“The world that he, or she, creates is a world of fantasy. Yet is exists everywhere, within and beyond the territory of the Maya. This is a world unreal as it may be, that makes it possible to find what is true for each of us.”
It is common to think of the Maya as people who built what many believe to have been the most brilliant civilization in the western hemisphere. During their classic period, which lasted from AD 200 to 800, the Maya perfected the art of paintings, sculpture and architecture and developed a system of writing. Palaces and pyramids at such sites as Tikal in Guatemala and the Uxmal in Yucatan bear witness to a culture of great competence and refinement.
Like the nations of Western Europe, the Maya speak not one language but a group of related languages. According to a well known theory, the two million Maya speakers of today all descended from a tribe that lived in the mountains of Western Guatemala some four thousand years ago. Over the centuries small groups of people broke away and gradually developed their own way of speaking.
Although Maya stories were not collected before 1900, there exists a remarkable sixteenth century document in which the stories are woven together in a lengthy origin legend, like a novel. This is the well known
(The Council Book). Written in the language of the Quiche Maya,
was discovered in the Guatemala highlands about 1700 and became a subject of serious scholarship beginning in the late 1800’s. Today it can be compared with modern folk tales to show that recently collected stories hark back at least four hundred years ago.
Stories, in the sense that the term here is understood, create a world that could be hardly put together out of actual experience, even though the narrator may insist the story is true, as folk narrators often do. Most Maya storytellers make a distinction between myths and other kinds of stories. Myths take place in an ancient time before the world was as it is today.
Myths explain such things as how the moon came to be and how the woodpecker got its red crest, As defined by a Cakchiquel storyteller, a tale of this kind is called an
, a tale that explains things.
The term is used in Yucatan, but with a broader meaning. The Yucetec ejemplo may be an origin myth, a story about Christ, or any tale with a moral. An ordinary folk tale or fairy tale, on the other hand, is called a
After studying the Mayan folk tales and myths, the students will have material to look into the Mayan culture and its magnificent civilization. It is hoped then that students can understand the way of life of the Mayan through some of the stories they hear in the classroom. An example of this is the Maya practice of what is sometimes called “slash and burn agriculture.” Before a field can be cultivated, trees and brush must be cleared away, then burned to ashes. This goes on for years and it can be considered grueling work. But making it into a religious duty helps the men to endure it easily. Special prayers are recited for each stage of the job, ceremonies are held, sacrificial offerings of food are brought to the field and the corn itself is addressed with such mystical names as “divine grace” or “Our Lord’s sunbeams.”
t is important for the students to realize that the myths and legends and folk tales arise from a need to survive and understand the mysteries of the world in which this particular people lived.
In remote areas, even in the twentieth century, the Kekchi Maya have continued to address prayers to the Lord of the Hills and the Valleys, also called Lord of the Thirteen Hills. The people of Yucatan have not abandoned the old rain God, Chac (who has a frog orchestra, since frogs when they croak, are thought to be calling the rain). And, not surprisingly, the Lacandon have kept up an elaborate mythology explaining the origins and activities of the various gods.
The Mayan had great respect for the powers of nature and so they had them as gods. They have the Sun god, the Rain god and the Underworld god. The students are expected to take all these down in notes for the third week of analysis and data gathering for full reflection and for comprehension through discussion. They were fearful when natural events such as droughts, made them think the gods were angry. All Maya gods are related to nature. Sunrise, sunset, rainfall and sunshine all were important to the people’s survival so it isn’t surprising that they believed gods controlled all the elements.
It will be of great interest to also explore through the myths the religion of the Maya. Religion was a strong force in the Maya life and regulated almost everything. Because of its importance, priests were the highest class of citizens. Frequently, they were also the ruling chiefs. Only priests were educated to know all of the gods, prayers and rituals. Ordinary people were not allowed to enter the temples. The Supreme Being and the creator of the universe was a king god named Hunab Ku. The next most important gods were those of the sun and the moon. The corn god was responsible for a successful harvest.
It is important for the students to learn about the advanced systems of economy, science and government in ancient civilizations. Many of the other books about the Maya will attest to the accomplishments of the Mayan scientists, especially in astronomy. They apparently used their advanced mathematics to calculate time and developed a calendar very similar to the one we have today. Scientists think that the Maya had the most advanced writing system of all native American groups. Maya recorded their language by using a system of hieroglyphic, which are picture symbols. These symbols represented either sounds, ideas or individual words. Students will reflect and discuss why this knowledge is important to the study of any culture and increase our appreciation of its people.
This study also hopes to bring students into the significance of Mayan art, music and architecture. Books that will be made available to them in the classroom, and the video they will see will enable them make a picture of the physical environment of the Maya.
We will compare Maya to other cultures that we have discussed in other classrooms as well as other subject areas.
** This unit follows the successful study of the Greek myths; accordingly, students begin the study with a firm understanding of the definition of
as well as a recognition of the elements of a myth.