Aztec and Maya Myths

[ Anthropology ]

Aztec and Maya Myths

By Karl Taube

Professor Taube discusses the different sources for Aztec and Maya myths.

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6 3/4 x 9 1/2 | 80 pp. | 40 illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-78130-6

The myths of the Aztec and Maya derive from a shared Mesoamerican cultural tradition. This is very much a living tradition, and many of the motifs and gods mentioned in early sources are still evoked in the lore of contemporary Mexico and Guatemala.

Professor Taube discusses the different sources for Aztec and Maya myths. The Aztec empire began less than 200 years before the Spanish conquest, and our knowledge of their mythology derives primarily from native colonial documents and manuscripts commissioned by the Spanish. The Maya mythology is far older, and our knowledge of it comes mainly from native manuscripts of the Classic period, over 600 years before the Spanish conquest.

Drawing on these sources as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century excavations and research, including the interpretation of the codices and the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing, the author discusses, among other things, the Popol Vuh myths of the Maya, the flood myth of Northern Yucatan, and the Aztec creation myths.

  • Map of Mesoamerica
  • Introduction
  • Major sources and the history of research
  • Aztec mythology
  • Maya mythology
  • Mesoamerican mythology
  • Suggestions for further reading
  • Picture credits
  • Index

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Although 1492 marked the initial contact between New World peoples and Renaissance Europe, it was not until the early sixteenth century that Spanish explorers first encountered major native civilisations in southern Mexico and neighbouring Central America. The peoples of this region inhabited great cities with complex forms of administration and government, employed intricate systems of writing and calendrics, and celebrated refined poetry, music, dance and art. Unfortunately, it was not sophisticated culture but the promise of gold and riches which drew the first Europeans. In 1521 the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was conquered and looted, and only a minute fraction of its treasures were preserved or recorded for posterity. While in Brussels in 1520, the German artist Albrecht Dürer examined Aztec material previously sent by Hernán Cortés to King Charles V: 'All the days of my life I have seen nothing that rejoiced my heart so much as these things, for I have seen among them beautiful works of art, and I marvelled at the subtle intellects of men in foreign places.' Although little understood by Dürer, these same works of art portrayed complex modes of thought no less refined than the objects themselves.

It is easy to lament the massive destruction of screenfold books, sculpture and other native works at the time of the Spanish conquest, but a far more profound cultural loss was the destruction of indigenous customs and beliefs by death and disease, slavery and mass conversion. However, although a great deal of the mythology presented in this book derives from those few precious works now carefully preserved in major museums and libraries around the world, this is by no means a description of dead gods of a vanished people; much of the mythology survives to this day in the beliefs and speech of the living descendants of the Aztecs, Maya and other native peoples of Mexico and Central America.

The region occupied by the ancient Aztec and Maya, now commonly referred to as Mesoamerica, is an area encompassing southern and eastern Mexico, all of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, western and southern Hon duras, and the Pacific side of Central America as far south as the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. Ancient Mesoamerican peoples shared a series of cultural traits; among the most striking are two calendars of 260 and 365 days that permutate in a great cycle approximating fifty-two years, hieroglyphic writing, screenfold books and masonry ballcourts with rings. Although the peoples inhabiting this area were of many distinct cultures, often speaking mutually unintelligible languages, none the less there was widespread contact over millennia through migration, trade, conquest and pilgrimage. It is therefore not surprising that many themes are shared between the mythologies of the Aztec, Maya and other peoples of ancient Mesoamerica.

Certain gods, symbols and mythical episodes described in this book may appear strikingly similar to Old World examples, yet they derive from independent development, and no evidence exists of any exchange between Old and New World civilisations prior to the sixteenth century. Along with all other native New World peoples, the inhabitants of Mesoamerica arrived by crossing the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska near the end of the Ice Age. Indeed, certain Mesoamerican beliefs, such as shamanic transformation, a lunar rabbit, and the importance of world directions and trees, do suggest a link to eastern Asia and may well have been introduced by these first immigrants, perhaps as early as the tenth millennium BC.

Ancient Mesoamerican history

In comparison with Sumer, Egypt and other early civilisations of the Old World, those of Mesoamerica are of relatively recent origin. The Olmec, the first great culture of the region, and perhaps the first to warrant the term civilisation, developed in the tropical lowlands of southern Veracruz and neighbouring Tabasco. By the twelfth century BC the Olmec were constructing ceremonial architecture and monumental sculpture representing a complex iconography of cosmology, gods and symbols of rulership. Like later Mesoamerican societies the Olmec economy depended on farming, especially maize--still the most important crop in Mesoamerica today. Another early civilisation, that of the Zapotec of highland Oaxaca, inscribed the earliest known instances of calendrics and writing in the region, and by 600 BC they were recording calendrical information of historical significance. The mountain city of Monte Albán served as the Zapotec capital for well over a thousand years. Whereas Olmec culture ended by 400 BC, the Zapotec remain one of the major native groups of contemporary Oaxaca.

The Protoclassic period (100 BC-AD 300) marks the development of complex urban cultures over much of ancient Mesoamerica. In the Maya region of eastern Mesoamerica, the lords of such sites as Izapa, Abaj Takalik, Kaminaljuyu, El Mirador, Uaxactun and Tikal began erecting impressive monumental art and architecture. At Izapa, in particular, many stone monuments clearly portray mythological episodes.

Although known to the Protoclassic Maya, writing achieved an especially high level of complexity and importance during the following Classic period (AD 300-900). As a result of deciphering Maya glyphs, one can today voice the actual Mayan names of gods, cities and kings. In addition, abundant texts and art graphically portray many aspects of Classic Maya mythology. Because of the artistic and architectural achievements at such sites as Palenque, Yaxchilan, Tikal and Copan, the Classic period is commonly regarded as the apex of Maya civilisation. The inhabitants of these and other sites clearly shared similar beliefs, although there is no evidence that the Classic Maya were ever unified in a single empire or confederation. Instead, the picture appears to be one of competing city states, and by the end of the Classic period many Maya sites had been abandoned. However, this was not the end of Maya civilisation; its greatest known epic, the Popol Vuh, came from the pen of a sixteenth-century Quiché Maya. Indeed, sacred narrative continues to be a vigorous tradition among modern Maya peoples, although the main focus of this book is pre-Hispanic Maya mythology.

One site in particular, which rose to prominence during the Protoclassic period in central Mexico, was known by the later Aztec as Teotihuacan, meaning 'place of those who became gods'. This is where the sun and moon were created according to the mythology of the Aztec, who named its two greatest pyramids after the sun and the moon. The largest of these, the Pyramid of the Sun, was constructed about the beginning of the Christian era. This massive structure directly overlies a natural cave--a possible reference to the emergence of people out of the earth, a well-known creation episode in later Mesoamerica. At its height in the Classic period, Teotihuacan covered over 20 square kilometres (some 8 square miles) and contained a population of perhaps 200,000. The city's plastered walls were covered with brilliant mural paintings, many of which depict gods known to the subsequent Toltec and Aztec cultures of central Mexico.

By the beginning of the Early Postclassic period (AD 900-1250), Teotihuacan, Monte Albán and many Maya sites were virtually abandoned. The central Mexican site of Tula, which dates from this period, is now known to be the legendary Tollan, the capital of the Toltecs ruled by Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl - human counterpart of the great god Quetzalcoatl. According to both central Mexican and Yucatec Mayan texts, Quetzalcoatl moved his capital to the red lands of the east, quite probably Yucatan. The site of Chichen Itza, in Yucatan, exhibits strong and specific Toltec traits, and clearly this site shared a very special relationship with Tula during the Early Postclassic period.

The Late Postclassic period (AD 1250-1521) corresponds to the cultures encountered by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, and virtually all of the known surviving pre-Hispanic screenfold books date from this time. Moreover, early colonial works composed by both Spanish and native scholars provide a wealth of documentary material on Late Postclassic customs and beliefs. Whereas the Maya are best known for the Classic era, the Aztec epoch is wholly within the Late Postclassic period. The Aztec, or Culhua-Mexica as they preferred to call themselves, were relative newcomers to central Mexico. Their great island capital of Tenochtitlan--future site of Mexico City--was not founded until approximately 1345. None the less, by the time of the Spanish conquest, less than two centuries later, the Aztec had created the greatest empire known in ancient Mesoamerica.

The origins and growth of the Aztec state are strongly reflected in Aztec religion. As a means of legitimisation, the Aztec aggressively adopted the beliefs and iconography of earlier peoples. For instance, the site of Tula, the legendary Toltec capital, was accorded special prominence, and certain Aztec gods can be traced back to Tula and still earlier Teotihuacan. The Aztec also incorporated religious practices from contemporaries, including peoples of Puebla, the Gulf Coast Huastec and the Mixtec of Oaxaca. The conscious adoption of foreign customs both solidified conquest and offered cultural unification; the Aztec even had a special temple, the Coateocalli, which contained the captured images of foreign gods. Although Aztec mythology thus has many deities and themes derived from other Mesoamerican cultures, certain myths are wholly Aztec--particularly the mythic origins of Huitzilopochtli at Mount Coatepec, which served as a sacred charter for the expansion of the Aztec state.

Ancient Mesoamerican religion


In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, calendrics played an essential role in mythology as well as in daily life. One of the most important cycles was the calendar of 260 days, composed of twenty consecutive day-names combined with the numerals one to thirteen. For example, a given day such as 1 Caiman was formed of two parts: the numeral 1 with the day-name Caiman. A particular day would not repeat until all 260 combinations of day-names and numerals were played out. In ancient Mesoamerica individuals, gods and even world epochs were often named by this calendrical cycle. Thus the legendary ruler of Tollan, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, was also named by the day 1 Reed, or Ce Acatl in the Aztec Nahuatl language. In a similar vein, many of the gods mentioned in the Maya Popol Vuh creation epic possess names drawn from the 260-day calendar. Although of less importance in native mythology, Mesoamericans also tracked a vague-year calendar of 365 days composed of eighteen twenty-day months with a final period of five days. The 365-day vague year ran concurrently with the 260-day cycle, with each vague year being named by a specific 260-day date. Due to the permutations of these two cycles, a particular named vague year, such as 2 Reed, would not recur until the completion of fifty-two vague years.

Still another calendrical system was favoured by the Maya and neighbouring peoples of south-eastern Mesoamerica. Known as the Long Count, this vigesimal system (based on the number twenty) consisted of a constant count of days from a mythical event in 3114 BC. Although first known among non-Maya peoples in the first century BC, this system was developed to its highest level of complexity and popularity by the Classic Maya. An abridged form of the Long Count continued in use well into the colonial period among Yucatecan-speaking peoples of the northern Maya lowlands.

In Mesoamerican thought, the calendar concerned the definition and ordering of space as well as time. Each of the twenty day-names of the 260-day calendar was oriented to a particular direction, passing in continuous counter clockwise succession from east to north, west and finally south. Similarly, the 365-day years also moved in a counter-clockwise succession from year to year. Page one of the Fejérváry-Mayer Codex depicts the 260-day calendar oriented to the four directions with associated birds and trees. The central Mexican god of fire and time, Xiuhtecuhtli, stands in the centre of the scene as a warrior backed by four streams of blood. The source of this blood appears near the four birds at the outer corners of the page: it originates from the severed arm, leg, torso and head of Tezcatlipoca, one of the greatest gods of central Mexico. Although this precise mythic episode is not known from other sources, the scene suggests that the casting of Tezcatlipoca's dismembered body to the four quarters by Xiuhtecuhtli was tantamount to the creation of the calendar and directions--that is, the delineation of time and space.

Mesoamerican calendrical systems were not simply used to delineate thirteen-day weeks, twenty-day months, vague years and other periods of daily reality. They also distinguished intervals that were especially charged with sacred and often dangerous powers. The peoples of ancient Mesoamerica keenly observed the sky and used the calendar to predict solar and lunar eclipses, the cycles of the planet Venus, the apparent movements of constellations and other celestial events. To them, these occurrences were not the mechanical movements of innate celestial bodies but constituted the activities of gods, the actual recapitulation of mythical events from the time of creation. In central Mexico, the first appearance of Venus as the Morning Star was Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, Lord of the Dawn, who battled the rising sun at the first dawning at Teotihuacan. The calendrical cycles themselves also delineated sacred moments of time. The vast majority of Classic Maya stone monuments celebrated the completion of major Long Count calendrical periods. Among the Postclassic Maya of Yucatan, the end of the 365-day vague year was an especially dangerous time and, according to the colonial Cantares de Dzitbalché, was equivalent to the destruction and re-creation of the world. Thus much of the imagery in the Yucatec new year rites also appears in Maya creation mythology. Similarly, the completion of the Aztec fifty-two year cycle was marked by an anxious vigil: if new fire was not successfully drilled, the terrifying star demons of darkness, the tzitzimime, would reassert their control over the world.

Day versus night

The contrast of night and day constitutes one of the most basic oppositions of Mesoamerican thought. Native accounts of the first dawn describe this event as the origin of the legendary and historical time of mortals, in contrast to the mythical period of creation. Thus in the Quiché Maya Popol Vuh, the gods and fierce beasts become stone at the first appearance of the sun. Similarly, according to one Aztec account, Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli turns into the god of stone and cold at the first dawning at Teotihuacan. In Aztec myth, the gods were sacrificed during the dawning at Teotihuacan and, according to one version, sacred bundles were made from their remains. Both the Aztec and Maya accounts explain the origins of the later condition and appearance of the gods, who in reality were represented in inert stone sculpture or wrapped in sacred bundles.

Whereas dawn marks the daylight period of stability and order of daily mortal existence, the night corresponds to the mythic time when gods and demons come alive. According to modern peoples of Veracruz, once the sun sets, only the night stars keep rocks from turning into jaguars. In Mesoamerican belief, the night is when form-changers and other demons prowl. The dark nocturnal hours are also a special time when mortals communicate with the supernatural. During dreams, one's spirit familiar performs hazardous journeys to meet ancestors, gods and other supernatural beings. The night is also the preferred time for consuming psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, morning glory seeds and other hallucinogens in order to communicate with the spirit world. Above, in the night sky, the sacred episodes of creation are continually played out in the apparent movements of constellations and planets. Solar eclipses are especially feared, since they constitute the violent reassertion of the stars and other night beings over the day.

Although there is a contrast between the chaotic nocturnal hours and those of the day, it is by no means a simple distinction between good and evil. In Mesoamerican thought, such dualistic principles tend to be considered in com plementary opposition: both are required for existence. just as sleep is a necessary revitalising counterpart of daytime activity, the night and sacred time infuse daily reality with renewed power and force. The junctures noted in calendrical periods correspond to those times of rejuvenation when the forces of creation recur. This sacred mythic time can penetrate into daily existence through ritual and omens, and even by the presence of actual living individuals such as kings, priests and shamans, curers and twins.


Twins are commonly regarded with a certain apprehension in Mesoamerica where, much like monster births, they are feared as strange and abnormal portents of religious significance. In central Mexico the canine god Xolotl was god of both twins and deformities. According to the Dominican Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, Aztec twins posed a mortal threat to their parents and for this reason one of the pair would be slain at birth. However, the fear of twins involves more than parental well-being, for they also embody the mythic time of creation. Twins are widely found in the creation mythology of the Aztec, Maya and other Mesoamerican peoples. Quite commonly they serve as monster-slayers and culture heroes who create the environment and materials necessary for human life. But just as they are the creators of order, they are also the embodiment of conflict and change.

The Quiché Maya Popol Vuh contains a detailed account of the hero twins Xbalanque and Hunahpu, who descend to the underworld to avenge the deaths of their father and uncle (also twins). In central Mexico, the culture hero Quetzalcoatl is identified with twins, and the concept is even contained in his name since in Nahuatl the term coatl signifies both 'twin' and snake. Quetzalcoatl is often paired with Xolotl or Tezcatlipoca in Aztec creation mythology. Although not as explicit as the Quichean Hunahpu and Xbalanque, these pairings also allude to the concept of hero twins. The motif is clearly of great antiquity in the New World; aside from Mesoamerica, hero twins are commonly found in the creation mythology of neighbouring Central America, lowland South America and the American Southwest.

Role models and social conduct

Mesoamerican myths are more than sacred accounts of the origins of the world; they also contain profound lessons for proper behaviour. Among the most commonly mentioned vices to bring disaster or defeat are arrogance and greed. In Aztec mythology it is not the vain and wealthy Tecuciztecatl but rather the humble yet brave Nanahuatzin who eventually becomes the sun. In the Popol Vuh, the hero twins slay the monster bird Vucub Caquix because of his excessive pride and bragging. Arrogance and avarice are vices common to high office, and a great deal of the preserved mythology provided models for royal conduct. However, Aztec and Maya mythology also address broader and more profound matters, such as the meaning of human existence. According to the Popol Vuh, the gods create the present race of humans, the people of maize, to supply sustenance to the gods in the form of prayer and sacrifice. Similarly, the accounts of sacrifice of the gods at Teotihuacan and the killing of Coyolxauhqui and her brothers describe the necessity of human sacrifice for the continuity of the world. Although this continues to be the most vilified aspect of ancient Mesoamerican religion, human sacrifice arose out of a basic premise, a recognition of the active role and responsibility of people for the maintenance of cosmic balance.

By Karl Taube

Karl Taube is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside.

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