Mythological episodes in inscriptional literature were used for many purposes beyond simply recording the trials and tribulations of Maya deities. Mythic narratives were intertwined with descriptions of ritual and dynastic history that were particular to the individual cities at which they were recorded. Thus, the historical moment and place at which a mythological text was produced heavily inflected its telling. Most of the texts cited here are from the city of Palenque and were inscribed from the end of the seventh through the first half of the eighth centuries. We might say, therefore, that the following is Maya mythology as told at Palenque, or more restrictively, Palenque mythology. Before turning directly to Palenque or more generally Maya mythology I would like to explain what I mean by myth, legend, and history. Looking back across the centuries, it is unclear the degree to which the Maya saw a distinction between these categories. It was, as it still is in our own day, a matter of personal preference, religious dogma, and state propaganda.
If we take the myth of Genesis in the Bible, for instance, we know that there are some believers who accept the literal truth of this narrative. Other Christians believe that Genesis is a beautiful, metaphoric story and find universal truth within it. They see it as a story that exemplifies humanity’s basic drive to understand itself and its place within the world. For believers biblical explanations of cosmogenesis are the most compelling stories of their kind.
Then there are those who see Genesis as purely a beautiful creation myth recorded perhaps as early as the 1st millennium BCE, and accept it as one of the foundational texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but see little value in it as source for understanding the origins of the human species or universal matter. They see it as a historical artifact. The history recorded at Palenque is analogous to biblical literature in the fact that it, too, is a mixed genre, combining history, legend, liturgical descriptions, and myth.
What was Classic period Maya Mythology? Let’s return again to Genesis to follow Gregory Bateson in his insightful break down of what the Bible’s first passages are really about.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that is was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that is was good.
Bateson observed that the issues outlined in these first verses are, indeed, quite similar to questions that still engage contemporary cosmographers. The central concern of these passages, as he suggests, bypasses the origin of matter to deal instead with the origin of order. In the Judeo-Christian context a deity, God, orders primordial chaos.
Organizating the Cosmos
As we will see much of Maya creation mythology is also concerned with similar issues of order and much less so with the origin of the material universe. The metaphors the Maya employ to explain precisely how the universe is ordered often are traceable to the structure of the house and domestic practice. To see these issues more clearly let’s turn to a painted ceramic vessel known as the Vase of the Seven Gods.
The Vase of the Seven Gods and its mate the Vase of the Eleven Gods, both made in the vicinity of Naranjo, present two of the most famous scenes of the beginning of the present era on 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. The first in the sequence depicts a council of six entities seated in darkness in front of an enthroned God L, identified by a variety of features including his owl headdress, shawl, beads, cigar, aged features, roman nose, and square eyes. The associated text gives the date and states that a series of important deities were put in order or that they put something in order. The litany of deities named on the mate to this vessel, a square red and black-background vase (K7750), is identical except for the final two glyphs, which depict the Sun God in place of the name glyphs of the Fire God (Jaguar God of the Underworld) found on the black background vessel. Thus, the two vases perhaps illustrate the creation of day and night through the ordering (tz'a[h]kaj[ii]y) of the deities or primordial matter (Freidel et al. 1993:68-69).
The meaning of the word tz'ak is extremely important for our understanding of how the Maya conceptualized creation. Therefore, despite the tedium sometimes associated with linguistic and etymological discussions I would like to spend a moment on this important term. In Ch'orti' Mayan, the modern language that is closest to Epigraphic Mayan, tz'ak means "a joining, a splicing, a bringing together." As a transitive verb tz'aki can additionally refer to the act of doing "up in bundles" (Wisdom 1950:204). In compounds with tun (stone), tz'ihk (adobe), and te' (wood) it means a “laying of stones, masonry," a “laying of adobe bricks,” and a “splicing of timbers,” respectively (Wisdom 1950:204). As a derived causative, the related term tz'a'akse possesses such similar meanings as "to regulate, arrange or adjust, put into order, improve a thing, repair" (Wisdom 1950:203) and by extension "to cure" (cf. Stuart 2003).
Freidel, Schele, and Parker saw the text of K2796 as referring to the ordering of the "black is its center" (ik' utan), which they viewed as a location. They interpreted the black background of this vessel as depicting a time before there was a separation of the sky and earth (1993: 68-69). The first part of this interpretation however is untenable because the ik' utan collocation clearly modifies the next glyph k'uh (deity, god), and as such therefore cannot refer to a place.
The second part of their idea has more merit and is strengthened by the discovery of the Vase of the Eleven Gods. The verb on both vases is spelled TZ'AK-ja-ya which could be taken to represent tz'a[h]kaj[ii]y or tz'a[h]kj[ii]y. Or it could be realized as tz'akyaj in which case the verb has been nominalized. This latter interpretation, though the less likely of the two in my opinion, is suggested by the use of /ja/ in the spelling of the thematic vowel of the passive voice instead of /ji/, the more common way of representing the passive when the deictic morpheme –iiy is also present. If the reading is tz'a[h]kj[ii]y then the passage reads, "[On] 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u the Gods (all the deities listed) were ordered." I believe that the passage should read "[On] 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u the black-are-its-center gods, the heavenly gods, the earthly gods, the nine tree trunk gods (9-OK-TE' K'UH)… had been ordered." This reading changes the focus of the passage from the location of the creation, which still seems to be in darkness, to the entities themselves. Thus, these deities are either the ones who are ordered and arranged, or the ones who do the arranging. The ambiguity there is unfortunate but should be resolvable with additional investigation of Epigraphic Mayan syntax. As Stuart (2003) notes in his discussion of the "Distance Number Introducing Glyph" (DNIG), tz'ak in this context means to make a particular cycle of time complete or whole. Thus, tz'ak possesses two, clearly related nuances in its meaning: "to build" or "combine" and "to make whole," perhaps in a more metaphysical sense.
The important point here is that by choosing a verb associated with building and arranging matter the ancient authors of these vessels suggest that creation itself was an act of construction or organizing with the intention of making that system whole and complete. The analogy with the house, as we shall see throughout this website, continues in the description of one of the most important events of creation—the changing of the hearth.