Chichen Itza

The Great Ball Court

The Legend of the Hero Twins and the Myth of Creation

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The following story was evident in the archeological record as early as 400 BC and tells the most popular Maya tale of the Myth of Creation and how it related to the Great Ballcourt.

This story is told in the Popol Vuh.

It tells the story of the famous Hero Twins of Mayan mythology.


At the end of the third creation, there was Xpiyacoc and Xmucane. Sometimes called the Grandmother and the Grandfather, or the old man and the old woman, who were essentially the makers of all material things. During the night (i.e. before the sun, the moon or the final incarnation of mankind was created) They gave birth to two brothers Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu, sometimes called the Maize-God Twins, Their names corresponded to the Maize Gods of the Classic period Hun-Nal (one-maize-ear) and Hun-Nal-Ye (one-maize-seed). The word 'Hun" referred to hunter in the Maya tongue and Hunahpu meant Hunter Chief or Lord. Hun-Hunahpu married Xbaquiyalo and she gave birth to two sons, Hunbatz and Hunchouen who were very wise and excelled at blowguns, painting, sculpting and many earthly tasks.

The adult brothers Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu did little else but play dice and ball all day long, dressed in their finest ball playing gear. Rings, masks, gloves, leather pads and crowns. Usually they would play against the two sons of Hun-Hunahpu. During one of these many games the lords of Xibalba (the underworld) became enraged. The objected to the noise and the shaking of the games being played right over their heads, and that the ball players had lost their fear and respect for the lords of the underworld to play the game like this. The lords of the underworld held a council and the Popol Vuh lists many of the horrible and troublesome gods that attended the council. Gods who's job it was to cause the death, disease and discomfort of man in many horrible ways. The lords of Xibalba also coveted the gear worn by Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu.

There were two messenger owls who traveled to the surface world to summon Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu on behalf of the lords of Xibalba, telling then to come quickly for a game with the lords of the underworld and to bring all of their gear. They bid their mother goodbye (for their father had died) and headed down the road to Xibalba. Descending steep stairs, crossing torrential rivers and thorn bushes called Calabash trees. They crossed a river of blood until they came to the crossroads. There were four roads at the crossroads of different colors. Red, Black, White and Yellow. The black road spoke to them telling them "I am the way of the lord" and so they took this route before they entered the main hall of Xibalba.

First, they were greeted by men of wood who they spoke to but who could not respond back. The lords of Xibalba began to laugh at the foolishness of Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu. The dark lords then invited Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu to sit down on a bench, but the bench was of hot stone that burned them so they had to jump back up. Again the lords of Xibalba laughed so hard their stomachs hurt. They then invited Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu to visit a house where they could relax and smoke, but they were told not to use up the smoke or the pine  sticks they used to light them. The house was dark and it turns out was one of the houses of pain and torture in Xibalba, the house of gloom in which there was only darkness. (The other four houses were The House of Cold, The House of Jaguars, The House of Bats and The House of Knives. But Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu only entered The House of Gloom.)

The next morning, Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu had in fact used up the pine sticks and all of the smoke given to them by lords of Xibalba and so they were sacrificed and buried but not before they decapitated Hun-Hunahpu and placed his head amidst the branches of a Calibash tree. The moment they put the head in the tree, it grew fruit though it had never borne fruit before. The Lords of Xibalba then forbid anyone to approach the tree.

There was a Lord named Cuchumaquic who had a daughter named Xquie. Xquie's curiosity got the better of her and she approached the tree to see if she could pick the fruit. Instead, the skull of Hun-Hunahpu spoke to her and asked her to stretch up her hand. When she did this, the skull spat in her hand and made her pregnant. It caused her to conceive twins in her belly which were the unborn Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque (also known in the classic period as Hun-Ahaw and Yax-Balam). Thinking that her honor had been lost, Xquie's father ordered her sacrificed. She appealed to her two owl guards and convinced them to let her live. They filled a bowel with fruit that they covered with the sap of a tree that looked like blood. This false heart was then burned by her father, thinking it was his shamed daughters heart. Xquie then sought out Xbaquiyalo, the mother of Hun-Hunahpu and the Grandmother of the twins in her belly, for protection. After proving she was who she claimed to be (the future mother of the twins) Xbaquiyalo took her in and eventually Xquie gave birth to the twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

Hunbatz and Hunchouen were jealous of their new brothers, the twins. Their hearts were filled with ill wishes for them even though the twins had never harmed them in any way. The twins grew quickly, though their grandmother did not love them and Hunbatz and Hunchouen ignored them. The twins were not even fed until the rest of the family had eaten their fill. Despite this behaviour, the twins were very forgiving and had no hurtful thoughts towards their family. Hunahpu and Xbalanque eventually decided to teach a lesson to Hunbatz and Hunchouen, knowing that their older brothers thought of them only as servants. The twins tricked their mean older siblings into climbing a tree to fetch some birds they had shot with their blow-guns. While in the tree-tops the twins made the tree grow so that Hunbatz and Hunchouen could not climb back down. They convinced them that the only way to save themselves was to tie their breech-clothes in such a way as that a portion of it hung down from the waists behind them. Doing this, Hunbatz and Hunchouen were transformed into monkeys and ran off into the forest. The twins had intended to change their brothers back but each time they tried to perform the necessary magic, the grandmother would laugh at the antics and appearance of her sons and break the spell.

The twins then sought the approval of their grandmother by tilling the soil and clearing land to plant corn. But they did this with magic and rubbed their hands in soil to pretend as if they had been working when their grandmother saw them. Overnight though, the animals of the forest had re-built the field as it had been before the twins trickery. The twins were furious and tried to grab the animals. They grabbed the long tails of the rabbit and deer but they came off in their hands (which is why rabbits and deer have short tales to this day) they finally caught a rat whose tail the burned on the fire (which is why rats have no fur on their tails). In order to save its own life at the hands of the twins, the rat told them where the ballcourt gear was hiding that had belonged to their fathers. The grandmother had hidden it as it had been the ballgame that was the start of the death of her children at the hands of the lords of Xibalba. The twins tricked their grandmother into going down to the river to get them water in a jog that had a small hole poked in it by an agent of the twins, a Xan (which is a small animal like a mosquito). Thus delayed, the rat had time to climb up into the roof of the house and knaw the rope that held the equipment and the ball of their father.

Like their father, the twins took to the game and played it, angering the lords of Xibalba beneath their feet. The underworld lords summoned the twins as they had their father before them. The summons was passed on to the Grandmother, who told a louse to fetch the boys. Along the way the louse was eaten by a toad, who continued with the message. The toad was then eaten by a snake, and the snake was then eaten by a hawk who finally made it to the ballcourt. The Hawk vomited the snake, who vomited the toad, who opened his mouth to see the louse stuck in his teeth, who delivered this message to the twins.

The twins took the same route to Xibalba as their father. As they approached the lords of Xibalba, the twins again employed the useful ability of the Xan and had it sting each of the lords one at a time. The mosquito first stung the two wooden figures, which of course made no sound, then in turn, it stung each of the 12 lords of the underworld. As they were stung they cried out, prompting others to reveal their names, i.e. "What has stung you Hum-Came?". The names of the Lords of the Underworld were as follows:

Hun-Came (King of Xibalba)
Ahalcana Chamiabac

Knowing the names of the Lords of the Underworld allowed the twins to greet them by name which gave them power over the Lords. The Lords bade the twins to greet the other two Lords, but the twins knew they were made of wood and told this to the Lords of Xibalba. The Lords then bade the twins to sit on the stone, but the twins didn't because they knew it was hot. The Lords then told the twins to spend the evening in the house of gloom and that they must have the cigar and pine sticks whole the next morning. The twins needed light but instead burnt the feathers of a macaw they had brought. Again, they defeated the plans of the Lords of Xibalba by presenting them with the whole cigars and pine sticks the next morning.

The Lords then challenged the twins to a ballgame which the twins won by putting their own ball (which they brought) through the stone hoop. The Lords of Xibalba were furious.

They had the twins spend the next night in the house of Knives, but the twins convinced the knives to be still and they were unharmed. The lords bade the twins to fetch them flowers but then had the fields guarded so they could not do this. The twins had ants fetch the flowers for them which were able to move unseen by the guards.

They spent the next night in the house of cold, which they survived by lighting a fire. They then entered the house of the Jaguars which the distracted with bones they had brought so the jaguars did not eat them.

In the house of bats they spent the night secure in their blowguns so the bats couldn't bite them. Hunahpu and Xbalanque then wanted to se if dawn had come so Hunahpu stuck his head out of the end of the blowgun to see, and was decapitated. The Lords stuck the head of Hunahpu over their ballcourt. Thus the Lords of Xibalba finally thought they had won as Xbalanque could not win the ballgame alone. Xbalanque called a turtle over who, reaching the body of Hunahpu, assumed the form and shape of his head.

With the turtle head, Hunahpu and Xbalanque met the Lords of Xibalba at the ballcourt. As soon as the game started Xbalanque had arranged for a rabbit to run onto the court and distract the Lords. While they were distracted Xbalanque replaced the head of the turtle with the real head of Hunahpu hanging in the court, restoring him.

The twins, having defeated the Lords of Xibalba in every way, then discovered they were going to die. They summoned two prophets named Xulu and Pacam. The twins told them that when they died, The Lords of Xibalba would consult Xulu and Pacam on how to best dispose of the bodies. When they did this, the prophets were to tell the Lords that it would be best to throw the bones of the twins into the river after grinding them to dust. The Lords of Xibalba built a huge bonfire and asked the twins if they wanted to play a game where they each took turns jumping over the fire. The twins knew this was the plan to kill them so rather than playing they simply jumped together into the fire. The Lords of Xibalba cheered and celebrated and consulted Xulu and Pacam on what to do with the bones. As instructed, Xulu and Pacam told the Lords to ground the bones to dust and throw them into the river which is what they did. The dust of their bones settled down into the riverbed where they again became alive.

Five days later they were summoned by the Lords of Xibalba, for they had heard of the great magic that these two boys were doing (the twins looked ragged and poor so the Lords did not know it was the original hero twins). They had the boys dance, then they had them sacrifice a dog and bring it back to life. Then they burned the house of one of the lords and instantly made it back to normal. Then they sacrificed a man and brought him back to life. Then  Hunahpu and Xbalanque took turns sacrificing each other, cutting the bodies to pieces and then resurrecting each other. The lords then asked them to do the same trick with them!  Hunahpu and Xbalanque sacrificed Hun-Came and Vucub-Came and cut them to pieces, but did not bring them back to life. The people and remaining Lords of Xibalba ran for their lives and begged for mercy. Hunahpu and Xbalanque reduced their rank and they were no longer a threat. This is how Hunahpu and Xbalanque defeated the Lords of the Underworld.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque saw Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub-Hunahpu in Xibalba and, having avenged their deaths against the Lords of the underworld, Hunahpu and Xbalanque decreed that all noblemen and civilized vassals would remember the names of their fathers and never be forgotten. Hunahpu and Xbalanque then raised into heaven where one was given the sun, the other the moon, and there they dwelt in heaven.

The Maize God Twins were reborn from a snake and were nurtured to maturity by women who painted their bodies and dressed them until they were reborn in their former glory. Once revived, the Maize gods went on to oversee the current, and fourth creation. They woke up three of the old gods who were to play roles in the creation. (These gods were called the paddler gods and god L because we have not yet been able to decipher their true names). The paddler gods transported the Maize God Twins in a huge canoe that corresponded to the Milky Way until they arrived at the place of creation that we know as the belt of the constellation Orion. The Maya saw Orion's belt as a huge cosmic turtle. The god Chak cracked open the back of the turtle with a lightning stone. Watered and nurtured by the Hero Twins, the Maize Gods grew from the crack in the back of the turtle, which is represented by the Ballcourt.

The Maize Gods stood in the crack and stretched out two serpents who formed the path of the sun and also represent the umbilicus through which the Maya communicate with the lords, known as a "Kuxan Sum" . White flowers representing human souls are sometimes shown along the length of these cosmic serpents.

Located just below the Cosmic Turtle is a triangle of three stars we know today as Alnitak, Saiph and Rigel. This triangle represents a cosmic hearth and the first stone was set up by the paddler gods and called the Jaguar Throne Stone and was located at Na-Ho-Kan or (First Five Sky). God L sat on this throne. A second stone was set by one of the other paddler gods and called Snake Throne Stone and located at Kab-Kun (Earth Seat). Itzamna, the greatest sorcerer of creation set up the third stone, Shark Throne Stone. These three stones make up a cosmic hearth that is the ceremonial center of the cosmos, and is adopted by the Maya in their living huts that set up a three stone hearth for a fire at the center of their homes.

When all this work was completed, the grandparents of the Hero Twins molded the first generation of humanity from maize dough. Because the reborn Maize gods could not name all of their parts, they could not return to earth in their human forms and reside in the ballcourt where humans must go to worship them by playing the game.

The ballcourt is then the first Mayan confrontation of death disease and war. Both sets of twins (the Maize God Twins and their sons, the Hero Twins) played the ballgame against the gods of the underworld and it was in the ballcourt where the Hero Twins resurrected their dead ancestors. It is also in the ballcourt that the Maize gods remained after the fourth creation of humanity. The game was sometimes played for the love of the sport, as shown by the twins before they angered the death lords.

Most of all, playing the ballgame was a necessary step in the Creation and making of humanity. The court is a crack or crevice leading into the Otherworld, as well as a reflection of the crack in the back of the cosmic turtle from which sprang forth the reborn Maize Gods. Every time the Maya play the game they cheat death and re-enacted the acts that began the fourth creation.

-- Chris Reeves