General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Apr 2021/3 Alligator
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Inspired by Maya worry dolls...
Inspired by Maya worry dolls...
Guatemalan Maya worry dolls

RESOURCE: Maya worry dolls

During one of our recent school history workshops on the ancient Maya (Heathlands Primary, near Colchester), we were asked about Maya ‘worry dolls’. Are these just popular modern novelties made for tourists? Are they a genuine part of local Maya folklore? Or are they connected in any way to ancient myths pre-dating the arrival of Europeans? (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Screen shot of the start of BBC World News video ‘A Charmed Life’
Pic 1: Screen shot of the start of BBC World News video ‘A Charmed Life’ (Click on image to enlarge)

A simple internet search for Maya worry dolls will throw up a range of limited results; that the dolls relate to a ‘local Maya legend’ of a Maya princess (‘Ixmucane’) - ‘The princess received a special gift from the sun god that allowed her to solve any problem a human could worry about. The worry doll represents the princess and her wisdom’ (from the Commonhope website). Most readers will be familiar with the idea behind them: a child tells his/her worry to one of the miniature dolls (called a muñeca quitapena in Spanish) before going to bed, puts the doll under the pillow, and in the morning the worry has disappeared, thanks to the doll. In today’s scary world, under siege from a global pandemic, we think children should be encouraged to share their worries - with humans they can trust, and, why not, with charming, hand-made, colourful little dolls...

Pic 2: Xmucane created humans out of maize according to the ‘Popol Vuh’ - illustratiion by Luis Garay
Pic 2: Xmucane created humans out of maize according to the ‘Popol Vuh’ - illustratiion by Luis Garay (Click on image to enlarge)

There’s no doubt they are a genuine part of Guatemalan - and Mexican - folklore (watch the BBC video, below, and hear a Maya mum explaining that the dolls are a tradition ‘passed down from generation to generation’). Mexicolore Director Graciela Sánchez recalls using worry dolls as a child growing up in Mexico City. British Museum Maya specialist Claudia Zehrt reports that ‘In Guatemala, near Xelá/Quetzaltenango I was told that the worry dolls are an “old” Maya tradition, based on the goddess Ixmuqane who created humans from maize and understands all human worries and because of that insight is able to take your worries away; if I remember correctly, the idea was that with the creation of the worry dolls, you copy Ixmucane’s act of creation and have a direct line to her.’

Pic 3: Mythical Maya grandparents Xpiyacoc and Ixpucane: illustrations by Diego Rivera
Pic 3: Mythical Maya grandparents Xpiyacoc and Ixpucane: illustrations by Diego Rivera (Click on image to enlarge)

Ixmucane (also found as Xmucane, and other variants) was not a legendary princess but a mythical Maya goddess who features prominently in the classic Quiché (also K’iche’) Maya sacred book of creation from the Guatemalan highlands, the Popol Vuh. As an ancestral creator couple, she and her partner Xpiyacoc are grandparents to the famous Hero Twins, with the special powers of ‘daykeepers’ to see with divine foresight. In one of their earlier, unsuccessful, attempts to create humans, they pronounce:-
’May it dawn so that we are called upon and supported, so that we are remembered by framed and shaped people, by effigies* and forms of people...’
*The original Mayan word poy can refer to ‘any type of created image that resembles a human - an effigy, doll, manikin, scarecrow etc.’ (Christenson 2007: 80) (our emphasis).

Pic 4: Ceramic figure of an elderly Maya midwife clutching a baby; late Classic, from Jaina culture
Pic 4: Ceramic figure of an elderly Maya midwife clutching a baby; late Classic, from Jaina culture

A doll, then, is a universally accepted miniature representation of a human being, which can act as an intermediary between people and the spirit world. In the Popol Vuh Xmucane, a divine midwife, intercedes on behalf of humans when she ‘cries/calls out’ (prays?) for them. In his translation of the sacred book, Dennis Tedlock suggests that her name could well be derived from the Mayan mokonik, to ‘do something requested’, to ‘do a favour’ for someone (1996: 217). It doesn’t take too much imagination to see that Xmucane could then easily be the deity invoked indirectly by the Maya child through her/his worry doll. After all, the Maya creator gods specifically strove to ensure that their human creations would pray to and praise them constantly throughout their lives...

Pic 5: Graphic of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane at the top of a ‘Who’s Who in the Popol Vuh’ family tree
Pic 5: Graphic of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane at the top of a ‘Who’s Who in the Popol Vuh’ family tree (Click on image to enlarge)

In conclusion, then, it seems likely that, amongst other old Quiché stories and traditions, with Xmucane the goddess of creation, midwifery, divination and potentially weaving at the centre, over time this became connected to the dolls. Perhaps we adults should follow the practice, with larger dolls? Indeed, it’s quite possible that the miniatures are a relatively modern idea and that the originals were ‘normal’ sized dolls, made by Guatemalan mothers for their children.

Sources:-
Popol Vuh - the Sacred Book of the Maya translated by Allen J. Christenson, University of Oklahoma Press, 2007
Popol Vuh - the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life translated by Dennis Tedlock, Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Image sources:-
• Main pic: downloaded from Commonhope website (link below)
• Pic 1: see caption
• Pic 2: illustration commissioned for Mexicolore, © Luis Garay/Mexicolore
• Pic 3: images in the public domain; downloaded from Bowers Museum website - link below
• Pic 4: photo scanned from Mayas: Revelation of an Endless Time, INAH, Mexico City 2015 (photo by and © Ignacio Guevara)
• Pic 5: part of a graphic by Xjunajpù, from Wikipedia (Popol Vuh).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 24th 2021

emoticon Don’t get too obsessed with worry dolls - you might get accused of iDOLLatry...!

RESOURCE: The Story of the Creation of Humans out of Maize

‘A Charmed Life: The story of Worry Dolls’ - short BBC video
‘The Legend of the Guatemalan Worry Doll’, Commonhope.org
See a selection of worry dolls created by Yr 6 pupils at Gomersal Primary School
‘Who’s Who in the Popol Vuh’ - Bowers Museum illustrated feature
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