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Xibalba, the Mayan Underworld

Mayan cosmology, which shrinks neither from darkness and violence nor from beauty and heroism, features one of the most strange and transformative tales of the underworld.  The story is found in the Popul Vuh, the most comprehensive remaining work of Mayan mythical literature (which was recorded in the Quiché language by a Domenican friar in 1701 AD). The most important and cohesive part of the Popul Vuh recounts how twin heroes, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, challenged the gods of the underworld to a multi-match ball tournament. Episodes from the story are recognizable in art from the golden age of the Classic Mayas (from 200-900 AD).

Xquic magically impregnated by Hun Hunahpu

The story begins when Hun Hunahpu, the father to both twins, challenged the greedy and corrupt gods of Xibalba (the Mayan underworld) to a ball game. Mayan ball was a sort of high impact racquetball with scoring hoops (rather like rollerball).  In important tournaments, the losers were sacrificed and their severed heads became permanent additions to the court.   When Hun Hunahpu lost the ball game to the gods of the dark house, they ripped him apart and left his head impaled on a tree.  However, Xquic, a lovely blood goddess of the underworld fell in love with the head of the brave and handsome Hun Hunahpu and became impregnated by his spit.  She raised her twin sons, Hunahpu and Xbalanque hidden away from the eyes of the gods below, but when the two grew to manhood they inevitably found their father’s sports equipment.  Learning of his downfall they set out to defeat the gods of Xibalba, whose malign influence was corrupting the world of life (also, by besting the gods at the sacred ball game, they hoped to restore life to their father).

After deliberately losing several ball matches in order to obtain a strategic advantage, the brothers were forced to take shelter in a dark house in  Xibalba, which was filled with killer bats and with the horrifying bat gods, the Camazotz.  To escape the bats, the brothers took refuge inside their blowguns, but Hunahpu, mistakenly believing that dawn had arrived, stuck his head out to look around.  A Camazotz (or the Camazotz—their nature is unclear) promptly snipped Hunahpu’s head off with razor claws, and carried the bleeding head to the ceremonial ball court for use during the next day’s ball game.

Grieving for his dead brother, Xbalanque summoned the animals of the jungle and asked them to bring their favorite food.  Many animals brought leaves or grubs or worthless carrion, but the coati brought a calabash gourd, which Xbalanque then fashioned into a surrogate head for his brother. During the ballgame, he managed to exchange the fake head for the real one and the brothers ultimately went on to win the tournament.

A Mayan Classical Vase Depicting Twin Catfish

Enraged by the loss, the Xibalbans constructed a great oven in which they immolated the meddlesome twins.  The deities of hell then ground the twins’ burned bones to dust and threw them in a river.  However Xbalanque and Hunahpu were again one step ahead.   They magically regenerated as a pair of catfish which gradually changed into boys. Amazed by this miracle, and not recognizing the now-transformed twins, the Xibalbans hired the orphans as magical entertainers.  The twins performed increasingly spectacular magical miracles for the Xibalbans. They transformed into animals and burned buildings only to restore them perfectly unburned. Finally the two magicians were called to appear before One Death and Seven Death, the ranking rulers of Xibalba.  The twins performed a spectacular magic show which culminated with Xbalanque sacrificing Hunahpu, only to have the latter emerge more powerful and vigorous then before.  One Death and Seven Death applauded and demanded the twins put them through the same transformation.  Naturally the twins sacrificed the rulers of Xibalba, but they did not restore them to life.  They then revealed their true identities and began to slaughter their former tormentors.  The forces of Xibalba surrendered utterly and begged for mercy.

The story ends with the twins granting clemency to the surviving gods of hell on the condition that the world of life no longer need worship them or present offerings to the underworld.  The brothers then dug up their father’s remains and pieced them together.  But their magical skills could not bring him fully back to life.  Maimed and broken, he was left on the ball court where they found him.  Some say he became maize and gave life to the world.  Others say he became the fragile hope which lingers for all things lost and dead.

The brothers then left the underworld, but as they ascended to the world of the living, they found that it had become somehow diminished to them.  Their mighty magical transformations had put the affairs of life behind them. The two kept climbing and transcended the world entirely.  They are still visible as the sun and the moon.  Their story is the Mayan story of the creation and how life was redeemed—at least for a time—from the greedy deities of the underworld.

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