Esotericism of the Popol Vuh — Raphael Girard

Chapter 14

The History of Maize and of the Quiché-Maya Civilization

We have come to the conclusion of the Popol Vuh's long exposition describing the slow evolution of Maya culture and its successive transformations from the lower level of the hunter-gatherers until it reaches the agricultural-patriarchal stage. The cultural horizons of the Quiché-Maya classification are established when a new element of prime importance arises to modify the type of life and the cultural circumstances; but the successive development of means of subsistence and the parallel course taken by the evolution of family and society, division of work, types of living quarters, as well as of arts and sciences, embraces a continuous process, allowing us to grasp the structure of its historical totality. When a high degree of evolution was attained in all phases of the culture, the basic patterns of Quiché-Maya civilization were thereby firmly established.

As for the degree of artistic advance at the beginning of the Fourth Age, it suffices to compare the beings whose arms and legs are formed of maize with those which in earlier epochs lacked all extremities. The emphasis now given those parts of the human anatomy reveals that the native artisans, imitating the gods, had markedly progressed and could sculpture anthropomorphically complete figures.

In the economic and social order, the Third Age is characterized by the horticultural-matriarchal regime, with the bean as its essential food, since humanity then was formed of that substance. Conversely, the Fourth Age is that of maize cultivation by men and by a patriarchal regime. This distinction is fully established in the references to the fact that formerly men had only mothers; now, however, they are not born of mothers but through a supernatural act, as Hunahpú, the Maize god, was born; moreover, the gods created only men — women will come later — and this determines their lawful position.

Maize has become the principal source of life, allowing man to share in the divine nature; it is the very essence of divinity that enters into the formation of humankind and from then on will sustain it both materially and spiritually, since by eating of maize man makes himself consubstantial with Deity itself.

But before acquiring its divine condition and becoming that basic food, the maize grain had to undergo a long process of cultivation until it gained its spherical form, full and hard, which will assimilate it with Hunahpú's head. That there then existed fully developed maize ears with their rows of grain is attested by the repeated mention of the white ears and the yellow ears. Those repetitions form part of the very technique of native literature for emphasizing every far-reaching event, and it has its linguistic correspondence in the phenomenon of reduplication. Such repetitions become tiresome and unpleasant to the ear habituated to European literatures; but if we penetrate into the native mentality we understand that they have a profound meaning and, because of that, justify their seeming monotony.

The history of maize starts in the Second Age, i.e., in exceedingly remote times when the earth produced only scarce and inadequate foods and — quoting Torquemada — "the foods and fruits of the earth did not grow well, causing people to die from eating various dangerous things" (Juan de Torquemada, Monarquia indiana, Mexico, 1934). Among the wild grasses that were then included in the diet was "the grass centeucupi and the grass achianthi," according to the account in the Thévet manuscript and the Vatican A and Franciscan Codices. These latter say that cintrococopi (the centeucupi of the Thévet) is a certain kind of wild maize (called atzitziutli in the Vatican Codex). Since the Mexican and Mayan sources belong to the same mythographic horizon and make reference to the same process of historical stratification, we have in the Mexican, then, excellent complementary information to the Popol Vuh.

There is additional historical and botanical evidence that makes it impossible to think that the Mexican sources refer to peoples of the altiplano and causes one to suppose that they pertain to those who then inhabited the Central American region, their cultural homeland. For example, wild maize does not figure in the diet of the Chichimecs, who ate "prickly pear leaves, various roots, palmetto, honey, and yucca flowers," according to Sahagún. On the other hand, in Guatemala there are two wild relatives of maize, the only ones known, which are native to the western part of this country (two kinds of teosinte and various species of tripsacum).

Besides that, it must not be forgotten that the Popol Vuh describes for us allegorically the evolutional process of maize through the matriarchal age up until it acquires a character more or less like what it now has, with ears and grains perfectly developed. From the Popol Vuh we know that during the Third Age maize is already under cultivation and is found in the family garden. In those times men cleared the land and women sowed and reaped on a small scale, regulating their operations by the lunar calendar. This cultivation, pursued during many centuries of time, improved the quality and quantity of this grain, whose discovery is attributed to Ixmucané. But during that Age it was not yet "the food," the bean and root-plants (yucca and manioc) having the preferred place in the native diet. That its divinization occurred at the beginning of the Fourth Age shows that maize had not achieved its full development until then. Maize is the typical exponent of Quiché-Maya culture, as wheat and sorghum is of the Egyptian, and rice of the Hindu and Chinese.

The Popol Vuh specifies that the first kind of food made from maize took the form of a drink — the 9 drinks of Ixmucané. This could mean that at that time neither the earthenware pan for cooking maize cakes nor the knowledge of preparing tortillas existed. This would support S. Linné's observation that use of the earthenware pan is typical of a relatively recent epoch, it being unknown in what he calls "primary cultures." In support of this Swedish expert's conclusion, we have the linguistic peculiarity that there is no original word to designate the tortilla (see Appendix A).

The 9 drinks of Ixmucané became the sacred food par excellence, reserved exclusively for offerings to the agrarian gods, and they preserve their original name (boronté) among the Chortís, even in places where use of the vernacular language has been lost. This custom, whose origin goes back to the episode described in the Popol Vuh, would seem to confirm that maize as food was first employed in a liquid or paste form and that that form was incorporated into ritual as a result.

Another piece of evidence supporting this postulate lies in the fact that the peoples separated from the common cultural trunk at an early stage — such as the Andes culture — still consume maize preferentially in liquid or paste form, and in many places the earthenware pan is unknown. Similarly, it was not known among peoples who represent Third-Age culture, as the author was able to verify among the Taoajkas of Mosquitia, who use the grinding stone but are ignorant of preparation of the tortilla.

Mesoamerican culture is founded upon utilization of the following plants: maize, beans, calabash, cacao, the rubber tree, tobacco, and cotton (and in a minor degree upon sweet manioc), which make up its economy. Therefore the origin of the culture should be found in that people which discovered the use of these plants. In this regard the testimony of the Quiché manuscript is most eloquent in telling us about their discovery, it being the only American source to explain the mythic beginnings of all of them as well as their religious and practical usage. We have in fact followed the process of formation of maize, fabrication of cigars, the origin of the calabash and the place where it was first known, incense, the ball game, the beginning of the potter's art, the use of the grinding stone, the evolution of the calendar, etc. As for cacao, we learn that two varieties existed. Besides the names of rubber, maize, the cigar, cacao, etc., of Mayan origin, we have additional information in the Quiché manuscript of Francisco Garcia Calel Tzunpán, which mentions that a king, Hunahpú, was the discoverer of cacao and of cotton.

These are the decisive arguments regarding the origin of agriculture in the New World and, besides the botanical facts to which we have referred in the chapter on the Tzolkín (Girard, Los Chortís), they rest upon the testimony of the Popol Vuh, the single native source which accounts for the evolution of maize and the phenomenon of its germination. It contains the code of the perfect farmer and also refers us to the social or astronomical events related to agricultural development, giving the time and place of the beginning of its cultivation. It locates this place in Paxil and Cayalá, a region that, as we shall have an opportunity to see when we discuss Tamoanchan, corresponds in its geographic, botanic, and zoologic aspects to the Pacific coast of Guatemala where all of the botanical and zoological species referred to in the Popol Vuh, and which were made divine by Quiché-Maya culture, are native.

The proof that Mexican traditions emanate from this same place is seen in the preservation of religious symbols such as the quetzal, tapir, lizard, cacao, rubber, etc., all of which imply an essentially southerly origin and are absent from the Mexican plateau. We repeat here the case of wild maize, mentioned in Mexican sources but unknown to the Chichimecs.

Raynaud translates Paxil as "houses upon pyramids." For reasons that we now give, a more appropriate translation is "hill (which later on was compared with the pyramid) of food" (cerro del alimento), the homologue of the "hill of subsistence" (cerro de los mantenimientos) on which the Legend of the Suns locates the finding of maize by Quetzalcoatl, disguised as an ant.

The root pa, by antonomasia, in fact means food, but its true meaning has not yet been uncovered because we are dealing with an archaism. This place-name, inseparable from maize or food, has in the linguistic order the same close etymological relation with these elements, a fact that can be proven by comparing the various languages stemming from the same linguistic and mythographic subsoil. There follows a short list of words meaning maize or allied concepts, related to Paxil or Cayalá (pa means tortilla, food, in Chortí):

With the root pa:

With the root ta:

With the root yal:

With respect to the root xi of Paxil, one should consult the list in Appendix A dealing with ixim and related sounds, where there also appear names having the root pa.

In the Memorial of Tecpán-Atitlán we have an informative supplement of great interest with respect to locating the geographical area of the homeland of Quiché-Maya culture. It says:

Two animals knew that there was food at the place called Paxil: the Coyote and the Wild Boar. But the Coyote, when it pushed aside the maize looking for seeds to knead, was killed by an animal called Hawk. And from within the sea the Hawk brought the blood of the Serpent and of the Tapir with which it kneaded the maize, and from this the flesh of the people was formed by Tzakol and Bitol. And these knew well who was born, who had been begotten, since they made the people as they were. There were thirteen men and fourteen women. These married and one had two wives [polygamy for the lords; compare with the situation of the earlier cycle in which the seventh of the Ahpú had no wife but was single, a civil state at variance with the Maya family regime]. Therefore the race mixed, this race of ancient times, as they say [an allusion to the change from the matriarchal to the patriarchal regime which caused one clan to mix with another].

Here we have, completely explained, the etymological origin of Tamoanchan, a word which like that for maize, rubber, cacao, etc., is an exponent of Maya culture and can be correctly translated only from the Mayan. The name Tamoanchan breaks down as follows: ta = place; moan or muan = hawk or sparrow hawk; and chan = serpent, all in Chortí. Its meaning, then, is the Place of the Hawk and the Serpent; in other words, the region where the Hawk brought the blood of the Serpent from the sea, the material that was kneaded with maize and entered into the formation of man. This means, then, a maritime region.

Although apparently differing, the Cakchiquel, Quiché, and Mexican versions tally in essentials regarding the anthropogenetic myth, with the single difference that in some versions anthropomorphic gods intervene, while in the Cakchiquel manuscript the same gods are represented under the disguises of their zoological nahuals, the bird and the serpent, which respectively symbolize heaven and earth. For the Mexicans it is Quetzalcoatl, the Creative deity, whose name embodies the mythical bird and serpent, who creates men with its own blood and cares for them by feeding them with maize.

The hieroglyphic of Tamoanchan is expressed by the rebus-sign of a bird of prey in the act of drawing blood from a serpent with its talon, such as appears in the following figure, taken from the Dresden Codex.

image: bird of prey drawing blood from a serpent

Figure 21.

This symbol, omnipresent in Mesoamerican culture, represents also the mystery of fertilization of the earth, which is no more than a constant repetition of the anthropogenetic myth. The Chortís recall the drama of the Fourth Creation each time that a babe is born, mixing its blood with maize at the moment the umbilical cord is cut, and that maize is given it to eat (cf. details in Girard, Los Chortís, "Ethnography"). The Totonacs use a different method since, according to R. de la Grasserie, they make a kneaded mixture of the first fruits and grains of the harvest, mixing them with the blood of three children who were sacrificed. And the Mexicans allude to this symbol in the following line of the song to the Earth goddess: "The eagle is painted with blood of the serpent." But nowhere do we find this idea so forcefully depicted as in the San Agustín monolith from Colombia (Figure 22), which again makes the common genesis of American cultures clear.

image: Bird of Prey and the Serpent

Figure 22. Theme of the Bird of Prey and the Serpent in the art of San Agustín, Colombia. This statue is in the Berlin Museum of Ethnography.

The hawk and the serpent are still Huastec totems, according to observations of R. Shuller. The same theme was later copied by the Aztecs and even comes down to us in the coat of arms on the Mexican flag. But until now the indirect causes of the Aztec myth were unknown, and even though the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlán is in the public domain, until now no effort had been made to go back to its far-past origins and to learn precisely why it was that a serpent and a bird of prey should be poised on a prickly pear tree. We shall return to this matter when we explain the symbolism of that tree, which does not belong to Maya mythology (Girard, Los Chortís, "Comparative Ethnography").

The importance of the Cakchiquel version lies not only in giving us an exact etymological definition of the word Tamoanchan, which until now no one, and no source, had succeeded in explaining satisfactorily, but also in locating it firmly in history, time, and geography. Besides referring to a maritime region, the presence of the mythological tapir — whose habitat is purely Central American and does not extend beyond Chiapas — shows that the coasts to which this source refers must be sought south of Chiapas, that is, in the very zone in which the calendar was invented (cf. Girard, El Calendario Maya-Méxica, Mexico, 1948).

Tamoanchan, a word that is translatable only in Maya and whose etymological explanation is found solely in Quiché-Maya sources, has been adopted by the Mexican tradition which also adopted the symbol of the bird and the serpent. We therefore find that the hymn to Cinteotl begins with this stanza: "The god of Maize has been born in Tamoanchan, in the place where there are flowers, in the place where there is water and moisture." Moreover, in Mexican myths Tamoanchan is the "house of birth," the place where man was created and where he delights himself. The Mexicans were aware that their mythical paradise was found in Central American lands, inasmuch as Sahagún informs us on the basis of native testimony that the original Tamoanchan is found in Guatemala, an affirmation that Henning also makes in declaring that Tamoanchan must be located in the south of Guatemala, where the first Tula was also located.

The description of both the legendary Tula or Tlalocán and the mythical Tamoanchan or Chortí paradise tally with Paxil and Cayalá, and appear as different names for the same place (cf. chapter on Tzolkín and chapter 13, Girard, Los Chortís). This place is referred to in all the sources as the homeland of maize, a garden of abundance, Xóchitl icacan, the country of flowers (one thinks of the Xuchiate River, "of the flowers," that divides the Mexican state of Chiapas from Guatemala). This idea is well expressed in the Vatican A Codex picture representative of the Fourth Creation that shows on a red-yellow background (color of the dawn and of the Fourth Regent according to the Popol Vuh) the young god (or god of the Flowers)* descending or falling from heaven and grasping the braided tresses in which very large flowers are hanging. Flowers also adorn the red field as well as the hands of the personages that are on the earth (see the accompanying figure, taken from the Vatican A Codex, plate 7).

*The flower or Flower god is the emblem of beauty, a mark proper to the god of Maize. The relation between the god of Flowers and the Maize god, in addition to what we have said on the matter, appears in the Quiché word cotzij (flower) which is applied to the Agrarian god of the Zapotecs (cocijo).


Figure 23.

The same motif, the Maize god falling from the sky and grasping cords in which he entangles himself, can be seen on statuary at Copán where in this form the descent of divine grace is represented, the essence which fertilizes the earth to produce maize or which fecundates woman to produce creatures (see Girard, Los Chortís, chapter 18). This idea, illustrated for the first time in the immaculate conception of Ixquic, is expressed in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel in the following words: "There will fall girdles, cords, on the day when the Foam [the divine essence] of the Book [the Word] and the Fish [nahual of the Maize god] descend [see the text of the katún wheel]." The theme of the cord by which gods or the generations descend to the earth, or men ascend from the underworld, is a common one in many American myths.

Moving on to another concept related to the Fourth Creation, we find that Quiché and Cakchiquel sources attribute the discovery of maize to animals who then pointed out the road to Paxil. In this allegory, in which the raiders of the milpa figure, it was doubtless their wish to record that wild maize was in the beginning considered inedible, until those animals by their example showed man that he could eat it without risk. That was a matter of vital importance for the primeval Indian "who died through eating various damaging things," as Torquemada said.

Those animals, discoverers of maize, are perpetually evoked in Chortí and Quiché rituals during the moment when the elder throws four grains of maize to the four cosmic directions, assigned to the coyote, the bird or crow, the bird of prey, and the mountain cat (Girard, Los Chortís, "Ritual"). Very significant is the intimate relation among the coyote, the bird (the only animals mentioned in the Cakchiquel manuscript), and the wild maize or teosinte which the Chortís call nar mut (bird maize). They consider this plant to be the "grandfather of maize," while in the region of Bado Hondo and Santa Elena in the Chortí area itself, teosinte is popularly called "tail of the coyote" (cf. ibid, "Ethnography").

The killing of Coyote by Sparrow Hawk, when the former was collecting maize seeds for kneading, is exceedingly interesting from the theogonic and cultural point of view. In another way, the Popol Vuh corroborates this passage of the Cakchiquel legend when it replaces Hunahpú-Utiú (sun-coyote) by Wak-Hunahpú (sun-sparrow hawk) in the list of the gods and does not again mention the Coyote god, who disappears from the mythographic scene from the beginning of the Fourth Creation.

Aside from the testimony of the sources already cited, the existence of a Sun-Coyote god in the primeval religious stratum is confirmed by the preservation of the figure of the Coyote god, correlated with a Solar god, among some northern peoples who pertain to the hunter-gatherer cycle. But Sparrow Hawk killed Coyote when the latter tried to collect seeds to knead; that is, the animal that symbolized the prehistoric cycle is annihilated by the one representing the Quiché-Maya culture. This killed that, as Victor Hugo would say.

The dawning of the new culture is related as follows:

People were aware of their intelligence. They understood what they saw, and finished by learning and knowing everything that is under heaven. They could see through the shadows without the need to walk to the object of their vision. They projected their wisdom into the trees, stones, lakes, the sea, the mountains, and the coasts (note again mention of the sea and the coasts of the primeval homeland). They spoke the same language as the gods and understood the gods perfectly. Great was the wisdom that they possessed.

We see here a linguistic homogeneity described with the color and poesy of Quiché literature. This contrasts with the situation in the first horizon of the Mayan cycles when people could not understand one another. The Quiché traditions faithfully register the evolutional process in all aspects of the culture, including language development. They also mention the differentiations that took place within the Quiché language itself beginning with the departure from Tulán, noting that later on language became confused and people could not communicate. After the gods had formed the four first true men, to whom they transmitted their knowledge, they said to them: "Take possession of your mountains and your coasts." From then on, the earth, that divine inheritance, becomes the indivisible enjoyment of the native community and will be passed down through male descent.

Immediately the four creatures show their gratitude to the gods by "giving thanks two and three times," something their predecessors could not do, and thereby mark a new pattern of ethics and agrarian ritual, since a sense of gratitude is an innate quality in the Quiché-Maya Indian.

"Thanks then to you, Ajtzak and Ajbit, for having given us being; you are our grandfathers." This they said, when they gave thanks for their life and manifested existence.

They finished by learning all, searching out the four corners of all that is in the spaces of the heavens and on earth. In imitation of the gods the men established the squaring of the earth, to which they remain intimately linked since they themselves represent the four cosmic gods, one of them — Iqui Balam — being sterile like the part of the universe that it embodies. As cosmic gods they acknowledge the central duo as their grandparents and therefore affirm it in their words. Thenceforth the Quichés invoke that divine pair as their grandparents, a title that the elder who is their genuine representative (chuch-kajaú) will keep. The four first men establish the four-quartered division of territory and political organization. In a word, that first civilized generation was the equal of the gods because it was perfect.

But this did not please Ajtzak and Ajbit because there was then no difference between the creators and the created; and to overcome this difficulty the theogonic council comes together once more and agrees to limit the vision of the god-men, "blurring their eyes as the breath dims the surface of the mirror; thus their eyes remained cloudy and they could see only what was near. The eyes that men now have continue to be blurred because even yet their consciousness is not good." This explains the Chortí elders' belief that Deity does not permit them to see the suns and stars close up, and they can be contemplated only from far away (Girard, Los Chortís, chapter on Tzolkín).

At the heart of this allegory is a principle conducive to ethics and wisdom, qualities that are inseparable. Thus it is that in the Chortí view the most virtuous are always the wisest, and true men nurture a continuous aspiration to excel in virtue so as to be able to realize the ideal of divine omniscience and so regain the condition of god-men that they originally possessed.

After creating the four first civilized men, Cabahuil, "by his word," creates four beautiful women, giving them as wives to the men and so completing their conscious awareness. This creation took place while the men were asleep so that on waking they experienced the pleasant surprise of finding at their side their respective companions and therefore "their hearts were filled with happiness."

From then on man should awake at the side of his wife and carry out the sacred law of reproduction, promulgated in the above paragraph by implication. To that end Deity has placed in man's heart that feeling (the sexual instinct) which causes him to become full of happiness on finding his partner who will be his other inseparable and accommodating half.

"They begat the people of the great and small tribes and were the origin of us. Many were those who obtained the ability to be sacrificers and adorers (elders), but only four were our progenitors."

This verse explains the origin of the caste of Mayan elders, instituted following establishment of ritual practices. The office of elder will be hereditary within the line created by Deity itself. Only those of that pedigree will be able to exercise the double office of spiritual and political chief of the tribe. From this comes the importance of the genealogical tree of the Maya or Quiché dynasties whose origin goes back to the beginning of the agricultural-patriarchal era, that is, to the opening of the Fourth Age.

"Balam Quitzé is the grandfather or father [note the equivalence of the terms father and grandfather, formerly applied to the mother and grandmother] of the house of Cagüek, Balam Acap of the house of Nijaibap, and Majucutaj of that of Ahau-Quiché, there being formed three descents, and no one forgot the name of his grandfathers and fathers who begat them there where the sun rises."

Only Iqui Balam had no descent, inasmuch as he was sterile. He becomes the patron of married persons who do not produce children and forfeit the right to use the solar symbols on their apparel, inasmuch as the male who is sterile does not give life as does the sun and is regarded as a son of Iqui Balam who left no succession or symbols to the race (F. Rodas).

Parallel with the inauguration of the Quiché-Maya elder caste, the tribe comes into being as an administrative unit which, like territorial demarcation, is patterned on the quadripartite model of the cosmos. This is a notable advance in political institution: for the first time the tribal society is organized on the basis of the federation of clans, in contrast with the earlier epoch when the clan formed the largest social unit composed of family groups. In like manner, the religious fraternity has become the tribal religion. One of the originating causes for the beginning of the tribe or clan federation was doubtless the shift from the matriarchate to the patriarchate "when the races mixed," as the Cakchiquel source puts it. The meaning here is that, in spite of the change effected, the same groups of families continued within another larger unit; this new condition is embodied by Hunahpú when he joins his grandmother's clan, later proclaiming the rights of the male, and he himself becoming the first tribal god.

We now have a complete picture of the development of Quiché-Maya society from the horde to the tribe, the largest unit of state. The tribe was the form of government during the classical period of Quiché-Maya culture, and is today among the Chortís (cf. Girard, Los Chortís, "Ethnography").

The clan continued as the basic unit of tribal organization, as it still is in the Chortí state which has a rural population scattered over a large territorial area. Given these antecedents, the next evolutional step toward a superior form of government can only be that of a tribal confederation as an extension of the federation of clans.

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