- The Ch’orti’ Maya Myths of Creation
Introduction: The Ch’orti’ Maya
Ethnic Ch’orti’ Maya live in southern Guatemala in the municipio of Chiquimula, principally in Jocotan and in many surrounding communities such as La Union, San Juan Ermita, San Francisco Quetzaltepeque, and Camotan. The Ch’orti’ are primarily subsistence farmers, growing corn (nar)—their most valued produce—as well as a wide variety of other types of fruits and vegetables.1
The Ch’orti’ language is part of the Eastern Branch of Ch’olan Mayan languages, related to Ch’ol and Chontal in the Western Branch. Ch’orti’ today is spoken by roughly 12,000 people, though the number of speakers has been in decline over the last century. Bilingualism in Spanish is pervasive among Ch’orti’ speakers, and monolingualism in Spanish is becoming all too common among Ch’orti’ children and youth. Acculturation into the ladino (non-indigenous) lifestyle is happening at an accelerated pace, which is contributing to the loss of knowledge of and belief in many oral traditions (such as the Creation as discussed in this study).
Oral traditions among the Ch’orti’ Maya span numerous genres, such as folktales, legends, jokes, myths, and others (Hull 2003:212-29). A sizable percentage of oral traditions today are those of the “how-it-came-to-be” variety, explaining how monkeys got their tails, how bald vultures became such, and so on. These are a particular favorite among the Ch’orti’ since they are most often humorous.
Another important genre of oral tradition is that of myth. For Ch’orti’ who believe in traditional myths in their culture, one particular myth stands out in its significance in shaping Ch’orti’ worldview—Creation. The details of the Ch’orti’ Creation myth (and its accompanying repeated destructions) inform many other aspects of Ch’orti’ daily life, healing traditions, and customs, even though, remarkably, the Ch’orti’ themselves are only tangentially aware of the core narrative of their own Creation myth today. In the discussion that follows I reconstruct various elements of the Ch’orti’ Creation narrative and show the extent to which aspects of daily and ritual life for Ch’orti’ trace back to the foundational myths of the creation and destruction(s) of the world.
The Myth of Creation
The myth of Creation is one of the seminal traditions held by various Maya groups of Mesoamerica. The epic narrative of the Popol Vuh of the K’iche’ Maya doubtlessly contains one of the best known versions of this myth (Christenson 2003). While there exists no single Creation myth among the different Maya populations, there still remain numerous common threads of what must have been a more unified set of stories among these groups. In this paper, I present the story of Creation from the perspective of the Ch’orti’ Maya of southern Guatemala. Using details from my fieldwork data, together with all other known relevant Ch’orti’ sources, I reconstruct this narrative as far as is possible from its scattered remnants in Ch’orti’ oral tradition. I first describe the conception of the world and the universe in the eyes of the Ch’orti’ and how the world came to be. I also show that the creation of humans was not a one-time occurrence, but rather a series of events that included their destruction on various occasions through great floods. Also I show that many animals are said to have once been human, but through disobedience or other means they were transformed into their present state. Finally, I detail the creation of corn and other major agricultural products as found in Ch’orti’ myth as an integral part of the creation process, many of the salient details of which can be found dispersed throughout a broader Mesoamerican tradition.
The World According to the Ch’orti’
The Ch’orti’ visualize the earth as a flat plane resting upon a great body of water2 comprising five seas (or lakes): a white sea, a red sea, a green sea, a brown sea, and a black sea of tar (cf. Girard 1995:140). Each of these subterranean bodies of water corresponds to one of the four cardinal...