"They went down the steep slopes of deep canyons; Trembling Canyon and Murmuring Canyon were their names. They passed through Scorpion River, but were not stung by the countless scorpions in it. Then they arrived at Blood River, and did not drink from it."
What a trek! It's the recounting of a journey through treacherous places, plagued with vengeful deities and malevolent demons, hiding in darkness and vying to take control of an emerging world. As such, the story constitutes what the Maya people took as the foundation of their past, and therefore, the seed of what was to come. The legend, still ingrained in the subconscious of present Maya, goes more or less like this:
Some time in the mythical past, thousands of years ago, there were two teenage boys living in a newly created world. They were twins, perhaps 14 to 16 years old, and they were the children of gods. For the Maya, however, even gods are mortals and prone to imperfections, in spite of their magical powers. Just like teens today, the boys delighted in showing off their physical prowess at what is now called the Mesoamerican ball game.
As the story develops, one soon notices that something is missing from the boys' lives. They have been raised not by their parents, but by their grandmother. It is the old woman who tends to their needs: cooking, providing shelter and, more generally, teaching them the responsibilities of living as a family, caring for the corn patch and hunting for food.
And it is at that age, not quite small children nor adults, that the twins become aware of their situation: their father and uncle left on a journey before they were born, drawn by dreams of success and fame playing the ball game in alien lands, never to return home. Ah! Such is the allure of the ball game, the impulse to keep the rubber ball bouncing back and forth, a metaphor for the passing of days!
As young, unsuspecting men, their forebears initially press on through many perils, only to finally die at the hands of evil, powerful lords in a hostile land. There, at Xibalba, the domain of vicious rulers, they are repeatedly tormented and eventually killed, their heads gruesomely hanged among the branches of the morro tree (a type of gourd-bearing tree), as an example to anyone who dare challenge the Lords' dominions.
The teens are tempted to follow in the same path as their father and uncle, much to the affliction of their grandmother. Persuaded by a desire of adventure and avengement, they ready their ballgame gear for the long, perilous trek. This time, however, they are aware of the dangers ahead, and have in their arsenal magic powers with which to confront the coming threats. Their mission is not only to set right the wrong done to their forefathers, but to rid the world of all malevolent deities, in preparation for the arrival of future human generations.
Before they leave, the boys plant two corn seeds in their grandmother's garden, one for each of them, which soon germinate magically into two corn stalks. Whenever deadly threats arise in distant lands —they tell their inconsolable grandmother— the stalks will wither; but as they overcome danger, the plants will again turn green. "May Heart of the Sky, creator of everything that is, never allow them to dry completely", prays the grandmother, tearfully.
Like other mythologies around the world, the long, dangerous journey through alien lands in search of loved ones, away from oppression, or simply seeking fulfillment in life, is woven into Maya mythology.
It has been said before that all mythologies originate from real life incidents, often from traumatizing events that come to define and provide cohesion to a group. Such is the case of the Israelite's Exodus, the archetype of forced human migrations. In the Exodus story, the Israelites migrate to run away from a life of oppression; such large-scale human displacement brings in itself untold suffering.
How much of a mythology is rooted in actual events, and how much is the result of the imagination of subsequent generations, is not easy to separate. What is evident is that mythological passages are invariably embellished with supernatural events and divine interventions, a way of explaining and providing meaning to the miracle of survival, a sort of reality crowned with the aura of destiny and purpose.
Who knows what cataclysmic events led to the Maya myth about the struggle against evil in alien lands! In it, the teen boys manage to arrive to what is the Maya's epitome of an unfriendly place, the terrible Underworld, Xibalba. Along the way, they overcome mortal traps with such names as House of Utter Darkness, House of Unstoppable Shivering, House of Scalding Fire and House of Sharp Blades, metaphors perhaps for the cold nights, sweltering day heat, and murderous assailants awaiting along their long, exhausting path.
In real life, uncountable migrants have succumbed and will continue to perish in their desperate quest for better living conditions. Thousands of years later, the world continues to witness the brutality of mass migrations, the only avenue available to people fleeing violence, persecution and misery.
In these real life migrations, there is no magical powers or divine interventions, only the laws of probabilities: a percentage of the migrants will eventually make it, but a fraction of them will perish in their attempt. It's no wonder then that, as centuries go by, survivors weave stories filled with extraordinary, supernatural deeds, the only manner in which they can justify to themselves and future generations the miracle of their own survival. Mythology becomes a way to remember and celebrate the feats of the ancestors at a time of unbearable hardship.
These stories are reminders that migrants everywhere are more often victims, fellow humans searching desperately for a helping hand in a death-or-life odyssey. A thousand years from now, their drama will be told and retold, populated with its monsters, villains, martyrs and heroes.
The question is, where will you fit within that mythology?