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.