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Maya Creation Myths

Maya Creation Myths: Words and Worlds of the Chilam Balam

Timothy W. Knowlton
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Maya Creation Myths
    Book Description:

    There is no Classical Yucatecan Maya word for "myth." But around the close of the seventeenth century, an anonymous Maya scribe penned what he called u kahlay cab tu kinil, "the world history of the era," before Christianity came to the Peten. He collected numerous accounts of the cyclical destruction and reestablishment of the cosmos; the origins of gods, human beings, and the rituals and activities upon which their relationship depends; and finally the dawn of the sun and the sacred calendar Maya diviners still use today to make sense of humanity's place in the otherwise inscrutable march of time. These creation myths eventually became part of the documents known today as the Books of Chilam Balam.   Maya Creation Myths provides not only new and outstanding translations of these myths but also an interpretive journey through these often misunderstood texts, providing insight into Maya cosmology and how Maya intellectuals met the challenge of the European clergy's attempts to eradicate their worldviews. Unlike many scholars who focus primarily on traces of pre-Hispanic culture or Christian influence within the Books of Chilam Balam, Knowlton emphasizes the diversity of Maya mythic traditions and the uniquely Maya discursive strategies that emerged in the Colonial period.   This book will be of significant interest to Maya scholars, folklorists, and historians, as well as students and scholars of religion, cosmology, and anthropology.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-021-0
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Foreword
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Anthony Aveni

    The final page of the Dresden Codex, a pre-Columbian Maya document, displays a scene showing the end of the previous world creation. Water is vomited from the mouth of a celestial caiman, poured from a vase by an old woman deity, and discharged from eclipse glyphs appended to the sky beast’s body, all of the action displayed against a dark and somber background. The severely eroded glyphic text that accompanies this vivid portrait of destruction by deluge reads in part, “Storm, black sky … first year” (Dresden Codex, p. 74). Parts of alphabetic narratives in the colonial Books of Chilam...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    There is no Classical Yucatecan Maya word for “myth.” But around the close of the seventeenth century, an anonymous Maya scribe penned what he called u kahlay cab tu kinil (“the world history of the era”) before Christianity came to the Peten, the land of the Maya. In this he collected numerous accounts of the cyclical destruction and reestablishment of the cosmos; the origins of gods, human beings, and the rituals and activities upon which their relationship depends; and finally the dawn of the Sun and with it the sacred calendar Maya diviners used (and in some places still use...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Aspects of Ancient Maya Intellectual Culture
    (pp. 13-32)

    As with traditions of knowledge everywhere, the creation myths written in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel were composed in dialogue with the voices past and present, even (or especially) with those voices that conquistadors and missionaries attempted to appropriate or suppress. In this chapter I provide a brief orientation to some aspects of ancient Maya civilization, with special reference to what is documented in pre-Hispanic hieroglyphic texts regarding Maya intellectual culture that served as discursive resources at various stages in the dialogical emergence of Classical Yucatecan Maya creation myths.

    The area in which ancient Maya societies emerged encompasses...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Clandestine Compilations and the Colonial Dialogue
    (pp. 33-52)

    Pages 42 to 63 of the Classical Yucatecan Maya–language manuscript known as the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel is a collection of Maya creation myths dating to years following the Spanish invasion of the Americas. Although individual creation narratives and related accounts written in the Classical Yucatecan Maya language appear elsewhere in the corpus of colonial Maya documents, the Chumayel is perhaps unique in its compilation of numerous cosmogonies. This mythography (collection of myths) is composed of some texts clearly redacted from earlier written sources, with others that were perhaps recorded concurrently from oral tradition or perhaps original...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Creation and Apocalypse: The Katun 11 Ahau Myth
    (pp. 53-84)

    This chapter examines the first creation myth contained in this Chumayel mythography, a kahlay ‘history’ of the destruction and re-creation of the world in Katun 11 Ahau. This myth is particularly interesting because it is attested to by redactions in two other Books of Chilam Balam, that of the town of Tizimín, and that of the town of Maní (contained in the Códice Pérez). By interrogating the similarities and differences that exist between the surviving examples of this creation narrative, we can gain insight into the history of its composition. Then, by examining the main characters and themes of the...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Theogony, Cosmology, and Language in the Ritual of the Angels
    (pp. 85-120)

    Munro Edmonson wrote in the introduction to his translation of the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimín (1982:xiv):

    Students of the Books of Chilam Balam will have noted the really extraordinary discrepancies between one translator and the next… . I cannot but agree with Barrera that these are texts of quite unusual difficulty. The Popol Vuh is a model of explicitness and clarity by comparison. All scholars who wrestle with colonial texts in the Indian languages of Middle America must cope with archaism and homonymy—multiplied by textual, orthographic, and lexicographic inadequacies. But these texts are purposely obscure. They are...

  11. CHAPTER SIX The Creation of the First People and the Origin of Suffering
    (pp. 121-152)

    Origin myths are often discourses on the human condition. These discourses often posit a theory of being (ontology) and construct fundamental degrees of sameness and difference between persons and groups, whether gender, kin, ethnic, or racial distinctions. Origin myths such as these may also address the etiology of selected pan-human phenomena, such as the origin of suffering and death. In Classical Yucatecan Maya literature, historical incidents of suffering may be couched in the mythological activities of gods and legendary travails of ancestors, such as in the “prophecy” for Katun 13 Ahau in the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimín (ms....

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN The Calendar and the Catechism
    (pp. 153-178)

    The final cosmogony contained in the Chumayel mythography is an especially beautiful narrative, titled here, following Edmonson (1986), the “Birth of the Uinal,” uinal being the twenty-day Maya week (V. Bricker 2002b).¹ While the preface presents the purpose of the Chumayel mythography as an answer to the questions of origin posed to the Maya by their colonial interlocutors (42.19–21), this final text answers these interlocutors with an assertion of the compatibility of Maya and Spanish cosmologies presented in the hybrid voice of both Maya and Spanish Christian traditions’ most ancient authorities.

    This creation narrative known as the “Birth of...

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT “In Whatever Way It Is Chronicled”
    (pp. 179-184)

    The final myth of the Chumayel mythography concludes on a hopeful note, remarking that the same Sun of the same creator travels across the sky to mark the day “in whatever way it is chronicled” (63.6). This statement, and the discourse of the entire cosmogony in fact, while subverting the monologues of the missionary catechists, argues for the mutual compatibility if not interdependence of the Maya and Spanish systems in the colonial world they both now inhabited.

    Throughout the course of this study, I have interpreted the multiple cosmogonies contained in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel in terms...

  14. APPENDIX: Cross-Reference of Material in the Katun 11 Ahau Creation Myth Shared by Two or More Redactions
    (pp. 185-200)
  15. References
    (pp. 201-222)
  16. Index
    (pp. 223-232)