Perhaps the most famous expression of ancient Maya thought is the Popol Wuj, written around 1550 CE with the help of the Spanish alphabet. Our last round of workshops of this season we dedicated to this unique document, more specifically to the Xibalba myth that takes up a third of the entire text. Xibalba is the name for the Maya netherworld.
Many Maya scholars believe that the Popol Wuj, written by Highland Maya, has little to do with the Classic Lowland Maya that created, for example, Tikal. However, in my book Xibalba y el nacimiento del nuevo sol (Xibalba and the birth of the new sun) I showed that the lineage that produced this manuscript, were originally inhabitants of the transitional area between the Highlands and Lowlands. In fact, it is in this area, littered with caves, that the ancient Maya located the geographical Xibalba as we may conclude from a careful reading of the original text. Pottery remains proves that merchant caravans, traveling between the Highlands and the Lowlands, visited these caves at least since the Late Preclassic.
And it shows. Although the text was written in the K’iche’ Maya language, the names of the family members who are the protagonists in the Xibalba myth are either Ch’ol or Q’eqchi’, both Maya languages spoken since at least Classic times in this transitional area. Raxruha where we are teaching is in the very Xibalba heartland, next to Guatemala’s largest cavernous system (23km). A group of the participants at San Luis Petén, the other workshop, comes from the Cancuén river which played a pivotal role in the Xibalba myth as I have argumented.
The heroes in the myth are Jun Ajpuuh and Xbalam Q’e, twin brothers who travel down into the netherworld in search of the bones of their father and uncle. These Hero Twins represent the two ‘faces’ of the sun: the sun that circles around the earth during the day and the nocturnal sun that roams the underworld at night. Translators have had problems with the name Xbalam Q’e, thinking it was K’iche but it is Q’eqchi’, and means Hidden Sun in that language. He is the nocturnal sun, representing the full moon, the only time the moon is masculine and acts like a reversed sun: rises in the east, crosses the sky during the nightly hours to set in the west. Xbalam Q’e is a great sorcerer, also known as the Jaguar Sun, and he is still very present among Q’eqchi’ people. Where many scholars see the shape of a rabbit in the shadowy parts of the full moon, the Q’eqchi’ Maya see a jaguar, as they have pointed out to me. Xbalam Q’e is still out there.
At the end of the Xibalba myth Jun Ajpuuh rises into the sky as the sun of the new era while Xbalam Q’e becomes the full moon. The stories that ended up in the Popol Wuj were often dance-dramas; in these workshops we had the people enact some of the scenes.