Maya Cosmological Creation
Anthony Garone March, 2006

When constructing a Mayan home, a shaman is called upon to set the mathematical foundation from which it is built. In addition to mathematical constructs, the center of each home contains a simple hearth. The hearth is composed of three stones in a triangular formation, which contain a fire at its center to both warm the home and cook meals. The significance of this hearth is twofold in that it also represents a place of creation set in the heavens by the Maya maize god, Hun-Nal-Yeh over 5000 years ago.

Three stars in the constellation of Orion (Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel), form a triangle emanating from Alnitak (the belt star) surrounding the Orion nebulae which is the birth-place of stars. Just as the three stones of the hearth in the Maya home surround the fire, their celestial counterparts form the place of the celestial fire where stars are born, and Hun-Nal-Yeh, the Maya maize god is resurrected (more on this later).

The Orion Nebulae - birthplace of stars

Before we fix our eyes on the heavens, we need to look to the past and the mythology of the Maya people to fully appreciate the beautiful pageantry played out in the celestial sphere. There were five creations (we are living in the fifth), according to the Maya. The couple responsible for the creation of the universe is Xpiyakok and Xmukane (the X is pronounced sh). To illustrate this story, I have used excerpts from the Popul Vuh, the Maya book which tells of their creation. Originally, according to the Popul Vuh, there was only the sky and the sea:

Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky
There is nothing whatever gathered together.
It is at rest, not a single thing stirs.
It is held back, kept at rest under the sky.

Seeing that there was only the sky and the sea, Xpiyakok and Xmukane created the Earth just by speaking the word:

And then the earth arose because of them,
It was simply their word that brought it forth.
For the forming of the earth they said "Earth.
It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding.
Then the mountains were separated from the water,
All at once the great mountains came forth.

They created the land and the animals. But they also created noisy, squawking birds. Although the birds were able to make sounds, they could not speak their creators' names. Xpiyakok and Xmukane were distressed at this realization. They wanted to create something that could admonish them;

And then the deer and birds were told by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter:
Talk, speak out. Don't moan, don't cry out.
Please talk, each to each, within each kind, within each groups.
This they were told: the deer, birds, puma, jaguar, serpents.
Name now our names, praise us. We are your mother, we are your father. Speak now:
Hurricane, Newborn Thunderbolt,
Raw Thunderbolt, Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter,
speak, pray to us, keep our days, they were told.
But it didn't turn out that they spoke like people: they squawked, they chattered, they howled.

The creator couple thought about this, and decided to create people from mud. Unfortunately, the mud proved to be too soft, and when it dried it crumbled, proving inefficient for their purpose;

So then comes the building and working with earth and mud.
They made a body, but it didn't look good to them.
It was separating, crumbling, loosening, softening, disintegrating, and dissolving.
Its head wouldn't turn, either.
Its face was lopsided, its face was twisted.
It couldn't look around.
It talked at first, but senselessly.
It was quickly dissolved in the water. .

Xpiyakok and Xmukane decided to use a harder substance, so they began to fashion people out of wood. The wooden people were like mannequins; they could not think, feel or reason. More importantly, they could not speak the names of their creators;

It is well that there be your manikins, woodcarvings,
Talking speaking, there on the face of the earth.
So be it, they reply.
The moment they spoke it was done;
The manikins, woodcarvings, human in looks and human in speech.
This was the peopling of the earth:
They came into being, they multiplied, they had daughters,
They had sons, these manikins, woodcarvings.
But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds,
No memory of their mason and builder.
They just went and walked wherever they wanted.

Because of these issues, the frustrated couple caused a great flood that destroyed their race of wood. This was not a pleasant demise as depicted rather vividly in this excerpt;

There came a rain of resin from the sky.
There came the one named Gouger of Faces: he gouged out their eyeballs.
There came Sudden Blood letter: he snapped off their heads.
There came Crunching Jaguar: he ate their flesh.
There came Tearing Jaguar: he tor e them open.
They were pounded down to the bones and tendons,
Smashed and pulverized even to the bones.
Their faces were smashed because they were incompetent before their
Mother and their father, the Heart of Sky, named Hurricane.
The earth was blackened because of this:
The black rainstorm began, rain all day, and rain all night.
Into their houses came the animals, small and big.
Their faces were crushed by things of wood and stone.

Because of this great flood, the wooden people became monkeys, who to this day are a symbol of that unsuccessful creation;

And it used to be said that the monkeys in the forests today are a sign of this.
They were left as a sign because wood alone was used
For their flesh by the builder and sculptor.
So this is why monkeys look like people, they are a sign of a previous human design,
Mere manikins; mere woodcarvings.

This set the stage for the current creation; the creation that is beautifully played out in the heavens like a wondrous celestial tale replicated over and over across time. After the flood, there appeared Itzam-Yeh (Seven Macaw), a beautiful bird who, through his vanity and arrogance provided light for the world of twilight;

This was when there was just a trace of early dawn on the face of the earth.
There was no sun.
There was one who magnified himself: Seven Macaw is his name.
The sky-earth was already there, but the face of the sun-moon was clouded over.
Even so, it is said that his light provided a sign for the people who were flooded.
He was like a genius to them.

It is here that the protagonists of the Maya creation are introduced. They are known individually as Hunahpu and Xbalanke (One-Ahaw and Yax-Balam respectively), but together they are the magnificent Hero Twins. They were gods who wielded great power.

Before we continue with the Hero Twins, in order to fully understand the story, we must first learn of their father and his exploits.

The First Twins

Their father, Hun-Nal-Yeh, (the Maya Maize god) and uncle were skilled ball players of the great ballcourts. They played so often that they annoyed the Lords of Death, beings of the underworld who lived directly below the ballcourt. The noise the men made in the ballcourt greatly disturbed the Lords of Death, and they summoned them to Xibalba, the place of the underworld, to pay for their antics. The first set of twins were no match for the crafty and powerful Lords of Death, and were quickly killed in the ball court. The Lords of Death buried the twins under the ballcourt and decapitated Hun-Nal-Yeh. His head was hung in a gourd tree, as a warning to those who would disturb the powerful gods of Xibalba.

The daughter of one of the Lords of Death, whose name was Blood, was possessed with a curious nature and went to see the gruesome skull that hung from the gourd tree. Intrigued by the sight, she began to ask the skull questions about its origin. At some point in her conversation with the skull of Hun-Nal-Yeh, it asked her to hold out her hand. The skull spat into her hand, which impregnated Blood. Blood was horrified, but she was also frightened and fled Xibalba for fear of her father, who she knew would be infuriated by her transgression.

As punishment for her disobedience, her father sent the Owls of Xibalba to kill her. However, the great Owls had pity on her, and assisted her in escaping to the world of humanity. It was there that Blood gave birth to the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanke.

As the Hero Twins became young men, they caught a rat that was raiding their cornfields. The rat, threatened by the Hero Twins, secured his freedom by telling them where their father and uncle had hidden their ball court regalia. The twins immediately retrieved the outfits and began playing ball in the same court as their father. Once again, the Lords of Xibalba were disturbed, and again summoned the twins to play in their deadly ballcourt games.

Unlike their father and uncle, the Hero Twins were extremely clever, and outwitted the Lords of Death in every game. Eventually, the Lords of Death became so angry that the twins knew they would be killed, and sought the assistance of Xulu and Pakam, two diviners, who knew of a way that the twins could be killed and then resurrected.

The following day, the twins were summoned by the Lords of Death to be cast into a raging fire. The twins, who had pre-arranged this demise with the help of Xulu and Pakam, happily jumped into the fire. The Lords of Death took the ashes and remaining bones and crushed them into a powder, which they later threw into a river. Unbeknownst to the Lords of Death, Xulu and Pakam had arranged and manipulated the entire scenario, and five days later, the Hero Twins were resurrected as fish men from the river.

They disguised themselves as vagabonds, but used their powers to create miracles through their dancing that were so incredible word of them spread throughout Xibalba. One of their miracles consisted of the sacrifice of people who were then brought back to life. The Lords of Death eventually summoned these "vagabonds" to their realm, and commanded them to perform. The twins tempted the Lords of Death and convinced them to be sacrificed, assuring their resurrection. Once the Lords acquiesced and were killed, the twins did not revive them.

The twins returned to the ballcourt to resurrect their uncle and father, who had been killed by the Lords of Death. Sadly, when Hun-Nal-Yeh's head had been reattached to his body and brought back to life, he could not pronounce the names of things properly. The twins left him in the ball court, where he is worshipped to this day as the Maize god.

It is here that we return to the story of Itzam-Yeh and the Hero Twins.

In order for the creation of the fifth world to take place, Itzam-Yeh, the beautiful Macaw who magnified himself above the sun had to be reckoned with. The twins took their blowguns and waited for Itzam-Yeh to perch himself atop the World Tree. They shot him with a pellet from their blowguns, and one of Itzam-Yeh's teeth was hit and subsequently abscessed. This caused the beautiful bird great pain, and he eventually went to Old Grandfather for help. Old Grandfather insisted that Itzam-Yeh's teeth and eyes be removed to rid him of the pain. The bird reluctantly agreed, and once his beautiful teeth and eyes were removed, he lost his beauty and power.

The Creation in the Sky

From the brilliant scholarship of Linda Schele (from her book, "Maya Cosmos"), we now have a better understanding of the Maya creation story, further enhanced and beautifully represented in the celestial sphere. The Maya set the date of the fifth, or current, creation at August 13, 3114 BCE. At this point in time, the Earth was a place of twilight, and Itzam-Yeh found his place of power atop the Wakah-Chan, the Mayan World Tree and provided his own light for the world (see fig. 1).


Fig. 1 The Wakah Chan with Itzam Yeh perched atop

Using "Starry Night" astronomy software, I was able to "travel back in time" to Palenque, an ancient Maya city in Guatamala, and set my observations from that latitude. In effect, what you are observing in the following images are what an ancient Mayan priest would see as he looked to the night skies nearly 5000 years ago (the pre-classic period Maya were not in existence until 2000 BCE, but they set the time of the creation according to their calendar to 3114 BCE). These images are screen captures of the most poignant moments in the celestial drama. The highlights are defined in Linda Schele and David Friedel's book, Maya Cosmos.

The Maya believed that the central Wakah-Chan (and four additional trees placed strategically at the four cardinal directions) supported the heavens and kept the portal to Xibalba at bay. The Wakah-Chan resembles a cross, with the verticle representing the Milky Way, stretching from North to South and the horizontal representing the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the path that the sun, moon and planets take across the sky. The moon was an avatar for "First Mother", wife of Hun-Nal-Yeh, who traveled along this path in the heavens. This was represented by a snake with gaping jaws on either side.

To further clarify; the Wakah-Chan did not go from zenith to nadir (the verticle path from the sky directly over head, through the Earth and to the sky directly below our feet on the other side of the world), rather it stretched from celestial North - that is, the area near the North star to the south side of the sky. Because of the latitude of the Maya world, the North star nearly touches the horizon, and the path of stars over head would appear as if one were in a barrel. This "dark" place, or celestial axis, upon which the stars pivot, was known to the ancient Maya as the "Raised Up Sky Heart". When the Wakah-Chan was restored to its place in the cosmos, Hun-Nal-Yeh would set the stars in motion along this axis. But before I get ahead of myself, we must return to the creation...

As stated earlier, because of his great arrogance and pride, the Hero Twins determined that Itzam-Yeh must be defeated. Using a blowgun, Hunahpu knocked a tooth from the mouth of Itzam-Yeh, who fell from his place atop the Wakah-Chan. This event is re-enacted in the heavens, when Ursa Major (the constellation known as the big dipper), the celestial counterpart of Itzam-Yeh, falls to the horizon at 6 PM on August 13, 3114. (See fig. 2).

Fig.2 Ursa Major (the Big Dipper), the celestial counterpart of Itzam-Yeh, falls to the horizon after being shot by Hunapu's blowgun to prepare the world for the next creation.

Following this event at midnight, the Wakah-Chan is transformed into the Cosmic Monster, which falls to the horizon, opening the sky portal to Xibalba, and preparing a place for the Maize god, Hun-Nal-Yeh to create the new world (See Fig. 3). Because the Wakah-Chan (Milky Way) has fallen to the horizon, the "Ek Way" or "Black Transformer" sits at the zenith (the highest point in the sky directly overhead). This of course, is caused by the rotation of the Earth, and if one is standing at Palenque observing this phenomenon, it appears as if the Milky Way has fallen to the horizon, leaving the blackness of the void directly overhead.


Fig.3 Midnight sets the stage for the creation of the new world

This is the place represented by Mayan ball courts; where the contestants play a deadly game enacting the decapitation of Hun-Nal-Yeh. Sadly, that very fate awaits the loser of the Mayan ball game. Although this might be a frightening concept to other cultures; the game was a representation of the Maya creation story in all of its drama, played out in the heavens and on the playing field of their ballcourts. At 2 A.M., Hun-Nal-Yeh is now carried across the darkness by the paddler gods, Jaguar and Stingray, in a celestial canoe (See Fig. 4).

Fig.4 Jaguar and Stingray paddler gods escourt Hun-Nal-Yeh to the place of creation.

At 5 AM he is taken to "First Three Stone Place - Lying Down Sky" (the place of creation), the crucial place in the heavens between the constellations of Orion and Gemini. The three hearthstones are placed in the heavens by the paddler gods and the Wakah-Chan (Milky Way) has fallen to the horizon. They place the stones in the sky and on the ground - as above, so below (see Fig. 5).

It is here that Hun-Nal-Yeh is reborn from within the three belt stars of Orion. His sons, the now familiar Hero Twins, assist Hun-Nal-Yeh in that event as they resurrect him from a cracked turtle shell carapace. As Hun-Nal-Yeh is resurrected, his umbilicus (the double-headed serpent) becomes the ecliptic, upon which his wife, "First Mother" clothed with the moon, will traverse for all time. As they did on Earth in the creation story of the Popul Vuh, the Hero Twins have returned to rescue their father from the Lords of Death in Xibalba and resurrect him in the cosmos.

Fig.5 Hun-Nal-Yeh at First Three Stone Place - Lying Down Sky

The first part of the creation has been completed. We now have Hun-Nal-Yeh at the zenith, resurrected in all his glory, and the three hearth stones placed in the sky, preparing it for the final phase of the creation. In order to accomplish this, we move ahead to February 5th, 8 PM, where we find Hun-Nal-Yeh maintaining his position at "First Three Stone Place - Fallen Down Sky". The sky is still fallen; that is, the Wakah Chan (Milky Way) hugs the Eastern horizon and needs to be raised up to support the heavens once again. (see Fig. 6)


Fig. 6 Hun-Nal-Yeh at the zenith, preparing for the final moments of creation.


At 10 PM, the Pleiades constellation, representing a "handful of corn seeds", falls to the horizon to plant the seeds of the new creation (see Fig. 7), humankind.


Fig.7 - the Pleiades falls to the horizon


Finally, on February 5th, 6 AM, the Wakah Chan (Milky Way) is restored. It is now called "Raised Up Sky Place". Hun-Nal-Yeh has performed his creation with the help of the Hero Twins, and the paddler gods, and restored order to the cosmos. It is the axis mundi - the "Raised Up Sky" that supports the heavens once again, and now the wonderous creation of the Maya gods; that is, the creation of mankind, can go forth and multiply and worship the maize god, Hun-Nal-Yeh (see Fig.8). This beautiful pagentry is played out each year in the heavens for all to see. It is yet another wonder of the minds of the ancients, whose ideologies, like the cosmological drama they have created, will live on in the hearts of the Maya for eternity.


Fig.8 Wakah Chan is at Raised Up Sky Place. Order is restored to the cosmos.

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