“All moons, all year, all day, all winds walk and pass you by. Also, all blood arrives at its place of quiet…” (Fragment of “Chilam Balam”)
The Maya language has always fascinated me. For its musicality, rough strength, and also for the way I feel like it evokes my own roots. Maya literature extends back millennia to our ancestors, who lived on these same lands. Both this ancient literature and contemporary Maya poetry are fascinating, culturally rich artworks, and we have a lot to say.
It’s important to remember that in Maya cosmology, literature, alongside science, were at the service of the sacred, and they weren’t used as forms of personal expression or community building. That’s why very few people knew how to write, and books were written anonymously, reserved for few eyes and only to be read during rituals and ceremonies.
The most well-known and important books are the “Popol Vuh” and the books of “Chilam Balam,” from various Yucatecan Maya cities, of which the most famous is the “Chumayel.” The majority of these texts are religious, but it’s possible to find more philosophical, dreamy poems like the phrase which accompanies this article. You can find this same quote written in a mural in the National Museum of Anthropology in México City. Translated to Spanish by Antonio Médiz Bolio, the quote continues, impacting me about the profoundness of life and death: “Singing I’ll play the melodious, sounding instrument. You all, fascinated by flowers, dance on and praise all-powerful God. Let’s enjoy this brief pleasure, because life is only one fleeting moment.”
Chilam means “from the mouth,” implying the words of prophets. The “chilames” are priests who interpreted the ancient books in order to extract prophecies about future actions. “Balam” means jaguar or witch. Each town wrote its own book, and today a collection of “chilam balames” exists from numerous towns, including: Maní, Tizimín, Chumayel, Kahua, Ixil, Tekax, Nah (today Teabo), and Tusik (today Temozón). The most well-known is the Chilam Balam from Chumayel (Tekax), and its compilation is attributed to Juan José Hoil; the first complete translation was by Antonio Médiz Bolio in 1930.
Find more poems in the Chilam Balam from Tizimín:
Eat, eat so you’ll have bread;
drink, drink so you’ll have water.
That day, dust will cover the Earth;
that day, a plague will take over the surface of the Earth;
that day, a cloud will rise up;
that day, a strong, powerful man will take power of the Earth;
that day, houses will fall in ruins;
that day, tender foliage will be destroyed;
that day, there will be three signs in the tree;
that day, three generations will hang from it;
that day, we will raise the battle standard
and (the men) will disperse in the forest.
For the last few years, the new generations of Maya speakers have taken over literature in order to express their own visions, writing as much in Maya as in Spanish. Wildemair Villegas Carrillo stands out, because he won the award “Nezahualcóyotl” given by the association of Literature in Mexican Languages in 2008 for his book of poems, “U K’aay ch’i’ibal /The Song of the Stock.” He describes his childhood as being surrounded by the voices of his parents and grandparents, deep in the forest, with the song of frogs and grasshoppers that inhabited the small pond near his home.
Explore the poetic creations of Briceida Cuevas Cob from Calkiní, Campeche. Also, Feliciano Sánchez Chan, an inexhaustible promoter of the Maya language in Yucatán. “Ukp’eel wayak / 7 Dreams” is translated into Spanish and English. Check out the poems by Pedro Uc Be, especially “U majankaajilo’ob noi kaaj / Foreigners in the Great City.” Also, review works like “U k’aay xya’axche / The Songs of the Ceiba,” by Miguel May May, all available on the Internet (www.mayas.uady.mx/literatura).
It is important to recognize the School of Literature Creation in Yucatán, which gives literature courses in Spanish and Maya (Av. Itzáes #501 x 59 y 65).
Learn more about Maya poetry:
Editorial by Violeta H. Cantarell
- Chilam Balam de Tekax por Arqueologia Mexicana
- Chilam Balam por Linkgua Digital
- Chilam Balam por fransaval.blogcindario.com