100 B.C.Tombs very rich in sumptuary
offeringsincluding objects of jade, obsidian, mica, pyrite, and quartz crystalare
placed in the interior of temple platforms at Kaminaljuy The burials of powerful
persons, they include sacrificial attendants.
ca. 36 B.C.A fragment of stela found
reused in the Guatemalan highlands at Chiapa de Corzo has the earliest yet identified
Long Count date, 22.214.171.124.13 (December 8, 36 B.C.). The Long Count Calendar
has a mythic start date that correlates to 3114 B.C. in the Christian calendar.
The building of large pyramids with broad stairways flanked by enormous stucco
masks wanes by 250 A.D. In its place, the use of stelae carved with lengthy
hieroglyphic texts emerges. These stelae combined historical narratives with
mythological time, and join the carved script with images of rulers wearing
elaborate headdresses and holding ceremonial bars. Placed in front of temples,
these shafts makde transient rituals forever visible. At the end of the fourth
century, texts at Tikal and Cop suggest that the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan
controls the foundation of specific dynasties in the Maya region.
ca. 1 A.D.In the Pet lowlands, a
member of Tikal's royal family is buried in a well-provisioned vaulted tomb
dug into the sacred north-south axis of the North Acropolis, the location of
numerous subsequent kingly burials. A greenstone mask with inlaid eyes and teeth,
possibly forming a head for the burial wrappings, is among the tomb's contents.
ca. 37 A.D.Stela 1, bearing an eroded
Long Count date of 126.96.36.199.12 (March 4, 37 A.D.), depicts a profile figure
with an elaborate headdress at the highland site of El Ba.
ca. 100 A.D.Ceramic vessels, many
used as mortuary offerings, are very well made and enjoy a long period of formal
experimentation and surface elaboration.
ca. 200 A.D.The legendary founder
of Tikal's most powerful dynasty, Yax Ch'aktel Xok (First Scaffold Shark), dies.
Thirty-one rulers succeed him.
ca. 250 A.D.The Long Count Calendar
and hieroglyphic writing are in use in the lowlands, where the exploits of the
ruling classes begin to be recorded permanently on stone.
ca. 260 A.D.The eruption of the Ilopango
volcano in the southwestern highlands disrupts the major centers, displaces
populations, and upsets trade networks. The region begins a slow decline; Kaminaljuy
gradually loses status and authority. Large stone sculpture is no longer made.
ca. 292 A.D.Stela 29 at Tikal bears
a date of 188.8.131.52.15 (July 8, 292 A.D.)the first Long Count date in the lowlandsand
an ornately accoutered profile figure that may represent the sixth or seventh
dynastic ruler Foliated Jaguar.
ca. 350 A.D.Peoples in the Cop valley
in the southeast Maya area (now in Honduras) build plastered masonry structures
in a regional Maya style and trade with the southern highlands.
ca. 378 A.D.The ninth recorded ruler
of Tikal, Chak Toh Ich'ak I (Great Jaguar Claw), dies on the day a foreign warrior
named K'ak Sih (Fire-Born)thought to be from Teotihuacanarrives. The subsequent
Tikal ruler, Yax Ain I (First Crocodile), has strong ties to Teotihuacan and
there is much Teotihuacan presence at Tikal.
ca. 400 A.D.At Kaminaljuy Teotihuacan
presence is noted in the talud-tablero architectural profile and in cylindrical
tripod vessels. The tripods are among the sumptuary goods in major tombs that
also include materials such as jade earflares, pendants, and strings of beads.
Cylindrical tripod vessels and other Teotihuacan ceramic forms are produced
in the Tiquisate region of coastal Guatemala.
ca. 431 A.D.The first dynastic ruler
of Palenque in the hills of southern Mexico, K'uk' Balam I (Jaguar Quetzal),
accedes to power on 184.108.40.206.4 (March 11, 431 A.D.). The dynasty retains control
until sometime after 799 A.D.
ca. 435 A.D.An important period of
400 years of approximately 360 Long Count days, known as baktun, ends at 220.127.116.11.0
(December 11, 435 A.D.). At Cop, the dynasty of Yax K'uk Mo' begins, an event
marked by the erection of major buildings in the city's Principal Group. Fifteen
recorded rulers succeed Yax K'uk Mo'.
ca. 445 A.D.Tikal ruler Siyaj Chan
K'awiil (Stormy Sky) erects a monument, Stela 31, which shows him in abundant
ritual paraphernalia. A finely carved hieroglyphic text with the early history
of Tikal's royal lineage is on the back.
ca. 475 A.D.Powerful and belligerent,
the cities of Tikal, Caracol, and Calakmul dominate the Pet. Naranjo, a smaller
neighbor, begins to produce fine ceramic vessels.
ca. 484 A.D.An extensive network of
raised causeways emanates from Caracol. The causeways will be used for many
hundreds of years.
In the seventh century, the central and northern Maya lowlands experience
substantial population growth. Hundreds of settlements, large and small, fill
a region stretching from Palenque in the west to Altun Hin the east, and from
Uxmal in the north to Cop in the south. More than sixty kingdoms, each ruled
by a k'uhul ajaw ("divine lord"), compete for control of land, raw materials,
and trade routes. Their intense political and economic rivalry is also apparent
in the unprecedented profusion of artistic production and diversity of styles.
Early in the ninth century, the dynasties of the central region begin to collapse,
population levels decline sharply, and most centers are abandoned by about 900
A.D., never to be substantially reoccupied. The northern centers are unaffected
by these events and continue to flourish.
ca. 504A major expansion of Cop's
ceremonial center, the Acropolis complex, is undertaken by Waterlily Jaguar,
the seventh dynastic ruler of the southeastern Maya city.
ca. 562Tikal ruler Wak Chan K'awiil (Double
Bird) is taken captive, apparently by the ruler of Calakmul. His capture begins
a period of decline at Tikal that lasts more than a hundred years, during which
no major construction is carried out nor dated monuments erected. Calakmul is
the most powerful kingdom in the central area.
ca. 600On the Yucat Peninsula, three
distinct architectural and ceramic traditions are established and flourish for
the next 300 years: R Bec, Chenes, and Puuk. Hieroglyphic inscriptions and
dates are rare in Yucat.
At Cotzumalhuapa on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, a Mexicanized culture
produces many finely carved stone monuments featuring ballgame rituals played
by humans and supernatural beings.
ca. 615At Palenque in the west, K'inich
Janaab' Pakal I (Sun Shield) becomes ruler on 18.104.22.168.8 (July 26, 615 A.D.)
at the age of twelve. Ruling for sixty-eight years, he aggrandizes the site
with impressively planned and elegantly decorated buildings such as the Palace
and the Temple of the Inscriptions.
ca. 636The fifty-year reign of Yuknoom
Ch'een II (Yuknoom the Great) at Calakmul brings new construction of palace
compounds, and the dedication of eighteen stone monuments, or stelae.
ca. 692At Palenque, three related temples
known as the Cross Group are dedicated. Carved limestone panels with a unified
imagery are placed on the inner walls of the shrines. Images and hieroglyphic
texts include mythic and historic subjects.
ca. 695Artistic and literary traditions
are revived at Tikal after Jasaw Chan K'awiil (Ruler A) defeats the king of
Calakmul. Later in his reign, Great Temples 1 and 2 are built on the east and
west sides of the Great Plaza in front of the North Acropolis.
Waxaklajuun Ub'aah K'awiil (18 Rabbit) of Cop becomes ruler on 22.214.171.124.8
(July 6, 695 A.D.). A prolific builder, he commissions the initial Hieroglyphic
Stairway, remodels the Ballcourt, and has seven stelae erected between 711 and
731. Carved almost in the round, they depict him as the all-powerful k'uhul
ajaw ("divine lord") covered with a proliferation of royal and supernatural
ca. 700Jaina, a small island off the
coast of Campeche, is used as a necropolis. The burials contain hundreds of
small ceramic figures. Both hand-modeled and mold-made, the small sculptures
are produced in a variety of colorful images.
ca. 734Jasaw Chan K'awiil (Ruler A) dies
at Tikal and is buried beneath Temple 1 on the Great Plaza. He is laid out on
jaguar skin, arrayed in much fine jade jewelry, and accompanied by objects of
shell, pearl, and bone. Numerous painted ceramic vessels are present.
ca. 738Cop's ruler, 18 Rabbit, is taken
captive on 126.96.36.199.16 (May 3, 738 A.D.) and decapitated by ruler K'ak' Tiliw
Chan Yoaat (Fire-burning Sky Lightning God) of Quiriguin the Motagua valley.
The victor will erect three of the tallest stelaeapproximately twenty-four
feetever put up by the Maya.
ca. 750Several Puuk-style buildings are
begun at Chich Itzin northern Yucat. The Sacred Well, a large natural
sink-hole some eighty feet deep, is used as a repository for offerings.
ca. 790Well-preserved unfinished polychrome
wall paintings at Bonampak in the central lowlands depict a battle scene, the
dispatching of prisoners witnessed by Chan Muwan, king of Bonampak, and victory
ca. 800Conflict between neighboring cities
in the central area increases, trade declines, and long-standing alliances break
up, leading to the abandonment of many cities. Some larger centers persevere
for a time.
Coba, in northeastern Yucat, sprawls across more than twelve square miles,
its architecture designed and built using southern Pet-style methods. The
central urban core includes several temple pyramids, two ballcourts, over thirty
carved stelae, and a network of sixteen elevated causeways (sakbe), some of
which extend outwards as much as forty miles.
ca. 849Five stelae are erected at Seibal
on the Pasi River recording the katunending 10.1.0.0.0 (December 1, 849 A.D.).
Details of the imagery and the calendric glyphs on the stelae are carved in
a foreign, non-Maya style.
ca. 850Uxmal becomes the capital of a
large state in the Puuk hills region of northern Yucat which lasts about a
hundred years. Uxmal is connected by causeways (sakbe) to other important Puuk
sites, such as K'abah, Sayil, and Labna.
ca. 869The last stela is erected in Tikal
by Jasaw Chan K'awiil II in the Great Plaza. Subsequently the city is deserted
and taken over by squatters.
ca. 900The construction of the House
of the Governor and the Nunnery Quadrangle are commissioned by Lord Chak at
Dedicated by an unidentified ruler on 10.4.0.0.0 (January 15, 909 A.D.),
Monument 101 at Toninis the last monument inscribed with a Long Count date
in the entire Maya area. Toninis located south of Palenque in the hills of
ca. 1000Chich Itzrules over most
of northern and western Yucat.
The collapse of the dynastic Maya city-states in the central region during
the tenth century creates a political vacuum. The northern and southern regions
remain more viable, but they are strongly influenced by central Mexican peoples.
In Yucatan, Chich Itzfalls, to be replaced by Mayapan as the dominant center.
In the Guatemalan highlands in the south, the K'iche', a warrior people from
the Mexican Gulf Coast, establish a modest empire. Art is produced primarily
for deity worship and religious ritual rather than for use by divine rulers.
Warriors and gods, both local and Mexican, are frequent themes. Only a few dated
monuments are erected.
ca. 1000In the formerly dynamic central
region of the southern lowlands, dramatically diminished populations are clustered
in small settlements largely in riverine, coastal, and lake-side areas maintaining
close trade relations with sites to the north.
ca. 1100Construction activity at Chich
Itzceases, the population decreases, and the city falls into decline. Mayapan
ca. 1150At Chich Itz a treasure in
gold, jadeite, wood, shell, and bone objects is cast into the Sacred Well.
ca. 1200At Lamanai in northern Belize,
elite burials contain gold and copper objects from Oaxaca, West Mexico, and
the Veraguas region of Panama in addition to quantities of local and Yucatec
ca. 1250Mayapan is the political capital
of a confederation of provinces in northwestern Yucatan. With about 12,000 inhabitants,
the city covers some two square miles and is surrounded by a defensive wall
over five miles long. Its architecture features pyramids, temples, and palaces
showing strong central Mexican ties.
Chich Itzis largely abandoned. Pilgrims continue to come to the site
to worship Maya deities. They offer large quantities of ceramics, copal incense,
and occasionally jade ornaments to the Sacred Well.
ca. 1300Numerous small, mostly coastal
communities and city-states with modest, crudely built pyramids, temples, shrines,
and residential structures exist in northern Yucatan and eastern Quintana Roo.
Among the larger regional centers are San Fernando, El Meco, and Chetumal.
ca. 1350Polychrome frescoes on the walls
of two buildings at the fortified city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Yucatan
are painted in hybrid Maya-Puebla-Mixteca style.
ca. 1400Screenfold books (manuscripts
called codices) are painted by a priestly elite on fig-bark paper. They portray
deities of the Maya pantheon and include tablets of astronomical or calendrical
information. While many such books were made, only four survive today.
Cultures in Central America develop a system of social organization in many
respects distinct from the pattern seen in Mesoamerica. Geographic diversity
in this area encourages broader cultural heterogeneity, most visible in varied
ceramic traditions. Greenstonesincluding high-quality jadeitebecome status
markers in some areas, particularly the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica,
after 500 B.C. Evidence in the form of reworked Olmec jades suggests some contact
with cultures to the north.
ca. 800 B.C.The village of La Mula-Sarigua
on Parita Bay in central Panama becomes a regional center. The greater presence
of metates (grinding tables) and manos (grinding stones) indicates the increased
availability of corn as a food crop.
ca. 500 B.C.Budares (flat griddles),
used in the processing of bitter manioc for food, are present at the site of
La Montana in the Turrialba valley of Costa Rica.
A jadeite pendant in the form of a celt with a bird-head top is placed in
a bundle burial on the shores of the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. The bird-headed
celt form will be used for pendants in northern and central Costa Rica for many
ca. 300 B.C.An identifiable ceramic
type, known for its distinctive, incised surface patterning, is placed in burials
in Greater Nicoya, a region that encompasses southern Nicaragua and northwestern
ca. 200 B.C.Small villages are present
in Greater Chiriqu a region including southern Costa Rica and northern Panama.
ca. 100 B.C.Semiprecious green-colored
stones, frequently jadeite, are worked into personal ornaments in northern and
central Costa Rica. Primarily pendants to be worn suspended about the neck,
the jades are much revered and many are used as funerary offerings.
The population of Costa Rica's Central Highlands and Atlantic Watershed increases.
Mortuary offerings include carefully sculpted stone objects.
Cultural development continues along patterns laid down in prior centuries.
Jade and greenstone production increases considerably. Intricately carved metates,
grinding tables for the processing of maize, are included in elite burials and
perhaps used as thrones. Other forms of monumental sculpture occur at the Panamanian
site of Barriles, a sculptural tradition that influences southern Costa Rica.
Metallurgy, focusing on the use of gold and copper, is introduced from northern
Colombia perhaps as early as the third century, and it moves steadily northward
ca. 1 A.D.Well-made sculptural ceramics
with incised details, known as Zoned Bichrome, are present throughout much of
Greater Nicoya (southwestern Nicaragua/northwestern Costa Rica).
ca. 100 A.D.Many objects of jade are
placed as offerings in burials at the large cemetery of La Huacas on the Nicoya
Peninsula of Costa Rica.
Elaborate three-legged metates (grinding tables), carved from single blocks
of stone, are used as ceremonial/funerary objects. Formal variation exists between
the metates of Greater Nicoya and those of the Atlantic Watershed of eastern
Costa Rica. In burials, the metates are often placed together with carved stone
mace heads and pendants of jade.
ca. 250 A.D.An important personage
in Costa Rica's central highlands at Talamanca de Tib dies and is laid to
rest stretched out along the tops of three carved stone metates. The mortuary
offerings include three mace heads and two large jade pendants, one an heirloom
of Mexican manufacture of Olmec date.
ca. 300 A.D.Mortuary offerings in
burials in the TonosValley of Panama's Azuero Peninsula begin to include ceramic
vessels with bright polychrome surfaces and personal ornaments of carved shell
Rectangular houses with foundations of river cobbles are used at the site
of Severo Ledesma in the eastern lowlands of Costa Rica. Burials and caches
are placed beneath the floors.
ca. 400 A.D.The Diqu region of southern
Costa Rica's Greater Chiriquincreases in population, and stone sculpture in
the form of human figures is made.
Barriles, a regional center in the Greater Chiriquregion of Panama, begins
to flourish. Human images appear in stone sculpture.
ca. 450 A.D.Pendants and other ornaments
of goldthe technology of goldworking is considered to have come from Colombia
to the southare among the mortuary goods present at the community of El Indio
on the Azuero Peninsula of central Panama.
In the Diqu region of southern Costa Rica, stone spheres, some measuring
up to seven feet in diameter, are carved and set on platforms of cobbles. Some
are grouped in alignments, perhaps of astronomical significance, and/or placed
in the vicinity of cemeteries. Their meaning is unknown.
Permanent settlements increase in number and size, probably the result of
greater contact with peoples from the northMesoamericaand the southColombia
in northern South America. Trade and communication networks appear to be well
established. Impressive quantities of luxury goods in elite burials indicate
growing distinctions of social class, with a concentration of valued objects
in fewer hands. Several new polychrome ceramic styles appear. Jade and greenstone
carvings, important status markers for over a thousand years in north-central
Costa Rica, cease to be made, and gold, abundant in alluvial deposits in the
region's rivers, becomes the preferred material for the manufacture of prestige
ca. 500Goldworking is fully established
in the region and gold objects remain locally significant until the coming of
Europeans in the mid-sixteenth century.
Polychrome ceramic traditions begin to blossom in many regions of both Costa
Rica and Panama. Bowls, jars, ollas, and figurines are colored in vivid yellows,
reds, oranges, maroons, and blacks.
ca. 550 A.D.The populations of the islands
of the Greater AntillesJamaica, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, and Cubaare increasing.
The islands have been inhabited by people who centuries, perhaps millennia,
earlier migrated from various mainland locations in Mexico and northern South
ca. 600Improved stone carving techniques
lead to extraordinary detail on Costa Rican effigy metates (grinding tables).
Complex human, animal, and composite beings, often part of multifigure scenes,
embellish the stone "tables." The metates go out of favor by about 900 A.D.
The boldly drawn Conte polychrome ceramics of central Panama feature creatures
that may relate to myths, shamanism, or cosmology.
Worked jade from the Maya area is traded to Costa Rica, where it is recarved.
ca. 700A shift in house shape away from
the preferred rectangular plan to circular dwellings, as seen in the site of
La Frica in the central highlands of Costa Rica, is thought to be evidence
of contact with Colombia to the south.
Along Panama's Parita River, an important cemetery comes into use at a center
today known as El Hatillo. Many spectacular gold objectsembossed plaques, flange-footed
frogs, bat- and saurian-human figure pendantscome from its burials.
ca. 750A powerful chief dies and is buried
at Sitio Conte on the banks of R Grande de Coclin central Panama. The chief
is laid to rest with twenty-two sacrificed companions and a wealth of gold finery,
including large pectoral plaques embossed with sacred images. It is the richest
Precolumbian tomb documented for Central America.
ca. 800In central and eastern Costa Rica,
freestanding stone sculptures of warriors, some reaching five feet in height,
and masked human figures are placed around ceremonial spaces at important sites
such as Las Mercedes and Guayabo de Turrialba in the Atlantic Watershed.
In Greater Nicoya, a shift of population toward the coast takes place, possibly
for greater exploitation of marine resources.
Regionally distinct ceramic traditions begin to take shape in the Greater
ca. 900Polychrome ceramics continue in
popularity. Some styles in northern Costa Rica have Maya-type images.
ca. 950In the Atlantic Watershed of Costa
Rica, several centers flourish that share similar architectural features, among
them Guayabo de Turrialba and Las Mercedes. At Guayabo, there are over forty
circular mounds as well as three aqueducts, two plazas, and one causeway. The
circular plans of house mounds and foundations indicate relationships to some
ca. 1000Metalworkers in the Chiriqu
region of southern Costa Rica and adjacent western Panama produce large numbers
of spectacular gold ornaments, primarily pendants, among them frog and turtle
depictions, as well as bat- and crocodile-headed figures.
Settlements in the region remain small; certain strong leaders or chiefs
organize alliances that bring several centers together for brief periods. The
architecture continues to consist largely of buildings with river cobble foundations
and retaining walls. Lashed cane covered with adobe make up the rest of the
structures. In Costa Rica, stone sculpture takes on three-dimensional human
form, gaining prominence over functional forms such as metates, probably the
result of changes in ritual activity. While the quality and quantity of ceramic
manufacture generally diminish except for some elite wares, production of fine
gold objects is at a peak. The Taino people, one of the groups inhabiting the
islands of the Greater Antilles, create works of great individuality in a variety
ca. 1000Figurative motifs that decorate
earlier polychrome ceramics in Panama are replaced by increasingly abstract
and geometric designs.
ca. 1050Ornately carved ceremonial metates,
important ritual/funerary objects in northern and central Costa Rica for at
least the past thousand years, are produced only in limited numbers. Those made
in the Atlantic Watershed are often round and feature atlantean figures.
ca. 1100Sitio Conte, a major burial ground
in central Panama for about 700 years, is no longer used as an elite cemetery.
ca. 1150A new, technically accomplished
ceramic ware, known as TarragBiscuit, is made in the Diqu region of southern
Costa Rica. The thin-walled, buff-colored vessels of simple yet elegant shape
or various animal forms have smooth, unpolished surfaces.
ca. 1200Ceramic vessels of the Guanacaste-Nicoya
region that earlier had Maya-style images now have white-slipped surfaces with
Mexican design elements outlined in black.
ca. 1250Highly stylized, almost two-dimensional
stone figures from the Diqu area show strong affinities to Colombian forms
in South America.
ca. 1300The Taino of the Greater Antilles
islands in the Caribbean make ritual objects of wood, stone, and shell for use
in ceremonies that include the taking of hallucinogenic snuff, or cohoba. Plazas
and ballcourts are built and used in communal ritual activities.
ca. 1350At Palmar Sur in the Diqu region,
an important chief is entombed with eighty-eight gold ornaments; some appear
to have been specifically made for burial.
ca. 1400In central and eastern Costa
Rica, thousands of small, seated human figures, known as sukias, are produced.
Typically holding tubes, perhaps flutes, to their mouths, they may have been
used in domestic contexts.
THE "Popol Vuh" is the New World's richest mythological mine. No translation
of it has as yet appeared in English, and no adequate translation in any European
language. It has been neglected to a certain extent because of the unthinking
strictures passed upon its authenticity. That other manuscripts exist in Guatemala
than the one discovered by Ximenes and transcribed by Scherzer and Brasseur
de Bourbourg is probable. So thought Brinton, and the present writer shares
his belief. And ere it is too late it would be well that these--the only records
of the faith of the builders of the mystic ruined and deserted cities of Central
America--should be recovered. This is not a matter that should be left to the
enterprise of individuals, but one which should engage the consideration of
interested governments; for what is myth to-day is often history to-morrow.
[The numbers in the text refer to notes at the end of the study]
THERE is no document of greater importance to the study of the pre-Columbian
mythology of America than the "Popol Vuh." It is the chief source of our knowledge
of the mythology of the Kichpeople of Central America, and it is further of
considerable comparative value when studied in conjunction with the mythology
of the Nahuatlac or Mexican peoples. This interesting text, the recovery of
which forms one of the most romantic episodes in the history of American bibliography,
was written by a Christianised native of Guatemala some time in the seventeenth
century, and was copied in the Kichlanguage, in which it was originally written,
by a monk of the Order of Predicadores, one Francisco Ximenes, who also added
a Spanish translation and scholia.
The AbbBrasseur de Bourbourg, a profound student of American archlogy
and languages (whose euhemeristic interpretations of the Mexican myths are as
worthless as the priceless materials he unearthed are valuable) deplored, in
a letter to the Duc de Valmy, the supposed loss of the "Popol Vuh," which
be was aware had been made use of early in the nineteenth century by a certain
Don Felix Cabrera. Dr. C. Scherzer, an Austrian scholar, thus made aware of
its value, paid a visit to the Republic of Guatemala in 1854 or 1855, and was
successful in tracing the missing manuscript in the library of the University
of San Carlos in the city of Guatemala. It was afterwards ascertained that its
scholiast, Ximenes, had deposited it in the library of his convent at Chichicastenango
whence it passed to the San Carlos library in 1830.
Scherzer at once made a copy of the Spanish translation of the manuscript,
which he published at Vienna in 1856 under the title of "Las Historias del origen
de los Indios de Guatemala, par el R. P. F. Francisco Ximenes." The AbbBrasseur
also took a copy of the original, which be published at Paris in 1861, with
the title "Vuh Popol: Le Livre Sacrde Quich, et les Mythes de l'Antiquit
Amicaine." In this work the Kichoriginal and the Abb#39;s French translation
are set forth side by side. Unfortunately both the Spanish and the French translations
leave much to be desired so far as their accuracy is concerned, and they are
rendered of little use by reason of the misleading notes which accompany them.
[1. Mexico, Oct. 15,1850.]
The name "Popol Vuh" signifies "Record of the Community," and its literal
translation is "Book of the Mat," from the Kichwords "pop" or "popol," a mat
or rug of woven rushes or bark on which the entire family sat, and "vuh" or
"uuh," paper or book, from "uoch" to write. The "Popol Vuh" is an example of
a world-wide genre--a type of annals of which the first portion is pure mythology,
which gradually shades off into pure history, evolving from the hero-myths of
saga to the recital of the deeds of authentic personages. It may, in fact, be
classed with the Heimskringla of Snorre, the Danish History of Saxo-Grammaticus,
the Chinese History in the Five Books, the Japanese "Nihongi," and, so far as
its fourth book is concerned, it somewhat resembles the Pictish Chronicle.
The language in which the "Popol Vuh" was written was, as has been said,
the Kich a dialect of the great Maya-Kichtongue spoken at the time of the
Conquest from the borders of Mexico on the north to those of the present State
of Nicaragua on the south; but whereas the Mayan was spoken in Yucatan proper,
and the State of Chiapas, the Kichwas the tongue of the peoples of that part
of Central America now occupied by the States of Guatemala, Honduras and San
Salvador, where it is still used by the natives. It is totally different
to the Nahuatl, the language of the peoples of Anahuac or Mexico, both as regards
its origin and structure, and its affinities with other American tongues are
even less distinct than those between the Slavonic and Teutonic groups. Of this
tongue the "Popol Vuh" is practically the only monument; at all events the only
work by a native of the district in which it was used. A cognate dialect, the
Cakchiquel, produced the "Annals " of that people, otherwise known as "The Book
of Chilan Balam," a work purely of genealogical interest, which may be consulted
in the admirable translation of the late Daniel G. Brinton.
The Kichpeople at the time of their discovery, which was immediately subsequent
to the fall of Mexico, had in part lost that culture which was characteristic
of the Mayan race, the remnants of which have excited universal wonder in the
ruins of the vast desert cities of Central America (1). At a period not far
distant from the Conquest the once centralised Government of the Mayan peoples
had been broken up into petty States and Confederacies, which in their character
recall the city-states of medial Italy. In all probability the civilisation
possessed by these peoples had been brought them by a race from Mexico called
the Toltecs (2), who taught them the arts of building in stone and writing in
hieroglyphics, and who probably influenced their mythology most profoundly.
The Toltecs were not, however, in any way cognate with the Mayans, and were
in all likelihood rapidly absorbed by them. The Mayans were notably an agricultural
people, and it is not impossible that in their country the maize-plant was first
cultivated with the object of obtaining a regular cereal supply (3).
Such, then, were the people whose mythology produced the body of tradition
and mythi-history known as the "Popol Vuh"; and ere we pass to a consideration
of their beliefs, their gods, and their religious affinities, it will be well
to summarise the three books of it which treat of these things, as fully as
space will permit, using for that purpose both the French translation of Brasseur
and the Spanish one of Ximenes.
Over a universe wrapped in the gloom of a dense and primeval night passed
the god Hurakan, the mighty wind. He called out "earth," and the solid land
appeared. The chief gods took counsel; they were Hurakan, Gucumatz, the serpent
covered with green feathers, and Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the mother and father
gods. As the result of their deliberations animals were created. But as yet
man was not. To supply the deficiency the divine beings resolved to create mannikins
carved out of wood. But these soon incurred the displeasure of the gods, who,
irritated by their lack of reverence, resolved to destroy them. Then by the
will of Hurakan, the Heart of Heaven, the waters were swollen, and a great flood
came upon the mannikins of wood. They were drowned and a thick resin fell from
heaven. The bird Xecotcovach tore out their eyes; the bird Camulatz cut off
their heads; the bird Cotzbalam devoured their flesh; the bird Tecumbalam broke
their bones and sinews and ground them into powder. Because they had not thought
on Hurakan, therefore the face of the earth grew dark, and a pouring rain commenced,
raining by day and by night. Then all sorts of beings, great and small, gathered
together to abuse the men to their faces. The very household utensils and animals
jeered at them, their mill-stones, their plates, their cups, their dogs, their
hens. Said the dogs and hens, "Very badly have you treated us, and you have
bitten us. Now we bite you in turn." Said the mill-stones (metates ), " Very
much were we tormented by you, and daily, daily, night and day, it was squeak,
screech, screech, for your sake. Now you shall feel our strength, and we
will grind your flesh and make meal of your bodies." And the dogs upbraided
the mannikins because they had not been fed, and tore the unhappy images with
their teeth. And the cups and dishes said, "Pain and misery you gave us, smoking
our tops and sides, cooking us over the fire burning and hurting us as if we
had no feeling. Now it is your turn, and you shall burn." Then ran the mannikins
hither and thither in despair. They climbed to the roofs of the houses, but
the houses crumbled under their feet; they tried to mount to the tops of the
trees, but the trees hurled them from them; they sought refuge in the caverns,
but the caverns closed before them. Thus was accomplished the ruin of this race,
destined to be overthrown. And it is said that their posterity are the little
monkeys who live in the woods.
[1. Large hollowed stones used by the women for bruising
2. The Kichwords are onomatopoetic--"holi, holi,
After this catastrophe, ere yet the earth was quite recovered from the wrath
of the gods, there existed a man "full of pride," whose name was Vukub-Cakix.
The name signifies "Seven-times-the-colour-of-fire," or "Very brilliant," and
was justified by the fact that its owner's eyes were of silver, his teeth of
emerald, and other parts of his anatomy of precious metals. In his own opinion
Vukub-Cakix's existence rendered unnecessary that of the sun and the moon, and
this egoism so disgusted the gods that they resolved upon his overthrow. His
two sons, Zipacna and Cabrakan (earth-heaper (?) and earthquake), were daily
employed, the one in heaping up mountains, and the other in demolishing thorn,
and these also incurred the wrath of the immortals. Shortly after the decision
of the deities the twin hero-gods Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque came to earth with
the intention of chastising the arrogance of Vukub-Cakix and his progeny.
Now Vukub-Cakix had a great tree of the variety known in Central America
as "nanze" or "tapal," bearing a fruit round, yellow, and aromatic, and upon
this fruit he depended for his daily sustenance. One day on going to partake
of it for his morning meal he mounted to its summit in order to espy the choicest
fruits, when to his great indignation he discovered that Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque
had been before him, and had almost denuded the tree of its produce. The hero-gods,
who lay concealed within the foliage, now added injury to theft by hurling at
Vukub-Cakix a dart from a blow-pipe, which bad the effect of precipitating him
from the summit of the tree to the earth. He arose in great wrath, bleeding
profusely from a severe wound in the jaw. Hun-Ahpu then threw himself upon Vukub-Cakix,
who in terrible anger seized the god by the arm and wrenched it from the body.
He then proceeded to his dwelling, where he was met and anxiously interrogated
by his spouse Chimalmat. Tortured by the pain in his teeth and jaw be, in an
access of spite, hung Hun-Ahpu's arm over a blazing fire, and then threw himself
down to bemoan his injuries, consoling himself, however, with the idea that
he had adequately avenged himself upon the interlopers who had dared to disturb
[1. Zipac signifies "Cockspur," and I take the name
to signify also "Thrower-up of earth." The connection is obvious.]
But Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque were in no mind that he should escape so easily,
and the recovery of Hun-Ahpu's arm must be made at all hazards. With this end
in view they consulted two venerable beings in whom we readily recognise the
father-mother divinities, Xpiyacoc and Xmucane (4), disguised for the nonce
as sorcerers. These personages accompanied Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque to the abode
of Vukub-Cakix, whom they found in a state of intense agony. The ancients persuaded
him to be operated upon in order to relieve his sufferings, and for his glittering
teeth they substituted grains of maize. Next they removed his eyes of emerald,
upon which his death speedily followed, as did that of his wife Chimalmat. Hun-Ahpu's
arm was recovered, re-affixed to his shoulder, and all ended satisfactorily
for the hero-gods.
But their mission was not yet complete. The sons of Vukub-Cakix, Zipacna
and Cabrakan, remained to be accounted for. Zipacna consented, at the entreaty
of four hundred youths, incited by the hero-gods, to assist them in transporting
a huge tree which was destined for the roof-tree of a house they were building.
Whilst assisting them he was beguiled by them into entering a great ditch which
they had dug for the purpose of destroying him, and when once he descended was
overwhelmed by tree-trunks by his treacherous acquaintances, who imagined him
to be slain. But he took refuge in a side-tunnel of the excavation, cut off
his hair and nails for the ants to carry up to his enemies as a sign of his
death, waited until the youths had become intoxicated with pulque because of
joy at his supposed demise, and then, emerging from the pit, shook the house
that the youths had built over his body about their heads, so that all were
destroyed in its ruins.
But Run-Ahpu and Xbalanque were grieved that the four hundred had perished,
and laid a more efficacious trap for Zipacna. The mountain-bearer, carrying
the mountains by night, sought his sustenance by day by the shore of the river,
where he lived upon fish and crabs. The hero-gods constructed an artificial
crab which they placed in a cavern at the bottom of a deep ravine. The hungry
titan descended to the cave, which he entered on all-fours. But a neighbouring
mountain had been undermined by the divine brothers, and its bulk was cast upon
him. Thus at the foot of Mount Meavan perished the proud "Mountain Maker," whose
corpse was turned into stone by the catastrophe.
Of the family of boasters only Cabrakan remained. Discovered by the hero-gods
at his favourite pastime of overturning the hills, they enticed him in an easterly
direction, challenging him to overthrow a particularly high mountain. On the
way they shot a bird with their blow-pipes, and poisoned it with earth. This
they gave to Cabrakan to eat. After partaking of the poisoned fare his strength
deserted him, and failing to move the mountain be was bound and buried by the
Mystery veils the commencement of the Second Book of the "Popol Vuh." The
theme is the birth and family of Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque, and the scribe intimates
that only half is to be told concerning the history of their father. Xpiyacoc
and Xmucane, the father and mother deities, had two sons, Hunhun-Ahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu,
the first being, so far as can be gathered, a bi-sexual personage. He had by
a wife, Xbakiyalo, two sons, Hunbatz and Hunchouen, men full of wisdom and artistic
genius. All of them were addicted to the recreation of dicing and playing at
ball, and a spectator of their pastimes was Voc, the messenger of Hurakan. Xbakiyalo
having died, Hunhun-Ahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu, leaving the former's sons behind,
played a game of ball which in its progress took them into the vicinity of the
realm of Xibalba (the underworld). This reached the ears of the monarchs of
that place, Hun-Came and Vukub-Came, who, after consulting their counsellors,
challenged the strangers to a game of ball, with the object of defeating and
For this purpose they dispatched four messengers in the shape of owls. The
brothers accepted the challenge, after a touching farewell with their mother
Xmucane, and their sons and nephews, and followed the feathered heralds down
the steep incline to Xibalba from the playground at Ninxor Carchah. After
an ominous crossing over a river of blood they came to the residence of the
kings of Xibalba, where they underwent the mortification of mistaking two wooden
figures for the monarchs. Invited to sit on the seat of honour, they discovered
it to be a red-hot stone, and the contortions which resulted from their successful
trick caused unbounded merriment among the Xibalbans. Then they were thrust
into the House of Gloom, where they were sacrificed and buried. The head of
Hunhun-Ahpu was, however, suspended from a tree, which speedily became covered
with gourds, from which it was almost impossible to distinguish the bloody trophy.
All in Xibalba were forbidden the fruit of that tree.
[1. Near Vera Paz.]
But one person in Xibalba had resolved to disobey the mandate. This was the
virgin princess Xquiq (Blood), the daughter of Cuchumaquiq, who went unattended
to the spot. Standing under the branches gazing at the fruit, the maiden stretched
out her hand, and the head of Hunhun-Ahpu spat into the palm. The spittle caused
her to conceive, and she returned home, being assured by the head of the hero-god
that no harm should result to her. This thing was done by order of Hurakan,
the Heart of Heaven. In six months' time her father became aware of her condition,
and despite her protestations the royal messengers of Xibalba, the owls, received
orders to kill her and return with her heart in a vase. She, however, escaped
by bribing the owls with splendid promises for the future to spare her and substitute
for her heart the coagulated sap of the blood-wart. In her extremity Xquiq went
for protection to the home of Xmucane, who now looked after the Young Hunbatz
and Hunchouen. Xmucane would not at first believe her tale. But Xquiq appealed
to the gods, and performed a miracle by gathering a basket of maize where no
maize grew, and thus gained her confidence.
Shortly afterwards Xquiq became the mother of twin boys, the heroes of the
First Book, Hun-Ahpu, and Xbalanque. These did not find favour in the eyes of
Xmucane, their grandmother. Their infantile cries aroused the wrath of this
venerable person, and she vented it upon them by turning them out of doors.
They speedily took to an outdoor life, however, and became mighty hunters, and
expert in the use of their blowpipes, with which they shot birds and other small
game. The ill-treatment which they received from Hunbatz; and Hunchouen caused
them at last to retaliate, and those who had made their lives miserable were
punished by being transformed by the divine children into apes. The venerable
Xmucane, filled with grief at the metamorphosis and flight of her ill-starred
grandsons, who had made her home joyous with their singing and flute-playing,
was told that she would be permitted to behold their faces once more if she
could do so without losing her gravity, but their antics and grimaces caused
her such merriment that on three separate occasions she was unable to restrain
her laughter and the Men-Monkeys appeared no more. Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque now
became expert musicians, and one of their favourite airs was that of "Hun-Ahpu
qoy," the "monkey of Hun-Ahpu."
The divine twins were now old enough to undertake labour in the field, and
their first task was the clearing of a milpa or maize-plantation, They were
possessed of magic tools, which had the merit of working themselves in the absence
of the young hunters at the chase, and those they found a capital substitute
for their own directing presence upon the first day. Returning at night from
hunting, they smeared their faces and hands with dirt so that Xmucane might
be deceived into imagining that they had been hard at work in the maize-field.
But during the night the wild beasts met and replaced all the roots and shrubs
which the brothers--or rather their magic tools--had removed. The twins resolved
to watch for them on the ensuing night, but despite all their efforts the animals
succeeded in making good their escape, save one, the rat, which was caught in
a handkerchief. The rabbit and deer lost their tails in getting away. The rat,
in gratitude that they had spared its life, told them of the glorious deeds
of their great fathers and uncles, their games at ball, and of the existence
of a set of implements necessary to play the game which they had left in the
house. They discovered these, and went to play in the ball-ground of their fathers.
It was not long, however, until Hun-Came and Vukub-Came, the princes of Xibalba,
heard them at play, and decided to lure them to the Underworld as they had lured
their fathers. Messengers were despatched to the house of Xmucane, who, filled
with alarm, despatched a louse to carry the message to her grandsons. The louse,
wishing to ensure greater speed to reach the brothers, consented to be swallowed
by a toad, the toad by a serpent, and the serpent by the great bird Voc. The
other animals duly liberated one another; but despite his utmost efforts, the
toad could not get rid of the louse, who had played him a trick by lodging in
his gums, and had not been swallowed at all. The message, however, was duly
delivered, and the players returned home to take leave of their grandmother
and mother. Before their departure they each planted a cane in the middle of
the house, which was to acquaint those they left behind with their welfare,
since it would wither if any fatal circumstance befel them.
Pursuing the route their fathers had followed, they passed the river of blood
and the river Papuhya. But they sent an animal called Xan as avant courier with
orders to prick all the Xibalbans with a hair from Hun-Ahpu's leg, thus discovering
those of the dwellers in the Underworld who were made of wood--those whom their
fathers had unwittingly bowed to as men--and also learning the names of the
others by their inquiries and explanations when pricked. Thus they did not salute
the mannikins on their arrival at the Xibalban court, nor did they sit upon
the red-hot stone. They even passed scatheless through the first ordeal of the
House of Gloom. The Xibalbans were furious, and their wrath was by no means
allayed when they found themselves beaten at the game of ball to which they
bad challenged the brothers. Then Hun-Came and Vukub-Came ordered the twins
to bring them four bouquets of flowers, asking the guards of the royal gardens
to watch most carefully, and committed Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque to the "House
of Lances"--the second ordeal--where the lancers were directed to kill them.
The brothers, however, had at their beck and call a swarm of ants, which entered
the royal gardens on the first errand, and they succeeded in bribing the lancers.
The Xibalbans, white with fury, ordered that the owls, the guardians of the
gardens, should have their lips split, and otherwise showed their anger at their
Then came the third ordeal in the "House of Cold." Here the heroes escaped
death by freezing by being warmed with burning pine-cones. In the fourth and
fifth ordeals they were equally lucky, for they passed a night each in the "House
of Tigers" and the "House of Fire" without injury. But at the sixth ordeal misfortune
overtook them in the "House of Bats." Hun-Ahpu's head being cut off by Camazotz,
"Ruler of Bats," who suddenly appeared from above.
The beheading of Hun-Ahpu does not, however, appear to have terminated fatally,
but owing to the unintelligible nature of the text at this juncture, it is impossible
to ascertain in what manner he was cured of such a lethal wound. This episode
is followed by an assemblage of all the animals, and another contest at ball-playing,
after which the brothers emerged uninjured from all the ordeals of the Xibalbans.
But in order to further astound their "hosts," Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque confided
to two sorcerers named Xulu and Pacaw that the Xibalbans had failed because
the animals were not on their side, and directing them what to do with their
bones, they stretched themselves upon a funeral pile and died together. Their
bones were beaten to powder and thrown into the river, where they sank, and
were transformed into young men. On the fifth day they reappeared like men-fishes,
and on the sixth in the form of ragged old men, dancing, burning and restoring
houses, killing and restoring each other to life, with other wonders. The princes
of Xibalba, bearing of their skill, requested them to exhibit their magical
powers, which they did by burning the royal palace and restoring it, killing
and resuscitating the king's dog, and cutting a man in pieces, and bringing
him to life again. The monarchs of Xibalba, anxious to experience the novel
sensation of a temporary death, requested to be slain and resuscitated. They
were speedily killed, but the brothers refrained from resuscitating their arch-enemies.
Announcing their real names, the brothers proceeded to punish the princes
of Xibalba. The game of ball was forbidden them, they were to perform menial
tasks, and only the beasts of the forest were they to hold in vassalage. They
appear after this to achieve a species of doubtful distinction as plutonic deities
or demons. They are described as warlike, ugly as owls, inspiring evil and discord.
Their faces were painted black and white to show their faithless nature.
Xmucane, waiting at home for the brothers, was alternately filled with joy
and grief as the canes grow green and withered, according to the varying fortunes
of her grandsons. These young men were busied at Xibalba with paying fitting
funeral honours to their father and uncle, who now mounted to heaven and became
the sun and moon, whilst the four hundred youths slain by Zipacna became the
stars. Thus concludes the second book.
The beginning of the third book finds the gods once more in council. In the
darkness they commune concerning the creation of man. The Creator and Former
made four perfect men. These beings were wholly created from yellow and White
maize. Their names were Balam-Quitz(Tiger with the Sweet Smile), Balam-Agab
(Tiger of the Night), Mahucutah (The Distinguished Name), and Iqi-Balam. (Tiger
of the Moon). They had neither father nor mother, neither were they made by
the ordinary agents in the work of creation. Their creation was a miracle of
But Hurakan was not altogether satisfied with his handiwork. These men were
too perfect. They knew overmuch. Therefore the gods took counsel as to how to
proceed with man. They must not become as gods (note here the Christian influence).
Let us now contract their sight so that they may only be able to see a portion
of the earth and be content, said the gods. Then Hurakan breathed a cloud over
their eyes, which became partially veiled. Then the four men slept, and four
women were made, Caha-Paluma (Falling Water), Choimha (Beautiful Water), Tzununiha
(house of the Water), and Cakixa (Water of Aras or Parrots ), who became the
wives of the men in their respective order as mentioned above.
These were the ancestors of the Kich only. Then were created the ancestors
of other peoples. They were ignorant of the methods of worship, and lifting
their eyes to heaven prayed to the Creator, the Former, for peaceable lives
and the return of the sun. But no sun came, and they grew uneasy. So they set
out for Tulan-Zuiva, or the Seven Caves, and there gods were given unto them,
each man, as head of a group of the race, a god. Balam-Quitzreceived the god
Tohil. Balam-Agab received the god Avilix, and Mahucutah the god Hacavitz. Iqi-Balam
received a god, but as he had no family his god is not taken into account in
the native mythology.
The Kich now began to feel the want of fire, and the god Tohil, the creator
of fire, supplied them with this element. But soon afterwards a mighty rain
extinguished all the fires in the land. Tohil, however, always renewed the supply.
And fire in those days was the chief necessity, for as yet there was no sun.
Tulan was a place of misfortune to man, for not only did he suffer from cold
and famine, but here his speech was so confounded that the first four men were
no longer able to comprehend each other. They determined to leave Tulan, and
under the leadership of the god Tohil set out to search for anew abode. On they
wandered through innumerable hardships. Many mountains had they to climb, and
a long passage to make through the sea which was miraculously divided for their
journey from shore to shore. At length they came to a mountain which they called
Hacavitz, after one of their gods, and here they rested, for here they bad been
instructed that they should see the sun. And the sun appeared. Animals and men
were transported with delight. All the celestial bodies were now established.
But the sun was not as it is to-day. He was not strong, but as reflected in
As he arose the three tribal gods were turned into stone, as were the gods--probably
totems--connected with the wild animals. Then arose the first Kichcity.
As time progressed the first men grew old, and, impelled by visions, they
began to offer human sacrifices. For this purpose they raided the villages of
the neighbouring peoples, who retaliated. But by the miraculous aid of a horde
of wasps and hornets the Kich utterly routed their enemies. And the aliens
became tributory to them.
Now it came nigh the death-time of the first men, and they called their descendants
together to hearken unto their last counsels. In the anguish of their hearts
they sang the Kamucu, the song "We see," that they bad sung when it first became
light. Then they took leave of their wives and sons, one by ore. And suddenly
they were not. But in their place was a huge bundle, which was never unfolded.
And it was called the "Majesty Enveloped." And so died the first men of the
The Fourth Book brings us down to what is presumably history. We say "presumably,"
because we have only the bare testimony of the "Popol Vuh" to go upon. We can
note therein the evolution of the Kichpeople from a comparatively simple and
pastoral state of society to a political condition of considerable complexity.
This account of the later periods is extremely confused, and as the names of
many of the Kichmonarchs are the same as those of the gods, it is often difficult
to discriminate between saga and history. Interminable conflicts are the subject
of most of this book, and by the time the transcriber reached the twelfth chapter
he seems to have tired of his labours and to have made up his mind to conclude
with a genealogical list of the Kichkings. He here traces the genealogies
of the three royal houses of Cavek, Nihaib, and Ahau-Kich The state of transition
and turmoil in which the country was for many years after the conquest must
have tended to the disappearance of native records of any kind, and our author
does not appear to have been as well versed in the history of his country which
immediately preceded his own time as be was in her mythology and legends. According
to a tradition recited by Don Domingo Juarros in his "History of the Kingdom
of Guatemala," the Toltecs emigrated from the neighbourhood of Tula in Mexico
by direction of an oracle, in consequence of the great increase of population
in the reign of Nimaquich fifth King of the Toltecs. "In performing this journey
they expended many years and suffered extraordinary hardships." Nimaquichwas
succeeded by his son Aexopil, from whom was descended Kicab Tanub, the contemporary
of Montezuma II. This does not at all agree with the "Popol Vuh" account.
THE cosmogony of the "Popol Vuh" exhibits many signs of Christian influence,
but it would be quite erroneous to infer that such influence was of a direct
nature; that is, that the native compiler deliberately infused into the original
narrative those outstanding features of the Christian cosmogony, which were
undoubtedly quite familiar to him. The resemblance which is apparent between
the first few chapters of the "Popol Vuh" and the creation-myth in Genesis is
no more the result of design than was the metamorphosis of King Arthur's Brythonic
warriors into Norman knights by the jongleurs. The inclusion of obviously Christian
elements was undoubtedly unconscious. A native Guatemalan, nurtured in the Christian
faith, could, in fact, quite be expected to produce an incongruous blending
of Christian and pagan cosmogony such as is here dealt with.
But another and more important question arises in connection with the initial
chapters of the "Popol Vuh"--those which give an account of the Kichcreation-myth.
Under the veneer of Biblical cosmogony the original myth would appear to be
the sum of more than one native creation-story. We have here a number of beings,
each of whom appear in some manner to exercise the function of a creator, and
it might be gathered from this that the account now before us was produced by
the fusion and reconciliation of more than one legend connected with the creation-a
reconciliation of early rival faiths. We have to guide us in this the proved
facts of a composite Peruvian cosmogony. The ruling Inca caste skilfully welded
together no less than four early creation-myths, reserving for their own divine
ancestors the headship of the heavens. And it is not unreasonable to believe
that the diverse ethnological elements of which the Maya-Kichpeople were undoubtedly
composed possessed divergent cosmogonies, which were reconciled to one another
in the later traditional versions of the "Popol Vuh."
This would lead to the further supposition that the "Popol Vuh" is a monument
of very considerable antiquity. The fusion of religious beliefs is, even with
savages, a work of many generations. It would be rash to attempt to discover
any approximate date for the original conception of the "Popol Vuh." The only
version which we possess is that now under review, and as the lack of an earlier
version makes comparison impossible, we are thus without the guidance with which
the criteria of philology would undoubtedly furnish us. That the Mayan civilisation
was of, very considerable antiquity is possible, although no adequate proof
exists for the assumption. This much is certain: that at the period of the Conquest
written language was still in a state of transition from the pictographic to
the phonetic-ideographic stage, and that therefore no version of the "Popol
Vuh" which had been fixed by its receiving literary form could have long existed.
It is much more probable that it existed for many generations by being handed
down from mouth to mouth--a manner of literary preservation exceedingly common
with the American peoples. The memories of the natives of America were and still
are matter for astonishment for all who come into contact with them. The Conquistadores
were astounded at the ease with which the Mexicans could recite poems and orations
of stupendous length, and numerous instances of Indian feats of mnemonics are
It is worthy of notice that the Kichmyth embodies the general aboriginal
idea of creation which prevailed in the New World. In many of them the central
idea of creation is supplied by the brooding of a great bird over the dark primeval
waste of waters. Thus the Athapascans thought that a mighty raven, with eyes
of fire and wings whose clapping was as the thunder, descended to the ocean
and raised the earth to its surface. The Muscokis believed that a couple
of pigeons, skimming the surface of the deep, espied a blade of grass upon its
surface, which slowly evolved into the dry land. The Zus imagined that
Awonawilona, the All-father, so impregnated the waters that a scum appeared
upon their surface which became the earth and sky. The Iroquois said that
their female ancestor, expelled from heaven by her angry spouse, landed upon
the sea, from which mud at once arose. The Mixtecs imagined that two winds--those
of the Nine Serpents and the Nine Caverns--under the guise of a bird and a winged
serpent respectively, caused the waters to subside and the land to appear. The
Costa Rican Guaymis related, according to Melendez, that Noncomala waded into
the water and met the water-nymph Rutbe, who bore him twins, the sun and moon.
In all these accounts, from widely divergent nations, it is surprising to note
such unanimity of belief; and when the tenacity of legend is borne in mind,
it is perhaps not too rash to state a belief in an original American creation
myth, which seems none the less possible, when the fact of the ethnological
unity among the American tribes is remembered.
[1. "History of the Fur Trade," Mackenzie, p. 83.
2. Schoolcraft, "Indian Tribes," i. p. 266.
3. Cushing, "Zu Creation Myths."]
It is by no means difficult to satisfactorily prove the genuine American
character of the "Popol Vuh." In its case reading is believing. Macpherson,
in his preface to the first edition of the poems of Ossian, says of an "ingenious
gentleman" that ere he had read the poems he thought and remarked that a man
diffident of his abilities might well ascribe these compositions to a person
living in a remote antiquity; but when he had perused them his sentiments were
changed. He found they abounded too much with those ideas that only belong to
an early state of society to be the work of a modern poet. However this may
apply to the reputed compositions of the Goidelic bard, there can be no doubt
that it can be used with justice as regards the "Popol Vuh." To any one who
has given it a careful examination it must be abundantly evident that it is
a composition that has passed through several stages of development; that it
is unquestionably of aboriginal origin; and that it has only been influenced
by European thought in a secondary and unessential manner. The very fact that
it was composed in the Kichtongue is almost sufficient proof of its genuine
American character. The scholarship of the nineteenth century was unequal to
the adequate translation of the "Popol Vuh"; the twentieth century has as yet
shown no signs of being able to accomplish the task. It is, therefore, not difficult
to credit that if modern scholarship is unable to properly translate the work,
that of the eighteenth century was unable to create it; no European of that
epoch was sufficiently versed in Kichtheology and history to compose in faultless
Kichsuch a work as the "Popol Vuh," breathing as it does in every line an
intimate and natural acquaintance with the antiquities of Guatemala.
The "Popol Vuh" is not the only mythi-historical work composed by an aboriginal
American. In Mexico Ixtlilxochitl, and in Peru Garcilasso de la Vega, wrote
exhaustive treatises upon the history and customs of their native countrymen
shortly after the conquests of Mexico and Peru, and hieroglyphic records, such
as the "Wallam Olum," are not unknown among the North American Indians. In fact,
the intelligence which fails to regard the "Popol Vuh" as a genuine aboriginal
production must be more sceptical than critical.
The connection of Kichand Mayan mythology with that of Mexico is obvious,
but not altogether proven. It is possible that the main lines of the three systems
were similar; that certain great deities like Gucumatz were common to all, but
that the inclusion of local gods lent a very different complexion to the three
mythologies. It also seems not unreasonable to suppose that the Kichpeople
must have been more liable to influence from the south, that is, from the north
of South America. The inclusion of an Antillean deity (Hurakan) in their pantheon
practically proves that they were, and their relative proximity to the Caribs--the
great maritime race of America--leads to the assumption that they may have been
influenced by those roving merchants and sailors more or less profoundly. This,
however, can only be matter for surmise, and, however strong the probabilities
seem in favour of such a theory, proof is wanting to strengthen it.
IT must be remembered that we are dealing with Kichand not with Mayan mythology.
Although the two had much in common, it would be most unsafe in the present
state of knowledge to attempt to identify Kichwith Mayan deities; such an
attempt would, indeed, assume the bulk of a formidable treatise. Scholarship
at the present time hesitates to designate the representations of Mayan gods
on the walls of "buried " cities otherwise than by a letter of the alphabet,
and it is therefore wise to thoroughly ignore the question of Mayan affinities
in dealing with myths purely Kich This does not apply to the KichMexican
affinities. Mexican and Kichdeities are mostly known quantities, but this
cannot be said of their Mayan congenors. The reason for this is that until Mayan
myth is reconciled with the evidence of the Mayan monuments no certitude can
be arrived at. This cannot well be achieved until the Mayan hieroglyphs give
up their secret, a contingency of which there is no immediate likelihood. Bearing
this in mind, we may proceed to a brief consideration of the Kichpantheon
and its probable Mexican affinities.
Almost at the beginning we encounter a pair of masculine-feminine beings
of a type nearly hermaphroditic, named Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, who are credited
with a considerable share of the creation of organic life in the Kichcosmogony.
These, we will remember, appeared in the myth of Vukub-Cakix and elsewhere.
The first appears to apply to the paternal function, whilst the name Xmucane
is derived from words signifying "feminine vigour," The Mexican equivalents
of these gods were probably Cipactonatl and Oxomoco, the "father and mother
[1. See note at end.]
Deities who early arrest our attention are Tepeu, Gucumatz and Hurakan. The
name of the first signifies "king." According to Brinton this in Kichapplies
to rulership chiefly, inasmuch as the conjugal prowess often ascribed to monarchs
by savage people is concerned. A creative faculty is obviously indicated in
the name, but Brinton assumes that this Kichgeneric name for king can also
be rendered "syphilitic," especially as the name of the Mexican sun-god Nanahuatl
has a similar significance.
That Tepeu was a generative force, a creative deity, there can be no doubt,
but strangely enough in certain passages of the "Popol Vuh" we find him praying
to and rendering homage to Hurakan, the "Heart of Heaven." We also find the
latter along with Xpiyacoc, Xmucane and Tepeu jointly and severally responsible
for the creation of the mannikins, if not for the whole cosmological scheme.
This, of course, bears out the assumption of a composite origin of the creation-myth
in the "Popol Vuh," but it is nevertheless strange to find Hurakan, whom we
must reckon an alien deity, at the head of these Olympic councils.
Gucumatz; is one and the same with the Nahuatlacan--or, more properly speaking,
Toltecan Quetzalcohuatl. The name is compounded from two Kichwords signifying
"Feathered Serpent," and its meaning in the Nahuatl is precisely the same. Concerning
the nature of this deity, there is probably more difference of opinion than
in the case of any other known to comparative mythology. Strangely enough, although
unquestionably an alien in the mythology of the Aztecan branch of the Nahuatlac
he hulks more largely in the myths of that people than in the legends of the
Kich. To the Azteche seems to have appeared as a half-friendly Baal, to
worship or revile according to the opportunism of national fortune. If he were
here to be dealt with as his importance demands the limits of this monograph
would speedily be surpassed. Although unquestionably the same god to both Mexicans
and Kich, he had acquired a significance in Aztecan eyes quite out of all
proportion to his Kichor Mayan importance. To the Aztecan mind he was a culture-hero,
unalterably associated with the sun, and with the origins of their civilisation.
To the Toltecs lie was the "Man of the Sun, the traveller, who, with staff in
hand, symbolised the daily journey of the Sun-god. In all likelihood Quetzalcohuatl
was evolved upon Mexican soil by the Toltecs, perhaps adopted from some older
cultus by them. He was at least worshipped sedulously by aboriginal or pre-Aztecan
tribes in Anahuac. Mr. Payne writes: "The fact that the worship of Quetzalcohuatl
under the name of Cuculcan or Gucumatz was extensively prevalent in Yucatan
and Central America, while no trace is found of the worship of Tezcatlipoca,
strongly suggests that the founders of the Central American pueblos (the Toltecs)
were, in fact, devotees of Quetzalcohuatl, who preferred exile and adventure
in strange lands to accepting a religious innovation which was intolerable to
[1. History of the New World.]
That Quetzalcohuatl was not an aboriginal Maya-Kichdeity is proved by the
relative importance granted him by a people--the Aztec-to whom be was alien;
and.. that they regarded him as the aboriginal god of Anahuac par excellence
Hurakan, the winged creative power, is the wind of the tempest. In the
"Popol Vuh" he is designated "The Heart of Heaven." He is parallel with if not
identical to the Aztecan deity Tezcatlipoca, who in his variant of Yoalli-ehecatl
(the Wind of Night) was supplicated by the Aztecas the life-breath. Elsewhere
we have hinted that Tezcatlipoca may have been an ice-god. Mr. Payne sees
in him an elaboration of the vision of death in a polished "scrying"-stone,
which seems possible but scarcely probable. Hurakan was in all likelihood derived
from an original deity of the Antilles. The term 11 hurricane " is said to
have originated from the name of this god, and although the direct evidence
for this is scanty, other circumstances place the connection beyond reasonable
doubt. Hurakan is also alluded to in the "Popol Vuh," as "The Strong Serpent,"
and "He who hurls below, referring to his presence in the lightning. Brinton
is of opinion that the name Hurakan signifies "giant," but the sequence of proof
is not altogether convincing. Hurakan had the assistance of three demiurges,
named respectively Cakulha-Hurakan (lightning), Chipi-Cakulha (lightning-flash),
and Raxa-Cakulha (track -of-the-lightning).
[1. Oviedo, "Historia del l'Indie," lib. vi. cap. iii.
2. Sahagun, lib. ii. ch. ii.
3. "Mythologies of Ancient Mexico and Peru ("Religions
Ancient and Modern" series).
4. Oviedo, Brasseur de Bourbourg.]
Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque, who appear in the first myth proper-that of the destruction
of Vukub-Cakix, are certainly "of the gods," but seem to be only demi-gods.
They are constantly alluded to as "young men." Brasseur de Bourbourg, who saw
in the Vukub-Cakix myth the struggle between the Toltecs and the invading Nahuatlac
believed these hero-gods to be equivalents of Tezcatlipoca and Nanahuatl, but
the resemblance appears to exist merely in the martial character of the deities,
and is hardly noticeable in other details. Hun-Ahpu would appear to signify
"The Master," but Brinton translates the name as "Magician." It may have a reconciliatory
translation as "Adept." A variant is the name of his father Hun-Hun-Ahpu, "Each-one-a-Magician,"
and some confusion is apparent in the Vukub-Cakix myth between the two names;
but as the AbbBrasseur de Bourbourg so justly observes, "these names are so
symbolic in character that their absolute elucidation is impossible." Xbalanque
signifies "Little Tiger."
"The gods of the Kich were legion," but the foregoing list embraces practically
all the deities proper with whom we have to deal in the "Popol Vuh."
The outstanding point of interest in the myth of Vukub-Cakix and his two
sons is its terrestrial Significance. That they were of the earth as truly as
were the Jotuns of Scandinavian mythology there can be no doubt. Like the Jotuns
or the Titans, Vukub-Cakix and his progeny are made from the earth, and the
parent giant is a living representation of its surface. Xpiyacoc and Xmucane
remove his emerald teeth, and replace them with maize grains-surely a mythical
interpretation or allegory of the removal of the green virgin turf of the earth,
and its replacement by the maize seed. It is further worthy of notice that the
maize is placed in Vukub-Cakix's mouth by divine beings. In the third book of
the "Popol Vuh" it is stated that the gods gave maize to man. It was, indeed,
brought to earth from heaven by the sacred animals.
The Second Book of the "Popol Vuh" is the most interesting of the four from
a mythological point of view. That it treats of the dealings of the Kich with
the aboriginal people of the district they afterwards inhabited is not unlikely.
Although the opinion of Brasseur that Xibalba was a prehistoric state which
had Palenque for its capital is an exaggeration of whatsover kernel of fact
may be contained in the myth, yet it is not unlikely that the Abb who so often
astonishes without illuminating, has in this instance come near the truth. The
cliff-dwellings of Mexico and Colorado have of late years aroused speculation
as to the aboriginal or directly prehistoric peoples of these regions. The "Popol
Vuh" definitely describes Xibalba as the metropolis of an "Underworld"; and
with such examples as that of the Cliff Palace Can in Colorado before us,
it is difficult to think that allusion is not made to some such semi-underground
abode. There the living rock has been excavated to a considerable distance,
advantage being taken of a huge natural recess to secure greater depth than
could possibly have been attained by human agency, and in this immense alcove
the ruins of a veritable city may still be seen, almost as well preserved as
in the days of its evacuation, its towers, battlements and houses being as well
marked and as plainly discernible as are the ruins of Phil It is then not
unreasonable to suppose that in a more northerly home the Kich may have warred
with a race which dwelt in some such subterranean locality. A people's idea
of an "otherworld" is often coloured by the configuration of their own country.
One thing is certain: a bell, an abode of bad spirits as distinguished from
beneficent gods, Xibalba was not. The American Indian was innocent of the idea
of maleficent deities pitted in everlasting warfare against good and life-giving
gods until contact with the whites coloured his mythology with their idea of
the dual nature of supernatural beings. The transcriber of the "Popol Vuh"
makes this clear so far as Kichbelief went. Dimly conscious that the "Popol
Vuh" was coloured by his agency with the opinions of a lately adopted Christianity,
be says of the Lords of Xibalba, Hun-Came and Vukub-Came: "In the old times
they did not have much power. They were but annoyers and opposers of men, and,
in truth, they were not regarded as gods." If not regarded as gods, then, what
[1. See Brinton, "Myths of the New World," chap. ii.]
"The devil," says Cogolludo of the Mayas, "is called by them Xibilba, which
means he who disappears or vanishes." The derivation of Xibalba is from a root
meaning "to fear," from which comes the name for a ghost or phantom. Xibalba
was, then, the Place of Phantoms. But it was not the Place of Torment, the abode
of a devil who presided over punishment. The idea of sin is weak in the savage
mind; and the idea of punishment for sin in a future state is unknown in pre-Christian
"Under the influence of Christian catechising," says Brinton, "the Quich
legends portray this really as a place of torment, and its rulers as malignant
and powerful; but as I have before pointed out they do so protesting that such
was not the ancient belief, and they let fall no word that shows that it was
regarded as the destination of the morally bad. The original meaning of the
name given by Cogolludo points unmistakably to the simple fact of disappearance
from among men, and corresponds in harmlessness to the true sense of those words
of fear, Scheol, Hades, Hell, all signifying bidden from sight, and only endowed
with more grim associations by the imaginations of later generations.
The idea of consigning elder peoples, who have been displaced in the land
to an underworld, is not uncommon in mythology. The Xibalbans, or aborigines,
were perhaps cave- or earth-dwellers like the Picts of Scottish folk-lore, gnomeish,
and full of elvish tricks, as such folk usually are. Vanished people are, too,
often classed with the dead, or as lords of the dead. It is well known, also,
that legend speedily crystallises around the name of a dispossessed race, to
whom is attributed every description of magic art. This is sometimes accounted
for by the fact that the displaced people possessed a higher culture than their
invaders, and sometimes, probably, by the dread which all barbarian peoples
have of a religion in any way differing from their own. Thus the Norwegians
credited the Finns-their predecessors in Norway-with tremendous magical powers,
and similar instances of respectful timidity shown by invading races towards
the original inhabitants of the country they bad conquered could readily be
multiplied. To be tricked the. barbarian regards as a mortal indignity, as witness
the wrath of Thor in Jotunheim, comparable with the sensitiveness of Hun-Ahpu
and Xbalanque lest they should be outwitted by the Xibalbans.
The doings of Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque, in Xibalba, may be regarded either
as the Kichaccount of the adventures of two veritable heroes in a new land,
or as the visitation of divine beings to Hades for the express purpose of conquering
death. But by the period of the formation of the myth it is probable that Xibalba
had become confounded with the Place of the Dead, and was regarded as a fit
theatre for the prodigies of craft and valour of the young hero-gods. The Kich
Hades had, in fact, evolved from the old northern home, exactly as had the Mexican
Mictlan, which, although a subterranean locality, was also, and separately,
a northern country. A complete Place of the Dead had been established, and the
gods, to how their contempt of death, must descend thereto and emerge triumphant.
The idea of metempsychosis was known to the American aboriginal mind. We Indians
shall not for ever die; even the grains of corn we put under the earth grow
up and become living things," is the noble and touching reply of a chief to
the interrogation of a Moravian Brother, regarding the native belief in immortality.
Man must have the example of the gods, if he wishes to live in peace and quiet
assurance of immortality. And just as we believe that our God descended into
Hell and vanquished Sin and Death, so did these simple people gain strength
to face Eternity from the thought that they had been preceded in the dark journey
by the Immortals.
[1. Loskiel, "Ges. der Miss. der evang. Brer."]
It is evident that the divine brothers feared ridicule, and profiting from
the disasters of their father and uncle made sure of knowing the names of the
chief Xibalbans ere they set out. In like manner they avoided making an obeisance
to the dummy figures to which their predecessors had bowed so profoundly. The
American savage, grave and reserved, cannot abide ridicule. He shrinks from
it in a manner which a less self-regarding or a more self-assured people cannot
comprehend. The other tests--the "House of Tigers," and the House of Cold,"
and the various torments mentioned in the Second Book are much what might be
expected from a barbarian idea of death--no more horrible, perhaps, than the
European idea of Hell in the Middle Ages, certainly not more fear-compelling
than the picture of Dante.
The American peoples are at one in their belief in a Paradise, a Place of
Joy, if not of Reward. Their Hades appears to have been reserved almost entirely
for the unillustrious. Paradise in some American mythologies, notably in that
of Mexico, and perhaps in that of Peru, is nothing more than a preserve of the
great; the poor might not enter therein, no more than might the coward pass
the gates of the Norse Valhalla. It was to Mictlan or Supay, then, that the
popular mind turned. How did the American peoples regard this drear abode? To
enter it one must cross a deep and swift river by means of a bridge formed of
a slender tree, said the Hurons and Iroquois to the first missionaries. On this
frail passage the soul must defend itself from the attacks of a savage dog.
The Chepewayan Athapascans told of a great water which the soul must cross in
a stone canoe; the Chilians, of a western sea, where toll must be given to an
evil hag, who plucked out an eye if payment were not forthcoming; the Algonquins,
of a stream bridged by an enormous snake. The Aztecs called this river Chicunoapa,
the Nine Rivers, where the departed must pay toll to a dog and a dragon. It
will be recollected that the brothers in the "Popol Vuh," cross a river of blood.
This almost certainly alludes to the ocean under the red beams of the setting
sun, towards which all these voyages are made.
[1. "Rel. de la Nouv. France," 1636.]
The hero-gods in the myth voluntarily succumb to the power of the Lords of
Death, and after being burned their bones are ground in a mill and thrown into
the waters. The belief was almost universal in America that the soul resided
in the bones. The bones were the basis of the man. Flesh would readily perish,
but would return to clothe this more lasting foundation. So in many tribes the
bones of the dead were carefully preserved. In all Central American countries
the bones of distinguished persons were preserved in temples or council-houses
in the small chests made of cane mentioned by the chroniclers of De Soto's expedition.
This, too, may possibly have been the origin of mummification in Peru. In Egypt
all the members and intestines must be preserved, in Peru only the bones. The
state of comparative desiccation in which most Peruvian mummies are discovered
proves that the preservation of the flesh or organs was not regarded as a necessity.
The game of ball figures very largely throughout the Third Book. The father
and uncle of the young hero-gods were worsted in their favourite sport by the
Xibalbans, but Hun-Ahpu and Xbalanque in their turn vanquish the Lords of the
Underworld. This may have resembled the Mexican game of tlachtli, which was
played in an enclosed court with a rubber ball between two opposite sides, each
of two or three players. It was, in fact, not unlike hockey. This game of ball
between the Powers of Light and the Powers of Darkness is somewhat reminiscent
of that between Ormuzd and Ahriman in Persian myth. The game of tlachtli had
a symbolic reference to stellar motions.
[1. J. W. Fewkes in Jour. Amer. Folk-lore, 1892, p.
33; F. H. Cushing in "Amer. Anthropologist," 1892, p. 308 et seq. Chicomoztoc,
the Seven Caverns, to, the north of Mexico.
We are here engaged with the problem which the origin of man presented to
the Kichmind, and we shall find that its solution bears a remarkable likeness
to that of similar American myths. We seldom hear of one first-created being.
In the creation-myths of the New World four brothers are usually the progenitors
of the human race. Man in these myths is nearly always earth-born. He and his
fellows emerge from some cavern or subterranean place, fully grown and fully
armed. Thus the Blackfoot Indians emerged from Nina-stahu, a peak in the Rockies.
In the centre of Nunne Chaba, the High Hill, was a cavern, the house of the
Master of Breath, whence came the Choctaws. The Peruvians came from Pacari Tambu,
the House of the Dawn, near Cuzco, and an ancient legend of the Aztecstates
that they came from
We find the first Mayan men speedily engaged in migration. Such must always
be the life of the unsettled and unagricultural savage. He multiplies. Gods
are given to each tribe. These he bears to a new country. In fact we have a
complete migration myth in the Third Book of the "Popol Vuh," and there are
not wanting signs to show that this migration took place from the cold north
to the warm south. The principal item of proof in favour of such a theory is,
of course, the statement that the sun was "not at first born," and that at a
later stage of the journey, when his beams appeared upon the horizon, it was
as a weaker and dimmer luminary that be seemed to the wanderers than in after
years. The allusion to "shining sand," by the aid of which they crossed rivers,
may mean that they forded them when covered with ice. The whole myth is so strikingly
akin to the Aztec migration-myth given in the Mexican MS. in the Boturini
Collection (No. 14, see. viii.) that we cannot refrain from appending a short
passage from the latter:
"This is the beginning of the record of the coming of the Mexicans from the
place called Aztlan. It is by means of the water that they came this way, being
four tribes, and in coming they rowed in boats. They built their huts on piles
at the place called the Grotto of Quinevayan. It is there from which the eight
tribes issued. The first tribe is that of the Huexotzincos, the second tribe
the Chalcas, the third the Xochimilcas, the fourth the Cuitlavacas, the fifth
the Mallinalcas, the sixth the Chicimecas, the seventh the Tepanecas, the eighth
the Matlatzincas. It is there where they were founded in Colhuacan. They were
the colonists of it since they landed there, coming from Aztlan. . . . It is
there that they soon afterwards went away from, carrying before them the god
Vitzillopochtli, which they had adopted for their god. . . . They came out of
four places, when they went forward travelling this way. . . . There the eight
tribes opened up our road by water."
[1. In the Mexican text the Spanish word "diablo" has
been interpolated by the Mexican scribes, as no Mexican word for "devil" exists.
The scribe was, of course, under priestly influence; hence the "diablo."]
We find a similar myth in the Wallam Olum, or painted records of the Lenape
Indians. "After the flood," says this record, "the Lenape with the manly turtle
beings dwelt close together at the cave house and dwelling of Talli. . . . They
saw that the snake land was bright and wealthy. Having all agreed, they went
over the water of the frozen sea to possess the land. It was wonderful when
they all went over the smooth deep water of the frozen sea at the gap of snake
sea in the great ocean" (5).
We thus see that the Third Book of the "Popol Vuh" is a migration saga of
a type not uncommon in America. Asiatic tribes may have come down from the Chi-Pixab
of the "Popol Vuh" to British Columbia, and thence by easy stages to Central
America. And the Third Book of the "Popol Vuh" may be the distant echo of a
mighty wave of colonisation, whose sound swept the entire surface of the New
It cannot be said that the early Spanish authors upon the affairs of Yucatan
either corroborate or discredit the contents of the "Popol Vuh" in any way.
To begin with, Landa, Cogolludo, and Las Casas confine themselves more to Yucatan
proper than to Guatemala, and their remarks upon native belief, in so far as
they illustrate the "Popol Vuh" at all, are really references to Mayan myths.
Palacios is meagre in his references to any native beliefs, and the works of
all four are so coloured by the phantasies of mediaeval theology that, although
interesting, they possess little real value. So far, in fact, as they throw
light upon the "Popol Vuh" they might be safely ignored, and they are only given
as works of reference in the bibliography for the sake of completeness. They
are, however, most valuable for the study of Mayan mythology proper, and for
complete understanding of the "Popol Vuh" and of Kichmythology in general,
knowledge of Mayan myth is necessary.
There is not wanting evidence to show that, like most barbarous compositions
which depended for their popularity upon the ease with which they could be memorised,
the "Popol Vuh" was originally composed in metre. Passages here and there show
a decided metrical tendency, as:
"Ama x-u ch'ux ri Vuch
Ve, x-cha ri mama.
Ta chi xaquinic
Quate ta chi gekumarchic
Cahmul xaquin ri mama
Ca xaquin-Vuch" ca cha vinak vacamic.
which is translated:
"Is the dawn about to be?
Yes, answered the old man.
Then he spread apart his legs.
Again the darkness appeared.
Four times the old man spread his legs.
Now the opossum spreads his legs
Say the people.
[1. This passage obviously applies to a descriptive
dance emblematic of sunrise.]
The first line almost scans in iambics (English style), and the fifth is
perfect, except for the truncation in the fourth foot. The others appear to
us to consist of that alternation of sustained feet--musically represented by
a semibreve--with pyrrhics, which is characteristic of nearly all savage dance-poetry.
Father Coto, a missionary, observes that the natives were fond of telling long
stories and of repeating chants, keeping time to them in those dances of which
all the American aboriginal peoples appear to have been so fond--and still are,
as Baron Nordenskjold has recently discovered in the Aymara country. These chants
were called nugum tzib, or "garlands of words," and although the native compiler
of the "Popol Vuh" appears to have been unable to recollect the precise rhythm
of the whole, many passages attest its original odic character.
NOTE.--The pronunciation of x in Kichequals sh. Ch
is pronounced hard, as in the Scottish "loch," and c hard, like k.
THE various works which contain notices of the "Popol Vuh" and the kindred
questions of Mayan and Kichmythology are so difficult of access to the majority
of readers that it has been thought best to divide them into two classes: (1)
those which can be more or less readily purchased, and which are, naturally,
of more recent origin; and (2) those which are not easy to come by, and which,
generally speaking, are the work of Spanish priests and colonists of the sixteenth,
seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
The work on the subject which is most easily obtained, and indeed the only
work which gives the original Kichtext, is that of the AbbBrasseur de Bourbourg,
"Vuh Popol: Le livre sacrde Quich et les mythes de l'antiquitAmicaine."
The Kichtext was translated by the assistance of natives into French, and
the translation is more or less inaccurate. The notes and introduction must
be read by the student with the greatest caution. It was published at Paris
Ximenes' translation into Spanish of the "Popol Vuh and that of Gavarrete
are about of equal value, rather inaccurate, and accompanied by scanty notes.
The title of the first is "Las Historias del Origin de los Indios de Guatemala,
par el R. P. F. Francisco Ximenes (Vienna, 1856), and of the second, "El Popol
Vuh," (San Salvador 1905). This exhausts the list of works written exclusively
concerning the "Popol Vuh." The other works of Brasseur and those of Brinton
contain more or less numerous allusions to it, but references to it in standard
works of mythology are exceedingly rare. The only other works which have a bearing
upon the subject are those upon Mayan and Kichmythology or which, among other
matter, historical or political, refer to it in any way. The most important
of these are:
DR. OTTO STOLL--"Ethnographie der Republik Guatemala."
Ethnologie der Indianer Stme von Guatemala."
SCHERZER--"Die Indianer von Santa Catalina Istlavacan."
MLER--Geschichte der Amerikanischen Ur-religion " (1855).
E. FSTEMANN--"Commentary on the Maya Manuscript," in the Royal Public Library
of Dresden. Translation from the German by S. Wesselhoeft and A. M. Parker (Harvard
E. SELER--"Uber den Ursprung der Mittelamerikan Kulturen" (1902).
"Ein Wintersemester in Mexico und Yucatan" (1903).
"Codex Fejervy-Mayer " (Berlin, 1901).
P. SCHELLHAS--"Representation of Deities of the Maya Manuscripts," translated
by S. Wesselhoeft and A. M. Parker (Cambridge, Mass., 1904).
CYRUS THOMAS--"The Maya Year," Washington, 1894. "Notes on Maya and Mexican
W. FEWKES--The God 'D' in the Codex Cortesianus," (Washington, 1895).
All these works relate more or less entirely to Mayan mythology, and are
chiefly valuable as illustrating the connection between the Kichand Mayan
mythologies. It must be understood that this is not a list of works relating
to Mayan antiquities, but only a list of such works as refer at the same time
to Mayan and Kichmythology.
The brief essay of the late Professor Max Mler upon the "Popol Vuh" is
of little or no value except as a statement in favour of its authenticity. It
gives little or no information concerning the work, and is, indeed, chiefly
concerned with the authenticity and nature of North American picture-drawings.
The principal works of the older Spanish authors, which in any way relate
to the myths of Maya-Kichpeoples, are:
LAS CASAS--"Historia de los Indias" (1552).
COGOLLUDO--"Historia de Yucathan" (1688).
DIEGO DE LANDA--"Relacion de los Cosas de Yucatan " (translated into French,
and edited by Brasseur).
XIMENES--"Escolias los Historias del orig de los Indios" (Circa, 1725).
PALACIOS--l'Description de la Provincia de Guatemala" (in the collection
JUARROS--"Historia de Guatimala."
Much that is absurd has been written concerning the antiquity of the ruined
cities of Central America, and some authors have not hesitated to place their
foundation in an antiquity beside which the pre-dynastic buildings of Egypt
would appear quite recent. But that they were abandoned not long before the
Columbian era is now generally admitted. See Winsor's "Narrative and Critical
History of America," chap. iii., and the works of Charnay, Maler, Maudslay,
and Gordon, for modern opinion upon the subject; also the various monographs
contained in the more recent volumes of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology's annual
report. That a very respectable antiquity belongs to several sites is, however,
certain; and competent authorities have not hesitated to ascribe to some of
the ruins an age of not less than two thousand years,
Payne has made it abundantly clear to our mind that the original seat of
the Nahuatlac(which included both Toltecs and Aztecs) was in British Columbia
(see his "History of America," vol. ii. p. 373 et seq.). He thinks they there
occupied a position southerly to that of the Athapascan stock, and were probably
the first northern people to come into contact with tribes possessed of the
maize plant. The knowledge of this staple, he infers, spread rapidly among the
northern peoples, and induced them to hasten their southern colonisation, but
it does not appear to us probable that this would be an inducement to a savage
flesh-eating people averse to a life of agricultural labour. The whole question
of pre-historic American migration, and of the gradual civilisation by maize
of the peoples who came within its zone, is most admirably discussed in vol.
xix. of "The History of North America," by W. J. Magee and Cyrus Thomas (Philadelphia,
George Barrie and Sons), published March 1908. The knowledge contained in this
work is the outcome of a lifetime's labour in the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology,
and its learned authors have undoubtedly produced a monumental treatise which
it will take many a generation of research to supersede, if, indeed, that is
The authorities for the settlement of the Toltecs in Yucatan are the Tezcucan
chronicler Ixtlilxochitl, and Torquemada, who both allege that the immigrants
went to Campeachy and the south.
There appear to be grounds for believing that the parent deities Xpiyacoc
and Xmucane are but derivations from Gucumatz, and represent the male and female
attributes of that god. In the "Popol Vuh" they are spoken of as being "covered
with green feathers," the usual description of Gucumatz; but it is, of course,
possible that they may have received some of his attributes in the general jumble
of myths which, we have attempted to show, exists in the first book. Gucumatz,
it will be remembered, is Quetzalcohuatl in another form, and the latter is
often represented in the papyri as having a woman sitting opposite to him. She
does not, however, appear to be at all analogous to Messrs. Fstemann and Schellhas's
"Goddess I," whom I take to represent the Mayan equivalent of Xmucane, and who
wears on her head the knotted serpent, a reptile characteristic of Quetzalcohuatl.
The Wallam-Olum (painted records) of the Leni Lenape Indians have often been
called into question as regards their authenticity, but the evidence of Lederer,
Humboldt, Heckewelder, Tanner, Loskiel, Beatty, and Rafinesque, all of whom
professed to have seen them, rather discounts such unbelief in their existence.
They consisted of picture-writings, or hieroglyphs, each of which applied to
a whole verse, or many words. The ideas were, in fact, amalgamated in a compound
system, and bear exactly the same relation to written language as the American
tongues did to spoken language; that is, they were of an agglutinative type,
a linguistic form where several words are welded into one. There are several
series, one of which records the doings of the tribes immediately subsequent
to the Creation. Another series relates to their doings in America, and consists
of seven songs, four of sixteen verses of four words each, and three of twenty
verses of three words each "It begins at the arrival in America," says Rafinesque
("The American Nations"), "and is continued without hardly any interruption
till the arrival of the European colonists towards 1600." But this second series
is a mere meagre catalogue of kings.
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