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Popol Vuh Hero Twins Analysis Essay

The Hero Twins

The nobles in the Maya empire all claimed they were descendants of the Hero Twins. This gave them the right to rule. The ancient story of the hero twins tells the tale of two brothers, a bunch of ball games, the tricky gods, and a happy ending! The Exciting Adventures of The Hero Twins (cartoon powerpoint by Lin Donn and Phillip Martin)

This is the story written out for you to read and enjoy.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived two brothers. The brothers tried very hard to be good gardeners. But even the rabbit that rooted in their garden for food each day knew they were not very good at gardening. What they were good at, great at, absolutely excellent at, were ballgames. Onlookers cheered so loudly whenever the boys played ball that the noise attracted the attention of the Lords of Death.

The Lords of Death lived in the Underworld. They liked to trick people into dying. They especially liked tricking people who were bothering them, and the boys were bothering them. They were far too noisy! The Lords of Death sent a message to the brothers praising their wonderful talent. The message included an invitation to play a ballgame in the Underworld. The brothers were instructed to bring their ball and their protective gear as none could be provided. No one played ball in the Underworld normally, so this would be a great treat for everyone.

The brothers did not trust the Lords of Death. They hid their ball and protective gear under the rafters in their mother's house. Perhaps without gear they would not have to play and thus could avoid whatever trickery the Lords of Death had planned. The boys set out for the Underworld. They made it safely across the river of spikes. They made it safely across the river of blood. They made it safely across the river of pus. They arrived safely at the house of the Lords of Death.

There, a Lord waited for them to say hello. It was a trick. That Lord was only a wood statue. When the boys said hello to a wood statue, the real Lords rushed out from where they had been hiding. They shook their heads in pretended shock. "Do you think our heads are filled with wood?" they cried. The brothers had been royally tricked. They had failed a test.

"Now wait," interrupted one of the real Lords. "They did get across all three rivers safely."

"Hum," said one of the other Lords thoughtfully. "You're right, of course. Hardly anyone ever does that! That's quite an accomplishment and needs to be taken into consideration."

"Have a seat while we think about what to do with you," a third Lord nodded to the brothers.

Feeling hopeful that perhaps they would not be killed after all, the brothers sat down on a bench. The bench was burning hot. The boys leaped up, but it was too late. They had failed another test. For failing two tests, the boys were immediately sacrificed. Their bodies were buried under a ballcourt back on earth.

 The Sons

That would have been the end of the story except for one thing. One Lord thought it would be a good warning if the head of one of the boys was placed in a tree where everyone would see it - a kind of "see what might happen to you if you are too noisy" warning. There the head stayed. No one saw it much because hardly anyone ever entered that part of the forest. The head had made such a racket calling for help that the people who lived in that part of the world were sure their forest was haunted. One day, a young woman came through the forest. She had lost her way while picking berries.

Before she even noticed the head stuck in the branches, the head said, "When my child is born, take him to my grandmother."  After telling the the young woman how to find his grandmother's house, the head disappeared.

The young woman blinked in surprise. A short time later, she gave birth to the Hero Twins. She took the twins to the house of their grandmother, as instructed. Their grandmother loved the twins dearly. But they did set her to sighing. Like their father before them, the Hero Twins were not very good at gardening. What they were good at, great at, absolutely excellent at, was catching rats.

One day, they caught a rat that could talk. The rat said, "If you will let me go, I'll tell you why you're so good at catching rats. Your father and uncle could catch things, too. I will tell you all about a game of ball they played with the Lords of Death."

The Hero Twins let the rat go. In exchange, the rat told them about the Lords of Death. He even told them what their father had hidden high in the rafters of their grandmother's home. The Hero Twins dug out that old gear and soon became the most wonderful ballplayers in the world!  There were so many cheers each time they played that, once again, the racket attracted the Lords of Death.

"I thought we got rid of those noisy boys," snapped a Lord. "Something has to be done to stop that racket immediately."

And so, a messenger was sent with an invitation to play a game of ball in the Underworld. Their grandmother was sad when she heard about it. She knew she was going to lose her grandsons, just as she had lost her sons before them. Nobody ever beat the Lords of Death. The boys packed carefully for their trip. When the boys arrived at the house of the Lords, one of the Lords was waiting to greet them. Thanks to the rat, they knew that this was not a real Lord.

"We are not about to say good morning to a wooden dummy," they announced loudly.

The real Lords came out from where they had been hiding. "You passed the test," smiled one of the Lords. "Take a seat," he said warmly, pointing at a cozy looking bench.

"No hot seat for us," said the twins politely. "We'll stand, thanks."

"You passed the second test," beamed one of the Lords. He sounded delighted about it.

The twins were not fooled. They were challenged to more tests. They were sent to the Dark House. They did not light the cigars the Lords had given them to "light their way." Instead, they attached fireflies to the end of their cigars and got out that way. They were sent to the Razor House. Sharp blades were supposed to cut them to ribbons. They escaped as a rat would, by crawling under the blades. They were sent to the Jaguar House. They escaped by feeding the Jaguars the bones they had brought along, just in case. The twins knew there would be test after test, until finally they died. Nobody ever beat the Lords of Death. When a Lord said, "Let us see if you can jump over these ovens", the boys jumped into the oven instead and died.

The Lords scattered their ashes in the river. That was the only way the twins could have ever come back to life. The life giving water cooled the fire. Always magical, first the Hero Twins came back as catfish. Finally, they turned back into their normal selves. The Hero Twins discovered quite by accident that they had picked up some additional powers during their transformation. They could cut themselves up and come back to life again, over and over. They could burn a house down and then restore it to its original shape.

The Hero Twins traveled from town to town, performing tricks for a living. The Lords of Death heard of their amazing act. They sent the twins an invitation to the Underworld, not knowing that they were inviting the very twins they had killed so recently. When the twins performed their act, the Lords were delighted. "Do me next," one Lord cried. "Chop me up and put me back together again!" The twins were delighted to chop up the Lord. Only, they did not put the Lord back together again. The other Lords knew they had been defeated. Rather than risk losing any more Lords, they sent the twins back to earth.

And all the sons thereafter

The gods of the heavens, who had lent a hand in all this, and who had provided a great deal of the magic although no one knew that except the gods of the heavens, honored the courage and cleverness of the Hero Twins by bringing them up to the sky. One twin became the sun; the other became the moon. The gods of the sky honored the children of the Hero Twins by making them the rulers of the earth. The rulers of the earth honored their parents and the other gods of the sky by giving them the best present they could think of. They built ball courts in every town in the world. And every game played, for the rest of time, was played in honor of their fathers and their fathers before them.   

Play a Meso-America Ballgame

Interactive: Mayas Q&A

Watch the video animation of the Ancient Maya “Council Book,” featuring the epic mythological stories of Hero Twins confronting the Lords of Death and Disease in the underworld caves of the “Place of Awe.”

Popol Vuh: The Ancient Maya Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings

The Popol Vuh (K’iche’ for “Council Book” or “Book of the Community”), written in the Classical K’iche’ (or Quiché) language, contains mytho-historical narratives of the Post-Classic K’iche’ Maya kingdom of highland Guatemala. The book features a creation myth, the Dawn of Life under the spectre of a flooded world, followed by the epic mythological stories of two Hero Twins: Hunahpu (Blow-gun Hunter) and Xbalanque (Young Hidden/Jaguar-Sun). The second part of the book deals with details of the foundation and history of the K’iche’ kingdom, tying in the royal family with the legendary gods in order to assert rule by divine right.

Popol Vuh, the creation myth of the Maya, animated in 1988 from paintings on pottery. Conceived, produced, directed, and written by Patricia Amlin. Animation by Patricia Amlin, Joanne Corso, Martha Corzycka and Bud Luckey. Narrated by Larry George of the Yakima Nation. Voices by Teatro Campesino. Music by Tod Boekilheide, Xochimoki, Mazatl Galindo and Jim Berenholtz. 60 minutes.

THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of all the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.

All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. (Popol Vuh, pp. 67-69, A.J. Chrsitenson)

Though written in the Latin alphabet, it is thought to have been based on a Maya codex in hieroglyphic script. The original manuscript, written by members of the K’iche’ Maya aristocracy at the fall of their capital city (Cumarcah/Utatlan) around 1550, has been lost. However, another handwritten copy made by the Friar Francisco Ximénez in the early 18th century exists today in the Newberry Library in Chicago. At the time, the Catholic missionaries had undertaken to burn all surviving religious hieroglyphs and texts. Consider Fr. Diego de Landa who burned hundreds of ancient Maya books while serving as the bishop at Maní in northern Yucatán:

We found a large number of books of these characters, and as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them much affliction. (Landa 1941, 78)

Sacred Texts of the K’iche’ Maya: Guide for Divination, Enlightenment and Immortality

Dennis Tedlock, who wrote what I consider the most definitive translation of the Popol Vuh, characterized his task as thus:

My work took me not only into dark corners of libraries but into the forests and tall cornfields and smoky houses of highland Guatemala, where the people who speak and walk and work in the pages of the Popol Vuh, the Quiche Maya, have hundreds of thousands of descendants. Among them are diviners called “daykeepers,” who know how to interpret illnesses, omens, dreams, messages given by sensations internal to their own bodies, and the multiple rhythms of time. It is their business to bring what is dark into “white clarity,” just as the gods of the Popol Vuh first brought the world itself to light.

Diego Rivera – “The Creation” – An illustration for the Popol Vuh

From Dennis Tedlock on the astronomic and divinatory nature of the Popol Vuh, and how it must be performed to illustrate the cosmology of the Maya vision:

If the ancient Popol Vuh was like the surviving hieroglyphic books, it contained systematic accounts of cycles in astronomical and earthly events that served as a complex navigation system for those who wished to see and move beyond the present.

In the case of a section dealing with the planet Venus, for example, there would have been tables of rising and setting dates, pictures of the attendant gods, and brief texts outlining what these gods did when they established the pattern for the movements of Venus. When the ancient reader of the Popol Vuh took the role of a diviner and astronomer, seeking the proper date for a ceremony or a momentous political act, we may guess that he looked up a specific passage, pondered its meaning, and rendered an opinion.

But the authors of the alphabetic Popol Vuh tell us that there were also occasions on which the reader offered “a long performance and account” whose subject was the emergence of the whole cahuleu or “sky-earth,” which is the Quiche way of saying “world.” If a divinatory reading or pondering was a way of recovering the depth of vision enjoyed by the first four humans, a “long performance,” in which the reader may well have covered every major subject in the entire book, was a way of recovering the full cosmic sweep of that vision.

On Hunahpú from VOPUS:

Hunahpú — the civilizing hero of Quiché-Maya culture — is a redemptor-god, son of the Supreme Being. He is born immaculately like all the great religious founders and sacrifices himself for humanity, many centuries before the towering figure of Jesus the Christ becomes outlined in the panorama of human history. Hunahpú proclaims the tenet of the soul’s immortality before Plato taught his doctrines, when the Greek mythology created by Homer and Hesiod did not yet exist. Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué transform themselves into human beings, have the same substance and experience the same life that man does, in order to establish the latter’s patterns of conduct.

Xibalba: On Succumbing to the Evil Lords in the “Place of Awe”

The story tells of a first trip of the father of the Hero Twins, One Hunahpú (also “One Master of the Blowgun”) and his brother, into the eastern wildlands (present day Alta Verapaz, Guatemala), a place of thirteen sacred peaks with uncountable underground chasms, caves, rivers flowing into nowhere, pools deep within the earth. Here lies Xibalba, the “Place of Awe (Fear),” or Underworld, ruled by twelve Lords of Death and Disease.

Dennis Tedlock: The ball court of One and Seven Hunahpú (the forebears of the Hero Twins) lies on the eastern edge of the earth’s surface at a place called Great Abyss at Carchah (San Pedro Carcha in Alta Verapaz). Their ballplaying offends the lords of Xibalba, who dislike hearing noises above their subterranean domain. The head lords are named One Death and Seven Death, and under them are other lords who specialize in causing such maladies as lesions, jaundice, emaciation, edema, stabbing pains, and sudden death from vomiting blood. One and Seven Death decide to challenge One and Seven Hunahpú to come play ball in the court of Xibalba, which lies at the western edge of the underworld.

The way is full of traps, but they do well until they come to the Crossroads, where each of four roads has a different color corresponding to a different direction. They choose the Black Road, which means, at the terrestrial level, that their journey through the underworld will take them from east to west. At the celestial level, it means that they were last seen in the black cleft of the Milky Way when they descended below the eastern horizon; to this day the cleft is called the Road of Xibalba.

Failing a series of tests put on by the Lords, they sacrifice them the next day instead of playing ball. Both are buried at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, except that the severed head of One Hunahpu is placed in the fork of a tree that stands by the road there. Now, for the first time, the tree bears fruit, and it becomes difficult to tell the head from the fruit. This is the origin of the calabash tree, whose fruit is the size and shape of a human head.

The Hero Twins: Overcoming Seven Macaw

Hunahpú and Xbalanque, born magically from the calabash had-skull of One Hunahpú and Blood Woman (or Moon), daughter of one of the Lords. Thus, Hurricane or Heart of Sky sends the twins to kill pretenders to lordly power over the affairs of the earth, a father and two sons. First vanquished is the father, named Seven Macaw (Itzam-Yeh), who claims to be both the sun and moon.

Seven Macaw Sits on the Tree of Life

This is the great tree of Seven Macaw, a nance, and this is the food of Seven Macaw. In order to eat the fruit of the nance he goes up the tree every day. Since Hunahpu and Xbalanque have seen where he feeds, they are now hiding beneath the tree of Seven Macaw, they are keeping quiet here, the two boys are in the leaves of the tree. [Popol Vuh]

From Dennis Tedlock: His career as lordly being ended, he remains as the seven stars of the Big Dipper, and his wife, named Chimalmat, corresponds to the Little Dipper. The rising of Seven Macaw (in mid-October) now marks the coming of the dry season, and his fall to earth and his disappearance (beginning in mid-July) signal the beginning of the hurricane season. It was his first fall, brought on by the blowgun shot of Hunahpú and Xbalanque, that opened the way for the great flood that brought down the wooden people. Just as Seven Macaw only pretended to be the sun and moon, so the wooden people only pretended to be human.

Redemption in the Underworld, from the Lords of Death and Disease

Following in the footsteps of their father, the Hero Twins descend the road to Xibalba, but look to outwit the Lords by secretly learning their names and not falling victim to the numerous tests that their father succumbed to. The next day Hunahpú and Xbalanque play ball with the Xibalbans, something their father and uncle did not survive long enough to do.

From AJ Cristenson: Contemporary Quichés also believe that illness is caused by various underworld lords. The following is from a prayer for protection in which the lords of illness and death are invoked and propitiated with offerings at a shrine in the cemetery at Chichicastenango. Among these are the “lord of sickness and pain, of death and destruction in the roads and trails, of death and destruction through aguardiente (liquor) and destruction from food poisoning, of death and destruction from vomiting, of death and destruction from strain and exertion—come hither, be seated before this World of the cemetery!”

The battle between the Hero Twins and the Evil Lords is long and drawn out, and is characterized by the following exchange from the AJ Christenson translation:

Thus the boys entered into Blade House, the second trial of Xibalba. Here it was desired that they would be sliced apart by the blades. They were to have died quickly in their hearts. But they did not die. They spoke to the blades, instructing them in this way: “Yours shall be the flesh of animals,” they said to the blades. Thus they stopped moving. As one they all lowered the points of their blades.

And while they were passing the night in Blade House, they called out to all the ants: “Cutting ants, conquering ants, come! Go and get flower blossoms as prizes for the lords.” “Very well,” they said.

Dennis Tedlock: Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of The Mayan Book of The Dawn of Life and The Glories of Gods and Kings

A. J. Christenson: Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya

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