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Votan, Civilizer

Early European chroniclers made mention of Votan as a civilizer or culture hero in Tabasco and Chiapas, properly Maya traditions.  Like Quetzalcoatl, Votan was the first historian of his people, and wrote a book on the origin of the people, in which he declares himself a snake, a descendant of Imos, of the line of Chan, of the race of Chivim. One of his titles was ‘lord of the hollow tree,’ the tepahuaste, or teponaztli.

Votan is thus is identified with the legend of Quetzalcoatl:

…  Votan has so much in common with Quetzalcoatl that some writers are inclined to consider them identical, or at least related.  [Friedrich Max] Müller …declares him to be an original Maya snake-god, one of the thirteen chief snakes, to whom the bird attribute was given at a late period, borrowed, perhaps, from Quetzalcoatl. He is gradually anthropomorphized into one of the many leaders whose names have been given to the days of the month, Votan taking the third of the four names that designated days as well as years.  Yet Professor [Friedrich Max] Müller concedes that the god was brought from Cholula, and that certain special attributes of Quetzalcoatl may be recognized in the figures on the Palenque ruins, which probably refer to Votan; and further, that a phase of the myth seems to point to him as the grandson of Quetzalcoatl.  [Charles Étienne] Brasseur de Bourbourg, while accepting his identity with the ‘heart of the people,’ considers that the double aspect of the tradition allows us to suppose that there were several Votans, or that this name was accorded to deserving men who came after him. At times he seems to be a mythic creation, the mediator between man and God, the representation of wisdom and power; at times a prince and legislator who introduced a higher culture among his people. The analogy presented by traditions between Votan, Gucumatz, Kukulcan, and Quetzalcoatl, would lead us to believe that one individual united in his person all these appellations. Nevertheless, a comparison of the different traditions admits of two, Votan and Quetzalcoatl, the other names having the same signification as the latter.

The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume 3, The Native Races, Volume 3, Myths and Languages at page 451.

This idea of a civilizer that came from the East is a narrative that is oft repeated by the Spanish chroniclers.  This culture hero is said to have come by divine command from Valum Chivim by way of Valum Votan, built a great city of Nachan, ‘city of the serpents’—so called from his own name, for he was of the race of Chan, a Serpent — and founded a great empire in the Usumacinta region (Mexico), which he seems to have ruled over as did his descendants or followers for many centuries.

The attributes of Votan as culture hero define this serpent being as a civilizer, a law-giver, the introducer of the Maya culture, and continuing to be worshiped after his disappearance as a god. He came by sea from the east.  Among his achievements are said to be the following:

  • the dividing or apportioning of the lands among the people;
  • their instruction in the new institutions they were required to adopt;
  • the building of a great city, Nachan, afterwards the metropolis of an empire;
  • the reception of a new band of disciples of his own race, who were allowed to share in the success already achieved by his enterprise;
  • the subdividing of his empire after its power had become wide-spread in the land into several allied monarchies subordinate in a certain degree to Nachan, among whose capitals were Tulan, Mayapan, and Chiquimula;
  • the construction of a subterranean road or ‘snake hole’ from the barranca of Zuqui to Tzequil;
  • the deposit of a great treasure with tapirs as sacred animals in a ‘house of gloom’ at Huehuetan in Soconusco, protected by guardians called tlapianes, at whose head was a Lady Superior;
  • and finally the writing of a ‘book’ in which was inscribed a complete record of all he had done, with a defense or proof of his claims to be considered one of the Chanes, or Serpents.

The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume 3, The Native Races, Volume 3, Myths and Languages

The authority, indirectly, for nearly all that is known about Votan comes from Tzendal  Francisco Nuñez de la Vega, Bishop of Chiapas (died 1706, Bishop of Chiapas, Ciudad Real de Chiapas, México) who claims to have had in his possession the Book of Votan and to have read this historical tract:

Of the contents, besides a general statement of Votan’s coming as the first man sent by God to portion out the land, and some of his experiences in the Old World, this author says nothing definite. He claims to have had much knowledge of Tzendal antiquity derived from the work mentioned and other native writings, but he feared to perpetuate this knowledge lest it might “confirm more strongly an idolatrous superstition.” He is the only authority for the deposit of the treasure in the Dark House at Huehuetan, without saying expressly that he derived his information from Votan’s writings. This treasure, consisting of aboriginal relics, the bishop felt it to be his duty to destroy, and it was publicly burned in 1691.

The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume 3, The Native Races, Volume 3, Myths and Languages

The next reference to the Book of Votan is found in the writings of Dr Paul Felix Cabrera,who in the last part of the eighteenth century found it in the possession of Don Ramon de Ordoñez y Aguiar, a native and resident of Ciudad Real in Chiapas. He describes the document as consisting of “five or six folios of common quarto paper, written in ordinary characters in the Tzendal language, an evident proof of its having been copied from the original in hieroglyphics, shortly after the conquest.” The manuscript, according to Cabrera, recounted Votan’s arrival with seven families, to whom he apportioned the lands; his voyages to the Old World; and his reception of the new-comers. Returning from one of his voyages “he found seven other families of the Tzequil nation, who had joined the first inhabitants, and recognized in them the same origin as his own, that is, of the Culebras. He speaks of the place where they built their first town, which, from its founders, received the name of Tzequil; he affirms the having taught them refinement of manners in the use of the table, table-cloth, etc.; that, in return for these, they taught him the knowledge of God and of his worship; his first ideas of a king and obedience to him; and that he was chosen captain of all these united families.”  The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, Volume 3, The Native Races, Volume 3, Myths and Languages
Tzeltal or Ts’eltal is a Mayan language spoken in the Mexican state of Chiapas.  Tzeltal is one of many Mayan languages.  The tradition holds that Votan’s followers were called Tzequiles, which is said to mean in Tzendal ‘men with petticoats,’ and to have been applied to the new-comers by reason of their peculiar dress.  To them was given one of the great kingdoms into which it was divided, with Tulan as their capital city. This kingdom with two others, whose capitals were Mayapan in Yucatan and Chiquimula, possibly Copan, in Honduras, were allied with, yet to a certain degree subordinate to, the original empire whose capital was Nachan, built and ruled by Votan himself and his descendants. The only names which seem to have been applied in the Tzendal traditions to the people and their capital city were Chanes, or Serpents, and Nachan, or City of Serpents; but these names acquire considerable historical importance when it is noted that they are the exact equivalents of Culhuas and Culhuacan, names which will be found so prevalent in the Nahua traditions of the north.

Of Votan’s death there is no tradition, nor is anything definite reported of his successors.

From these oral traditions it is inferred the existence in the remote past of a great and powerful empire in the Usumacinta region, and a general belief among the subjects of that empire that the beginning of their greatness was due to a hero or demi-god called Votan. They point clearly to the appearance and growth of a great nation, or dynasty. Respecting the questions who or what was Votan, man or mythic creation, colonizer, civilizer, missionary, conqueror, foreign or native born? When, how, and whence did he come to the central tierra caliente? Who were the people among whom he wrought his mighty deeds, and what was their past history? we are left to simple conjecture.  Teotihuacan, of course, is the central of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc, a magnificent city of unparalleled magnificence, and whose descendants may very well have spread south.



Categories: Maya Maya Gods Maya History Maya Mythology

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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.