Cultures in America

Creation Cycles


   The Native Americans comprise almost an infinity of cultures in both North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. There are several language families, a multitude of religions, social systems, histories, and mythologies spread across the native peoples of the Americas. We, of course, cannot do justice to these cultures nor even cover them in the most superficial way. Rather, we are going to focus on two rather short stories from two widely dispersed cultures, the Iroquois of the eastern United States and the Quiché of Guatemala.

Wemi-sohawalak

The Iroquois Creation

Cultures in America
The Iroquois League
   The Iroquois were actually not a people, but a federation of six Native American nations: the Cayuga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, and Tuscarora. In terms of power, they were perhaps the most formidable Native American group in North America, and the most represented in the imaginative works of the European settlers, controlling at their zenith a territory covering Massachusetts to Ohio and Quebec and Ontoario to Kentucky. They are famous in the "captivity" literature, stories about the kidnapping of European settlers, of the early settlers and make their most forceful entrance into American history by siding with the French in the French and Indian Wars. These nations, like most Native American nations on the east coast, were largely exterminated by this century. Their stories, however, lingered in traditions passed along by a very small group of people; the creation story here narrated was recorded early in this century.


World Cultures Glossary
The Iroquois Creation
   As you read this creation story, what you want to put together is some kind of world view. At this point in the course, I hope you understand that creation stories contain a wealth of material about a particular culture's world view. Why is the world created? What inspires this creation? What is the role of animals in this creation? What is the role of Ata-en-sic, the Sky Goddess? What does she bring? What is the nature of her two sons, the Do-ya-da-no? What ethical principles might be derived from the drama of the Do-ya-da-no?


The Mayan Popol Vuh   The Mayan creation story comes from a text known as the Alphabetic Popol Vuh. This text is written in Quiché and is about all that remains of the magnificent and (originally) voluminous literature written by the Mayans. Although you are taught that the "Classical" period of Mayan culture took place between 300 and 900 B.C., Mayan culture did not die out when the major cities were abandoned. In fact, the Mayans did not necessarily give up urban living. They certainly did not give up many aspects of their religion, their science, their mathematics, their astronomy, their astrology, their mythology, or their writing. Also, Mayan culture spread across Guatemala and southern Mexico, so that several different nations could be considered "Mayan," including the Quiché of western Guatemala. When the Spaniards discovered them living across Guatemala, they quickly and efficiently conquered them; they were joined by Catholic missionaries who were of two minds regarding the indigenous culture and literature. On the one hand, these priests were intensely curious about the language and literature, attempting to learn how to read Mayan hieroglyphics. On the other hand, they saw the Mayan religion not only as pagan but as brutal and primitive, so they felt they needed to erase all traces of Mayan culture, writings, and religion. As a result of the latter impulse, nearly all the texts of the Mayans were destroyed, numbering into thousands of texts that are now eternally lost.

   But one text, according to tradition, survived the holocaust, the most significant text of Mayan culture, the Popol Vuh , "The Council Book," which tells of the creation of the world and the special, select status of the Quiché Mayans. This text was hidden away and eventually transcribed from hieroglyphics into the Roman alphabet, though the text remains in Quiché. According to tradition, the hieroglyphic Popol Vuh still exists, secreted away in caves below the earth, secure from destruction. The alphabetic Popol Vuh , however, surfaced in the eighteenth century, and first Spanish and the German translators eagerly began work on it. It is important to realize that the creation story here and the religion it's associated with is still part of the belief structure of the contemporary Quiché, even though they are, technically, Christians; this is a book that represents a tradition that probably reaches as far back as 300 A.D. or even before, yet still has a living presence among indigenous Quiché.

   Most of the Popol Vuh consists of astronomical and prophetical calculations, which the Mayans did in great profusion. Explaining these calculations is the story of how the universe came to be created, the failed creations of humanity, the conquest of death, the successful creation of humanity, the weakening of the powers of humanity, the dispersal of humanity, and the special election of the Quiché from among the diverse peoples of the world. Your selection narrates the story of the conquest of Death and the Lords of Death. Before this conquest, the gods try four times to create humans and fail each time, so they destroy their creations. During these difficult first creations, two divine brothers, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu 1 are playing a ball-game and attract the attention of Death and his Lords, the so-called Lords of Xibalba, 2 the underworld. These are their names: The two Lords of Death are One Death and Seven Death. 3 Underneath them are the Lords of Xibalba, each with their separate dominion: House Corner and Blood Gatherer, who draw blood from people; Pus Master and Jaundice Master, who cause people to swell, make pus come out of their legs, turn their faces yellow, and cause jaundice; Bone Scepter and Skull Scepter, who reduce people to bones and emaciate them to death; Trash Master and Stab Master, who catch people who have trash on their door and puncture them until they die; Wing 4 and Packstrap, who cause people to die suddenly on the road; next comes Bloody Teeth and Bloody Claws. 5 These Lords of Xibalba have been given dominion over everything.

   Upset at the noise that One and Seven Hunahpu are making, the Lords of Death challenge the two to a ball game. Before they can play the ball game in hell with the Lords of Death, One and Seven Hunahpu fail all the tests of Xibalba: they do not correctly name the Lords of Xibalba; when given the test of the Dark House, where they are to remain one night in the Dark House with a torch and cigar lit yet still emerge from it the next morning without having burned down the torch or cigar even a little bit, they fail it for the torch and cigar burn out through the night. The Lords of Xibalba sacrifice the two, and call the place of sacrifice "The Place of the Ball Game Sacrifice." The Xibalbans place One Hunahpu's head on a tree and the tree bears fruit; the Xibalbans forbid anyone to eat the fruit from the tree under pain of death. The woman called Blood Gatherer eats from the tree and is banished rather than executed by the Xibalbans; she gives birth to twins, the children of One Hunahpu, Hunahpu and Xbalenque 6 (Ish-balenkae). These two are miraculous children and are destined to become the sun and the moon, respectively; after demonstrating several miracles, they discover their father's ball equipment and begin playing. At this point, your narrative begins . . .

   This story is a tough go, but well worth the effort. Keep in mind that the story is about the defeat of Death; this defeat has to occur before Hunahpu and Xbalenque can become the sun and moon and is also a prerequisite to the successful creation of humanity by the gods. How do they win the tests of Xibalba? How do they beat Dark House? What is the metaphorical significance of beating the test of Dark House? What do the other tests, such as Razor House, Jaguar House, and Bat House represent? How do all these tests relate to death? Why does it take a ball game to defeat death? What dominion is left for the Xibalbans after their defeat? In other words, what are the consequences for humanity?

   The Iroquois creation is taken from Harriet Maxwell Converse, "Myths and Legends of the New York State Iroquois," New York State Museum Bulletin 125, edited by Arthur C. Parker (Albany, 1908), 8-11.

Richard Hooker




ENDNOTES

1 Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu. The Mayan calendar had 260 days to a year (the length of human gestation), thirteen numbered days to a month and twenty named days in a month (which means that there are 13 days in the year which have the same name but a different numberŅif the first occurence in a year of a day name falls on the first number of the month, the last occurrence of a day name in that year will fall on the seventh number of the month). One of these days was named "Hunahpu" which always appears as One Hunahpu at the beginning of the year and Seven Hunahpu at the end of the year; therefore, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu represent the thirteen Hunahpu days of the year, or a full year (which is calculated from the length of human gestation in the womb). I can't stress enough that the Mayan world view was, and still is, fundamentally based on time and its structures.
2 Pronounced Shi-ball-baa; the word Xibalba in Mayan means "place of fear."
3 Hun Came and Vucub Came. Came (derived from the word for "death": camic) was also a day on the twenty day Mayan month. Came always appeared as Seven Came at the beginning of the year and One Came at the end of the year; therefore, One Came and Seven Came represent the thirteen Came days of the year and represent, quite literally, the opposite of One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu.
4 The "wing" (Xic) is a leather strap that wraps around the forehead and is attached to a packstrap bearing a load which one then carried on one's back.
5 It is speculated that Bloody Teeth and Bloody Claws may be synonymous with Wing and Packstrap. The translation of all these names are taken from Popol Vuh , translated by Dennis Tedlock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986).
6 This name may mean "Female Jaguar Sun" or "Small Jaguar Sun," either of which applies since Xbalenque will eventually transform into the moon while Hunahpu becomes the sun.




Creation StoriesAlsea Creation Stories
The Iroquois Creation
The Zuni Creation Cycle




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@1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98