Mayan Stories of Creation

Like societies all over the world, the Maya have their own stories of the creation of the world and how they came to be here. The two most well known creation stories are recorded in the Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam, two of the Mayan people’s ancient sacred books. Both of these books were likely written in the 17th century, and some of these writings show the early influence of Spanish missionaries. More recent versions of the Mayan creation story, like those recorded near Lake Atitlán, demonstrate the fusion of traditional Mayan beliefs and Christianity. The creation stories below are brief excerpts taken from the Popol Vuh, the Chilam Balam and a collection of folktales from the Lake Atitlan area.

From the Popol Vuh

“There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky; there is nothing whatever gathered together… Whatever might be is simply not there: only murmurs, ripples, in the dark, in the night. Only the Maker, Modeler alone, the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, the Bearers, Begetters are in the water, a glittering light. They are there, they are enclosed in quetzal feathers, in blue-green… So there were three of them, as Heart of Sky, who came to the sovereign Plumed Serpent, when the dawn of life was conceived: ‘How should the sowing be, and the dawning? Who is to be the provider, nuturer?’ ‘Let it be this way, think about it: this water should be removed, emptied out for the formation of the earth’s own plate and platform, then should come the sowing, the dawning of the sky-earth’… 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… Now they planned the animals of the mountains, all the guardians of the forest, creatures of the mountains: the deer, birds, pumas, jaguars, serpents, rattlesnakes, fer-de-lances, guardians of the bushes… And then the deer and birds were told by the Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begeter: ‘Talk, speak out. Don’t moan, don’t cry out… Name now our names, praise us. We are your mother, we are your father’… But it didn’t turn out that they spoke like people: they just squawked, they just chattered, they just howled… They had not heard their speech among the animals; it did not come to fruition and it was not complete. And so their flesh was brought low: they served, they were eaten, they were killed–the animals on the face of the earth…” (translated by Dennis Tedlock).

From the Chilam Balam of Chumayel...

“Then, after the destruction of the world was completed, they placed a tree to set up in its order the yellow cock oriole. Then the white tree of abundance was set up. A pillar of the sky was set up, a sign of the destruction of the world… Then the green tree of abundance was set up in the center of the world as a record of the destruction of the world… The world was not lighted; there was neither day nor night nor moon. Then they perceived that the world was being created. Then creation dawned upon the world. During the creation thirteen infinite series added to seven was the count of the creation of the world. Then a new world dawned for them…” (translated by Ralph L.Roys).

From Lake Atitlan, Guatemala...

“The world was made 500 million years ago. But earlier, no one can imagine how it was before these 500 million years. And at the beginning of these 500 million years, the world began to form. Before these 500 million years, there were mountains, only mountains. There were no people, no animals, of any kind of animals. People were formed, and then there were animals. But before this, there were no animals, only mountains and no forms of life. And then when God started to reign and to form the world, that’s when the volcanoes, water, rivers, waves, and everything were made. After all this God made man and woman, then the world, and the peoples, because the first man was the seed of the race–only one. At the same time, the man and the woman were the same thing: the same heart, the same flesh. From this, man and woman resulted. After this the man had a son. A son and then a daughter, and then it was the world. Then the world was formed. Every son made a house; the father in his house made the son. And this son ended up with a family also. And this is how a little village was formed. But before this first man and woman it was only one body…” (Juan Sahon Martin, as told to James D. Sexton).