December 30, 2004

Why Not Teach Maya Creation Story, Too?

By Alejandro Murgía

In the raging debate about teaching Creation as a model of human origin in our public schools, why not include the very story that tells how men were created on this continent? The creation story millions of us know well is in the Popol Vuh, a version of Genesis that explains how people were created in the heartland of Mesoamerica.

It’s the story of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, a sacred pre-Hispanic text, but versions and elements of it are held close to the heart in communities from north to south. If we’re going to teach one sacred book’s version of creation alongside science, another – especially one that comes from our own part of the world — deserves at least equal time.

Some of the Popol Vuh will resonate deeply with those familiar with the Bible. A tremendous flood washes away an early race of humans; there is an overarching trinity of life, death and resurrection; good and evil are powerful forces, and man is central to creation. Like the Bible, the Popol Vuh also tells many wonderful stories, besides the one of creation itself, stories that elevate, warn, explain.

Before humans are created, the sacred book’s hero-twins Hunaphu and Ixbalenque must first overcome the lords of evil and darkness who inhabit the underworld. They do this by a tremendous series of tests, struggling by their wits alone. They don’t use force or war, but only wisdom. It’s a supreme lesson in the adage, “Knowledge is power.” Only after this light of knowledge – dawn — has been brought to Earth do the creator gods make humans, because only now may humans have the brilliance — the brains, in other words — to think and use reason. This is a creation story that urges us, above all, to think and be critical.

Other parts of the Popol Vuh, of course, are different from the Bible. Christians believe humans were created perfect the first time. The Popol Vuh implies that humans weren’t created perfect but went through several permutations—fits and starts, dead ends in a way—until the first real humans evolved. In the Bible humans are made of clay. But here’s what the Popol Vuh says: We are made of corn, the staff of life of the Americas. To think that I’m a man made of corn makes sense to me in more than one way. I am, after all, what I eat.

In the Maya cosmology the creator god is grandfather and grandmother. I like this too, because it indicates an empirical observation—to create life you need both male and female. It gives women a true role in the process, just as in the real world. I can argue that the world I know best is the basis for creation in the Popol Vuh. This is important. How else can I explain how I came to reside on this continent?

In the modern era, the Maya inhabit the southern part of Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Honduras and Belize. Their ancestors were astronomers par excellence and used a calendar more accurate than the one we use now. They discovered the zero in mathematics independent of the Arabic numeral system. They wrote down their histories using a phonetic system of language, an undisputable mark of civilization.

Besides corn and cacao (raw chocolate), staples now of modern cuisines all over the world, the Maya also used chicle (the basis of the Wrigley chewing gum fortune) as well as rubber. It seems obvious that a culture blessed with such genius would also be blessed with a story of creation that we should consider, if for no other reason than the origin of this story is the Western Hemisphere where we reside.

There must be a reason—perhaps even a divine reason— why the beautiful creation story in the Popol Vuh has survived for so long and is still part of beliefs and traditions of millions of people in our own hemisphere. So if we’re going to teach creation stories to our children – not in lieu of science but alongside it — let’s not be afraid to include how indigenous people explain their origins here, and how so many continue to regard their beginnings. (Perhaps especially because the Bible doesn’t mention this continent or its people?)

Just as the Bible has its scholarly studies, in the past ten years our knowledge of the Maya language has grown exponentially and new versions of the Popol Vuh reveal many wonderful aspects of this ancient, sacred text. It’s widely available in several modern languages, including a beautiful English version by the American scholar Dennis Tedlock.

The important thing to consider is that the diversity of creation stories reflects the richness of our human heritage. Every creation story has value for our society. All creation stories teach us something about the origins of our cultures and races, whether we are simply enriched by these stories, or we indeed accept them on faith.

Alejandro Murguia wrote a collection of short stories titled “This War Called Love.”

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