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Lord Rattlesnake

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.


To you,
I come to tell you
that here in this region,
this plain,
here in this land,
back in the era of ancient giants
and hunchbacks
when even no people such as us
had as yet ever arrived,
a very long time ago
Lord Centipede passed here,
and had with him seven jumping heads;
you could see them
quickly crossing the road
to devour you
or put evil
in your life
if you could not understand
the riddle he asked.

But the day arrived
when there was one who answered.
When he heard,
Lord Centipede became furious
because one had understood, responded
and answered his riddle.

So it was Lord Centipede
who was the one who was tricked,
became gravely ill, and died.


Maya language original:



Ti teech
tal in uailic
baaxten uay peten,
uay h chakan,
uay te lum
c u [uc]hben huapaach uincoob
hebiix xan h ppuuz
maliicil cohoc teil
lumoob maix
maic x uinic bayanon
tz’ooc u yantaal
lemceech yaab kin
uay cu ximbanccuba
Xah Chaapaat
hum uuc u tiichil u pol yaat chen
laiti ca uilic
u kaatal ta beel
utial u hanteech
yetel u tial u tz’a teech
loobil tah cuxtal
ua ma ta naatiic
baax cu kaatic teich.

Ma tun hel caa kuuch u kinil
u yantaahma maix l u ailic
tie ca tu yuub, he caah
tumen laitiel
maix u . . . chahal u tz’iic
leil u nuctah tiel
Ah X Chapaat laiti nuce tii.

Laibetiic haach tu chah lobil
le baax cu tz’iic u yaal
nucatiel tumen h’tabz[a]biel tumen.


Source and translation:  Ancient Mesoamerican Poets, Translated and Compiled by John Curl

Categories: Maya Maya Poetry

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The Orly

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.