Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Agony of the Plumed Serpent

Unlike their famous neighbours to the West, the Mayans of the Central Americas were far older than the Aztecs. Hailing from the Yucatán Peninsula in the East (which, interestingly, is the site of impact of the meteorite which struck the Earth sixty-five million years ago, annihilating the dinosaurs), the Maya people had been a majestic civilisation many centuries before the arrival of the Conquistadores.  When Spanish, and later English, colonists arrived in the Yucatán, not for the first time would the towering ruins strike awe into the hearts of men, nor would the grand stories the Maya told of their gods.

Chichén Itzá - One of the greatest Maya Cities
Photograph taken by Claude Belair.
Rivalling the Egyptians in their age, the Mayans began to make their mark five thousand years ago. Rising to be the greatest power in Central America by the turn of the Common Era, the future looked bright for the Maya. But, for reasons unknown, the Mayan Empire fell from grace in the 10th century AD. Great cities were abandoned, temples neglected and material wealth declined. A mere shadow of its former self by the time the Spaniards were at their doorstep, the story of the Maya is one of melancholy. Their relative poverty in gold and silver spared them the greed of Europe as Spanish steel slaughtered their Aztec brethren, but not for long. Holding out for a little over twenty years after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the Maya did not go down without a fight. Nor, according to legend, did their gods. The story of how man came to be according to the Maya is one of remarkable tenacity, and age old struggle in pursuit of the 'perfect being', the search for which brought about the world of the Maya.

                      " Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs,
                        still hums, and it is still empty under the sky.
                        Cometh the first words, that first eloquence... "
                                               - THE CREATION IS OPENED

The Temple of Kukulkan at Chichén Itzá
Photograph taken by Kyle Simourd.
There is no life. There is not one person, one bird, one fish, one tree, one meadow, one forest, one mountain, one gorge or one river. The sky is there, standing high above the barren cosmos. The land is not there, only the vast oceans gathered under the towering skies. The natural order of things is tranquil, and at harmony, yet empty and lifeless. Ruling over this shell, the Plumed Serpent stirs, named Q'uq'umatz in old K'iche' Mayan, Quetzalcóatl in the Nahuatl Aztec tongue and Kukulkan in high Mayan. The Serpent Lord is a magnificent being to behold, resplendent in the blue-green sheen of the vibrant quetzal feathers which adorn his form. Within the high skies, there resides another being, the Heart of the Sky, who glides through the aether to the mighty serpent. The two powers spoke long through the darkness. The ceaseless peace was intolerable. They desired more than air and water for their own. But behold! As each new word fell from their lips, that which was spoken was born. As the Plumed Serpent, Heart of the Sky and his offspring Hurricane, Newborn and Sudden Thunderbolt spoke, that which they longed for came up from the void. Soon, the Plumed Serpent spake the word 'Earth', and a vast form unfurled in the mists of the endless waters. Vast mountains peaks tore through the surf and reached for the skies. The genius of their fertile minds soon gave birth to vast forests upon the bare mountains, as mighty vales of cypress and pine came upon the land. The ocean's waters fell among the pinnacles of stone, and rivers and streams were born. Holding back the skies and the Earth from one another, the Plumed Serpent was pleased with this grand new realm.

Beautiful as it was to behold, all that could be heard upon earth was simply the wind in the trees. The gods considered, "Why this pointless humming? Why should there merely be rustling beneath the trees and bushes?" Their land needed guardians, they thought, and as they thought and spoke it, all manner of animals took form upon the land; deer, birds and many which are hunted now by man. To the meadows were sent the deer and the tall trees and skies the birds for a home. Each were commanded to speak to each other and the gods. The gods asked the animals to give thanks to them for their life. The animals tried, but could not form the words of the gods' language. They howled, screeched and squawked, but did not say thank you. In anger, the Plumed Serpent cursed them to hunt each other for eternity, and feast on the flesh of their brethren. The first attempt of humankind had failed.

Tikal - A great Mayan city
Photograph taken by Clark Anderson.
Not giving in, the gods turned to their own hands for Creation. Taking both earth and water, they crafted a form of mud. Their new creation was as a man in shape, but it was imperfect. This man simply crumbled, disintegrated and dissolved. His face became deformed. He spoke, but could not talk sense. Soon he returned to the aether from which he came. The Plumed Serpent despaired. The other gods decreed that this new creation was to be called Thought, fleeting and transitory as it was, but lacking strong form. The gods tried once again. This time they turned to the wood of the trees that they had themselves borne of thought.. Taking the wood, the gods carved it, whittling from it the form of a man, with a strong mouth amongst its features. These new men came into being, and multiplied across the Earth, chattering happily to each other. "But there was nothing in their hearts and nothing in their minds, no memory of their mason and builder". They ran amok across the Earth, but knew nothing of the Plumed Serpent or Heart of the Sky. Their bodies were dry, and their faces began to crust through lack of sweat. Another attempt had failed, and the gods decreed that these new beings would remain in the trees from whence they came, and their descendants are the monkeys of today. The Plumed Serpent vented his frustration on the Earth with a great flood, a rain of resin from the sky, and terrible monsters which hunted and mutiliated all in their path, all but wiping out the animals of Earth.

Trying one last time, the Plumed Serpent desperately sought out the ingredients for the recipe of man. Calling the approaching dawn, he bade all the animals of the Earth to bring all the food they could find before him. Coming down from the mountains, fearful of his wrath, the creatures of Earth brought all manner of sweet fruits and crops. They brought Cacao, pataxte, innumerable zapotes, anonas, jacotes, nances, matasanos and countless other fruits, all exotic to our eyes. Then the last brought before the Plumed Serpent simple corn. Seeing the corn as the essence of the Earth, which will sustain man for eternity, the Plumed Serpent decreed the new men to be fashioned from the humble maize seed. The goddess Xmucane took the corn and ground it, and nine times she ground it. The other foods, along with the water she rinsed her hands with, created the fat which clings to men's bones. The oceans gave blood to the veins of men, and the other gods fashioned a heart and soul. Four men were born of this new attempt. They looked around and gave thanks to the Plumed Serpent for their life, and began to faithfully work the land. They sacrificed to the gods, and honoured the seasons. As they looked upon the world they were given, their knowledge grew, and their intellect with it. The gods were delighted at last, and the Plumed Serpent was at last satisfied. Finally, a race which could offer the gratitude he so craved, and guard the spectacular creation which he had unleashed, was born...

The story of the Creation according to the Maya is a vast tale, and the struggle for humanity long and arduous, spattered with blood and poetry in equal measure. The tales are recorded in a scripture known as the Popol Vuh, Mayan for 'Book of the People'. Unlike almost every other such account across the civilisations of man, this story is written and told like a novel, not a grandiose work of epic or prayer. Give it a go, and you will see this. The result if a thoroughly refreshing and engaging read. You can get a copy quite easily, and due to the comparative obscurity of Mayan mythology in the West, at a very good price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

Mayan Lore:
Popol Vuh
(A unique relic of the Mayan age, Popol Vuh is the Mayan literary telling of their Creation. It is very readable, dispensing with lofty formulae in favour of a more personal story)

United States

Mayan Lore:
Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings
(A unique relic of the Mayan age, Popol Vuh is the Mayan literary telling of their Creation. It is very readable, dispensing with lofty formulae in favour of a more personal story)

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