Mesoamerican Religions: Mythic Themes

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Myths emphasize realities and events of the origins and foundations of the world, of humanity, of staple food, and of supernatural beingsof gods and cultural heroes.

In the case of Mesoamerican pre-Hispanic myths, the various primary written sources have often survived in fragmented form. As for present Mesoamerican peoples, most scholars count on ethnographic material collected by anthropologists in the twentieth century.

Mesoamerica shares a common cosmovision and therefore many similar myths with a diversity of cultures. The sources that describe the aboriginal cultures were written mostly in Spanishand primarily about Central Mexicoin the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; some were written in Nahuatl by the conquerors themselves, by friars who began to evangelize, or by converted indigenous peoples. Whereas a few complete texts remainsuch as the creation of the sun and moon in Teotihuacan and the story of Quetzalcoatlmost of these texts contain only fragments of the myths. There is the long, well-structured Mayan cosmogonic myth of the Popol Vuh, written around 1551. This myth was written in Roman characters, in Quiché, with the intention to be read in their secret ceremonies (a tradition that is still alive among the present indigenous peoples).

The ethnographic data cover wider areas, but share some mythic themes with each other, as well as with pre-Hispanic myths. Much Christian syncretism also exists, because many saints and virgins become merged with old deities.

Many symbols of the pre-Hispanic myths that have not reached us are shown iconographically in the archaeological remains, like the cosmic tree, the earth monster, or the jaguar.

Mesoamerican thought is dominated by a concept of duality. The Nahua Supreme God is known as Ometeotl ("Lord Two") who represents a unity of contraries. He-she lives in Omeyocan ("Place Two"), which has been identified with Tamoanchan ("the house where they came down") and Xochitlicacan ("the place where the flowers raise") and is located above the thirteen heavens. When Ometeotl unfolds, he-she becomes Omecihuatl ("Lady Two") and Ometecuhtli ("Lord Two") who together create four godsthe creators of the rest of the gods and of the world: fire, the calendar, the lord of the land of the dead, a great sea, aquatic gods, the earth monster, and twelve more heavens. Omecihuatl and Ometecuhtli then made a man and a woman, the first sorcerers and the parents of humankind.

In the middle of Tamoanchan, the heavenly paradise, rises a marvelous flowering tree. According to one version of the myth, the beautiful goddess Xochiquetzal lived there in happiness and plenty, but she was seduced by Tezcatlipoca. In another version of the myth, the gods tear the branches off the tree, cutting off its flowers in the process. For this deed they are punished by the supreme gods Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl and thrown out to earth and to the underworld.

Alfredo López Austin (1994), has written about Tamoanchan and the actions that took place there, working from the fragments of myth and from Nahuatl poems. López Austin concludes that through the actions of the gods for which they were punished, they originated sex, created other space, other beings and other time. The gods had been contaminated with death, but they could now reproduce.

Michel Graulich writes that the main theme in the origins of Mesoamerican myths is the passage from one era to another, by the way of a rupture between the sky and the earth as a consequence of a transgression (1997). When the gods are banished from Tamoancham, Tollan, Tlalocan, and Aztlanplaces mentioned as paradises or ideal lands which represent the union of oppositesa state of unity and harmony is achieved where the primordial couple and their children lived in perfect tranquility. When the creators punish the gods, they are sent to darkness. However, they return to light following a sacrifice

Cosmogonic Myths

The concept of cyclic time and the cosmogonic ages (or "suns") is based on the idea that the gods created the universe to be inhabited by humans so that they would serve, worship, and feed the gods. This concept emerged through a cyclic process of creation and destruction through which the beings (humans) that the gods wanted to serve them evolved progressively.

In central highland Mexico there were held to have been four previous Suns or eras, each of which ended in a cataclysm, then a fifth which is the present world. The fist age was called 4 Ocelotl (4 Jaguar) and Tezcatlipoca became it's Sun. Giants lived during this time but were devoured by jaguars when the Sun ended. The second era was 4 Ehecatl (4 Wind), when Quetzalcoatl Ehecatl was the sun. This epoch was destroyed by great winds, the survivors turned into monkeys. The third creation was 4 Quiauitl (4 Rain), the Sun of the rain god Tlaloc. This world ended in a rain of fire and the few survivors became butterflies, birds and dogs. In the fourth age, 4 Atl (4 water), Chalchiuhtlicue, the water goddess, was the Sun. The world disappeared in a great deluge and any survivors became into fish. The force of the flood caused the sky to fall down, so Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl became into great trees and raised it back into place. The name of the Fifth Sun 4 Ollin (4 movement), refers to the movement of the solar phenomena; This era was presided by the earth god Tlaltecuhtli and was to be destroyed by an earthquake. (Heyden, 1987).

According to Mayan myth, in the first creation the gods made the animals but these animals did not praise the gods; they only cried, croaked, or screeched. The gods then made some men out of mud, but they were destroyed by water, so they in turn made man out of wood and woman out of reeds. These creations also could not serve the gods and were destroyed by the rebellion of their domestic animals, their household objects, and by a flood. The remaining humans became monkeys. At last the gods created four men who were so intelligent and with eyesight that was so perfect that they could see all that exists. The gods realized, however, that they had once again failed; if humans were perfect they would then equal the gods and would not propagate. So "Heart of Heaven" threw his breath on the eyes of these four men and blurred their sight, preventing them from seeing only that which was nearest to them. Thus, their wisdom was destroyed. This myth can still be found among the Lacandon.

In another Maya version, thirteen men and twelve women were created by Hurakan and the other gods by their mixing maize dough with the blood of a snake and a tapir.

Many modern Mayan groups still believe in the different cosmic ages, with the various beings inhabiting them. In the modern era, however, these beliefs have expanded to also include Adam, Eve, Jesus, and Mary. These groups have also lost the idea that humans were made to worship and sustain the gods.

The Deluge and the Creation of Men

The last creation was destroyed by water. The version of the deluge and the creation of the new humanity is told in pre-Hispanic versions, but it is also widely known among many modern ethnic groups. In the pre-Hispanic version of the myth, Tezcatlipoca chose a couple, Tata and Nene, to be saved from the deluge. He asked them to make a canoe out of a hollow tree and save themselves. When the water receded they broiled a fish, but the smoke reached heaven and the gods became angry. So, Tezcatlipoca came down and converted Tata and Nene into dogs.

The more widely spread ethnographic version of this myth says that a man was saved from the deluge on the advice of a supernatural being. The man took with him on his boat maize and a bitch. When the waters receded, he went to the field to work. Every time he returned home he found that food had been prepared. One time the man hid and found that the bitch was in fact a woman who had taken off her bitch skin; it was she that was doing the cooking. The man burned the skin and took the woman as a wife, and from the descendants of that couple the earth was inhabited again.

In some pre-Hispanic myths humans are also created from the bones of people of other ages. This creation myth has been explained by López Austin (1994) as the generic creation of human beings against the differentiated birth of human groups from Chicomoztoc (Seven caves). When the world had been restored, the gods got together and asked themselves: who is going to inhabit the world? They decided to send Quetzalcoatl to the underworld to get the bones to create the new humankind. (Another version of this myth claims that it was Xolotl who was sent to the underworld.) Quetzalcoatl went to the underworld and asked for the bones of the Lord of the dead. Quetzalcoatl was given the bones, but at the last minute the Lord changed his mind. After persisting, Quetzalcoatl at last retrieved the bones and brought them to Tamoanchan, where the goddess Cihuacoatl Quilaztli ground them and mixed the powder with the blood from Quetzalcoatl's penis. With this material the new humanity was created.

Other Creations of Man

The first four gods created by the primeval couple made a man and a woman, Oxomoco and Cipactonal, who were ordered to till the soil and to spin and weave. Then they were given maize kernels for divination. Oxomoco's and Cipactonal's children formed early mankind. The Historia de los Mexicanos por sus pinturas (1964) relates that when the sky fell and Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca raised it again, they had to create four men to help.

In yet another myth, when the first four gods made a sun to light the world and this was fed hearts and blood to help it move, war was invented; humans were created in order to wage that war. In the Tlaxcala tradition, Camaxtli, the hunting and war god, hit a great rock with his staff and four hundred Chichimecs came out to settle the land. The Chichimec, who later changed their name to Otomí, regarded both Camaxtli and the rock as their mythical ancestors. According to accounts from Tetzcoco, related in Historia de México (1964), an arrow shot from the sky landed near Tetzcoco and formed a great hole in which appeared a man and a woman. But they were in the form of busts, with half bodies. This man and woman copulated with their tongues and had children who settled Tetzcoco. Another account states that Citlalicue ("skirt of stars," i.e., the Milky Way) sent sixteen hundred sons and daughters to Teotihuacán, but all perished there. According to Mendieta (1945), Citlalicue gave birth to a flint knife. This frightened her other children, and they threw the knife out of the sky and it landed in Chicomoztoc ("seven caves") near Acolman in the vicinity of Teotihuacan.

However, the sixteen hundred sons and daughters sent by Citlalicue (or who miraculously came from the flint knife) were more divine than human; they demanded that their mother provide people to serve them (Heyden, 1987).

Sun, Moon, and Stars

The myth of the Fifth Sun (the present era) is one of the best known in Mesoamerica: when all was in darkness, the gods gathered at Teotihuacan (identified in historical tradition with the historical city of Teotihuacan) to create a new sun. Two gods offered to sacrifice themselves: the rich Tecuciztecatl, who performed penance with costly objects; and Nananhuatzin, who was poor and diseased and whose offerings were only reeds, grass balls, maguey spines, and paper. After four nights of penance, both gods were led to a sacred fire. Tecuciztecatl was terrified by the strength of the fire and withdrew, whereupon Nanahuatzin threw himself into the flames, which purified him and turned him into the sun. Inspired by this metamorphosis Tecuciztecatl also leaped into the fire. But it had died down and no longer burned brightly, so he turned into a lesser light. He became the moon (Heyden, 1987). When the moon came out, one of the gods hit its face with a rabbit, the mark of which can still be seen. After this, the sun stopped in the sky and refused to move unless all of the gods were sacrificed. (A version of this myth was recorded in 1949 by R. Barlow in Tepoztlan, Morelos, and another version is still told among the Huichol people.)

The Maya version of the sun creation myth is included in the Popol Vuh and it relates the adventures of the twins called Hun Hunahpu ("1 hunter") and Vucub Hunahpu ("7 hunter"). One hunter had two sons who were both wise men, painters, and diviners. The twins were fond of playing ball and the noise they made bothered the Lords of Xibalba (the underworld). These lords incarnated different diseases. They called the twins to their realm and had them pass through a series of trials until they ended up sacrificed and buried. The head of Hun Hunahpu was placed in a gourd tree. Ixquic, the daughter of one of the Lords of Xibalba, approached the tree and the head of One hunter spat on her hand and made her pregnant. Ixquic was condemned to be sacrificed because of this, but escaped with the help of her would-be executioners, who were two owls. Ixquic went to the surface of the earth and gave birth to another pair of twins, Hunahpu ("Hunter") and Xbalanque ("Deer jaguar") who are taken care of by their grandmother. After some adventureswhich include converting their half brothers into monkeysthey also start playing the ball game; again they are called to Xibalba, but this time they pass the trials, deceiving the lords of the underworld. At last, however, Hunter and Deer jaguar decide to burn themselves, thus becoming the sun and the moon.

The creation of Venus is also the result of the sacrifice of Quetzalcoatl, ruler of Tollan, who after having been deceived by his rival gods, Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli, leaves his city and goes to a land called Tlillan Tlapallan, the land of red and black. It is here that he burns himself and becomes the morning star.


Sacrifice as a means of creation, transformation, sustenance of the world is an important mythic theme, as has been seen in the cosmogonic myths in which not only the sun, moon, and Venus have to incinerate themselves to become stars, but so too do the rest of the gods have to sacrifice themselves so that the sun agrees to move on in the sky.

Sacrifice is also mentioned in the story of how the Sun made four hundred men, the Mimixcoa, wage war and give to him the blood and hearts of their captives to eat. The Mimixcoa, however, occupied their time hunting and having fun and failed to do their duty; therefore, the sun decided to create four other men and a woman, ordering them to kill the first four hundred and to feed the sun and the earth. The division of the primeval androgynous monster to create heaven and earth is a form of sacrifice, as the earth would not give her fruits if she was not given to eat men's hearts and was not irrigated by their blood.

Sacrifice is also demanded by the Tlaloquethe gods of wateras a requirement for the ability to grow edible plants. In the last days of the Toltecs, there was a period of storms and destruction of crops; to stop this, the tlaloque asked for the sacrifice of the Mexica Tozcacuex's daughter; he did did this, and received as his prize good crops of maize.

The Origin of Maize and Other Edible Plants

Because maize was the staple food of Mexico, much of the ritual life was guided towards its production. In pre-Hispanic as well as in modern times, plenty of myths relate to it; most of them are ethnographic.

According to the pre-Hispanic version, Quetzalcoatl saw a red ant carrying a maize kernel and asked the ant many times from where she had obtained it. Eventually the ant told him that she received it from the Tonacatepetl ("hill of our sustenance"). So, Quetzalcoatl transformed himself into a black ant and got the kernels, which he took to Tamoanchan; there the gods chewed them and put the kernels into the mouths of humans to make them strong. They then sent Nanahuatl to break Tonacatepetl, and the tlaloque collected the maize of four colors and other edible seeds to make them available to humans.

In another version, maize and all edible plants came from the body of the god Cinteotl ("god of maize") who "enters" the earth. In some ethnographic versions, one can still find the stories of the ants hiding the maize kernels.

Ethnographic versions of a maize child are very widely spread all over Mexico. His name may be Oxchuk, Dipak, Piltontli, or many others. This myth was discovered by George Foster (1945). In it, the child who has golden hair is found inside an egg by two old people. The child has marvelous powers, as well as good and bad relations with animals. Afer a while, the elderly couple tries to kill and eat him, but he discovers their intentions and kills them first. The child then has more adventures, in one of which he has an encounter with Hurakan, a god of the sea and/or of thunder, whom he defeats.

In the Totonac version (Ichon 1973), the father's child is killed because he likes to play the violin. Shortly after the child is born, he dies and is buried by the mother, and from his tomb a plant of maize grows. She cuts some kernels and throws some grains to the water; there, a turtle keeps one on her shell, and from that grain the maize child is born again. The child then has many adventures, including creating thunder and the clouds of rain.

Maguey was a very important plant in Central Mexico, from which, among other things, the intoxicating drink octli or pulque was (and is) made. The story says that Quetzalcoatl went to heaven to look for a maiden goddess called Mayahuel. He found her among other maidens who were being taken care of by their grandmother, a tzitzimitl (a monster). Quetzalcoatl woke Mayahuel up; he told her that he was taking her to earth, which he did, transforming them both into a tree with two branches. One branch was Quetzalcoatl, the other Mayahuel. When the tzitzimitl discovered that Mayahuel was missing she went after her, found the tree, and broke Mayahuel's branch and, along with other tzitzimitl, ate her up. Quetzalcoatl gathered Mayahuel's bones and planted them, and from these bones the first maguey was born.

Mythologized Cultural Heroes

The hero acts as a point of intersection between different times that may be both mythic and historic; he gets close to beings who travel through the three cosmic levels: heaven, earth, and underworld, and are capable of supernatural feats. Many heros must pass through initiation trials. They also have miraculous births. Heroes may act as tricksters, they are deified, and they are expected to return.

The first example of a hero is Quetzalcoatl, born miraculouslyaccording to different versionsfrom Chimalma, who swallowed a green stone or was made pregnant by Mixcoatl. Quetzalcoatl's jealous uncles or brothers try to kill him, but they fail and instead kill his father. He takes revenge and kills the uncles or brothers, then begins searching for his father's bones. Quetzalcoatl becomes the wise ascetic king of the city of Tollan, which becomes very prosperous under him. He spends his time praying; he bans human sacrifice. However, Quetzalcoatl's eternal enemy, Tezcatlipocaalong with other godsdeceive him by making him drunk and then introducing into his chambers a woman: his sister or a prostitute.

When Quetzalcoatl recovers from his drunkenness he feels so ashamed that he decides to leave Tollan and goes to the west until he reaches the coast of the sea. In a land called Tlillan Tlapallan he burns himself, thus becoming the Morning Star. Before he becomes the star, however, he first promises that he will return. Quetzalcoatl is also said to have gone to the Maya area, where he is known and worshipped as Kukulkan.

Quetzalcoatl, along with Tezcatlipoca, is one of the gods in charge of creation. These two gods divided the primeval monster and created heaven and earth, keeping heaven and earth separate. Both gods had been suns in the past ages. Quetzalcoatl went to the Land of the Dead to get the bones to create man. He also brought maize from the Tonacatepetl and helped with the creation of maguey.

Much has been written about the mythic hero Quetzalcoatl, by Alfredo Lopez Austin, Blas Castellón, David Carrasco, and H. B. Nicholson. According to Nicholson, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl "was conceivably a genuine historical figure prominently involved with an early stage of Toltec history if so he later seems to have become blended and, occasionally, to some extent confused with certain supernatural personalities, particularly an ancient fertility/rain/wind creator deity, Ehecatl Quetzalcoatl." After several other appreciations he concludes that "the evidence for a widespread belief in his eventual return to reclaim his power, which might have influenced Motecuhzoma II of Mexico Tenochtitlanwho apparently was considered to be the direct dynastic successor of Topiltzin Quetzalcoatlduring his initial dealings with Cortés, is quite strong" (1992, p. 291).

Huitzilopochtli, the patron god of the Mexica's story, is connected with the Mexica pilgrimage and with their success as conquerors of almost all of Mesoamerica. He seems to have been a shaman priest who was in communication with the god Tetzauhteotl, who may have been a form of Tezcatlipoca. Huitzilopochtli was the one who took the Mexica out from Aztlan and guided them during their pilgrimage. He dies on the way and on his bones incarnates the god Tetzauhteotl and then continues guiding them. According to the best known story, Hutzilopochtli is born from Coatlicue ("Skirt of snakes") who was made pregnant by a ball of feathers that fell from the sky while she was sweeping the temple and which she put under her dress. Her other children, the four hundred Huitznahua, led by the sister Coyolxauhqui, felt ashamed of their mother and tried to kill her. But Huitzilopochtli, born in full warrior's regalia, fights and defeats them. He cuts off Coyolxauhqui's head and dismembers her, then annihilates the rest of the brothers. Huitzilopochtli then leads the Mexica to their final destination, giving them orders and advice and setting the rules for the privileges given to warriors who distinguish themselves in battle by offering more prisoners for sacrifice.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque are examples of mythic heroes, as well. Among the ethnographic mythic heroes, one can also include the maize child, in addition to Kondoy, Fane Kantsini, and Tepozteco from the Mixe, Chontales from Oaxaca, and the Nahua from Morelos.

Kondoy and Fane Kantsini were born from an egg and raised by adoptive parents. Both developed rapidly and became great hunters, fighting against the Zapotecs. Both Kondoy and Fane Kantsini disappeared but promised to return to help their people.

The other cultural hero is Tepozteco, whose mother became pregnant by a bird that flew around her for a time. Tepozteco was not liked by the grandparents. When he grew up, he did a marvelous deed, however, by placing the bells on the towers of Mexico City's cathedral in a very strong wind. Tepozteco then returns to his town and builds a house on the top of the hill of the Tepozteco, where he remains to this day. He is the one who causes the winds to blow; he is worshipped by the inhabitants of Tepoztlan.


Tezcatlipoca has many traits which can identify him as a pre-Hispanic trickster. One of his names is yaotl ("the enemy"), he who introduces all disagreement in the world. Yaotl seduces Xochiquetzal in Tamoanchan, and therefore is one of the main transgressors. He cheats Quetzalcoatl and makes him leave his kingdom. He also does many evil things against the Toltecs, thus causing their destruction; at the same time, however, he is also a creator.

But the typical trickster is the Huichol cultural hero Kauymali, or Kauyumaric, who appears through all the mythical time of the Huichol. He is the son of the Sun. He is called "Big Brother"; he is the inventor of many useful things for his people; and he is a great teacher who provides the Huichol with most of their knowledge. Kauymali guides the way of the shaman to their pilgrimage to Wirikuta, the sacred place where the peyote is collected. He disguises himself as a deer and as several other animals, and he is inclined to sexual excesses. He also has a voluble character, is mischievous, and at times even evil. In one of his adventures he fights against the women of vagina dentata.

The Mayan Hunahpu and Xbalanque, as do many of the ethnographic heroes that have been mentioned have also many trickster traits.


Twins appear in many of the myths, not only those of Mexico, but in all of the Americas. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, Quetzalcoatl and Xolotl are supposed to be twins. Xolotl sometimes transforms himself into a double maize kernel, or into a double maguey cactus. In the ethnographic material, many twins are cultural heroes and tricksters, born in a miraculous way, most found by an elderly couple who try to kill and eat them. The twins, however, after several successful attempts at subterfuge, eventually save themselves and end up killing the elderly couple.

A version of the killing of the elderly couple appears in many stories of cultural heroesnot necessarily twinswho are raised by the grandmother who has a husband-lover who is a deer. When the twins discover this, they kill the deer, stuff his skin with wasps and bees, and when the old woman goes to meet him, the insects come out of the skin and kill her.

Sometimes the twins have to kill a serpent and get hold of the eyes, one of which becomes the sun and the other the moon.


Another mythic theme is the pilgrimage, on which one seeks a final destiny from an original home of the different ethnic groups. Typically these groups come from caves located in a hill called Chicomoztoc (seven caves). From each cave a different group emerges that is guided by a powerful person who carries a "sacred bundle," within which are contained the relics of the person's patron god, with whom he or she is in communication. The guide later becomes deified. The promised land is marked by a sign.

Even though most Mesoamerican ethnic groups have a story of their pilgrimage, the best known story is the Mexica's, who are guided by Huitzilopochtli till they reach the promised land, which is marked by the sign of the eagle standing in the prickly pear cactus.

Graulich finds the same structure of the banishment of the gods from Tamoanchan in the expulsion of the land of origin, and, after wandering in darkness, they arrive in the light at the promised land.

The pilgrimage of the Huichol to Wirikuta, the sacred land of the peyote, was performed for the first time by the ancestors, who formed the first group of "peyoteros" who reached the desert of "Real de Catorce." Here, by trying the psychotropic cactus for the first time, they could become gods and could be transformed in all the elements of nature that their descendants, the human beings, needed in order to live. The route and the adventures that take place in this pilgrimage are sung to the Huichol children by the shamans in a special ceremony. This allows them to travel with their imaginations (Anguiano and Fürst, 1976).


Animals play an important part in several myths. In many ethnographic groups it was believed that animals and human beings participated in original life together. The Huichol called their mythical predecessors hewi, who were animal and person at the same time. In many parts of Mexico, every person has an animal companion that may live in a mountain near the village; when the animal companion suffers an injury, or is killed, the person suffers the same fate. This is a very widespread belief, and since pre-Hispanic times powerful people have believed that they can transform themselves into animals called nahual.

In many myths, especially those of the Mayans, it is frequently seen that some animals had previously been human. or that theythe animalsinherited their characteristics from people who lived in other ages (like the tepezcuintle, armadillo, squirrels, coatis, racoons and monkeys).

There are also "lords of the animals" who take care that the animals and are not killed in exaggeration by hunters; sometimes the lords of the animals will punish the hunters.

The earth monster is apparently a crocodile in Central Mexico, as well as among the Maya. The very Supreme Creator of the Maya Itzamna is an iguana. Some of the creator gods of the Maya have animal names: tlacuache, coyote, great white coati, great boar, and guacamaya.

Although there are lots of iconographic representations of the snake, no myths exist about the serpent. The name of the Quetzalcoatl, "Feathered serpent," seems to be also the name of an old fertility god that blended with the mythical cultural hero. Also among the Maya, the cultural hero and demiurge is called Gukumatz ("feathered serpent"). Among the Huicholes and Coras, a serpent of the West is the personification of nocturnal sky without stars that is conceived as water, and which is pierced by an arrow every morning. Also among the Huichol, water in the form of a snake, associated with thunder, is conceived of as an aquatic goddess who lives in the center of rain clouds.

The dog carries the soul of the dead over the river of the underworld, and a bitch is the ancestor of the human race. The god Xolotl is depicted as a dog.

The opossum steals the fire from the gods, is killed, then made into pieces; it revives; however, and takes the fire to men. López Austin identifies her with Quetzalcoatl.

The people who lived in the second cosmic era were transformed into monkeys. And Hunahpu and Xbalanque transformed their half brothers into monkeys.

See Also

Human Body, article on Myths and Symbolism; Myth, overview article; Sacrifice; Tricksters, overview article and article on Mesoamerican and South American Tricksters.


This article is based on Doris Heyden's article on "Mythic Themes" in the 1987 edition of the Encyclopedia of Religion. Included in this entry for the second edition are new approaches by Alfredo López Austin and Michel Graulich about Tamoanchan and themes related toas well as themes aboutsacrifice, cultural heroes, pilgrimage, twins, tricksters, and animals.

The principal sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books from which most of the Pre-Hispanic myths are taken are:

Bierhorst, John, trans. History and Mythology of the Aztecs: The Codex Chimalpopoca. Tucson, Ariz., 1998.

Dennis, Tedlock, trans. Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. Rev. ed. New York, 1996.

Durán, Fray Diego. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated, annotated, and with an introduction by Doris Heyden. Norman, Okla., 1994.

Garibay, Angel María, ed. Teogonía e historia de los Mexicanos; tres opúsculos del siglo xvi. Mexico City, 1964. This book includes three important short manuscripts written in the sixteenth century: Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas, Historia de México, and Breve Relación de los Dioses y Ritos de la Gentilidad.

Mendieta, Fray Gerónimo de, ed. Historia Eclesiástica Indiana. Porrua, Mexico, 1971.

Muñoz Camargo, Diego. Historia de Tlaxcala. Tlaxcala, Mexico, 1998.

Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de, ed. Historia General de las Cosas de la Nueva España. Porrúa, Mexico, 1956.

Books by Modern Authors on Mesoamerican Myths

Blas Roman Castellón. Analisis estructural del mito de Quetzalcoatl. Una aproximación a la lógica en el mito del México antiguo. Mexico City, 1997.

González Torres, Yolotl. Diccionario de mitología y religión mesoamericana. Mexico City, 1999.

Graulich, Michel. Myths of Ancient Mexico. Translated by Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Norman, Okla., 1999.

López Austin, Alfredo. Tamoanchan, Tlalocan: Places of Mist. Translated by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Boulder, Colo., 1997.

López Austin, Alfredo. The Myths of the Oopossum: Pathways of Mesoamerican Mythology. Translated by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Albuquerque, 1993.

Monjaraz Ruiz, Jesus, comp. Mitos cosmogónicos del México Indígena. Mexico City, 1987. This useful book includes in five chapters a résumé of myths from different areas of Mexico written by different authors: Mayan myths, pre-Hispanic and modern, by Mercedes de la Garza; Oaxacan myths by Doris Heyden; Nahua pre-Hispanic myths and modern nahua myths by Blas Román Castellón; as well as Myths from West of Mesoamerica and Northwest Mexico by María Eugenia Olavarría.xico.

Nicholson, H.B. Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl: The Once and Future Lord of the Toltecs. Boulder, Colo., 1992.

Ethnographic Bibliography

There is an enormous amount of ethnographic material which cannot be mentioned in this bibliography. Mentioned here are only a few from where data has been taken for this article. Many of these books are not recent; however, the information contained within them is still valid and is always considered in the new ethnographies.

Baez, Jorge, Félix. Dioses héroes y demonios. Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico, 1997. Two articles of this book are of interest here: "Homshuk y el simbolismo de la ovogenesis en Mesoamerica," and "Kauymali las vaginas dentadas."

Barabas, Alicia and Miguel Bartolomé. "Héroes culturales e identidades étnicas; la tradición mesiánica de mixes y chontales in El héroe entre el mito y la historia." In UnAM (2000): 219234.

Foster, G. H. "Sierra Popoloca Folklore and Beliefs." In American Archaeology and Ethnology 42, no. 2 (1945): 117250.

Fürst, Peter and Marina Anguiano. "'To Fly as Birds': Myth and Ritual as Agents of Enculturation among the Huichol Indians of Mexico." In Enculturation in Latin America: An Anthology, edited by Johannes Wilbert. pp. 95181. Los Angeles, 1976.

Ichon, Alain. La religión de los totonacas de la Sierra de Puebla. Mexico City, 1973.

Doris Heyden (1987)

Yolotl GonzÁlez Torres (2005)

DavÍd Carrasco (2005)