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Life Arts

The Hero Myth in Maya Art & Culture

By       Message Constance Lavender     Permalink
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IV. The four-cornered universe of the Maya, symbolized by the archetypal images of the sky and the sea, is the stage on which the drama of human existence unfolds. From the soil that separated the Heart of Sky from the Heart of the Sea, grew the tree of Maya life (world tree, or yaxche). Among the Yucatec Maya, the yaxche was often depicted as a Ceiba tree (sometimes as a stalk of maize) and symbolized the cardinal points.

At Palenque, the sarcophagus from Hanab Pakal’s tomb in the Temple of the Inscriptions contains a common image of a bird in the world tree that suggests the unity of earth and sky (Miller and Taube, 1993 at 186). The progenitor of human life, however, was not a single god, but typically conceived in terms of Maya dualism. Xpiyakok (Itzamna) and Xmucane (Ix Chel) shaped human beings after three unsuccessful attempts at creation.

The union of Xpiyakok, or the male, and Xmucane, or the female, symbolizes the origin of fertility cycle and the dual aspects of sex and gender. Coe, like Freud, suggests a bisexual nature in so far as many gods seem to have a complement of the opposite sex: “…a reflectionof the Mesoamerican principle of dualism, the unity of opposite principles.” (Coe, 1999 at 204). They try to make humans from mud and wood before the third creation produces the ancestral hero twins from whom human life was conceived (ibid. at 204-205; and, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker, A Forest of Kings, 2001 at 94 and 108).

The dualism of the sexes is thus introduced through the archetypal image of the grandparents. The unity of the creator couple, Xpiyakok and Xmucane, mother-father, is an equality of the sexes whose significance, not only in terms of progeny, but also as mentors, is revealed in the story of Maya creation. Coe notes that Xpiyakok (Itzamna, or Lizard House) is often imagined as the inventor of writing and patron of learning and the sciences, while Xmucane (Ix Chel, or Lady Rainbow) symbolizes the goddess of weaving, medicine, and childbirth.

As mentioned in Part I above, the importance of writing as embodied in the figure of Xpiyakok, and the importance of fertility (both in terms of childbirth as well as the fertility cycle of maize) as represented by the metaphor of Xmucane, demonstrates the importance of these practices in Maya culture (see: Coe, 1999 at 204-205).

To give just one example, in the Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, face a series of five tests as part of the Maya creation myth. Their tutelary figure, or guardians, are not a single individual, but “…a grandfather, a truly white-haired grandfather, and a grandmother, a truly humble grandmother…” who are invoked to help the twins kill Seven Macaw (Tedlock, 1996 at 79. For references to tutelary figures in the hero cycle, see Henderson in Jung, ed., 1968 at 101, 104-105). In many western myths the guardian often appears as a discrete individual, and usually as a male figure (for example, Theseus and Poseidon, or Achilles and Cheiron) [Henderson in Jung, ed. 1968 at 101].

In Maya creation stories there is no allusion to an inequality of the sexes. The dual nature of their worldview instead indicates an interdependence and mutuality of the conscious and unconscious, the male and female, life and death, animal and human, body and soul, nature and spirit, humanity and divinity.Xpiyakok and Xmucane eventually give life to three sets of twins who are the distant ancestors of the Maya peoples. The first set of twins, One-Hunahpu (Hun) and Seven-Hunahpu (Vacub) meet their fate on the great ballcourt in a contest with the gods. Before their deaths, One-Hunahpu fathers two sets of twins: One-Artisan and One-Monkey, who are the half-brothers of the hero twins. Finally, One-Hunahpu and Blood Moon (Xkik’, the daughter of a Xibalban, a lord of the underworld) conceive of the hero twins, Hunahpu (Hun-Ahaw) and Xbalanque (Yax-Balam), who are reared in the home of their grandmother Xmucane (Christenson, 2001 at 118-119; Freidel, Schele, and Parker, 2001 at 108; and, Freidel and Schele, 1990 at 74). Their life adventures, tests, and trials, according to Freidel, Schele, and Parker, “…explain how the world got to be the way it is” (Freidel, Schele, and Parker, 2001 at 109).

V. Of what little archaeological evidence from Calakmul remains today, some is in the one-stela pattern first observed at Piedras Niegra, but depicting fe/male pairs. One side of the stela shows a male image on the face of the monument, while a female image is featured on the other (Miller, 1999 at 108). An oval tablet from the site depicts Hanab Pakal receiving his commission from his mother, Lady Zac-kuk, designating not only the prominent role of women in the life of this great Maya center, but pointing towards a possible matrilineal succession to leadership.

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Palenque represented the height of Maya technology and power as is signaled by the Venus Tower; a four-level structure probably constructed for military purposes as much as anything else, but, no doubt, used for astronomical observations as well. Hun-Ahaw is often symbolized by Venus and the morning and evening stars. The Venus Tower and its association with Hunahpu alludes to Xmucane and the creation of the universe.

If kings were the earthly reincarnation of the ancestral Hero Twins (ahaw), Hanab Pakal may have understood Lady Zac-kuk to be the worldly reincarnation of the first-mother Xmucane (S. Cominsky and R. Tarbell, March, 2002, graduate lecture in Maya Art & Culture, Rutgers University---Camden, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences). Yax-Balam, meanwhile, is associated with the sun and Hun-Ahaw often symbolizes Venus. The Venus cycle in turn is likely the basis of the 260 day (kin), or ritual calendar (Tzolkin), and may be related to the female gestation period (Cominsky and Tarbell, 2002; and, Freidel and Schele, 1990 at 114 and 125).

Given the material and symbolic significance of corn to the Maya, and considering their unified, harmonized, and balanced view of the nature of reality, the importance of the fertility cycle, both human and vegetative, and their relation to cosmic cycles assumes added meaning.

Northrup Frye said: “In the solar cycle of the day, the seasonal cycle of the year, and the organic cycle of human life, there is a single pattern of significance, out of which myth constructs a central narrative around a figure who is partly the sun, partly vegetative fertility, and partly a god or archetypal human being” (Northrup Frye, The Fables of Identity, 1963 at 606).

The imagery of the Hero Twins descending into the underworld to endure a series of tests and trials parallels the hero cycle as outlined by Henderson (Henderson in Jung, ed., 1968 at 101). The twin’s journey into Xibalba may also symbolize the act of penetration of the middleworld, and their reception into the earth, through which they eventually experience rebirth and reincarnation. By analogy, the descent of the ancestral twins into the under-regions of the universe may reflect the planting of kernels in the milpa from which maize springs to life. The Hero Twins are formed from the dough of maize ground by Xmucane. Freidel and Schele have written that “…as sustainer of life, and a plant that could not seed itself without human intervention, maize was an ultimate symbol of Maya social existence in communion with nature.” (Freidel and Schele, 1990 at 243). Indeed, maize as substance of human flesh and as the staple of the Maya farmer was viewed as more than just a sign of life: it was the very source of Maya creation, and the hero twins were frequently depicted in their dual nature, or nahual, as maize gods (Miller, 1999 at 139-140; and, Miller and Taube, 1993 at 122).

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VI. The concept of dualism---or the principle of the unity of opposites---is apparent in the persistent motif of the Hero Twins that pervade Maya art and culture from the earliest times to the present. Recognizing this fundamental component of Maya ideology is essential in order to move towards an understanding of the Maya both ancient and modern.

When students in the west read Rigoberto Menchu’s account of childbirth practices and rituals among the modern Maya in Guatemala---ceremonies that involve abuelos (grandparents) and incorporate temascal (sacred satchel to hold placenta), pom (incense), the burning of candles to symbolize earth, water, sun, and mam, and the use of lime---their understanding is deepened by knowledge of the Hero Twin cycle and the role it plays in Maya worldview (R. Menchu, “Birth Ceremonies,” in Carol J. Verburg, ed., Ourselves Among Others, 1994 at 76-87).

When looked at in Maya terms, it is not a matter of truth or falsity. The Maya worldview is profoundly oriented in directions that widely diverge from western views steeped as they are in the separation, isolation, and opposition of Cartesian duality.

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Constance Lavender is an HIV-Positive pseudonymous freelance e-journalist from a little isle off the coast of Jersey; New Jersey, that is...

In the Best spirit of Silence Dogood and Benj. Franklin, Ms. Lavender believes that a free (more...)

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