Aztec, Inca and Mayan Myths
by DIANA FERGUSON
Collins and Brown
I peer gingerly over the top of the twenty-story Mayan temple to the plaza below; the climb up has been agonizing because of my fear of heights. Here in the ancient city-state of Tikal in the Petén Region of Guatemala, howler monkeys call and colorful birds weave through trees. The dense jungle still threatens to bury the archaeological site as it once did. The pyramid is steep and scary; the stone is cool and refreshing in the jungle heat. Everywhere I look there is another pyramid or building, resembling in many ways the skyline of a modern city. Later, the evening walk that we have planned is cancelled due to rain, a rain so intense that we can hardly speak over it. I am certain the ghosts of those who once lived here still wander the trails at night.
Ever since I discovered the Olmecs, the earliest known Mesoamericans, I have been fascinated by the cultures of this region and visited them at every opportunity. What a treat it has been, then, to discover Tales of the Plumed Serpent and to relive many moments of inspiration and insight. It is a beautifully illustrated book, full of photographs of ancient sites and artifacts. The descriptive text is intermingled with myths and legends that bring the history to life.
Diana Ferguson begins her story of the ancient people of Mesoamerica long before the encroachment of the Spanish by describing the early migrations across the ice bridge from Siberia. As people settled in the area known as "Anahuac, the Land between the Waters" and flourished, they developed cultures that shared many characteristics. They shared, for example, the same 260-day calendar, worshipped many similar gods, and developed closely related rituals and games. Each of the stories in the text acquaints us with the deep-seated beliefs of these ancient Mesoamerican and Incan communities and brings their cultural practices to life in vivid detail.
Early in the book we meet Viracocha, the creator of life according to Inca legend, Grandmother One Deer and Grandfather One Deer of the Mixtec, and Tepew Qukumatz, the Sovereign Plumed Serpent of the Maya. We learn the story of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent of the Aztec, who "showed the people the patterns of time, governed by the Sun, and gave them a sacred calendar whose days and years contained the signs of divination ... and maize so that they would not go hungry." Through legend, we discover that it was he who became Venus, the Morning Star, who "leads the Sun from hiding."
The ballgame that was played all over Mesoamerica, with its fearsome reputation for bloodshed and sacrifice, is recreated for us in the Mayan myth of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the twin sons of the princess Blood Moon. As they played together in an old ball court, legend tells us, "the sound drummed through the soil beneath their feet and reverberated through the underworld of Xibalba, where it rattled the composure of the Lords of Death." Disturbing the Lords of Death was not a good thing to do, apparently, as Hunahpu and Xbalanque later found out when they had to face them on the ball court of Death. According to the legend, the boys tried very hard but were unable to outwit the Lords. The deaths of the twin sons led to the birth of the Sun and the full Moon, filling "all the heavens with glory."
My favorite is a very brief Incan myth about the mistress of the rain, a personage of royal blood who has been entrusted to create rain for us. As is often the case, her brothers cause her much mischief by breaking the pitcher of water containing the rain. When it cracks and shatters, lightning and thunder are the inevitable result. Translated from Quechua, this myth tells us that "fierce and loud, the thunder and lightning are the work of men. Gentle and soft, the rain and snow are the work of a woman."
Though much about these cultures has been lost through time and conquest, there is much that we can learn from compilations such as this one by Ferguson. The gentle (and sometimes harsh) stories tell us much about these highly developed cultures and their spiritual beliefs that are still useful in modern times. They are fun, inspiring, educational, and all in all, a great read.