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The Creation Myth in the Popol Vuh

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

While much of Maya mythology was lost, a lot of what we know comes from one surviving source: the Popol Vuh. In this lesson, we'll see what the Popol Vuh says about the creation of the world.

The Popol Vuh

Many religions have a central holy text that sets out the main beliefs of their faith and, very importantly, describes the creation of the world. The fascination with the origin of existence is central to many religions, and religions indigenous to Mesoamerica were no exception.

To the Maya people of the Yucatán Peninsula, particularly the group called the K'iche', no text was as important as the Popol Vuh. This book, created in the 16th century (though the oral stories had been around for centuries) and translated into Spanish in the 18th century, is one of the best surviving accounts of Mayan religion, beliefs, and myths. It begins, as so many creation stories do, with nothing.

The Beginning

Maya cosmology starts with the cosmic void. From this nothingness, sea and sky were created and then eventually sewn together by the gods representing each. The land was represented by Plumed Serpent, while the sea was represented by Hurricane.

Together, these two gods created the physical world by speaking the names of things, bringing them into existence. It's worth noting that in Maya cosmology, things were created to match their names (as opposed to being named after being created).

Plumed Serpent was one of the most important figures in Maya mythology
Plumed Serpent

Plumed Serpent and Hurricane created the mountains and all of the plants. However, they worried about who would sew the seeds and care for the land.

Plus, the other gods were bothered by how quiet it was. There was nothing that could worship them. So, they made animals. The gods asked animals to speak, but the animals could only growl and chirp and make their animal noises. The gods weren't happy about that.

Early Humans

Clearly, the world needed creatures that were intelligent, with both mind and soul. So, the gods named humans, and set about trying to create something to match this name. First, they made people out of mud. That didn't work. The people couldn't really move, and fell apart when it rained. So, the gods destroyed them and tried again.

This time, they made humans out of wood. The wood people were even worse. Yes, their bodies were more resilient than the mud-people, but they were too stiff to move much and they had no memories or emotions. They failed to praise the gods, so Hurricane sent a great flood to destroy them.

Those who survived the flood were destroyed with monsters sent by the gods, including Bloodletter, Gouger of Faces, Crunching Jaguar, and Tearing Jaguar. The wood people who survived that then had to endure molten rain. They hid in their houses, but their pots and tools came alive and attacked them.

The very few who survived retreated into the forests, and they became monkeys.

The Sun and Moon

We need to take a brief break from humans for a second to check in on the gods. Without humans to praise them, the gods didn't have specific roles to fill. They had to praise themselves, leaving them free to create new roles. One, Seven Macaw, rose to try and become lord over all the gods.

Vessel depicting the Hero Twins and the Lords of Death, whom they defeat
Hero Twins and God of Death

The fate of the world comes down to two celestial figures called the Hero Twins (Hunahpu and Xbalanque), who are grandsons of two of the primordial deities who helped create the world and who helped design the first attempts at people.

The Hero Twins ultimately trick Seven Macaw and dethrone him, killing him and his sons. The Hero Twins are later tricked by the Lords of Death into playing a ball game (a game which killed their father and uncle), but they emerge victorious. As great champions, they ascend into the heavens to become the Sun and the Moon.

Humans

The Sun and the Moon thus came into being, but they could not be visible until there were people to worship them. So, now that the gods had restored balance among themselves, they got back to trying to make humans.

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