South and Meso-American Mythology A to Z
South and Meso-American Mythology A to Z Copyright © 2004 by Ann Bingham All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information contact: Facts On File, Inc. 132 West 31st Street New York NY 10001
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Bingham, Ann. South and Meso-American mythology A to Z / Ann Bingham. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 0-8160-4889-4 (acid-free paper) 1. Indian mythology—South America. 2. Indian mythology—Latin America. 3. Indian cosmology—South America. 4. Indian cosmology—Latin America. I. Title. F2230.1.R3B56 2004 2004047110
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Time Line for South and Meso-America
Map of South and Meso-America
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS With many thanks and grateful appreciation . . . to Juan Carlos Flores and Maria Colorado for their critical reading of the content and for helping me find the right balance in dealing with sensitive and controversial topics . . . to Dorothy Cummings at Facts On File for countless thoughtful suggestions and helpful questions . . . to Kelley Beaurline and Amy Helfer for their thorough review and editing expertise, no easy task . . . to Johanna Ehrmann for her copyediting magic . . . to Audra Winston Bailey and the entire team in Wellesley, who make all these things possible . . . and finally to all the people whose stories these are.
INTRODUCTION The world from which the mythology of South and Meso-America emerged is a land of extremes. It is a land of high, snow-covered mountain peaks and low river basins; of barren, rocky, cold, and windy ocean coasts and hot tropical rain forests; of land that is fertile and lush, and land that is subject to drought or created with steep terraces so that crops could be grown. Volcanoes erupt. Earthquakes shake the ground—sometimes so violently that entire towns are flattened. Hail, wind, and driving rains destroy crops. The area covered by South and Meso-America gave rise to several major civilizations; today the land encompasses 21 countries. The mythology of this land is rich with stories of floods and fires, horrific monsters, and a host of gods and goddesses who are jealous, and kind, and evil, and arrogant. Some may be alternately kind and evil; some are so vast they have several names. The realm of these gods and goddesses, and in fact of the people who revere them, is not linear. Time does not flow on a single path that goes from then to now. Space does not necessarily go from here to there. In this world, time and space merge so at any moment one can tap into the future or access the past. In South America, the INCA saw the cosmos as three concentric spheres—the past, the present, and the future. Humans, often with the help of a SHAMAN who could mediate with the inhabiting spirits, could learn from the past and future because they were always accessible. In Meso-America, too, the past and future merged with the present; it was possible to change the future by returning to the past. The Meso-American use of two or three CALENDARS, each operating on a different cycle—it might take as long as 52 years for a “date” to repeat— illustrate this perception of time and space as more fluid and multidimensional. In the myths, time means little: Heroes help create a world before their fathers are born; people age or grow younger by ascending or descending a mountain. And because of this timelessness, the myths do make sense. They do explain why a CONDOR’s feathers are black, what causes an earthquake, and how a much-played BALL GAME replays a cosmic fight. They also provide role models so strong that people both fear and live to serve them—even today. These gods and goddesses were real and infused every part of everyday life.
The myths of South and Meso-America reflect the themes found in the mythology of other places. Here you will find heroes who face ordeals or tests. You will read about paradise, the UNDERWORLD, SERPENTS, evil demons, the CREATION, and stories of how the EARTH became populated and how people got FIRE. Some believe that ancient people created myths to help them explain their world or construct their history—a world that we, in the age of information, try to explain through scientific and historical facts and theories. But there is little difference. Facts can be deceiving: As history teachers are quick to point out, history is more than a list of facts. It is the telling of a people’s story. SOUTH AND MESO-AMERICA: A BRIEF HISTORY Historians believe that humans began to migrate from Asia across the Bering land bridge as long as 50,000 years ago. These humans brought with them a belief system that included shamans and the conviction that ANIMALS held spiritual power. People from several different groups made this trip, either gradually or in waves. Eventually, some groups arrived in South and Meso-America. We don’t know much about these early people, but this we do know: Some had reached what is now Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America by 9000 B.C.; by 8000 B.C people in the ANDES grew plants, probably to use to weave cloth; and by 7000 B.C. people in Meso-America farmed. The growing of crops for food in the Americas began in Meso-America and, from there, spread north and south.
Meso-America The first communities in South and Meso-America were those of the Chincoro in northern Chile by 5000 B.C. However, scholars consider the first significant civilization in the Americas that of the OLMEC, who dominated the Gulf coast of Mexico by 1200 B.C. This society was an organized one; it had a class structure, highly developed arts, an extensive trade network, a calendar, writing in the form of pictographs, and deities and spirits who regulated rain and the fertility of humans and crops. The Olmec civilization continued until about 900 B.C. and its influence was widespread. Other groups also settled in Meso-America. They lived in small villages and interacted with each other through trade and war. Gradually these settlements grew and became ceremonial centers or cities that boasted huge stone temples, monuments, palaces, and gardens; some of them had populations of thousands of people. These population centers were the heart of a chiefdom. Some were cosmopolitan cities—home of people from all classes of society. Others were places where only rulers, PRIESTS, the nobility, and the people and slaves that served them lived. In these settlements, most people lived in outlying villages where they hunted, farmed, or created goods to support themselves and the city center. The city reflected the Meso-American concept of the universe. Just
as gods were at the center of the universe, the temples to the major gods stood in the center of the city. Villages and homes also had ceremonial centers—each village had one or more temples and each home had an altar. Ultimately, the people lived to serve the gods who had created humans to serve them. As a cultural area grew, or as a chiefdom expanded either by war or through trade, its group of deities became more complex. Gods were timeless. They did not die, and because the people both revered and feared them, they respected and often adopted the gods of the people they conquered. This was true in South American cultures as well. In Oaxaca, the ZAPOTEC built the great ceremonial center Monte Albán that was later used by the MIXTEC. The Mayan civilization emerged around 2000 B.C. and peaked around A.D. 900. By around 300 B.C., the MAYA began to build hundreds of cultural centers out of stone in what is now central Mexico, the Yucatán, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. In the Valley of Mexico, the dominant center was TEOTIHUACÁN, a city of more than 150,000 people. It was believed to have been one of the largest cities in the world at that time. As these three (Zapotec, Teotihuacán, and Maya) began to decline, the TOLTEC empire was flourishing at TOLLAN. As the Toltec empire declined, the GUACHICHIL, who had migrated into central Mexico from the north, were settling, establishing communities, and creating the ceremonial centers that would form the structure of the AZTEC (Mexica) empire. All of these civilizations followed the Olmec tradition of building huge, stepped PYRAMIDS that were topped with temples to honor their gods. The gods of these cultures continued to be those of fertility, agriculture, the SUN, and rain and WATER; there were also gods of war, FIRE, the seasons, the planet VENUS, and others. The Maya alone may have had as many as 166 gods. Beginning perhaps with the Olmec, MesoAmerican cultures worshiped a serpent god best known today as QUETZALCOATL. This deity was known as Nine Wind to the Mixtec, KUKULCAN to some Mayan groups, and GUCUMATZ to the Quiché Maya. The serpent was not the earliest or most powerful god but was a highly influential day-to-day presence; he was the patron of priests and artisans and was associated with war and death, weather, and WRITING and learning. Life in South and Meso-America changed in the 1500s with the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish set out to destroy the native cultures: conquering the cit...