There is much animal imagery in our current exhibit, Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya—jaguars, catfish, frogs, bats, hummingbirds, and a dog. Like other indigenous people, the Maya ascribed desirable characteristics to certain animals. The jaguar was a powerful intermediary between the land of the living and the underworld. The bat could represent several meanings including sexual prowess. Likewise, the hummingbird could stand for sexuality and warrior capability. The rabbit was the scribe of the gods. Words meant everything to the Maya creator deities.
After the Spanish conquest, some Maya learned to read and write their K’iche’ language and they recorded prehistoric beliefs in the body of knowledge known as the Popol Vuh. The creator gods began their quest for acknowledgment, “It shall be found; it shall be discovered how we are to create shaped and framed people who will be our providers and sustainers. May we be called upon, and may we be remembered. For it is with words that we are sustained.”
At first they created the animal world, but those creatures could only squawk, chatter, and roar, and had no words with which to sustain the gods, so they would rightfully become someone’s food. Next, the gods attempted to fashion beings from mud, then wood. Neither was satisfactory. Those creatures lacked na’b’al, the “soul, socialization, learning, and conventions of morality” that comes from awareness and understanding. They were destroyed because “they could not speak before their Framer and their Shaper, their makers and their creators.”
Finally the gods used maize meal and maize water to create flesh and blood humans who would use their words to give thanks for their existence. Furthermore, they would nourish the gods with their own blood sacrifices. By naming the gods, humans give the gods power to manifest themselves and bestow blessings. Maya practitioners continue to sacrifice blood to the gods, but contemporarily, it’s more likely to be chicken or turkey blood.
Said one about the Maya belief in the tree of life– “As the old people say, when the Spaniards came they broke off many of our branches. They even burned the trunk. But we will never die because the roots have power. We draw strength from the ancestors who live in our blood. If we as a people ignore our roots, we will all die.” They believe it is their responsibility to sustain the world through their rituals and prayers. They say, “Only we can do it. We remember.”
Quotation Source: This was written about by Allen J. Christenson in his article, “Who Shall Be Our Sustainer?”—Sacred Myth and the Spoken Word, in Expedition, magazine of UPenn, Spring 2009.
The Maya also had a belief in the alux or small people who were not seen but sometimes made their presence known by raining down rocks on people and emitting loud whistles at night.