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Pre-Columbian Cultures of Mesoamerica and the Mayan World Trees

Jun 15, 2008 1317 Words
World Trees

World trees are a prevalent element occurring in the astrologies, creation accounts and iconographies of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica. Mayan world trees embodied the four cardinal directions, which also serve to represent the four-fold nature of a central world tree, “A sort of axis mundi which connects the planes of the Underworld and the sky, with that of the terrestrial realm” (Parker, Maya Cosmos). Often, world trees were represented by the king, who was said to have been chosen by the gods, and was the only being on Earth able to connect the planes of the sky and the underworld with the Earth. Cosmic Order

According to Mayan mythologies, all things, whether animate or inanimate, are imbued with an unseen power. In some cases the invisible power was amorphous. In other cases the unseen power was embodied in a deity, perceived to take animallike or humanlike form. This helped create world order for the Mayan people, something they spent their entire lives trying to obtain. Order stemmed from the predictable movements of the ‘sky wanderers,’ the sun, moon, planets, and stars that marked the passage of time. Each of these celestial bodies was animate, a deity by modern American definition. Human destiny was linked with these celestial beings, and when catastrophic events, such as earthquakes, occurred in the Mayan world, the sky wanderers and the calendar based books of prophecy would be consulted to find portents of change. “Once found and recorded, such portents explained the disorder that had fallen upon the world and thus allowed the world order to be restored” (Callahan, Mayan Religion). Earthly Creation

The cosmos according to the Maya Popol Vuh creation myth, had been through 4 cycles of birth and then 3 cylces of destruction by deluge. Hunab Ku, the creator god and the Old Woman Goddess, goddess of death and destruction, held the bowl from which the floods occurred. According to the Popol Vuh, the purpose of creation was to give form and shape to beings who would ‘remember’ the gods through ritual. On the first attempt the gods created rocks and plants, but they soon realized that these were unable to perform any tasks and were thus destroyed. On the second try, the gods small animals such as birds and mice, but these creatures were unable to worship the gods, and so, they too were destroyed. Next, the gods made larger animals such as deer, and monkeys, but when the gods called upon these animals to pronounce the names of their creators, they only squawked and grunted and roared. Not being able to properly honor the gods, they were deemed unworthy and condemned to be eaten. On the fourth try of course, the gods created humans, who were able to worship the gods, fend for themselves, and keep the world going. Life and Death

Sacrifice and rebirth was a theme specifically celebrated by the Mayans. This is partly due to the legend of the Hero Twins, Hunapu and Xbalanque, who were said to have traveled to Xibalba, the underworld, and returned - outsmarting the lords of death by tricking them. They were reborn as the sun and Venus, respectively. The myth of the Hero Twins was one of the central principles of ancient Maya life and ritual. It demonstrated how humans could enter Xibalba, outwit the gods of death, and return. This myth is now seen as a metaphor for what the Myans considered the greatest life force in the cosmos, the sun, which emerges from Xibalba every morning. Xibalba was ruled by 9 lords, and was considered a “Dark and miserable place of pestilence and putrefaction” (Christenson, Ancient Mayan Culture), it was very difficult to escape from the underworld as a mortal, although as demonstrated by the Hero Twins, was possible. Most people who died were sent to Xibalba, but people who committed suicide by hanging or who were sacrificed, warriors killed in battle, women who died in childbirth, priests, and of course rulers went directly to paradise. When kings died, they were said to be transformed in to Gods. Gods and Religious Practices

Maya religion was probably the major ideological justification for the Maya political, military, and economic institutions. There were many Gods in the Mayan belief system, thirteen for the sky, and nine for the Underworld. The king, on Earth, was the closest being to a god on Earth. He was said to have been chosen specifically by the gods to rule, and he demonstrated his power in many ways. By building temples, for example, the rulers enhanced their own prestige and authority to rule, showing that they, and they alone were allowed to reach towards the Heavens and live near the gods. Among the Maya, the king often wore the costume of the maize god, who is referred to by Mayans as the Father God.  It was also established that the king was the guardian of ordered nature, especially in the context of the World Tree. The ruler was the axis that connected the heavens to the underworld. Religious ceremonies involved several aspects: dancing, competition, dramatic performances, and prayer. However, the most important rituals were those of bloodletting and sacrifice. Blood signified life, and was the liquid that satisfied the thirst of the gods and revitalized them. Blood was viewed as necessary for life as water, both in the terrestrial world and the world of the gods, and to replenish it to the gods was an obligation. The bulk of sacrifice involved some form of human sacrifice. The majority of this human sacrifice was blood-letting, in which a victim, usually a priest, voluntarily pierced a part of his body. This was usually their tongue, ears, lips, or penis. The higher one's position in the hierarchy, the more blood was expected. Although complete sacrifice was not common in the Mayan world, some ceremonies demanded the living heart of a victim Mayan World Trees

The Mayan world tree explained much of life for the mesoamerican people, so they had a very elaborate creation and structure that they had decided the tree followed. The gods had set about their creation of the world tree using a measuring cord, halving the cord, and stretching the cord in the sky, and on the earth, creating four corners. In doing so, they laid out the organized world. Earth's surface formed a horizontal plane, and the galaxy formed a vertical plane. East was red, the direction of the rebirth of the rising sun. West was black, the place of the sun's death and descent. White represented north, and yellow, south. A fifth direction lay at earth's center. The color there was blue-green, and there grew the tree of life (Finley, Maya Glyphs and Symbols) At the top of the world tree, is the Vision Serpent. The Vision Serpent was a very important social and religious symbol. He was depicted sometimes as the creator, sometimes as the destructor or as the king, but in all circumstances, the Vision Serpent was a direct link between the Lords of the Night, and the Lords of the Sky. The world view tree united the Maya universe. Its roots grew down into Xibalba, and its branches stretched up from earth into the heavens, and with two branches, one on either side, it formed a kind of cross, which fit in nicely with the story of Christ and the cross, told to the Mayans when the Spaniards took them over. Callahan, Kevin. Mesoamerican Religion. 1997. Christenson, Dr Allen J. Ancient Mayan Cultures. shop_pickandmix/previews/guatemala-belize-yucatan-ancient-mayan-culture-preview.pdf Finley, Michael John. Mayan Glyphs and Symbols. March, 2004. Mayan Beliefs. 2008. Mayan Mythology. 2008.

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