The Maya were the only civilization that had a true writing system in the Americas, but catastrophically only a handful of their books survived, the rest burned in the name of religious purity. Like the Aztecs, they too had a tradition of music, song and poetry, most of which is found in a collection called “The Songs of Dzitbalche.”
The collection was entitled “The Book of the Dances of the Ancients that it was the custom to perform here in the towns when the whites had not yet arrived.” According to John Curl, the title “Songs of Dzitbalche” was given to the collection by the first translator Alfredo Barrera Vásquez. Like Aztec Flower Songs, they cross over into spoken word poetry.
What follows is one song/poem from the collection, as translated by John Curl.
FOR THE TRAVELER ON THE ROAD AT DAWN
in the ceiba branches there,
flycatchers, little yellow birds,
cuckoos, mockingbirds there,
the birds of the Lord.
Likewise the lady has her birds:
the little birds, the small cardinals,
they are the birds of the beautiful lady.
If such happiness is among the animals,
why shouldn’t our hearts be happy too?
At dawn they are
when only songs and games
pass in their thoughts.
In the Maya language original:
HTI TU BELIL UA UTAAL KIN UAY
Tii ca kay, chan zac pacal
tu kablail yaa[x] che.
Tii yan xan x ciip chohil chan x chuuleeb
beyxan x kukun lail zac chich
tu lacal ciimac yool
u yalaakoob Yum Ku.
Hebix xan H’Colebil yan yaalak h’e . . .
ix chan x muukuy, chan x tz’itz’iibil
Yetel xan x chinchinbaclal
lail xan x tz’unuun.
lail laiix u yaalak chiich’
X Ciichpan Xunan Colebil.
Lail ua yan cimaac [olil] ichil lay bal cheob
baax ten ma u cimaactal ol ton?
Ua beiloob laitiob tac tu zaztal
chen kay chen baxaal
cu man tu tucuuloob.
Source and translation: Ancient Mesoamerican Poets, Translated and Compiled by John Curl
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.