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A Comparison of Native American and Mayan Myths

Updated on May 16, 2018
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

The Mayan god Quetzalcoatl - "The God of Wind"
The Mayan god Quetzalcoatl - "The God of Wind"

The Native Americans of North America and the Maya civilization of Central America are two cultures that existed long before any European set foot on the North American continent. And while the two cultures are considerably different, there is a thread of commonality between them and other cultures of the world that links them together throughout time. This paper will look at the myths and religious practices of the Native Americans of North America and the Maya civilization of Central America, the similarities and differences between the two and analysis between the two and other cultural myths across the globe.

Both the Native Americans and the Mayans shared what almost every other culture across the globe shared in terms of mythological beliefs. British classicist, Geoffrey S. Kirk states that these mythological systems have two functions – to provide an explanation of facts, whether natural or cultural, and to justify, validate or explain the existence of a social system and traditional rites and customs.1

The Mayan and Native Americans spiritual belief system is characterized by animism (non-human entities are spiritual beings) or pantheism (a belief that everything is divine, not a divine being in everything which defines pantheism). This belief tied in everything from their daily lives, their surroundings and all of the natural world into one with their spiritual world as well.2

The environment played a critical role in the myths and rituals of both cultures, searching for a moral aim to to define the relationship between man and his environment. Mountains, trees, agriculture, the sky and the heavens were common themes to both cultures. Another common mythical bond between the two cultures is their belief in mythical heroes and how these heroes invariably tied into the natural world. The Earth, plants and animals are consistently represented in the myths of their heroes.3

The Medicine Wheel is an ancient symbol used by almost all of the Native people of North and South America.
The Medicine Wheel is an ancient symbol used by almost all of the Native people of North and South America. | Source
Appeal to the Great Spirit by Cyrus E. Dallin (1861-1944)
Appeal to the Great Spirit by Cyrus E. Dallin (1861-1944)

Another fascinating similarity is the story of the creation of the world. The Popol Vuh specifies something that is integral in the belief systems of many religions and cultures in regard to the creation and a Creator - that is the Creators desire to praise His greatness. Another common trait with most religions is that the Creator only has to speak it and then it is so. The Mayan Popol Vuh states,

And so Heart-of-Sky thinks, "Who is there to speak my name? Who is there to praise me? How shall I make it dawn?" Heart-of-Sky only says the word, "Earth," and the earth rises, like a mist from the sea. He only thinks of it, and there it is.4

Another important factor is that of a Creator. Almost every single culture talks of this Creator. Evolution is not present outside of a Creator who is the initial bringer of all things on the Earth and in the heavens. Most of these cultures, including the Mayans and Native Americans even have myths that mirror the Christian belief of the Creator God. In 1621 Edward Winslow went to negotiate with the Wampanoag leader Massasoit in an attempt to form a treaty with the natives. During the discussions Winslow spoke of the Christian God in which the Massasoit replied that,

This was very good, because they believed the same things of their own god, Kiehtan. Kiehtan was the creator of all things and dwelt far away in the western skies. He also created one man and one woman, and through them the whole of humanity, but it was not known how mankind had become so widely scattered.5

What is also interesting is that these gods, like the Christian God, seem to be monotheistic in terms of a supreme being, with other minor gods taking on other roles, similar to angels. The Mayan initially had the god Itzamna as the supreme god, only to change after the Spanish conquest to the god Hunab Ku, which literally means “The Only God.”6 Similarly, the Native American culture tended to believe in the “Great Spirit” who was supreme over the gods of nature.7

North American Native Americans and Mayans.
North American Native Americans and Mayans.

The stories, myths and legends passed on from the Mayan civilization as well as the Native Americans invariably ties in with the myths and legends from across the globe. Many of these myths and legends directly associate the Mayan and Native American cultures with each other; however, it does not appear that the link between the two is any stronger than the link between each of them and Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other cultures across the globe.

What is important is that all these cultures tend to share a similar bond in regards to their myths and legends. These bonds relate to their religious beliefs, their social structures and their desire to make sense of and explain the world around them. Some of the similarities between cultures (for example the Mayans, Native Americans and Old Testament Jews using a blood sacrifice) differed them from the similarities they would have with another culture, but ultimately most cultures appear to share more common themes than not.

The coincidence of these similarities leads one to contemplate how much of these myths and legends are based on just that – myths and legends – or if they actually point to similar events that took place across the globe or if the world indeed started in one place and as the people increased in number and spread across the globe, took these “real” stories with them and created new cultures based on them and that grew into the myths and legends recorded over the centuries.

Sources

1. Bastian, D. E. (2004). Handbook of Native American Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

2. Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. (2004, March 26). Maya Civilization. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from Canadian Museum of Civilization: http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/civil/maya/mmc01eng.shtml

3.Ibid.

4. Criscenzo, J. (2000). Popol Vuh. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from Jaguar Sun: http://www.criscenzo.com/jaguarsun/popolvuh.html

5. Wyatt, M. N. (1996, April). "Myths"of the Americas. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from Wyatt Newsletter #15: http://www.wyattnewsletters.com/babel/ybabel49.htm

6. Criscenzo, J. (2000). Popol Vuh. Retrieved April 19, 2012, from Jaguar Sun: http://www.criscenzo.com/jaguarsun/popolvuh.html

7. Redish, L. L. (2011). Native Languages of the Americas: Native American Indian Legends and Folklore. Retrieved April 3, 2012, from http://www.native-languages.org/legends.htm

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