Mythology Around the World: Mesoamerican Mythology
© Paul Kupperberg
Chapter 2: “This is the Beginning of the Ancient Word...”
No matter what the culture, regardless of their history, we all share the need to understand who we are and where we came from. While modern man depends on science for his answers, earlier cultures had to rely on their imagination and nature. Myths, traditional stories presenting supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as representations of certain types and ideas, are the response of primitive societies to this need to understand their place in the world.
Modern cultures also have the advantage of the accumulated knowledge of the past millennia, allowing us to better understand our place on this planet, this planet’s place in the solar system, this solar system’s place in the galaxy, this galaxy’s place in the universe.
We know that that thunder and lightning is nothing more than the interaction of electrons and moisture in the air. We understand that the sickness afflicting us is caused by a specific one of any number of microscopic organisms that infiltrate and disrupt the body’s natural and normal functions.
Nature and the Gods
Prior to learning these things, people trying to understand their history, their lives and their place in the world and the broader universe had to create the reasons based on their limited understanding of how the world worked. Unable to peer through powerful telescopes out to the edge of the universe, they credited beings created in their own images with responsibility for everything from the stars in the heavens to the crops in the fields. Uncomprehending of the organisms that sickened them, they could only believe that disease was a sign that they had somehow offended a god.
History becomes mythology, changing fact to fiction as it is told and retold down through the generations. A storm that may have turned the tide of a long ago battle becomes the epic tale of a divine intervention that determined the fate of a nation. An eclipse is the hand of a god blocking out the sun to punish a rebellious people.
Traditions and rites of passage are formalized in myths as stories that give them a history and a reason for their observance. Family tales, life lessons, the interactions of man and nature are all explained in myths.
A tale from the Oaxaca valley warns of the danger of pride in a story about the bat who, though he complained to the gods that he was cold, was in reality jealous of the colorful plumage of birds. The gods asked each bird to contribute one feather each to keep the bat warm. With so many different colored feathers, the bat became the most beautiful flying creature around. Day and night, he spread color across the sky and could even create rainbows.
The bat became insufferably proud of himself and the birds soon had enough of his arrogance. So they flew to the gods and asked that something be done about the bat. The gods summoned the bat to the heavens so that he could show them what he could do. But as the bat demonstrated his abilities, he began to lose his feathers, one by one. Soon, his feathers were gone and he was back to being his old, drab self. To this day, the bat is still ashamed of his ugly, unadorned body and only comes out at night, flying rapidly back and forth in search of his lost feathers.
The Power of Mythology
In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell, the cultural historian and chronicler of mythology, outlines two distinct orders of mythology. The first is the naturally-oriented myth, created to explain the origin of man and his universe. The second is the socially-oriented mythology that explains man’s place as a member of a particular society.
Together, Campbell writes in The Power of Myth, “they integrate the individual into his society and the society into the field of nature. It unites the field of nature with my nature. It’s a harmonizing force.” These myths may be stories about gods, but these powerful gods are really just metaphors, “personifications of a motivating power or a value system that functions in human life and in the universe—the powers of your own body and of nature. The myths are metaphorical of spiritual potentiality in the human being, and the same powers that animate our life animates the life of the world.” In other words, “there is a natural order and harmony to nature, and what the individual or group must do is fit in.”
The epic legend of the Popol Vuh, the creation myth of the K’iche’ Mayan, exemplifies the interplay between man, nature, and the gods, determined to inhabit the world with a people who would worship and praise them. After creating the world itself in the first age, the gods made animals. But the animals couldn’t praise the gods so they told the animals that they would therefore be of service to others as food.
In the second age, the gods tried again, this time making a body from the mud of the earth. This too was unsuccessful, crumbling and falling apart and capable only of speaking nonsense. This creation they let dwindle away, until it became “thought.”
In the third age, the gods created manikins of wood, the man of coral wood, the woman of reeds. But though the manikins could walk, talk, and multiply, they had no hearts to love their creators or minds to remember them. So a great flood was released to smash them, and today only monkeys, it is said, are still made of wood and look like humans as a warning that people must have a heart.
Finally came the fourth age when the gods at last understood how to make proper humans. Fox, coyote, parrot and crow bring yellow and white corn to Xmucane, the goddess of corn. She ground it up into cornmeal that becomes human flesh, arms and legs. Their blood is water; the water in which Xmucane rinsed her hands became human fat. These beings can speak and think and, most importantly, praise and thank the gods for having made them.
Here is man’s place in the cosmos: created by the gods to worship the gods, made from the very things that sustain them and tie them to Earth and nature. It integrates, as Campbell believes a myth must, man “into his society and the society into the field of nature.”
The universality of Campbell’s statements can be seen in the many cultures whose mythologies would seem to be drawn from the same or similar sources. It is not uncommon to find the story of a great flood that partially or completely wipes humanity from the planet (which we know as the Biblical story of Noah’s ark) in cultures from all over the world. Is this because they have all experienced a great flood at some point in history, or because the fear of such a cataclysmic event is common to the human experience and, therefore, likely to make its way into multiple mythologies?
The myths surrounding creation also contain common ideas and themes, including the shaping of human beings from nature (clay in the Judeo-Christian world, corn and water in the Mesoamerican) by a superior being. Even the telling of these tales may share surprising common ground. The King James Bible (a translation commissioned by England’s King James I, published in 1611) opens with the sentence, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Mayan Popol Vuh starts with “This is the beginning of the ancient word, here in this place called Quiche (K’iche’).”
But while mythologies may share themes, every culture puts its unique stamp on their myths. Feathered serpents, giant brothers posted at the four corners of the universe to hold up the sky and gods who turn into black ants to bring corn to mankind are only the beginning of the rich and ancient mythology of Mesoamerica.