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.
THOSE WHO BUILD HOUSES
to count the haab years or katun’oob
that have passed since
the great powerful men
raised the walls of the ancient cities
that we see now
here in the province of the plains,
all these cities scattered
on the earth
here and there, on high hills.
Here in the cities, we try to give
meaning to what we see today in the skies
and what we know;
for day to day
we see in the skies
the signs told to us by
the ancient people of this land,
the ancient people of these villages
here on our earth.
Let us purify our hearts
so at nightfall,
and at midnight,
from horizon to zenith
we may read the face of the sky.
Maya language original:
Tz’u lam kaa[bet]
u ppizil u xociil ua hayppel haab ua katum
le u kinil uay te cahobaa leil
h nucuuch chaac uincoob
laitiob liiz u pa[ak] leil
u uchben cahob
uay Peten H’Chakan,
tu lacal lail cahoob ttittanoob
taan c’ilic ttuuch
men ttuuch yokol canal uitzoob.
Lail cu talziic
tu uay t cahoob c tz’iic
u thanilbaal [baal] lail c’iliic hela
baax c ohelma;
ci ilic t c chumuuc caan
u chiculil bax alan ton
tumen h uuchben uincoob
uay t cahale,
uay t lume.
Ti c tz’iic u hahil c ool
u tial caa paactac
xocic u ba[al] yan t yiich
lai caan yo[co]l akab bay tu c chum
tu chumu[c] beyua tun chimil
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.