Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Theories of Creation: Mayan Cosmology
Marco Dorfsman


Summary by Jamie Bemis

Mayan Cosmology

The focus of Class 8 was on Mayan cosmology. It is of interest for us to study the belief systems of historic cultures for a number of reasons. First, when we understand the theological and cosmological belief systems of past cultures, we gain a deeper insight into the structure and dynamics of their society. Religion and cosmology play a fundamental role in society, and are the basis of most practices and rituals. Furthermore, modern cultures have evolved from earlier cultures, and often draw heavily on traditions of the past. Some ancient civilizations were so modernized and sophisticated that their practices are still relevant today. In Western culture, the Greeks are often looked upon as a prominent example of a highly developed historic culture. The Maya provide another good example of human accomplishment.

At the base of every culture is a creation story. This provides a justification for the existence of the society, and supplies the moral code that dictates how the members of society should act and live. Creation stories are important to society for their ability to answer the “why” questions of life, which often explain the fundamental occurrences of nature. The creation story also defines the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world. Although each culture has its own creation story and set of beliefs, there are often common themes throughout, and many cultures borrow ideas from shared influences. One of these common traits is a holy text.

The discussion of Mayan cosmology consisted of two topics. First, the mythology of the Maya was discussed, with specific regard to one of the major holy texts, the Popol Vuh. Next, some details on the cosmology of the Maya were presented, including the treatment of time and the Mayan calendar.

The Popol Vuh begins by relating the Quiche creation story. The Quiche are one of the Maya ethnic groups and are a Native American people. At the beginning, there were three gods present, and together they created the world. Next, all the animals were created. Finally, it was time to create humans. This effort took three attempts before a successful version was obtained. In the first attempt, the gods created mankind out of mud. However, the body crumbled and would not hold its shape. In the next attempt, wood was used as the building material. However, the hearts and minds of the humans were empty, so the gods killed this inferior version of humanity with a great flood. The story attributes monkeys to this original version of mankind, stating that they are a sign left by the gods. Finally, the gods made humans out of maize, and the humans were fully functional at last. The Mayan culture had a strong dependence on corn as a food crop, and its role in the creation story makes its cultural significance apparent.

Next, the class discussion moved onto the topic of the Mayan calendar. Mayan mythology has a strong emphasis on the task of “keeping time”, and this task was considered a necessary and important aspect of Mayan society. The Maya saw time as being cyclical, as opposed to the modern view of time as linear. This view is evident in the creation story in a number of subtle ways, including the repetitive acts of creation (requiring four acts of creation before man is successfully achieved), and by the fact that humanity was eventually created out of corn, which is a product of human labor. The Maya had multiple cycles for keeping time, which were briefly outlined to the class. The main calendar consisted of a 260-day cycle, which was based on rotating combinations of 13 numbers and 20 day names. The astrological significance of this cycle is not known. There was also a 365-day cycle based on the orbit of the Earth around the sun, and the two cycles were combined to create a longer, 52-year cycle. There were also smaller cycles within these cycles that possessed significance as well. The Mayan time-keeping structures were extensive and well established, and their long cycle ends exactly on,May 23, 2012, which has also been interpreted as the “end of the world”. However, because the Maya view time as cyclical, this date is as much a beginning as it is an ending. To them, every act of destruction is followed by a creation, and so although the upcoming date will mark the end of one long cycle, it will simply be the beginning of another.

The topics presented in this class did not spark intensive dialogue, since the subject was more factual and historical than speculative. However, there were a few key points that can be extrapolated from this conversation to project general insight into society at large. First, the significance of creation myths to society is evident. The myths explain to us why we are here, and how we should act. They play a key role in how society is organized and what it prioritizes, and provide direction for its citizens. Second, it is clear that the creation myths of different cultures share common elements, and reflect the need for human society to explain key facets of existence: In what order were the different aspects of the world created? Does humankind rank above or alongside animals? What role do humans play in the natural world? What is the explanation for the flaws of humanity, and how should we deal with these flaws?

A study of past cultures provides us with both historical insight and a means to evaluate society from an objective standpoint. Because our culture surrounds us, we cannot escape our perspective; however by looking at other cultures, the dynamics of society become clear. In the case of the Maya, it is evident that their need to explain the natural world led to the development of their cosmological beliefs and myths, which in turn influenced the structure and function of their society. The Mayan civilization was a highly advanced society, and this discussion addresses only one of many aspects of what can be learned by studying their culture.