The Maya Creation Story

By Gene Fernandez

People of all times and places have sought to understand how the universe came into being and how humanity developed. Each culture provides its own account, unique in detail but embodying universal themes. This similarity of thought among remote civilizations may indicate a form of archetypal intelligence available to any human being with the spiritual capacity to access it, as well as the existence of a very ancient worldwide civilization. The Popol Vuh records one branch of the ancient Central American heritage. Written shortly after the Spanish conquest by a Quiche Indian in his native language but using the Roman alphabet, it was transcribed and translated into Spanish by a Dominican priest in Guatemala at the end of the 17th century. His manuscript, housed in the library of the University of San Carlos, Guatemala City, was brought to the attention of European scholars in 1854, making Maya cosmogony and history available outside Central America. Today researchers can also draw on other documents, inscriptions, and the traditions kept alive by the Maya's descendants.

Considered from a theosophic perspective, the Maya story of creation reveals its kinship with the worldwide wisdom tradition. It begins with the emptiness of the primordial waters of space, in a darkness which contains no manifested thing. There Hunab Ku, the divine one, the first cause, eternal, unborn, undying, all that was, is, and will be, uncontained, boundless, absolute, awakened from the dreamless sleep of thirteen eternities and emanated out of his own will the Heart of Heaven. A one-dimensional emanation of Hunab Ku's own divinity, the Heart of Heaven was the recipient of all potentialities. Its only dimension, length, disappeared into the nonexistent breadth and height, and set in motion the process of cosmic evolution in planes of existence so spiritual that only the eye of the mystic could conceive it. Space was not, since there was nothing to contain it. Time was not, since there were no events to divide it. There was only the incomprehensible divinity of Hunab Ku, permeating the Heart of Heaven which slumbered for seven eternities. Then by the power of his word Hunab Ku thrilled the Heart of Heaven. Awakening from its dreamless sleep, Heart of Heaven emanated the God Seven, the cosmic Demiurgus, the creator, one in essence, seven in manifestation. This interpretation of the Maya story brings out its similarities with other ancient accounts, such as the Stanzas of Dzyan, the Kabbala, and the Biblical Genesis. The sacred numbers seven and thirteen relate to the Maya cycles of evolution and to their lunar calendar of 819 days (7 x 13 x 9).

The manifestations of God Seven — Itzamna Kauil, Tzacol, Bitol, Tepeu, Gucumatz, Alom, and Caholom — each had dominion over and were identified with a cosmic dimension, and later with a cardinal direction and color. The seven had the innate compulsion to create, so they took counsel and unanimously decided to say the word that would create the new dimension of breadth. Manifesting through the Heart of Heaven, breadth extended infinitely through the four quarters. Itzamna Kauil, Tepeu, and Gucumatz marked the cosmic center with three green stones. Tzacol sat on a black stone in the west quarter, Bitol on a red stone in the east. Alom sat on a white stone in the north, and Caholom sat on a yellow stone in the south. Each tried in vain to create progeny to help organize and administer his dominion. But not even the three in the center, acting together, could create, and after many independent attempts the seven still remained alone, floating like sparks of darkness in the homogenous chaos of the Heart of Heaven.

Taking counsel at the center, God Seven marveled that each had independently attempted to take the same course of action and failed. They agreed that creating progeny to populate their dominions was the right thing to do. Together they said the word once again: the blue-green light of differentiation filled the chaos and their progeny — the seeds of heaven, matter (earth), and the waters of the underworld — became manifest. All things were confounded within the two-dimensional universe, the Cha-Chan (low-down heavens), where generation after generation of denizens, the seeds of worlds-to-be, lived and had their being.

At that moment of creation, God Seven knew that any act of creation could be realized only if the seven were together with absolute concordance of all parts. This creative act of God Seven started cosmic evolution: the ethereal differentiated into substances, each attracted to and attracting its opposite, merging into each other and modifying its own essence into a duality that completely transformed its forces into something new which balanced its own innate characteristic. Each was akin to its own substance, the spiritual never changing its divinity, the ethereal becoming ether, the material becoming matter. The Cha-Chan was then a two-dimensional ethereal world. Generation after generation of denizens populated the intermingled two worlds whose opened portals linked them in a harmonious duality: at one end the spiritual world of the creators, and at the other the dark waters of Xibalba, the Underworld.

Human evolution in the Popol Vuh stems from the Regents Ixpiyacoc and Ixmucane, the Supreme Pair, grandparents of the Maya as well as of humanity as a whole. Ixmucane was the mother of the Ahpu twins, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, who were each one and seven: three male/female duads and one unity. Together the twins represented the highest qualities and aspirations of their world. They had all the knowledge accumulated by their race, but were devoid of malice and unaware of their own powers. Not knowing evil, their actions were completely innocent and their pleasure was to play ball, the ancient Maya Game. On one level the ball game is an allegory for the movements of the celestial bodies. Perhaps this is why they could play the game in any combination of seven, up to three on one side and four on the other, representing the five closest planets plus the sun and moon, depending on their position in the night sky.

Xibalba, the Underworld, was ruled by Lords who embodied very different knowledge and values. They were upset with the noise of the ball game, so they issued an invitation to the boys to play a game against them in the bowels of the Underworld, with the intention of killing them. The boys politely accepted. After an arduous trip to Xibalba, the twins were asked their names, which they politely gave the Lords. The Maya believe that once someone knows your name, he knows you and your thoughts. This allowed the Lords to victimize the boys with many trials and humiliations before the ball game itself which, of course, was rigged in favor of the Lords. After losing the game, the twins were decapitated and their bodies buried under the surface of the ball court, except for the head of One Hunahpu which was hung on a calabash tree at the entrance of Xibalba as a warning. The story of these first twins reveals the failure of purely spiritual beings to bring their evolution to more material levels. They would need a sphere full of desires and free will to continue their slow descent on the downward arc of evolution, as the next story in the Popol Vuh, concerning the hero twins Hunahpu and Ixbalamque, seems to indicate.

After the head of One Hunahpu was hung on the calabash tree, Blood Woman, the virgin daughter of one of the Lords of Xibalba, heard the story and was curious about the skull. One day she wandered around the tree and tried to touch the skull, which spat on her hand. Thus, without her knowledge, she became pregnant. As time went by, her pregnancy became obvious, so her father questioned her angrily, fearing dishonor for him and his family. She truthfully answered that she had been with no man and cried her innocence in vain. Maya social customs were very strict in regard to sexual conduct; her father ordered two of his servants to take her into the woods and bring back her heart in a container. The servants took her to the edge of Xibalba, but decided to let her go. They put a red fruit and red sap in the container and took it to their master instead.

Blood Woman now knew that One Hunahpu was the father of her children, and she went to his home and pleaded with his mother Ixmucane, explaining that she was carrying her grandchildren. Ixmucane did not believe her, but finally accepted her as the household servant, giving her the most miserable tasks to do until she bore male twins, Hunahpu and Ixbalamque. The grandmother rejoiced in the twins and tried to protect them as they grew into youngsters with exceptional powers. She hid the ballgame gear that had belonged to their father and uncle because she blamed the game for their early demise.

The hero twins, however, were not as innocent as their father. They had acquired some of the cunning qualities of the Underworld through their mother's line, while retaining their father's and uncle's power and knowledge, somewhat magnified by curiosity. Known for their intelligence and heroic virtues, they performed many acts for the benefit of the Cha-Chan, their imperfect world of chaos. For example, they separated the future humanity from the monkeys by sending their own half-brothers into the trees. They punished Itzam Ye (Venus), a boisterous bird with bright plumage who committed the sin of pride by boasting that he was the Sun. They killed Itzam Ye's two sons who were wreaking havoc in the world of matter by "moving and squashing mountains." They revived the 400 boys and set them in the sky as the Pleiades. Finally they discovered their father's ballgame gear and played noisily, moving celestial bodies to their proper places, the ball game being an allegory for these movements.

Hunahpu shoots Itzam-Yeh (from a Maya vase painting)

The Lords of Xibalba were disturbed by the noise, as they had been before, and invited the hero twins to the Underworld for a game in which the winners would take all and the losers would lose their lives. But these were not the innocent creatures who had gone before them; they were successful in avoiding all the traps that the Xibalbans prepared for them before the game. During the game itself, after solving many schemes and enduring the Lords' bad calls, they seemed to give up. Convincing the Lords that the only way to kill them was by grinding their bones and throwing the powder into the river, they held hands and jumped into a fire. The Lords pulled out their bones, ground them up, and threw the fine grains into the river. From the powdered bone emerged a pair of catfish — perhaps a suggestion that all life on earth started in water. Following the path of evolution, eventually the catfish were transformed into two small boys who became performing magicians.

The Lords of Xibalba heard about the tricks performed by the youngsters and invited them to the Underworld for their entertainment. They urged the youngsters to perform their most difficult feats: after a house was burned with one of them inside, it suddenly appeared as if nothing had happened. Then the youngsters, seeming eager to please the Lords, did the following: one of them cut the other in pieces and threw the parts into the air, where they disappeared. After a long pause the twin materialized unharmed, to the amazement of the Lords. The principal Lord, wishing to show off his daring in front of his vassals, begged the twins to perform the trick on him. The twins agreed most willingly. After dismembering the Lord, they did the same with the other Lords, but none returned alive after their limbs and bodies were thrown into the air. After thus defeating them, the twins put several conditions on the return of the Lords, which were irrevocably accepted. The twins returned the Lords unharmed, and all agreed to many restrictions, such as no longer intentionally harming other beings, although they were allowed random acts such as storms, famine, and floods, but only impersonally and when absolutely necessary. The Lords also promised to live in the Underworld without ever stepping on the earth's surface.

The twins ordered the Lords to reveal the burial site of their father and uncle so that they could bring them back to life. The Lords revealed that they were buried under the floor of the ball court, which by extension represents the earth's surface. The boys exhumed the corpses and prepared a magic ritual that brought both of them back to life. At this point there is a significant event: the twins asked their father and uncle the names of various parts of the body, and they could not identify some of them. This passage seems to indicate that they were from a former race and that even their physical forms were different, perhaps lacking some of the physical or mental capacities that had evolved since their demise. At this point the hero twins decided that their ancestors were not fit to live in the current world, but being deities of their own race, they were reburied with great respect, and the twins built a temple so they could be properly worshipped.

As soon as the temple was completed on the floor of the ball court, the Tree of the World erupted from the bowels of Xibalba, breaking through the ball court floor, pushing Xibalba down with its roots, pushing the sky above the world of matter with its branches, and leaving the world of matter between the Underworld and the Heavens. Cha-Chan, the flat heavens, was no more, as the third dimension was born from that creation. Now there were different regions — spiritual, material, and underworld — connected only through the World Tree whose roots are in the Underworld, its branches in the world of matter, and its crown in the spiritual realm of the Heavens. The ancestral twin One Hunahpu ascended to become the Sun, while his brother Seven Hunahpu became the Moon.

(From Sunrise magazine, August/September 2001; copyright © 2001 Theosophical University Press)


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If a person measures his spiritual fulfillment in terms of cosmic visions, surpassing peace of mind, or ecstasy, then he is not likely to know much spiritual fulfillment. If, however, he measures it in terms of enjoying a sunrise, being warmed by a child's smile, or being able to help someone have a better day, then he is likely to know much spiritual fulfillment. — Arthur Miller