Itzamná was, in Maya mythology, was the male creator of the universe, the sky deity, the sun. He went by different names according to his many aspects. Among these aspects are Hunabku (One Being God), Kinich Ahau (Father Sun), Cit Bolon Tun (Deity of Medicine) and Kukulcan (Feathered Serpent).
Scattered references are present in early-colonial Spanish reports (the Relaciones) which provide little insight in the characteristics of this deity. Itzamná, represented by the aged god D, was often depicted in books and in ceramic scenes derived from them, of which the image above is an example.
Ix Chel (Rainbow Woman) was the female force, the Creation Goddess, wife of Itzamna. Also known by Ix Chebel Yax and many other names, she was the moon, earth, and bodies of water, and patroness of weaving, painting, procreation, and medicine.
A fanciful Itzamná that tries to create a link in this personage to Quetzalcoatl, teacher and creator, a cultural hero that comes by sea from the East, is found in “The Stories of El Dorado”, authored by Frona Eunice Wait (San Francisco, California, 1904), with a link to the imagined founding of Mayapan (Yucatan):
Zamna, the Eye of the Sun
HO THERE! Who comes to us in a canoe?” cried the people in the strange land when the Golden Hearted and the wise men arrived from the Happy Island. Many of the natives ran away and others hid in the bushes because they were afraid they were going to be killed. None of them were ever so badly frightened in their lives, and none had ever seen white men before.
“Do you come to fight us? Are you warriors?” they asked.
“I am your friend, not your foe,” answered the young prince kindly, and holding a white flag high over his head. “To be a warrior is to have been in many battles, and I never marched a day under the banner of the king, my father. I come wholly in peace.”
“He is only a lad. Surely we need not fear him,” said the people coming back to crowd around him on shore and to examine his boat and clothes with much curiosity. “Why, then, are you here?” they finally asked.
“I am sent by my father to teach you the Good Law.”
“We already know how to shoot an arrow through the heart of an eagle. We have taken many captives in battle, and are a scourge to our enemies,” they answered proudly. They were still suspicious of their visitors.
“You crush a worm without mercy, never thinking it has the same right to live as you have, and that in itself it is more wonderful than all these things,” said the Golden Hearted, reprovingly.
The natives were greatly astonished. Never had they heard any one speak like this, and they could not imagine what sort of young man he was. If he did not like the chase, and was not a warrior, and did not believe in killing things, they could not understand him at all.
“What do you mean by the Good Law? What is it anyhow?”
“It is to be gentle and kind to all creatures, and to treat your neighbor as if he were your brother. You must be just to the plant, to the bull, to the horse and to the dog. The earth too has a right to be cultivated. Neglect it, and it will curse you; fertilize it, and it will show gratitude in a thousand ways. May your fields bring forth all that is good to eat, and may your countless villages abound with prosperity.”
The Golden Hearted was so modest and sincere in speech and so well mannered that they were pleased with him, and were beginning to feel quite friendly. The wise men also said many nice things to them and did all they could to make the situation pleasant.
To show appreciation and to welcome the young prince, the natives gave him a handful of fireflies, because light with them was a symbol of order, peace and virtue. This was a delicate, pretty compliment and so delighted the Golden Hearted that he scattered them all over his head. When they lit in his soft, wavy, yellow hair, their bulging eyes and gauzy wings sparkled like diamonds and they did not try to fly away because he sang to them:
“Firefly, firefly! bright little thing, Light me to bed and my song I will sing. Give me your light as you fly o’er my head That I may merrily go to my bed. Give me your light o’er the grass as you creep That I may joyfully go to my sleep. Come little firefly, come little beast, Come and I’ll make you tomorrow a feast; Come, little candle, that flies as I sing, Bright little fairy bug—Night’s little king. Come, and I’ll dance as you guide me along, Come, and I’ll pay you, my bug, with a song.”
Each fly has four spots, one back of each eye and under each wing which it can make as bright as candle light when it chooses. Its body is about an inch and a half long.
“EACH STITCH MUST BE COUNTED”
When the prince put the fireflies in his hair, the natives present touched the ground with their right hands and placed them over their hearts in token of respect. He, in turn, gave them the white flag he carried because it was an emblem of peace, friendship, happiness and prosperity, as well as purity and holiness, and he intended to bring them all of these things.
“What is your wish?” asked the natives of each of the wise men.
“We desire to bathe in the warm surf of these shores and then to make a thank offering for our safe arrival and your kindly greeting,” they answered.
Criers with shrill trumpets and drums ran up and down the beach to call in the fishing boats.
“The men wearing skirts are coming into the sea,” they shouted, and the Golden Hearted and his followers looked at each other with a smile when they heard what the criers said. The natives wore only breech clouts and feather and shell ornaments, much like the Indians of today. Never before had they seen men wearing long white robes, beards and high-crowned hats without rims, and having a square black cloth hanging over the shoulders in the back like a veil.
“Is there something else needed to make you more content and comfortable?” asked the criers when the fishermen had all come ashore.
“We need wood and stones to build an altar for our sacrifice,” replied the Golden Hearted.
While the newcomers were splashing in the surf, the porters brought arms full of wood, and stones large and small and piled them near the boat and waited to see what the visitors would do with them.
“Why do you wear skirts like women?” they next inquired, as the bathers were putting on their robes after a long swim.
“Because we work for humanity,” said the young prince. “No man is really great who has not developed a woman’s tenderness in his heart, and that our fellows may know that we have this quality, we wear skirts and robes.”
This is why in our day the king and priest and judge wear long gowns. The king rules men, women and children alike; the judge administers the law for all of them, and the minister prays for the good as well as the bad. For this reason we should respect their robes when we see them.
The natives did not know the name of the young prince but when they saw him take a piece of mica and hold it over a bit of cotton until the sun set it on fire, they exclaimed “Zamna!” meaning “Eye of the Sun,” and this was what they called him while he lived in that country. The wise men had placed some copal on top of the altar they had made of wood and stone and it was not long before the cotton and copal began to burn. As it did so, the Golden Hearted pointed with his finger to a ray of the midday sun. First he and his followers held their arms high overhead, then they sat in a squatting position and recited all the incidents of their journey. Finally they all prostrated themselves on the ground and returned thanks for their safety and good health. Rising to their feet, the wise men began to chant with bared heads and faces turned toward the east.
The natives thought this a very strange performance and debated among themselves whether it could be part of the Good Law they were soon to learn.
“Do you come to destroy our old faiths, and to bring us a new god?” they asked as the wood on the altar burned low and the chanting ceased.
“To attack any form of worship is like fighting darkness with a stick. The only way to overcome the blackness of night dwelling in men’s hearts is to kindle a light—and the light of the world is love,” responded the Golden Hearted as he slipped his arm through that of the native who had asked him the question. “I did not come to quarrel with you. I want you to think of me as a brother ready and willing to serve you always. In my father’s kingdom, the man who serves faithfully in any capacity is the one most honored. Take this cross to the chief of your village and say to him that He who is the Dew of Heaven, Lord of the Dawn, and of the Four Winds, sends his only son with a message of peace and good will to all his people. Show him the red hand painted in the center and tell him that it is not meant to convey strength, power and mastery, but that it is raised thus as an act of supplication.”
As the swiftest courier in the group was girding a red sash tightly around his waist making ready for a quick run, the fishermen came up from their huts and invited the travelers to come and share their humble noonday meal. The Golden Hearted was glad to accept the extended hospitality, not because he had no provisions of his own, but because he valued their good opinion and was ready to do whatever he thought would please them.
They were a gentle, kindly folk, these simple fishermen. Not only were they industrious, but they were polite and reverential to their superiors and as happy as a lot of children when they found the strange prince under their roof. In all the after years they would have been willing to die for him.
The wise men of his company were so strict in their habits that they refused to eat the flesh of any animal, and their simple meal was soon finished. But while every one else was at the table they performed a sacred dance in a pompous and solemn style, circling around the Golden Hearted who sat by himself. They had green palms in their hands and every once in a while they would bow to the prince. In a peculiar sing-song way they chanted a long poem telling about the history of the Happy Island.
Imagine how funny they must have looked whirling round and round with their long robes, black veils and wide sleeves filled with the wind. They kept on their high hats and with their long beards and hair flying in every direction, it was no wonder that the fishermen and other people laughed and thought it was some kind of game. The dancers were not at all offended, and when the natives asked if they knew how to play ball, they answered good naturedly:
“No, but we would like very much to learn.”
“Come out here into the alley and we will teach you. By and by you may give us lessons in many things, but we are going to give you the first one.”
Then they all laughed, and so did the young prince and the wise old men.
The alley where they played ball was one hundred feet long and had smooth, white-washed walls about twelve feet high in the center, but lower at each end where there was a rectangular nook for the players to rest. The walls were quite thick at the base but tapered toward the top which was finished with battlements and turrets.
Before the game began, the oldest player among them threw the small, solid, India-rubber ball four times around the alley muttering some words to himself all the time. The owner of the ground made the old man a trifling present, and then the game began in good earnest.
The rule was to hit the ball only with the knee, elbow or shoulder, not with the hands nor feet. The wise men with their long gowns and veils had a hard time keeping up with the native players, who wore very little clothing and were quick and sure footed. Two on each side played at a time, and the great point was to send the ball against the opposite wall or else over it as often as possible without allowing it to touch the ground. There were two referees; one being the Golden Hearted and the other, the oldest player.
Everybody shouted and laughed at the clumsy playing of the wise men who tried ever so hard to imitate the things they saw the others doing. It was a great effort for them and they panted and blowed as they ran. Very often they tumbled heels over head by stepping on their skirts in front. Then they would all go down together in a heap, one on top of the other, and the referees would have much to do before they could get them all straightened out again. It was jolly good fun, but required considerable time and patience even for an expert player to send the ball over the wall with either his elbow, knee or shoulder.
In the center of the wall on each side was a huge stone carved with images, having a hole in the center barely big enough for the ball to go through. Whoever was skilful enough to make a drive through one of them, not only won the game for his side, but was entitled to the cloaks of all those present. Of course, this was a very difficult feat to accomplish and made quite a hero of the man who succeeded, so every player tried for the honor.
This day the young native who first hailed the Golden Hearted when he landed, by a lucky toss of the elbow sent the ball flying through the hole on the wise men’s side. In a moment the spectators scrambled down from their seats and ran away as fast as they could go. The wise men stood looking after them in wide-eyed astonishment, and before they had time to get out of the alley the victor stripped them of their veils and then their tall hats looked like a piece of stove pipe with a cover over one end of it.
The Golden Hearted insisted that each man should give back whatever he had won in a bet on the game, and for each loss of this kind he gave both winner and loser a present, and promised to teach their sons and daughters how to weave cloth having figures in it. In such a way he taught them how to count, and to this day they have no other method of reproducing a pattern perfectly. Each stitch must be counted and only a certain number of each color put in, and all this must be carried in the head. The weavers are not allowed to write it down.
At nightfall the runners came in breathless with haste to say that the chief of the village was sending a councilor and official guide to welcome and escort the strange white men to his dwelling. But the Golden Hearted was not in a hurry to leave the fishermen and common people with whom he had spent the day, except for a short visit. When he returned he taught them how to make sun-dried bricks with which to build houses, also to shape the round water jars of brown pottery and how to ornament them and the gourds they drank from. The wise men assisted him in all this, and in time, the natives not only built comfortable houses for themselves but learned how to fashion many pretty designs of cornices and wall decorations out of stucco which they tinted many colors.
The first thing he did when he went to the village was to make the chief king, and then he ordered some of the wise men who were architects and engineers to lay out a splendid city and help the natives to build it. Before he came there were nothing but trails from one part of the country to the other and the simple tradesmen did not know how to exchange their wares. The Golden Hearted became the patron of the builders and traders and lived many years with the people of Aztlan.
While in that country, he occupied himself with the building of a sacred temple dedicated to those who served the Good Law. It had four beautiful halls facing the four cardinal points of the compass. That on the east was the Hall of Gold and its walls were almost covered with plates of the precious metal having delicately-chased pictures over its shining surface. To the west was the Hall of Emeralds and Turquoises where many gems were studded into the plaster. The south hall was finished in silver while the northern hall was made of jasper stuck with colored shells in curious patterns. In each room there was a tapestry of yellow, blue, white and red feather mosaic that was as fine as a painting and in some cases perfectly represented men and animals. In front of the main entrance for many years stood a winged lion cut out of granite holding an image of the Golden Hearted in his mouth.
The name of the city was Mayapan and the king who had been merely a village chief was the celebrated Cocomes of the olden times.
Source: Frona Eunice Wait, “The Stories of El Dorado”, (San Francisco, California, 1904)
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.