A Civilization Lost to Quest, Conquest & Conversion
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In the previous parts, some of the ancient civilizations of the Old World, their religious beliefs and few associated popular legendary tales were dealt with briefly. In common parlance, the term Old World is used to refer to Asia, Africa, and Europe put together. This is the part of world which was better developed and well known to the contemporary people till the discovery of the North, Central and South Americas, which were together recognized as the New World. While the Old World boasts of a glorious past with several well developed civilizations such as Indian, Greece, Roman, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Chinese, and so on, with a historical past of several thousand years, yet another civilization too independently evolved in parts of Americas several millennia ago with its own set of cultural and socio-religious customs and belief till at least towards the end of eighteenth century, which is recognized and known in the world today as Maya civilization.
Maya: Brief Civilizational History & Attributes
The Maya developed as a Mesoamerican civilization nearly independent of the rest of the ancient civilizations with its own sophisticated and highly developed slogosyllabic script as well as art, mathematics, architecture, calendar and astronomical system. The Mesoamerica is a distinct cultural region in North America that encompasses from near central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and north of Costa Rica. The civilization that evolved and inhabited these areas for thousands of years before the Spanish colonization around the middle of the last millennium is given the name of Maya civilization. After the colonization, the ancient Mayan culture was systematically destroyed by the European colonizers and the majority people were killed or converted to Christianity through application of force and enticement. Whatever small ethnolinguistic group of indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica survived this onslaught, they still inhabit the region comprised of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras and "Maya" is a collective term given to these people in the modern age.
Geographically, this region consists of the northern lowlands encompassing the Yucatan Peninsula, and the highlands of the Sierra Madre, running from the Mexican state of Chiapas, through southern Guatemala into the El Salvador and southern lowlands of the Pacific littoral plain. Available archaeological evidence suggest that the initial settlers were comprised of hunter-gatherers in the Maya highlands and lowlands nearly ten thousand years ago and the civilization started taking organized culture with first sign of agriculture and village-like cluster nearly 2,600 BCE. Thus, permanent villages developed with agriculture as main trade around 2,000 BCE along with the use of pottery, loom weaving, stone grinding, and so on, and writing skills were developed around 700 BCE with the establishment of cities. The staple crops of Mayan people during this period was maize, beans, squashes, chilli peppers, etc., and by 500 BCE their cities had developed monumental architecture, including large temples with elaborate stucco façades. Many figurines available suggest the typical Physical characteristics of Mayan people with high cheek bones, fleshy and hooked nose, heavy lidded eyes and fleshy lips.
Though there seems to be no mention of elaborate empires and kingdoms but in the Mayan societies the concept of the divine king appeared to be popular. This king acted as the mediator between the divine realm of gods and mortals. Like most other civilizations, the kingship among the Mayan societies was patrilineal with the custom of normally passing it to the eldest son. The prospective king was expected to be a skilled warrior and war leader too although practices varies in different states and societies. Thus, Maya people were governed with the idea of a hierarchical society ruled by nobles and kings. With the advent of time, the rising aristocracy among the people led to commensurate decrease in the power and influence of the divine king. Also the civilization accomplished highly sophisticated artforms, using both the perishable and non-perishable materials, such as wood, ceramics, sculpted stone monuments, jade, obsidian, stucco, and finely painted murals.
The Mayan cities comprised of a city centre with administrative and ceremonial complexes surrounded by residential areas with rather irregular sprawling and causeways. The usual architecture in cities comprised of palaces, ballcourts, pyramid-temples and structures related to astronomical observation. There is enough evidence to suggest that the Mayan people had reading and writing skills including mathematics and ritual calendars, a complex system of hieroglyphic writing and recording of historical events and ritual knowledge in the screen fold books. However, only few of these are still available and most of it was destroyed by Spanish colonizers. As a part of their religion, some Mayan people practised human sacrifice too particularly on prisoners, slaves and children, mostly orphans and illegitimate ones. The arrival of Spanish colonizers started in early sixteenth century (Around 1517 CE), who also carried the old-world diseases like smallpox, influenza and measles along with them among Mayan people. The Mayan people strongly resisted and fought back with valour and vigour for many years but most of them were, ultimately, killed or converted to Christianity in about a century nearly destroying the civilization.
Ancient Mayan people had some strange belief and practices. For instance, when people would die, they would enter the underworld through a cave or cenote while the dead king follow cosmic path of Sun for the same purpose. However, as the king supposedly had supernatural powers, he would reborn into the sky world to become one of the gods. The commoners were mostly buried under the floors of houses with their mouth stuffed with food, a jade bead and articles used by them while alive. The practices of the cremation, burial in sepulchres beneath mausoleums, or even in some cases mummification of dead noble/lord was in vogue. They also had supernatural belief in the spirit of the forests and use to install four jaguars or balam, later crosses too, at the four entrances of village to keep evil spirits away. Many Mayan believed that the earth was supported on the back of a giant crocodile resting in water pool full of lilies, and, similarly, the sky was supported by a double-headed divine serpent.
Maya Gods and Supernatural Creatures
The ancient Mayan people traditionally followed animism i.e. the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena and belief in supernatural powers that organize and animate the material universe, while few surviving people of their descent now believe in animism and catholism as well. They had their own cosmic beliefs such as the earth being flat and four-cornered – each corner being located at some cardinal and colour value, and the sky being multi-layered supported by gods at each corner. They also had a belief in thirteen layered heaven – a blissful place, and nine layered underworld – a cold and unpleasant place being the destination of the most sinners after death. Each such layers of heaven and underworld had their own lords with divine bodies such as Sun and Moon passing through them above and down the horizon. Any formal name has not been ascribed to Maya pantheon but as can be seen from the aforesaid brief mention that like other contemporary civilizations of the Old World, the Mayan people too believed in natural gods and polytheism.
The Maya civilization boasted of numerous gods and goddesses with varying attributes, roles and functions. Also, some of the gods probably had many aspects including sexuality, features, age, etc., each representing some heavenly body including the underworld face. Some sources also talk about one supreme deity named Itzamna, the Mayan creator god patronizing the skills of writing, arts and sciences and his wife Ix Chel, the goddess of weaving, childbirth and medicines. In a long list of the Mayan deities and supernatural beings, the following gods/divine creatures are amongst the more prominent, powerful, revered and feared ones.
Itzamna: As already mentioned, he is the Mayan creator god and cultural icon, who is credited with the creation of the Maya world, and introducing the religion, knowledge and writing skills to it. He is also often symbolized with the Sun.
Ix Chel: She is the Maya goddess wife of Itzamna and associated with of childbirth and medicine. She is also associated with women skills like weaving.
Ququmatz: He is variously spelled in different Maya languages and featured as the serpent god or vision serpent and seen as the messenger or chief link between gods and people. The Quiche Maya people worshipped him most and even believed him to be the creator of humankind.
Chaac: He is also variously spelled in different Mayan languages and is considered as the god of rain and among the most worshipped deities in the Mayan pantheon. Many people believed him to have four divine aspects representing four cardinal directions with colours green, red, white and black, respectively.
In a long list of Mayan gods, other important gods were Ah Mun or the Maize god with both aspects of male and female deities personifying agriculture predominantly comprised of maize, cacao beans and jade, and he was patron god of arts, dancing and feasting too; Ek Chunah was the god of war, human sacrifice and violent death; and Ah Puch was the melevolent god of death and lord of the ninth and lowest layer of the underword.
Alux: Again, various terms are used for Alux, who actually represent benevolent natural spirits that could turn to become harmful too if not treated with due respect by the human beings. In Mayan folklores, they are often depicted as the magical dwarves.
Rabbit: In Mayan fables or folktales, he is often referred to as Uncle Rabbit or Mayor Rabbit that could die but come back to life again in stories. The Rabbit is depicted as an important but trickster animal that can easily outwit other animals or people, and occasionally fall in own trap too.
Sisemite: It’s a Bigfoot-like shaggy humanoid creature of the ravines and wilderness with body covered with long, coarse, or matted hair. Sisimite was unusually tall and powerful humanoid that might abduct women but could also cure or grant magical powers to them.
Mayan Mythology and Legendary Tales
Unlike the Old-World civilizations and their charm, only little is known about the civilizations of the New World and we do not find any illustrated account of old dynasties and kingdoms, although kings and nobles were part of the later Maya civilization too. The Maya mythology is an important part of Mesoamerican mythology that comprises of mythical tales about the forces of nature, deities and the human heroes often in the main role as part of the most such narratives. Among the oldest and most important written documents is the book of Popol Vuh that contains Maya creation myth, adventures of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and chronicle of the Mayan Quiche people. This compilation largely includes the mythology and history of the Quiche people, who inhabited the Guatemalan Highlands, Mexican Chiapas, Campeche and Quintana Roo states, and areas of Belize. The period of tales is well before the Spanish conquest and colonization of the land.
Today, the world knows about the Maya civilisation through its ruins found of the great cities in the erstwhile Mayan areas, deciphering of the Mayan writing, and the stories and legends that have been passed orally through the ages or preserved in few books like the Popol Vuh. Many tales about the twin brothers Hunahpu and Xbalanque are prevalent. similarly, the Tonsured Maize God is also the subject of many old tales, some of them in combination with the hero twin brothers. Apparently, in those parts, the jaguars presented a sustained and terrible threat to mankind; hence many myths and rituals are also associated with them and the legends of jaguar-slaying heroes too are common. The forested Chiapas are the site of some of the region's most spectacular Mayan ruins, where intricate murals are preserved, showing killed jaguars transfixed to their stone seats, catching jaguars in a stone trap, or even burning them on a certain rock. A few common legendary Mayan tales are briefly reproduced here.
1. The Legend of the Dwarf
The Legend of the Dwarf relates to the city of Uxmal of the Yucatec Mayans, who lived in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The ruins of a great palace or temple are still available where once upon a time a large city of Uxmal was located and this place has been designated as a World Heritage site in 1996. According to the legend, there lived an old woman several hundred years ago, who was all alone and sad because she had no children, and also nobody cared for her. One day, she carefully wrapped an egg in a cotton cloth, put it in the corner of her hut and started praying day and night hoping for a child. After a long wait, one day she found that the egg shell was broken and a tiny and lovely baby emerged from the egg. The woman was extremely delighted because this is what she desired for years.
The woman looked after the child dearly and carefully but somehow the child stopped growing after one year doomed to remain of the same size for the rest of life. Hence people started calling him the ‘Dwarf’ with contempt but the woman did not care a bit and kept loving the child and kept telling him that he would become a great king one day. After few years, she asked the Dwarf to go to the king’s palace and challenge his skills and strength. The Dwarf was unsure of his capabilities but the woman insisted, so he went to king’s palace and challenged him to test their strength. The king smiled and asked him to lift a heavy stone. The disappointed Dwarf went back to the old woman sullen face but she sent him back telling if the king can lift it so he too can do it. So, the Dwarf tried and to his amazement he easily lifted the stone.
Subsequently, the gave him many difficult tasks but to his surprise, whatever king did, the Dwarf was also able to do without any difficulty. Now the king became afraid and angry and decided to give him an impossible task. Now he asked the Dwarf to build a taller and more magnificent palace than any other in the city in just one night, failing which he would be punished to death. The Dwarf was terribly upset and frightened too because he knew that he cannot do this in one night by any means. But the woman consoled him just to sleep well and see what happens tomorrow. When the Dwarf woke up the next morning, he found to his astonishment that a tall and magnificent palace was already in place.
The king was amazed and terrified too; so he now resolved to get rid of him else he might take his position owing to greater strength and power. The king now commanded the Dwarf to bring two bundles of cogoiol (hard wood) with the deal that the king will hit one bundle on Dwarf’s head, and if the latter survives, he will in turn hit the other bundle on the king’s head. The Dwarf ran back to woman that the king now wanted to kill him but the woman assured him not to be worried. She gave him two bundles of cogoiol, put a tortilla on his head and asked him to go back to face the king. The king took his chance by hitting a bundle hard on the Dwarf’s head but the latter remained unharmed. Now it was the king’s turn to take hit on the head and he died on the spot. The ministers and nobles assembled to watch the contest declared the Dwarf as the winner and new king. Thus, the wish of the woman came true and her son became a great king.
After this event, the people never saw the old woman again. The ruins of a palace available in the city are said to be of the same palace. According to a popular myth, the old woman was, in fact, the Rain-Goddess, and the Dwarf the Man of the Sun. In Yucatan, the dwarfs were considered sacred since the ancient times and often sacrificed to Sun.
2. The legend of Xtabay and Xtabentun
This legend is about the tale of two beautiful sisters, one of them was promiscuous but good and kind while the other was virgin but evil and sinner. The both women, Xkeban and Utz-colel, lived in a village of the Yucatan Peninsula. The former was treated poorly in the community due to her promiscuous conduct while Utz-colel was considered virtuous for being celibate in life. At one stage, the community people resolved to exile Xkeban, but decided to allow her to stay so that they could continue to humiliate her. Despite this, she always tried to help the homeless, poor, sick and animals on her part, while Utz-colel despite her maidenhood was cold-hearted and cruel assuming she was superior to people around her. Yet the people adored her for her chastity overlooking her cruel behaviour.
However, after Xkeban's death, the people found her mortal remains covered with flowers and being guarded by animals. The homeless and poor who were helped by Xkeban during her lifetime arranged her funeral, and a beautiful flower with sweet-fragrance grew around her grave. The story goes that Xkeban was actually transformed to this flower, which was known as a Xtabentun, symbolizing the morning glory. On the other hand, when Utz-colel died, her dead body had an unbearable smell contrary to the expectations that she would smell better than Xkeban’s due to own chaste conduct. The entire village joined her funeral, and beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers were put around her grave but they disappeared the next morning. She was, instead, transformed into a flower namely Tzacam, which was spiky cactus like with an unpleasant odour.
The story goes that Utz-colel prayed to evil spirits who fulfilled her wish to become a woman again so that she too become a beautiful and scented flower in death, but she could not pursue love and kindness due to her jealously and rage, and became the demon Xtabay instead. This Mayan legendary tale derives a moral too. Despite her promiscuous conduct and ill treatment by the community, Xkeban always helped the poor and needy, which entitled her of being transformed into the Xtabentun flower. On the other hand, Utz-colel considered herself being virtuous merely for her chastity while she was arrogant and contemptuous towards the poor and downtrodden, and finally turned to become demon Xtabay for the same reason. The moral of the legend is that virtue is within the heart and treatment of those who are less privileged and fortunate, and not merely in celibacy and sexual purity.
3. The legend of the Aluxes
In Mayan mythology, the Aluxes are depicted as tiny beings (Dwarves) created out of clay that became live through prayers and offerings to provide care and protection to its creator/owner. They are said to be the descendants of the Dwarves of Uxmal who were originally created out of the clay by the ancient Mayan priests. In mythological description, their appearance is often shown children-like with colourful clothes and sandals, who usually live in the caves near the corn fields or heavy bushes and keep dogs. Aluxes respond the way human beings treat them. For instance, if people treat them politely and offer them food, they will take care of their corn fields and ensure good harvest but if people encroach into their territory and offend or annoy them through misconduct, they might spoil their produce or even inflict them with diseases like fever, delirium, and so on. In essence, they are not bad spirits but occasionally may play mischief just like children.
There are umpteen stories about people in Mayan literature, who saw and experienced Aluxes in some or the other way. Of course, these stories relate to mixed experiences; many of these tales show them in positive light but some others portray them as evil and mischievous too. The common myth is that that these little beings come out of their caves only at the sunset and go back in hiding by the sunrise. Many peasants believe that if the Aluxes are to be made to guard one’s crop, then one must offer a small house and food for these little creatures. However, after seven years one must conceal the house by sealing its doors, or else, they will start troubling the person. The Aluxes are believed to be faithful to their owners and mischievous to strangers; so, if the house/property is transferred to someone else, the Aluxes would scare the latter’s children, and to make them friendly again, the new owner would have to offer them food, corn, honey and cigarettes. Even today, many clay figurines can be seen with the households of the Mayan descendants with these beliefs.
4. The Twins and Elder Brothers
As mentioned earlier, several tales about the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque are available in the Popol Vuh, the Council Book of the Quiche Maya people of Guatemala, which was compiled in an attempt to preserve the Mayan traditions, history and mythology in vogue before the Spanish conquest.
The saga starts with Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, husband and wife, who were older than most other gods. They had two sons, Hunhunahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu, the former already married to Xbakiyalo, in turn, having two sons – Hunbatz and Hunchouen. One day Hunhunahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu were playing ball in the vicinity of Xibalba, which was actually the Underworld. The lords of Xibalba became angry by the noise made by two brothers, so they challenged them to play the ball game in Xibalba. The brothers accepted the challenge but they were tricked, tortured and ultimately killed and buried in the underworld. However, before this nemesis, Xquiq, the princess of Xibalba had affair and got pregnant with the younger Vukub-Hunahpu. Knowing this, her furious father and lord of the Underworld ordered her killing but she managed to escape and joined Xmucane, the mother of the killed brothers.
Xmucane, who was already grieving for her lost sons and raising grandsons Hunbatz and Hunchouen, initially did not trust Xquiq but later accepted her narrative and permitted her to stay in the family. In due course, the twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque were born to Xquiq in the mountains, and later brought to the house of the grandmother. However, angry with the cry and noise of the babies, Xmucane ordered them to be taken away; thus, they mostly lived and grew outdoors. Their elder brothers, Hunbatz and Hunchouen, were happy with this situation as they were jealous and hated their little siblings and wanted them to die in hardship. But Hunahpu and Xbalanque did not die and instead grew strong and healthy learning many skills including hunting and use of the blowpipe. Despite being discriminated by own grandmother and scheming elder brothers, they never minded or complained about it.
They used to regularly bring hunted birds to the grandmother for cooking but one day they returned without a catch. The grandmother Xmucane became upset but they told her that they did shoot the birds but they were stuck up on the tree and requested her to send elder brothers with them to get the birds down. Next morning, Hunahpu and Xbalanque took their elder brothers for the hunting of birds. They started shooting on the trees but none of the birds fell down. So Hunahpu and Xbalanque asked the elder brothers to climb on the tree to fetch the birds stuck up there. As the elder brothers climbed the tree, it began to grow higher and thicker so much so that they were frightened to climb and now wanted to get down without birds taking tips from the younger siblings.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque told them to take off their loincloths and tie it around the waist like tails to make the climbing down easier. But as soon as the elder brothers did this, they were turned into monkeys and started swinging and howling like animals. Thus, twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque took their revenge on elder brothers, who were always harsh on them and wanted them to die. The grandmother Xmucane ordered the twins to bring the elder brothers home but they agreed to do this only on a condition that she will not laugh at their sight. Now Hunahpu and Xbalanque started playing flutes and drums to call elder brothers turned monkeys, who came but the grandmother could not control her laughter at their funny faces, long tails and antics. As Xmucane repeatedly failed the test of controlling her laughter, the elder brothers Hunbatz and Hunchouen ran away deep into the forest as monkeys and never ever returned again.
5. The Maize Field, Rat and Tlachtli Kit
This is yet another story of the Quiche Mayan people from the Popol Vuh involving the twin brothers of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, when they started living with their grandmother and mother following the elder brothers turned monkeys and escaped in the deep woods. One day, twins decided to clear a field for the maize cultivation and the two left with their tools, an axe, mattock and hoe requesting the grandmother to bring midday meals for them in the field. However, on reaching the field, they didn’t want to work on the field and instead went for hunting with their blowguns. They asked a dove to keep watch for the grandmother so as to quickly inform them when she comes with food. So in their place, the mattock, hoe and axe worked to clear the field and the twins merrily remained engaged in the hunting game. When the dove saw the old Xmucane coming, she promptly called out Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who then picked up tools and rubbed a little dirt on faces to show as if they were toiling all the time in the field.
Xmucane gave them food and pleasurably watched them eat thinking they have been doing hard work all the time. After they finished, she went away and they resumed their fun shooting. In the meantime, the tools continued the work and by the time of their return in the evening the field was ready for sowing maize seeds. At home, the two pretended to their mother and grandmother as if they were really very tired after the day long hard work. However, in the morning when they reached the field to plant the maize seeds, to their surprise the field had become as hitherto fore with every tree, bush or bramble grown back again. The tools worked again to clear the field but the twins decided to keep a vigil in the night to catch who undid their work on the previous day. They informed the elder women in the family, spread a huge net to catch the offender(s) and hid themselves in the vicinity.
To their utter surprise, they found that all the small and big animals of the field and forest came in the night to sing in chorus and made the brambles, bushes and trees to grow again. Hunahpu and Xbalanque tried to catch the jaguar and puma, but they escaped; then they laid their hands on the deer and rabbit but could only grab their tails that broke off in their grasp – the reason why the two animals now don’t have proper tail. The twins could not catch any animal except a rat, which was caught in the net. So they asked the rat to tell the reason why the animals were undoing their work. On a promise of the food and freedom, the rat narrated them the story of their fathers Hunhunahpu and Vukub-Hunahpu, and how they died in Xibalba, and also told them that they were not meant for clearing fields and planting maize but for playing tlachtli with their fathers’ ball and kit.
The twins were overwhelmed with joy to hear about their fathers and asked the rat if he knew about their ball and kit. The rat told them that their grandmother had hidden her sons’ rubber ball and tlachtli kit in the roof of house because it was due to the ball game that she lost them after they went to the underworld Xibalba, and now she did not want her grandchildren to have the same fate. The twin brothers thanked the rat for the information and gave it the food of corn kernels, beans, seeds, etc. Another popular belief in Mayan culture why rats eat these things till date. Later Hunahpu and Xbalanque retrieved the hidden rubber ball and tlachtli kit, and started playing it to get invitation from Xibalba so as to enable them to take their fathers’ revenge.
In the universal creation of the living creatures, the human beings were evolved with two distinct advantages of being bipedal with erect posture and superior intellect over the millions of the other species of the animals and plants. The former gave them the advantage of swift mobility and the latter the spirit of quest, conquest and conversion, thus enabling them to become the master of the physical world. Many human civilizations too simultaneously evolved with their own remarkable cultural, scientific and socio-religious attributes in different parts of the world. However, the main characteristic feature in the evolution of the man in different parts of the world remained that most other civilizations were material centric while the Hindu civilization focused more on the spiritual development though simultaneously recognizing the relevance of the material world and its value in creation and sustenance of the universe. We are already aware of the outcome that, sans Hinduism, all other civilizations either totally perished or had mass conversions with the passage of time losing their original identity and attributes.
In the history of West, more particularly Europe, the middle age or medieval era was the period of maximum human struggle and transformation owing to the human attributes of the quest, conquest and conversion. Though the mutations had started by the 6th century CE itself with the fall of the Roman empire but it reached its zenith in the period of renaissance and the age of discovery during the last millennium. While the scientific temperament on account of the aforesaid factors led to many discoveries and inventions significantly improving the quality of life, the evil side of the quest, conquest and conversion led to mass invasion, migration and colonization worldwide during the same period when most other civilizations were either destroyed or converted to the Christianity or Islam by force or entice. It is a pity that such a highly developed and beautiful Maya civilization having evolved in isolation in the New World too had to fall prey to these human offenders and what we have today is only ruins of this glorious civilization.
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