‘The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico & the Maya’
Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion by Mary Miller & Karl Taube (1993); the entry on creation accounts is superb
RESOURCE: Maya and Aztec creation cycles compared
Teachers find it confusing to see the Maya and the Mexica (Aztecs) so often mixed in together in books and on the internet. Just how did their belief systems differ? We look here at a key element in their outlook on the world - creation, and its links to calendar cycles. We’re indebted to Panel of Experts members Mark Van Stone, Professor of Art History, Southwestern College, Kansas (USA), for his guidance and generous assistance with this article, based on material in his book 2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya*, and Mary Miller, Sterling Professor of History of Art, Yale University. The deliberate simplification (we hope the bullet points style will help) and any ensuing errors are entirely our own responsibility! (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)
|Pic 1: Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions, funerary temple of K’inich Janaab Pakal, records a date far forward of December 21, 2012, indicating the Maya did not expect an end of time (Click on image to enlarge)|
• Information on both Maya and Aztec creation accounts is fragmentary, contradictory (different versions exist!), has been misunderstood and even manipulated in the past (eg by the 15th century Aztec ‘prime minister’ Tlacaélel), and contains errors (found on many many Maya monuments)
• There was/is NO mention of any impending destruction/end-of-the-world in 2012 (surprise, surprise); indeed there are many Maya monumental texts (see pic 1) implying that they expected life and the calendar to continue without interruption far beyond 2012
• Whilst the concept of cyclical time was all-important in ancient Mesoamerica, it shouldn’t be taken to extremes: to both Maya and Aztecs each creation/era was an improvement on the previous one.
|Pic 2: ‘Middle America swarms with lost cities’: the view from Tikal Temple IV of Temples I and II (Click on image to enlarge)|
• ‘Cultures worldwide suffer cycles of Rise and Fall, but those in Mesoamerica apparently lived in a more fragile environment; when they fell, they fell hard. Unlike Rome, Baghdad, and other Old World cities who rebuilt after a collapse, most of the great Mesoamerican capitals were completely abandoned after their respective Falls. Middle America swarms with lost cities.’
• The Maya Popol Vuh myth describes 4 creations, whilst the Aztec Leyenda de los Soles (Legend of the Suns), though possibly based on the Maya account, has 5. No-one’s quite sure why, but one possibility is that the Aztecs acknowledged, in their account, the devastating Maya Collapse (around 900 CE/AD). (Another is that they were referring to the burning and destruction of the ancient city of Teotihuacan, birth place for the Aztecs of the 5th Sun). Europe’s ecology can withstand human abuse much more readily than a rainforest can. Exploding populations based in and around so many new cities denuded hundreds of square miles of forest and pushed the soil beyond its capacity. On top of this, a series of sustained droughts ‘tipped the precarious, overstressed ecology into a human disaster’. Professor Van Stone believes the Creation-Destruction Myth Cycle peculiar to Mesoamerica reflects this history and was to become the Cycle of the Suns.
|Pic 3: The original Aztec Sunstone, housed in Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
WHY DO SCHOLARS USE THE AZTEC MYTH TO EXPLAIN MAYA CREATIONS?
• Surviving accounts of the Maya Creation Myth are literally just fragments. Though it’s clear the Maya conceived a dizzying, intricately connected cosmology, working out its details is painfully difficult.
• We know the Aztecs adapted their Five Creations stories (called the ’Five Suns’) from Maya and other accounts, and in general we know far more about Aztec myths, because they’re the most recent and were written down by their own scribes and by Spanish chroniclers, albeit in different versions
• Visually the best place to ‘read’ the Aztec account is in the central section of the famous Sunstone (also known as Calendar Stone or Stone of the Suns) (pic 3). This account tallies well with one of the oldest and most coherent documents, the Leyenda de los Soles.
|Pic 4: The centre ‘piece’ of the Sunstone with first four ‘Suns’ or world eras marked; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias (Click on image to enlarge)|
THE AZTEC SEQUENCE OF ‘SUNS’
(NB As noted above, not all sources agree; the following is based on the Leyenda de los Soles and the Sunstone...)
• The first Sun is called and dated 4-Jaguar. According to the Leyenda de los Soles it lasted exactly 13 cycles of 52 years (the all-important ancient Mesoamerican Calendar Round, something like our ‘century’) - ie 676 years. Its inhabitants (giants) were eaten by jaguars
• After an interval of unknown length, the second Sun was created, 4-Wind. This lasted 7 52-year cycles (364 years); its inhabitants (monkeys) were destroyed by hurricanes
• After another interval, the third Sun started, and ended, on 4-Rain. Lasting 6 52-year cycles (312 years), its inhabitants (turkeys) died in a rain of (volcanic) fire
• The fourth Sun, 4-Water, began with a 52-year flood, then lasted 13 more 52-year cycles (676 years); its inhabitants (fish) were washed away in a giant flood
• Each of these four previous creations (pic 4) was inherently unstable, ruled by gods in constant conflict
• Ours, 4-Movement, the last Sun, is based on duality, symmetry, stability and balance and COULD last forever, provided that balance is maintained; IF it ends, it will be through cataclysmic earthquakes.
(You can study the Sunstone, and the details of the 4 previous ‘Suns’ in our ‘Interactive Sunstone Experience’ - link below...)
|Pic 5: Artist’s impression of the creation of humans from maize, inspired by the Popol Vuh (Click on image to enlarge)|
• Both Aztec and Maya creation-cycle myths shared a common source
• Some of the dates are similar (eg 4-Movement, 4-Jaguar, 4-Ajaw...)
• Similar rhetorical structure
• Both accounts include (in the making of our present world) a descent to the underworld to retrieve the precious remains of humankind from the previous creation/the maize god
• Both describe each creation as improving on the previous one
• Both acknowledge the central role of maize/corn in giving life to the human inhabitants of our present world (pic 5)
• Both accounts clearly state this our present creation is the LAST
• Motivation for the Maya Popol Vuh destructions: gods displeased with their creation. Motivation for Aztec destructions: divine power struggles (though note that Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca agreed to cooperate in the creation of the present Fifth Sun)
• The Aztec account is much more complete and clear than the surviving Maya one
• Both are based on the existence of 5 directions - North, South, East, West and Centre (axis mundi). For the Aztecs each direction is associated with a particular ‘Sun’ or creation. For both Maya and Aztecs each direction is also associated with a particular deity, sacred colour, sacred tree, sacred bird...
• Both cultures also conceived the earth as flat (perhaps woven in some way - follow the third link below), as the back of a giant monster floating in water, and - for the present creation - with four giant trees (each a god) at the cardinal points holding up the sky, and a central ‘world’ tree providing the axis mundi and a path to the 13 heavens and 9 underworlds.
|Pic 6: Plates 75-76 of the Madrid Codex, showing the 260-day ritual/divinatory calendar: each dot is a day, and footprints represent travel (Click on image to enlarge)|
• The Aztec Sunstone, despite its visual appeal, is NOT really an appropriate symbol of the Maya calendars. Using it is a bit like pointing to the Coliseum in Rome to illustrate Classical Greek architecture. A more appropriate Maya calendar symbol would be the ritual/divinatory calendar drawn in the Codex Madrid (see pic 6), in which each dot is a day (260 in total, corresponding to the days of the Maya Tzolk’in, the most important of the Maya calendars), footprints represent travel, the five sacred directions are shown, and a ring of 20 daysigns is also depicted.
• For the Maya our present creation began on 188.8.131.52.0, which correlates to our 3114 BC(E). This date, written by the Maya as 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, is depicted on Stela C at Quirigua, Guatemala
• The Aztecs carved the start date of our Fifth Sun at the very top of the Sunstone. The date says 13-Reed and could have multiple ‘readings’. It refers to the year the Stone was built (possibly 1479 CE, possibly early 16th century) and, according to some scholars (eg Gordon Brotherston) it is a number cipher for the start date of the last (just-finished-in-2012) ‘Long Count’ (a calendar cycle of 5,125 years used extensively by the Maya), ie 3114 BCE. According to the Leyenda de los Soles though, our Sun only began in the 12th century. Confusing!
|Pic 7: The Creation of Man [from mud], Popol Vuh, watercolour by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)|
THE MAYA SEQUENCE OF CREATIONS
Michael Coe provides a lovely, succinct summary of this in his book The Maya:-
• ‘The Popol Vuh, the great epic of the K’iche’ Maya, recounts that the forefather gods, Tepew and Q’ukumatz, brought forth the earth from a watery void, and endowed it with animals and plants. Anxious for praise and veneration after the creation, the divine progenitors fashioned human-like figures from  mud (pic 7), but to mud they returned
• Next, a race of  wooden figures appeared, but the mindless manikins were destroyed by the gods, to be replaced by men made from  flesh
• These, however, turned to wickedness and were annihilated as black rains fell and a great flood swept the earth.
• Finally true men, the ancestors of the K’iche’, were created from  maize dough.
WORD OF CAUTION
from Mary Miller, Sterling Professor of History of Art, Yale University, and member of our Panel of Experts:-
Supernatural narratives taught to school children need to be candid in that, as the Mixtec once asked one another, “What was creation like in your valley?”, alluding to the fact that just because your origin story is different it is not necessarily incorrect. That is to say that there was no central religious authority that yielded orthodoxy. Perhaps that is one of the most interesting features [of these accounts]...
• Main picture (L) and pic 6: image downloaded from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/madrid-codex.htm
• Main picture (R): original line drawing by and thanks to Tomás Filsinger; colour graphic overlay by Phillip Mursell
• Pix 1 & 2: Photos by and thanks to Paul Johnson; graphic by and courtesy of Mark Van Stone
• Pic 3: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 4: Illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, scanned from The Aztecs People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1958 (numbers added by Mexicolore)
• Pic 5: Illustration by, courtesy of and thanks to Luis Garay/Mexicolore
• Pic 7: Original picture by Diego Rivera, downloaded from http://www.diego-rivera-foundation.org/The-Creation-of-Man,-Popol-Vuh.html; image courtesy of www.diego-rivera-foundation.org.
This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 12th 2016