Page name: Mesoamerican mythology classroom [Logged in view] [RSS]
2008-05-23 14:43:28
Last author: Imperator
Owner: Yshtar
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Mesoamerican mythology classroom

Welcome to the Mesoamerican mythology classroom!

Here you will hear about the Gods and legends from the Prehispanic people of South-Central America, like the Mayas and Aztecs. Who is Quetzalcoatl, how was the world created, who built the pyramids you can still see nowadays in Mexico, Guatemala and some other countries...and much more!

Teacher: ???



1. [Aristotle]
2. [Shreya]
3. [Lynnaelia]
4. [Erin]
5. [Druid Fables]


Brief Outline:

1. What is Mesoamerica anyway?
2. Who are the Mayas and Aztecs?
3. How do we know the Mythology of those peoples?
4. The Legend of the 5 Suns


What is Mesoamerica anyway?

Mesoamerica is the "Region between the Americas" (North and South) It's a denomination from Ancient Greek, (meso= "between"). That region was defined, because through time and until the Spanish Conquest, Mesoamerica has been occupied by various civilisations sharing a lot of elements, on the linguistic and cultural side of things.


Who are the Mayas and Aztecs?

They are two different people from the Mesoamerican area. Even if they are not the only ones, they are, by far, the best known among them, and the ones we have more informations about.
They didn't exactly live and develop during the same period, nor did they share the same territory.

1)The Mayas

The Mayas occupied the South-Eastern part of Mesoamerica, in the tropical forests hills and low lands South of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and Salvador.

Their civilisation developped mainly between 300 AD to 900 AD (you knwo what AD means, right?). Some people spread through the forest were (and are) appearently descendants of the Mayas, keeping some of their traditions alive, but the cities have been deserted in mass and abandoned all around the same period in the tenth century ( archeology found epidemy, civil war, famine and drought signs).

The Mayas were organized in "kingdom-cities", pretty much like Ancient Greece at some time of History, sometimes making alliances between them, sometimes fighting each other, sometimes just maintaining commercial relations.

2)The Aztecs

The Aztecs were in fact called "Mexicas" by themselves. They come originally from "somewhere in the Northern part of Mexico/Mesoamerica", but they finally settled around the Central Mexican Highlands, in the region which is today Mexico city, around the end of 12th century. They rapidly developped and they began an expansion, integrating parts of the culture from the original people there. At the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, the Aztec Empire was extended on most of the Northern/Central part of Mesoamerica, with some "colonies" reaching far to the South.


How do we know the Mythology of those peoples?

Well, there are 3 kinds of datas, from where some mythological elements could be studied:

1) The original "codex": The Mayas had an advanced writing, with a mix of syllabic/phonetic/semantic symbols, that is progressively being deciphered ( researchers are still working on it).

(An example of a Maya codex)

The Aztecs had also "books", which we call "codex" by the way, but except some glyphs of peoples/gods/places names and the numeric system, they are more functionning like illustrations.

(An example of an Aztec codex)

2) Conquest time writings: All the Spanish weren't bloodthirsty Conquistadores, and some even found interresting to record the legends, rituals and other cultural aspects of those people. Some priests also teached our occidental writing to indigenous people, so that they began to write down themselves what they considered their cultural legacy. 

3) The archeological datas: stelae and various monuments carry informations and representations of mythological creatures or mythic events. Even if it's sometimes difficult to make the difference between historic/legendary elements on those, they are still very useful and helped to understand rituals and religious beliefs.


The Legend of the 5 Suns

We will start our tour in the Mesoamerican myths and pantheon with the Very Beginning: the Creation Myths, the ones telling about the creation of the Earth and the People.
The "Legend of the 5 Suns" is from an Aztec tradition, but seemed to be widespread, with some variants through Mesoamerica. After the myth itself, I included some quick notes about certain deities or aspects of the myth. The numbers between ( ) in the text itself refer to each corresponding note.

The Legend of the 5 Suns

The Aztecs tell that the History of Humanity has been through 5 eras, also called "5 Suns" (0)

Ometecuhtli (1), the Divinity of all things and all beginnings, at the same time male and female, at the same time life and death, woke up once from his lethargy. He came to create his 4 First Children (2). The First Children themselves had children, and so on... The children and grand children of Ometecuhtli are the ones who created the world, the skies and humanity.

One of those gods, Quetzalcoatl (3) first created something looking like a big half-sun. But he was so big that he could'nt move, and being only in half, he was not heating enough to create any life. So one of Quetzalcoatl's brother, Tezcatlipoca (4) laughed and kicked that useless sun back into chaos.

So at the beginning of the First Age, arose finally a whole sun, the Sun of the Jaguar (Ocelotl-Tonatiuh), he was created on a day "4 Jaguars"(5) . That Sun was under the will and rules of the God Tezcatlipoca. The gods also created a race of Giants. They were said to be very strong but monstruous. Also, there was at that time a lot of fierce creatures and animals. Tezcatlipoca's brother however, thought it was time for something else, that the reign of Tezcatlipoca had been enough and that those Giants were too monstruous. The Jaguar- Sun then felt from the sky, producing big damages on earth. The mountains collapsed, and obscurity came. Then all the fierce creatures, and particularly the jaguars with their night-vision, attacked the Giants and ate all of them. So ended the Sun of the Jaguar, the Sun of Earth.

The Second Sun arose on a day "4 Wind" , he was the Wind-Sun (Ehecatl-Tonatiuh). Humans were created and they were surviving thanks to wild plants and hunt. Ehecatl (6) was ruling on that Sun and on the creation. But again, one of the brother, jealous of such reign, tried to put an end to it. Ehecatl had to flee, provoking hurricanes and tornados, wiping out all on his trail. Only some humans who could seek refuge in big trees and changed themselves into monkeys could survive. So ended the Sun of the Wind, The Sun of Air.

The Third Sun appeared on a day "4 Rain", and he was named the Fire-Sun (Xiuh-Tonatiuh). Tlaloc (7 )was ruling on that era, and he provided abundant food to the people he created, making rain enough to compensate the burn of the Sun. Then came the time of jealousy again, because the people of that era were totally unrespectful to the gods and were making a lot of misdeeds. The other gods asked the powers of Fire to provoke a great cataclysm, and volcans erupted, and fire rain was falling from the sky. Only some few humans, who had the idea to transform themselves into birds could flee quick enough before all got destroyed. So ended the Sun of Fire.

The Fourth Sun started on a day "4 Water", and the Sun created then was the Water-Sun (Atl-Tonatiuh). The Goddess Chalchiuhtlicue (8)was in charge of that Sun, and humans were granted by the aquatic plants and water-corn that she made for them. But again, time of misdeeds and jealousy came, and the Goddess let corrupt and seduce herself. She has been convinced somehow that she had to put an end to that Age, and she began to unleash floods and torrential rains. Some humans could escape however, transformed into fishes for having swimmed so long. Some also whisper that she let a couple of humans find safety on the biggest of the trees, and that in a hole there during the flood, they survived, keeping corn and the sacred fire alive. So ended the Sun of Water.

Then came the Time of the Fifth Sun. That Sun arose on a day "4 Movement". It is the Sun of our humanity, the Sun of the Aztecs. He has not ended yet. Some say he will end with earthquakes and explosions, but some say that he will maybe never end, because he is the synthesis of the four elements...that is if humanity can keep the balance...(9)


(0)There are several versions among the Aztec myths themselves. That is explained by the fact the Aztecs conquered and integrated in their culture different people, but they conserved somehow in their own traditions the different myths and gods of the original people, sometimes just changing their names, sometimes making more a fusion of different gods or legends into one. Don't forget their myths were mainly "oral tradition" before the Spanish Conquest (the codex were mainly for "archives" or priests uses), so according to the place you were, and to the person you talked to, the story was always even slightly varying. For exemple the order of succession of the Ages is not the same in every version.
-(1) Ometecuhtli, literally "the Lord Two", is a primordial deity. It is a kind of "Principle and essence of all things", containing the duality of all things in himself. He has been distributing the powers to his children and grand-children, and the Aztecs don't worship him directly.
-(2) The name of those First Children vary greatly according to each version. That's why I chose to better not confuse you further :o)
-(3) Quetzalcoatl, literally "the Serpent-Bird" (a quetzal is particular bird, known for its luxurious green-bluish feathers). It's a very complex god, but let's sum it up by saying he's the "good side" of the Creation powers. He's a god of rebirth of vegetation, a celestial god and a bringer of life and culture for humanity.
-(4) Tezcatlipoca, "the Smoking Mirror". He is Quetzalcoatl's brother, and as complex than him, but again, we can sumarize saying he's the "bad side" of Creation power, and by consequences, a god of Destruction. He's also a celestial god, associated with the Night and the Thunder.
-(5) Aztecs were using a very elabortaed set of calendars. Without entering into details, there were 20 different signs of the day, that could be preceded by a number from 1 to 13.
-(6) Ehecatl is the divinity of the Wind, and also an aspect of Quetzalcoatl.
-(7) Tlaloc is a fertility god, or more exactly the male side of the earth's fertility. He's the rain maker, the counterpart necessary to balance the sun. He's not considered as a celestial god though, but an earth one.
-(8) Chalchiuhtlicue (" She with the Jade Skirt") is the female counterpart of Tlaloc. Also associated with fertility and earth, she is more linked to rivers and lakes.
-(9) The birth of the current Sun is also more detailed, in some other myths; we will come back in time on those :o)


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Past teachers: [Yshtar]

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2003-03-31 [Erin]: I would like to become a student. Please?

2003-03-31 [Lynnaelia]: Ah, very interesting! Creation myths are the best!

2003-04-02 [Yshtar]: Hi Erin, and welcome. No worries, I added your name to the students list myself ;)

2003-04-12 [Yshtar]: So, are you all done with this guys? I'll be outahere for a little while, but I'll be back soon with some more stuff :)

2003-04-12 [Lynnaelia]: Bring forth the next lesson!

2003-04-12 [Yshtar]: *points to the comment just upside* ...around the end of next week...

2003-04-29 [~Shadow~]: Ah, lots of fun! Mythology is the greatest reading around.

2003-04-29 [~Shadow~]: ooooh, you people should like this.... "If you want your children to be brilliant, teach them myths. If you want them to be very brilliant, teach them more myths." -Albert Einstein (borrowed from [Daelume]'s page)

2003-05-15 [Lynnaelia]: That's awesome! I'm going to be very brilliant *gleams*

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