The kids and I are studying Meso-America and we just finished a fun project for the Mayan People - retelling the Mayan Creation Myth in comic book format. If you're kids are into graphic novels and Manga as much as mine are, then this project will be right up their alley. The following is the curriculum I put together through my own research, and the project as I presented them to my kiddos. I highly recommend you do your own research and also spend a lot of time on museum websites looking at Mayan artifacts. I give a few resources below.
The Maya people have continuously inhabited the lands comprising modern-day Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. Contrary to popular imagination, the Maya did not vanish and the descendants of the people who built the great cities of Chichen Itza, Bonampak, Uxmal and Altun Ha still exist on the same lands their ancestors did and continue to practice the same rituals with would be recognized by a native of the land from a thousand years ago.
The height of the Maya Civilization in the Classic Period produced incredible cultural advances. The Maya believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever born and nothing ever died – and this belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos.
Maya religious beliefs are formed on the notion that virtually everything in the world contains k’uh, or sacredness. K’uh (or K’uhul) are used to explain the spirituality of all things and describe the most divine life force of existence.
There are two sources of the Maya creation myth. One is the Popol Vuh, which is associated with the highland Maya of what is today Guatemala. It contains text about human creation, prophecies, and traditional myths and histories. The other source is the Books of Chilam Balam, and are associated with the lowland Maya of the Yucatan area of Mexico. There are several books of the Chilam Balam which date to cira 1500 CE and there is a clear influence of Spanish colonialism on the creation stories of the Chilam Balam.
For the Maya, the creation of the earth is said to have been a deed of “the creators”: Heart of the Sky, the Feathered Sepent, Huracan, and six other deities.
The Origin Story
Excellent reference with video on the creation story: https://maya.nmai.si.edu/the-maya/creation-story-maya, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian
In the beginning, there was the void – the nothingness. The world consisted of the sky and the sea. The sky and the sea were connected which left no space for anything to grow. Beneath the earth was the dark realm of Xibalba (shee-bal-ba), where a Ceiba tree was planted (the great Tree of Life) which came up through the earth and towered into the heavens, through 13 levels, to reach the paradise of Tamoanchan (place of the misty sky) where beautiful flowers bloomed. The roots grew in all the levels of the underworld and its branches grew into the upper world. The trunk grew to leave space on earth, the great emptiness.
The Plumed Serpent from the sky and Huracan from the sea, came together to create the world. The two “great thinkers” filled the emptiness through dialogue. Whatever they said was created. First the mountains and plant life were created. But the lack of sound on Earth bothered the gods so they created the animals. The gods ordered the animals to praise them but they could only bark or grunt or howl. Because the animals could not speak, the two gods deemed that the animals were to never leave the forests and were to be subservient to the humans who would soon be created (“accept your service and let your flesh be eaten”).
Not being satisfied with only the animals because they could not honor them, the gods started to experiment with making humans.
According to the Popol Vuh, there have been three creations…
The first creation saw the people who were made of mud. The mud people were not the most productive as many were not able to think and, according to Maya sacred texts, these men “spoke but had no mind”. They could not move because they were made of mud and they also were not technically mortal. The gods were not happy with their first creation, so they destroyed the mud people with water and started afresh.
For the second creation, the gods made men from wood and women from reeds. These people could function as humans do, but had no souls, no memory, and no emotions, and did not honor the gods. Because they were unable to properly respect their creators, Huracan sent a flood to do away with the failed wooden people. The few who may have survived this apocalypse are thought to have become the monkeys that exist today.
For the third creation, the gods sent four animals (a fox, a parrot, a coyote, and a crow) to find a location for the creation. saw the birth of modern-day humans. Once these animals found a suitable location, they brought back maize to an old woman to grind up into a grainy paste. These third humans were made from this maize dough mixed with the blood of the gods. The first humans were four men and four women called, “mother-fathers”. They explored their world and the skys and possessed great vision. At first the gods were pleased with their creation, but soon the humans’ knowledge began to rival the gods. If this were to continue then the humans would not worship and respect the gods as they should. So, the gods clouded the humans’ vision.
The people began to multiply and fill the Earth; however, the sun still had not risen, so the people wandered the Earth ceaselessly in darkness. Tired of waiting, the people began migration to the east to search for the sun, but soon began to suffer from starvation. The “mother-fathers” then climbed a mountain and prayed to the gods. The gods were moved by the peoples’ prayers and sufferings. The sun began to rise and the people fell to their knees in thanks. In the beginning, the sun’s rays were intolerable as they were so hot; however, over time the people were able to enjoy the sun’s warmth and light. They were allowed to farm the land as they wished, growing maize and other necessary crops.
The Hero Twins
The legend of the Hero Twins entails the adventures of two brothers, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, through the underworld. The legend, chronicled in the Popol Vuh, begins with the conception of the brother-gods. The Twins’ father was the god Hun H’unahpu. Hun H’unahpu and his brother were lured to the underworld where they were killed and decapitated. However, because Hun H’unahpu was immortal, his decapitated head survived and turned into a fruit on a tree. When the underworld goddess Iquic walked by, Hun H’unahpu’s fruit head spit into her hands and she became pregnant. After this she was exiled to the earth’s surface and gave birth to Xbalanque and Hunahpu, the Hero Twins.
There are several stories about the twins and they faced many challenges, but the most epic story is of their journey through Xibalba (pronounced Shee-bahl-bah), the Maya underworld.
Like their father, the twins also loved playing Poc-a-Toc. The twins angered the gods by playing to loudly. The angry underworld lords summoned the twins to the underworld. While there, the twins faced monsters and perilous situations. The lords of the underworld also challenged the twins many times to a ball games, but through wit and cunning, the twins were able to best the lords of Xibalba. Xbalanque and Hunahpu grew tired of the endless challenges and devised a way to escape the underworld. They disguised themselves as travelers and entertained the underworld gods with tricks and games. The lords were so impressed with their trick of bringing a person back to life after they were sacrificed that they asked the twins to sacrifice them and bring them back to life. However, instead of bringing the gods back to life, the twins left them dead. The twins then shocked the Xibalbans by revealing their identities as Hunahpu and Xbalanque, sons of One Hunahpu whom they had slain years ago along with their uncle Seven Hunahpu. The Xibalbans despaired, confessed to the crimes of killing the brothers years ago, and begged for mercy. As a punishment for their crimes, the realm of Xibalba was no longer to be a place of greatness, and the Xibalbans would no longer receive offerings from the people who walked on the Earth above. All of Xibalba had effectively been defeated.
With Xibalba defeated and the arrogant gods disposed of, Hunahpu and Xbalanque had one final act to accomplish. They returned to the Xibalban ballcourt and retrieved the head of their father, Hun Hunahpu.
The pair then departed Xibalba and climbed back up to the surface of the Earth where they planted their father’s head. Their father became the god of corn and it is said that this first corn is what humans were made from. The twins did not stop there, however, they continued climbing straight on up into the sky where one became the Sun, the other became the Moon.
Most Important Concept
Different Mayan groups believed in a variety of creation myths. The most important concept to understand about Maya religious belief is that time and the creation of humans are thought to be cyclical. This means that the Mayan believe that when contemporary humans are destroyed, another creation is imminent.
It was because of this cyclical view that the Maya did not believe there was anything wrong with human sacrifice. The people who were sacrificed to the gods did not die but simply moved on. This cosmological belief influenced every aspect of the Mayan civilization and rituals were performed regularly in caves, evoking the darkness of Xibalba, and on hills or high temples which symbolized the heights of Tamoanchan.
The great pyramids of the Maya are replicas of the great mountain of the gods known as the Witzob. All of the gods and goddesses either help or hinder one through the cycles of life.
Digital image of a vessel opened flat. Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Maya left an artistic legacy that ranges from soaring temples to intricately carved monolithic sculptures to complex murals. They are credited with creating the most advanced Mesoamerican writing system which was logo-syllabic, meaning that it consisted of pictorial symbols or glyphs that represent either entire words or syllables.
Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico
The Maya are most famous for their work in stone. One popular type of Maya sculpture was the stelae. A stelae was a large stone slab covered with carvings and writing. Most major cities had a stelae built to honor and glorify their kings and were often located near altars. Hundreds of stelae have been recorded in the Maya region.
Column, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Maya architecture is best characterized by soaring pyramid temples and ornate palaces. All buildings were constructed with a precise attention to position and layout to take advantage of solar and other celestial events or sight lines. They had multi-level elevated platforms, massive step pyramids, corbelled roofing, monumental stairways, and exteriors decorated with sculpture and moldings of glyphs and geometric shapes. Unlike many other cultures, Maya architecture makes no particular distinction between religious and non-religious buildings.
Chichen Itza Pyramid. The Castle or Pyramid of Kukulcan
Ballcourts were an integral part of the city’s sacred complex. Poc-a-toc was a game which involved two teams of players trying to bounce a rubber ball through a single ring without the use of hands or feet. The ballcourts usually had a north south orientation, the celestial (heaven) and underworlds respectively.
The Maya are also known for their advanced understanding of time, which they acquired through their study of astronomy and which allowed for the development of a complex calendar system. The essentials of the Maya calendar are based upon a system which had been in use throughout the region dating back to the Olmec. The Maya calendar consists of several cycles or counts of different lengths. The 260 day count is known as the Tzolkin (related to pregnancy?). The Tzolkin was combined with a 365 day solar year known as the Haab to form a synchronized cycle lasting for 52 Haab, called the Calendar Round. The Calendar Round is still used by many groups in the Guatemalan highlands.
Great website resource with a project to make your own Mayan Calendar (my kids loved finding their birthday!) https://www.mayaarchaeologist.co.uk/school-resources/maya-world/maya-calendar
A different calendar was used to track longer periods of time called the Long Count. This calendar starts at the Mayan mythological starting point, August, 11, 3114 BC. The Long Count calendar is a non-repeating calendar that extended far into the future. The date 3114 BC, is the completion of 13 baktuns and marks the creation of the world of human beings. On this day, Raised up Sky Lord caused three stones to be set by associated gods at Lying Down Sky, First Three Stone Place. Because the sky still lay on the primordial sea, it was black. The setting of the three stones centered the cosmos which allowed the sky to be raised, revealing the sun.
The importance of astronomy and calendar calculations in Mayan society require mathematics, and the Maya constructed quite early a very sophisticated number system, possibly more advanced than any other in the world at the time. They developed a vigesimal number system based on bas 20. (our number system is base 10). The Mayans also invented the concept of zero by at least as early as 36 BC. There is also evidence of their working with sums up to the hundreds of millions, and with dates so large it took several lines just to represent them. Despite not possessing the concept of a fraction, they produced extremely accurate astronomical observations using no instruments other than sticks, and were able to measure the length of the solar year to a far higher degree of accuracy than that used in Europe
First, take some time an look at several museum's collections, like the Metropolotian Museum of Art, of their Mayan collection. The Mayan had a very distinct art style. The goal of this project is to tell the story of the Mayan creation myth, in graphic novel format, in a similar artistic styling of Mayan art. The following is an example of Mona's project she did in 2019. She would have been 13 or 14 years old. Notice that she beautifully represented the artistic style of the Mayan both in her story and border decoration.