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The Hero Cycle in Maya Myth & Culture

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Constance Lavender
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I.  At the foot of the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque lies the remains of the Mayan King Hanab Pakal. Rising nine levels from the ground in possible correspondence to the nine levels of Xibalba, or the underworld, the Temple of the Inscriptions, as it name implies, shows the importance of writing and the relationship between language and power among the ancient Maya. The building program at Palenque is estimated to have been active between 650 to 750 A.D. in what is referred to as the Classic Period (M.E. Miller, Maya Art and Architecture, 1999 at 40).

Historians look to documents to reveal the past. No wonder so much of Maya scholarship refers to the Popol Vuh, or Book of Council, as an index to their iconography as well as insight into the mind of the Maya. The Maya themselves understood the value of script and sculpture as is evident from the status of scribes and artisans in their stories of creation; the scribe, One Monkey, and One Artisan are twins and half-brothers of the Hero Twins: Hunahpu and Xbalanque (D. Tedlock, tr., Popol Vuh, 1996 at 91). Coe also has observed that Itzamna, the male figure in the Maya creation story was the patron god of writing as well as learning and the sciences (M.D. Coe, The Maya, 6th ed., 1999 at 204-205). Most of the Maya texts were lost to history through deliberate attempts to stamp out indigenous culture by militant Spanish Catholics shortly after their arrival in the New World; like Bishop Diego de Landa's destruction of manuscripts in 1562 at Mani, Yucatan (H. Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism [J. Herbert, tr.] 1992 at 47). The surviving four codices that escaped Spanish attempts at silencing remain as modern keystones to Maya script and interpretations of their art and culture (The Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices as well as a fourth manuscript found at Chiapas in 1966: See Tedlock, 1996 at 23). Fortunately, the stories in the Popol Vuh offer parallels to Maya art and culture from both pre-Columbian and modern times.

The Hero Twin cycle formed the basis of a collective worldview in ancient Maya society and culture, and that worldview pervades modern Maya life today. The ancient history of the Maya is being reconstructed today through the iconography and script that has survived the ancient Maya. Through monumental sculpture, architecture, and writing, archaeologists, anthropologists, and linguists are revealing a complex cultural legacy symbolically expressed in the art, belief, and ritual of the modern Maya. And the Hero Twin cycle consistently appears in these various forms of expression as if the ancient twins were were speaking through the collective unconscious of their modern descendants. Parallels between the ancient myth of the Hero Twins and its appearance in the conscious and unconscious cultural expressions of the Maya provides a connection that allows scholars to interpret and identify images in what Dennis Tedlock has described as a "mythistorical" context. Others, like Northrup Frye and Carl G. Jung and his followers, have called what Tedlock describes as myth-history, archetypal criticism or analytical symbology. Indeed, both Jung and Frye describe a cyclical view or understanding of the universe and humanity's place in it as fundamental components of the psyche as represented by the collective unconscious, or as the unconscious symbolic connotation of human language. It is from this context that the adventures of the Hero Twins informs our understanding of Maya myth and culture. (Tedlock, 1996 at 59).

II. Allen J. Christenson has observed that Maya "...theology is based on a worldview in which all things, both animate and inanimate, require periodic renewal through ritual performance to reenact the origin of the cosmos." (A.J. Christenson, Art and Society in a Highland Maya Community, 2001 at 212). He adds that it is the Maya "...capacity...to change while maintaining their identity which characterizes much of [their] history." (ibid.) The source of this flexible approach towards the existential questions and spiritual crises of human life is the Hero Twin cycle. The modern Maya continue to express, through both their culture and their art, the profound psychic influence of the Hero Twin story as told in the Popol Vuh. Christenson's work on the altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan refers to the "....development of [Maya] myths and rituals..." ---whether consciously or unconsciously---"...by adapting to a changing world and interpreting those changes in Maya terms." (op. cit.)  The Maya seem to have succeeded in the synchretization, or absorption, of their indigenous collective culture as expressed in new and diverse ways since their first encounters with the Spaniards over four hundred years ago. Indeed, Christenson rejects arguments of the symbol-making capacity of modern Maya as neither: (1.) an artifact of the pre-Columbian or colonial Christian past, nor (2.) as a mere co-opting of Christian iconography to disguise some hidden program (op.cit. at 212-213). Rather, these forms express the "collective realities" of the Maya in a way that embodies the transformative powers associated with the Hero Twin cycle (op. cit.).

Joseph L. Henderson, in "Ancient Myths and Modern Man," asserts that such analogies, between the imagery of ancient myths and the iconography of the modern mind, "...are neither trivial nor accidental." Instead, they represent the collective, unconscious influences of a rich psychic inheritance that "...the modern mind...consciously dismisses as little more than the folktales of superstitious and uneducated peoples." [This point raises the question of minority (group) identity formation (assuming elements of the identity of the oppressor: e.g. Christianity) and questions of cultural imperialism (science/superstition, or uneducated/misunderstood; see: Joseph L. Henderson, Ancient Myths and Modern Man in Carl G. Jung, ed., Man and His Symbols, 1968 at 97-100]. Henderson argues that these types of analogies provide a crucial link between ancient myths and the images produced by the unconscious. This connection enables scholars, like Christenson, to identify and explain symbols in a context that gives historical perspective and psychological meaning to current programs like the altarpiece at Santiago Atitlan.

III. The Hero Twin cycle is the most fundamental and pervasive motif throughout Mayan art and culture. The story of the ancestral twins, especially as told in the Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya and translated by Dennis Tedlock, forms the basis of the Maya worldview and served as a metaphysical explanation of their understanding of dualism in the world. Although at first glance this looks rather esoteric and didactic, on closer examination the concept of dualism as mythically embodied in the stories of the twin's creation and trials in the Popol Vuh forms a common thread that runs from the most ancient times to the current indigenous traditions of the modern Maya.

Jung wrote that symbols, or the collective and sometimes unconscious aspects of language, are persistent and pervasive, deeply embedded in the human mind. Archetypes originate "...outside historical tradition in the long forgotten psychic sources that, since pre-historic times, have nourished philosophical and religious speculations about life and death." (Carl G. Jung, "Approaching the Unconscious," in Man and His Symbols, 1968 at 64). Moreover, these symbols of collective identity "...are not just static patterns. They are dynamic factors that manifest themselves in impulses, just as spontaneously as the instincts." (ibid. at 65-66). The Hero Twin cycle in Maya art and culture represents these impulses and expressions and provide an insightful window into the mind of the Maya.

Mayan metaphysics mirrored what Jung has called the element of “fourness,” or quaternity, that seems to be so prominent an aspect of the life of the unconscious collective landscape across various cultures (op. cit. at 62). The Maya marked the four corners of their universe, north (xaman). South (nohol), east (lahkin), and west (chikin), with the corresponding colors of white, yellow, red, and black with green representing the center of the world (Coe, 1999 at 204; and, M. Miller and K. Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, 1993 at 78). Already from their earliest primordial accounts of creation, the Maya structured reality through the use of this “twin” or dual conception of the world within and without of them.

The cardinal directions of the Mayan universe were points of reference that complemented each other, and, when taken together, formed a unity that provided balance, harmony, and order. Lahkin, or east, was only meaningful relative to chikin, or west. The plane of earthly existence was complemented by twin domains---the underworld and the cosmos---ruled by the many Maya gods and goddesses. The Heart of Sky and the Heart of Sea are the bearers, begetters, modelers, and makers of the world (Tedlock, 1996 at 30-31).

Christenson writes that quaternity is still evident in Maya ritual today: “The placement of offerings at the four corners and center of a house is a common Maya practice, the sacrificial animals serving as the spirit co-essence of the house and of those who live and work within it.” (Christenson, 2001 at 152).

In addition to being a psychic reference to the element of fourness, Christenson’s observations also indicate another aspect of the twin nature of the Maya worldview: co-essence. The idea of nuwal, or soul force; that is, the concept that every human life was identified with a particular day and the various animal associations that correspond to a person’s birthday, underscores the twin dimensions of even the most general human experiences for the Maya (ibid. at 67 and 152).

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 and 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).

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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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