The Maya Creation Story

In 1701, a Dominican priest named Francisco Ximenez was allowed by the Maya to see something no other European had ever laid eyes on. They showed him a copy of their creation story, known as the Popol Vuh. The document had been hidden in the town of Chichicastenago in Guatemala. Ximenez made a Spanish translation of the Popol Vuh so Europeans could read it.

The document Ximenez saw was written between 1554-1558. Before the anonymous Mayan authors wrote it down, Mayans told the creation story orally. Here is the basic story of the Popol Vuh.

In the beginning, there was nothing but stillness. There were only a group of gods called Heart of Sky, Newborn Thunderbolt, Sudden Thunderbolt, and the Plumed Serpent. These gods went to a pair of other gods named the Maker and Modeler–a pair of male and female creators. Maker and Modeler created the earth through the power of their words. They created land, mountains, trees, rivers, and plants. The gods weren’t completely satisfied, though. They wanted to create beings that could worship and thank them for what they created.

First, the gods made animals, but then realized that animals couldn’t speak to honor the gods with words. Next the gods tried making humans out of mud. The humans could speak but they were stiff and melted in the rain. The gods decided to send a flood upon the mud people to destroy them. On their third attempt, the gods made wooden people. These humans had great strength and could speak but they treated the animals cruelly. As revenge, the gods allowed the animals to eat the wooden people. The few wooden people who survived hid up in the trees and became monkeys.

While the gods were trying to create humans, the earth was still without a sun or a moon. One day Seven Macaw, a large bird with shining feathers and jeweled eyes, went up into a tree and claimed that he was the sun and the moon. The Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, thought Seven Macaw had too much pride. They used their blow guns to shoot him and Seven Macaw fell from the tree with a broken jaw. (This image is portrayed often in Mayan pottery). Unfortunately, Seven Macaw wasn’t dead. He ripped off Hunahpu’s arm and took it back to his house.

The twins went to the houses of their elders. They asked for help to defeat Seven Macaw and get Hunahpu’s arm back. The twins suggested that the elders pretend to be healers and they pretend to be their assistants. Then the elders walked by Seven Macaw’s house selling their healing practices. Seven Macaw invited them in to fix his jaw. He was told that all his teeth need to be replaced. Reluctantly, Seven Macaw agreed to this treatment. The elders replaced Seven Macaw’s teeth with white corn so that he couldn’t eat and he dies. The elders then fixed Hunahpu’s arm.


Maya Maize God statue at British Museum March 25, 2012. Photo by BabelStone

At this point, the Popol Vuh goes back in time to explain who the twins’ ancestors were. Their father was defeated by the Lords of Death in the Underworld. The twins went through many trials concocted by the same Lords but they won and resurrected their father, who came back to life as the Mayan Maize god.

After all their adventures, the Hero Twins went up in the sky and became the Sun and the Moon.

With the Sun and Moon in place, the gods made a final attempt to create humans. This time they mixed yellow and white corn with water to make human flesh. According to the Popol Vuh, “this time the beings shaped by the gods are everything they hoped for and more: not only do [they] pray to their makers, but they have perfect vision and therefore perfect knowledge.” The gods decided that these humans were too perfect, however. They put a fog on the people’s eyes so they couldn’t see that they were godlike.

Play Ball! Introducing the Mesoamerican Ball Game

The Mesoamerican ball game became the New World’s first organized team sport. It seems to have started around 1600 B.C. No courts were discovered from that time—only balls. The first ball court was built by the Maya in 1400 B.C. at Paso de la Amada. 1,300 courts have been found all over Mesoamerica, though the size of the courts varies.

The only eyewitness account of the game comes from Spanish priest Diego Duran. He saw Aztec games played in the 1570s. At that time, courts were shaped like the letter I. They had a central alley with sloping walls. On top of the walls, spectators could watch the game. There was no standard size for the courts; they varied between 100-200 ft. Stucco floors painted with the city’s patron deity acted as a kind of mascot for the team.


A Mayan ball court in Uxmal, Mexico. Image by Tato Grasso, April 2007.

Aztec teams had between four and six players. They bounced a solid rubber ball back and forth using their buttocks and their knees. It was against the rules to use their feet or their hands. A center line was drawn down the court. The goal for each team was to get the ball back to the other side of the court by bouncing the ball only once on their side.

A team lost points if more than once bounce occurred or the ball went out of bounds. Points were earned by hitting the back wall of the opponent’s side. Most players guarded the back line so it was hard to score. A couple of players stayed up front to try and return balls. At the center line, rings were placed high up on the walls. If a team managed to get the ball through the ring they won automatically, but this was very difficult to do, especially without the use of their hands.

The ball was made of solid rubber and could kill a player if they were hit with it in the face or the stomach. Players who had survivable injuries viewed them as a badge of honor. Players often got injured because they didn’t have much protective gear. They wore only loincloths, thigh pads, and gloves.

Ball games were spectator sports. The audience bet on the outcome of the game, though nobles obviously bet more than the poor. People bet their land, crops, and some even sold themselves into slavery. Nobles had the best seats to watch the game. Afterward, the players expected them to throw gifts to the winning team. If some nobles tried to leave without giving anything to the winning team, those players were allowed to rob them.

The game served an important function in communities beyond just entertainment. Since each city had a team, disputes between cities could be resolved via a ball game. This solution was more practical and less bloody than starting a war.

Unlike many of today’s sports figures, Aztec ball players were unpaid and poor. They received some gifts and gambling earnings, but not enough to support themselves. Their payment came in the form of fame if they won. Many of the less successful players ended up as slaves to nobles.

The Mesoamerican ball game is still played today. It’s called Ulama de cadera, which means hip ball. Cancun brings in ball players to attract tourists. Guatemala has a national team and is trying to revive the game.

The Role of Aztec Kings

The king was at the top of the Aztec social hierarchy. They called him the Tlatoani, which meant speaker because he acted as a spokesman for his people. Unlike most European societies, the position was not hereditary. Nobles elected the king. At least in theory, the position was based on merit, though the son of a king might find ways to bribe the nobles.

An Aztec king had many privileges. He lived in a huge palace with hundreds of rooms. He also had hundreds of servants and slaves to tend to his every wish. The palace was decorated with handmade tapestries and murals. Since cleanliness was important to the Aztecs, the king had his own private bathroom where he bathed daily. If guests came to visit him, they also had their own bathrooms. Within the palace, the king housed his many wives. When he dressed, he put on embroidered clothing decorated with many feathers.


King Moctezuma I, reigned 1440-69. Image from Tovar Codex, 16th century.

Not only did he live in a palace, but he owned all the city lands. He gave grants of land to nobles, but only the king could decide who received a grant. Besides land grants, the king decided on all laws and taxes.

Despite all of the king’s privileges, he had great responsibilities. The king served as the high priest and oversaw many of the daily sacrifices to the gods. The Aztecs believed that their sun god, Tonatiuh, required regular gifts of human hearts to be made to him. Without these sacrifices, the sun would stop shining and the world would end. As high priest, the king was responsible for the continuation of the universe.

In addition to his religious duties, the king served as general of the army. He led his men into battle and made battle plans. He conquered other lands and generally enabled his people to feel secure.

The king not only led the army, but also led political relations with kings from other city states. He formed political alliances with their Tlatoanis. Alliances were often formed during elaborate state dinners. As many as 300 plates were set at the king’s table, which was piled high with the best food from the local markets. Singers and dwarfs provided entertainment during the dinner. After the feast, the king and his guests left and the servants who prepared the feast had their meal.

In general, the Aztecs expected their king to set a good example for others to follow and to provide them with a good life.

Travel Brochure for Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs didn’t have brochures in the fifteenth century. Based on their experiences with the Spanish conquistadors, they weren’t looking to attract many tourists, either. If they had a brochure for visitors to their capital of Tenochtitlan, however, it might have read something like this:

Welcome to Tenochtitlan!

The Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan makes every city in the New World look small, and some in the Old World, too. An estimated 200,000 people live here, compared to 150,000 in fifteenth century Paris.


Mural by Diego Rivera showing life in Aztec city Tenochtitlan

Places to visit include:

The City Zoo

Don’t miss seeing the zoo, the likes of which have never been seen by Europeans. The first section houses birds of prey such as eagles. The second section houses reptiles, mammals, and exotic birds. The Spanish call most of the mammals lions because they’ve never seen an ocelot or mountain lion before. These big cats are fed parts of sacrificial victims. The Spanish find this disgusting, but it is unwise to voice your opinion as a tourist. Among the reptiles you can see rattlesnakes, or as the Spanish like to call them, “snakes with music in their tails.”

Public Theater

Aztecs enjoy all kinds of art, and artists are treated with respect. The theater, or cuicacalli, which means house of song, has several different functions. It is both an opera house and a school of music for youth. Young people who have musical talent can come there and learn to play the drums, the flutes, or trumpets.

The theater is also the place where dances are performed for the community. Aztecs like to refer to dancing as “singing with your feet,” so singing and dancing are naturally performed under one roof.

Botanical Gardens

As you make your way around the city you will notice the fine public gardens. The finest garden in Tenochtitlan, however,  belongs to King Moctezuma. His palace houses plants from every part of Mesoamerica, even ones that should not be able to grow here. Between 300-500 gardeners check on the hundreds of plant species. If one species dies, then an expedition is sent out to get another sample.

Tlatelolco Market

Tlatelolco is the sister city of Tenochtitlan. When you walk through its marketplace, you can find merchants selling pottery, cloth, gold, and jewelry. Slave auctions also take place here. After shopping you will probably be hungry. The marketplace has many restaurants that serve food from all over Mesoamerica. Entertainment is available from street dancers and singers. Overall the marketplace is a great spot for families to spend time together and for residents to socialize.


Model of Templo Mayor by S. Shepherd, 23 Nov. 2006

Templo Mayor

Downtown you can see the Templo Mayor from a great distance. It is 60 meters tall, and has two flights of steps that lead to two temples at the top. Each temple is a different color–blue for the rain god, and red for the war god. Daily sacrifices are performed to appease the gods. The heart is cut out of the human being sacrificed. The Spanish are a bit queasy about this practice, but Moctezuma has warned them to act like the guests that they are in the city.