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Carol E. Robertson

Myth as explanationMyth as performanceMyth, performance, and the unfolding of timeSongs of life and death: A Mesoamerican storySongs of the animal powers: The jaguar in South AmericaMyth, performance, and human organizationConclusions


MYTHS LIE AT the core of all human understanding. They permeate our dreams, our value systems, our social transactions, our formulations of history, and our pursuit of answers through ritual enactment and scientific exploration. Myths allow us to acknowledge pattern and chaos and to place ourselves within histories that attempt to make sense of the paroxysms of life and death. The underbelly of all belief systems—from rational science to ancestor veneration—is riddled with assumptions about the nature of the universe and the pathways that lead to transcendence.

When regarded as symbolic configurations rather than literal statements, myths can have broad applications that surpass time and place. All humans grapple with their own individuation and survival, and with the ways in which they fit (or do not fit) into a social world. Myths often outline stages of maturation and rites of passage through which individuals can grow into whole beings. Because each of us must develop a sense of self within the social settings that we come to protect and perpetuate (as our “culture”), we also extract from myths basic clues to group survival. In this sense, the images of myths have been used for millennia to justify and replicate the status quo. On the other hand, some myths suggest that the vessel of culture must sometimes be shattered and transgressed to ensure regeneration: some crises demand that the hero break the most basic rules of society to engender new solutions. Thus, notions regarding the maintenance and implosion of paradigms are deeply embedded in myth.

Because myths reflect the deepest recesses of the human psyche they can withstand long distances, undergoing alterations and reinterpretations that accommodate particular social structures and ecological niches. For example, many myths reference the rebirthing of individuals into new social and spiritual dimensions during a single lifetime; but the ritual practice of symbolic rebirthing may take strikingly different forms in a matrifocal, equatorial society versus a patrifocal, sub-arctic society. According to Campbell, the symbolic references of mythical explanation are concerned with relationships rather than causes and are determined by historical as well as geographical variables:

The first and most important historical distinction to be recognized is that between literate and nonliterate orders, and among the latter, that between primary and regressed mythologies, that is, those of isolated tribes whose myths and customs have been derived in large measure from the Bronze or Iron Age or even later high-culture systems. Geographically, an important distinction is to be seen, furthermore, between the mythologies of Old Stone Age tribes inhabiting the great animal plains of postglacial Europe, Siberia, and North America, and those of the jungles of the tropical equatorial belt, where plants, not animals, have been the chief source of sustenance, and women, not men, the dominant providers (1983: 9).

These variables are important to our discussion, which covers a vast area ranging from the northern Mexican desert to the rocky icelands of Tierra del Fuego. The performance traditions of this continent include instances in which the sacred beings of myths may be invoked by men and women equally, by women only, or by men only. In some cases the protagonists of myths and of sacred time may materialize into different life forms: jaguars, deer, rock formations, musical instruments, or vines and mushrooms that open a hallucinogenic pathway into the sacred. Moreover, many of the peoples discussed have had extensive and prolonged contact with distant cultures, whereas other groups have remained in relative isolation until the twentieth century.


Mythological structures and teachings are rendered accessible to communities through ritual enactment. Indeed, stories of ancestors and deities often describe sacred performances through which worlds are created and human and ecological features are set in place. Performances within myths (by extraordinary beings) establish the ordering of primordial worlds, the dynamics of life and death, the creation of extraordinary beings and their relations, tests of heroic prowess, processes through which spiritual power is accumulated, predictions about recurring patterns of time, and boundaries of appropriate behavior for the human descendants of deities. Performances of or about myths (by ordinary beings) constitute an enactment of belief wherein humans can impersonate and/or mediate the sacred and rehearse the formulas that generate order in the cosmos and in everyday social life. Through music, dance, vocalization, and dramatization, ritual performances bring about an “embodiment” of the myth in the celebrants. In other words, for the myth to take on its full potency, the word must become flesh.

In many of the ancient myths of the Americas, Creation is put into action through sound, either spoken or sung. The Popol Vuh, a central mythological account of the Quiché of Guatemala, was assembled and written down by a 16th-century princely priest who had come into contact with Christianity. The destruction in 1524 of Utatlán by Alvarado resulted in a mass migration of survivors to Chichicastenango. It was here that the manuscript was translated into Spanish by Father Francisco Ximénez at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The original preamble in Quiché assures us that re u xe uber izih varal quiche ubi, “this is the beginning of the ancient traditions here in Quiché”:

Here we reveal all that was previously secret, the great revelations of Tzacol [the Creator] and Bitol [the Shaper], Alom [Mother-Goddess] and Qoholom [Father-God], father-god and mother-god, and of Hunahpu Vuch [Goddess of Dawn], Hunahpú Utiú [God of Night], Zaquo-Nima Tziís [Grandmother-Goddess], Nim-Ac [consort of the Grandmother-Goddess], Tepeu [king or sovereign], Gucumatz [green-feathered serpent, i.e., the Quiché counterpart of the Maya Kukulcan and the Aztec Quetzalcoatl], U Qux Ho [Water Spirit], U Quz Paló [Sea Spirit], Ah Raxa Lac [Lord of the Earth] and Ah Raxa Tzel [Lord of the Sky] (Ximénez ms, ca. 1701–1703, fol. 1; Arias-Larreta 1968: 188, 240; translation by C. Robertson).

Among these original protagonists, Gucumatz and Tepeu, called the “Creator and Maker,” become the agents of the deep feelings and thoughts of “Heart of Heaven, the divine mind, which is the first and supreme God, Huracán…” (Arias-Larreta 19638: 189). Gucumatz and Tepeu put the thoughts and feelings of the Divine Mind into creation through the utterance of the Divine Word, which engenders immediate power and action. The quality of sacred language was so different from human speech that, in the final stages of creation, a priesthood was established to interpret and mediate sacred sound.

In contrast, the creation myth of the Keres of Laguna Pueblo (southwestern United States) describes the unformed cosmos as the domain of Tse che nako (Thought Woman/Spider Woman) (Allen 1986: 13), who chants life into two sacred bundles that become the sisters Uretsete and Naotsete (She Who Matters and She Who Remembers). These twins “give human form to the spirit which was the people” (Allen 1983: 1) and chant into being all the languages of the earth. Chant contains the seed or active principle that weaves the thoughts of the Creator, Tse che nako, into coherent patterns. This complex creation myth remains in Keres oral tradition to this day:

In the center of the universe she sang. In the midst of the waters she sang. In the midst of the heavens she sang. In the center she sang. Her singing made all the worlds. The worlds of the spirits. The worlds of the people. The worlds of the creatures. The worlds of the gods. In this way she separated the quarters. Singing, she separated. Upon the face of the heavens she placed her song. Thus she placed her song. Thus she placed her will. Thus she wove her design. Thus sang the Spider. Thus she thought (Allen 1983: 1).

In ritual performances, the ability to put thought into action through sacred utterance provides a link between humans and their life source. Contemporary Mapuche peoples of Andean Argentina (not to be confused with the Chilean Mapuche) acknowledge the sonic nature of the cosmos and the sacred nature of sound through the use of a ritual language essential to supplications (lukutún) and through the performance of lineage songs (tayil) and sacred chants (öl) that link the living to creator beings and to original ancestral families (Robertson 1979; Robertson-DeCarbo 1977). Many Mapuche state that sacred beings are deaf to ordinary speech and can be reached only when women birth sound into sacred chant. When asked about the origin of these songs, Mapuche ritual specialists, known as witakultruntufe (“the woman who carries the drum”) explain that the language and chants of ritual are remnants of the sounds used to put the cosmos in motion. Thus, as in the Quiché and Keres accounts, myth “must” be embodied through performance, for the very nature of the universe is sonic and the transmutation of thought and spirit into matter is achieved through the act of “sounding.”


Myths evoke dimensions of sacred time and space that both parallel and intersect human experience. Because we have devised a literal, linear tradition of communication and translation in the EuroAmerican intellectual tradition, we tend to regard myths as stories that are not “true.” However, in the indigenous traditions of the Americas nothing is truer than myth, for symbols are not confused with that which they reference. The reference is seen as part of a pattern of recurring relationships that shift somewhat according to where cyclical and linear time intersect. Thus, a myth can be interpreted through ritual performance in ways that speak to the specific crises and needs of a temporal community. As we shall see later on, myths also can be recast, distorted, or manipulated to legitimize specific power structures and dogmas.

In linear thought myth is relegated to a distant, dormant past, but in cyclical thought myth is experienced as an integral part of the unfolding of current events. Maya astronomers of southern Mexico saw the movement of the planets as an affirmation of the cyclical nature of time and the multidimensionality of space. Inscriptions and stone carvings dating to the fourth century C.E. document the unfolding of events that repeat themselves and must be kept in motion through complex ritual performances (León-Portilla 1973). This pattern of recurrences gives rise to what we call “prophecies,” a misleading term for what are not so much predictions as they are descriptions of the events of the past or present in their future permutations.

These descriptions of things that are happening simultaneously in the past, present, and future often use similar symbolic forms to reference unfolding events. Thus, in myths found among many peoples, including the Caribbean Taínos (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola), the Incas (Peru) and the Aztecs, Mayas, and Purépecha of Mexico, the coming of the Spaniards is anticipated through symbols, omens, and predictions of outcome that hold remarkable similarities. The historian Tzvetan Todorov suggests that this uniformity is the result of “retrospective reformulations” of history (1984: 74), ie., that these prophecies were made “after” the event itself had taken place. But if we accept the possibility of a multi-dimensional concept of time in which past, present, and future intermingle, we might be able to accept that ancient indigenous sages knew of the coming of the Spaniards because they had experienced the conquista long before it ever occurred in linear time.

Thus, for many peoples of the Americas myth was and is a description of events happening in complementary time strata. Like the boundaries of time, the boundaries that separate spirit from matter are fluid and susceptible to sound frequencies. For the ancient Mayas the cultivation of the arts and sciences culminated in a core insight: matter is created by a concentration of energy (Arias-Larreta 1968; Robertson 1992). This is where sound again becomes crucial to our understanding of a worldview, for the time and space in which myth takes place can be accessed through the use of sound, and the transmutation from spirit to matter or matter to spirit can be accomplished through sonic technologies.

In Peru, Mochica potters of the third and fourth centuries C.E. portrayed priests in ecstatic flight. Some of these vessels and figurines indicate that flight was induced or accompanied by sound: an apprentice aids the priest in his journey by playing a raftpipe or beating a drum (Benson 1975; and Olsen 1992). These depictions refer to mystical teachings that also were represented in Nazca pottery (beginning some 1800 years ago) wherein hawks and other birds receive the strength to fly up to the sun from the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi).1 Here the “symbol” is the bird, a possible “referent” is the human soul (or the shaman’s soul), and the “vehicle” of flight is a potent hallucinogen that transmutes matter into spirit. To this day, traditional healers of the Americas use sound and/or psychotropic substances to induce a physical/psychological/spiritual state that breaks down the thin membranes separating spirit and matter (see Dobkin de Ríos 1972; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975; Wilbert 1975; La Barre 1976; Grebe 1979–1980).

Given these tenets of transmutation, sound also could be used to bridge life and death, particularly if death is a journey that takes the deceased into yet another stratum of time and space. Describing depictions of death and the afterlife painted on Mochica pottery, Benson concludes: “Musical instruments appear in almost every afterlife scene and on many modeled skeletal pots; they are frequently held or played by priest figures. The evidence is strong that they are death-associated and that at least some of them indicate the otherworld, or the preparation for it” (1975: 116). These remarkable vessels link ancient mythology to the present, for they depict drums, raftpipes, notched flutes, conch shells, rattlepoles, and other instruments that continue to play an important role in Andean death rituals.

Songs emphasizing the deeds and genealogies of sreat leaders, documenting battles and defeats, and listing events of social significance indicate that notions of cyclical time coexisted with a tacit awareness of linear time. Simmons has discussed several examples of epic performances involving poetry, song, and dance noted in early chronicles: the areíto traditions of Hispaniola, where the lives of chiefs were retold through song and dance; the teocuicatl epics of the Aztecs, wherein myths were used to justify imperial expansion; and various types of historically-based performances among indigenous peoples of Nicaragua, Honduras, Colombia, and Paraguay (1960: 103).

Among the Incas, epic poetry could be sung, recited, or dramatized. Many epics described events in the beginning of time, or purumpacha (uninhabited or empty time), relating these to the legendary appearance of founding heroes and dynasties (Arias-Larreta 1968: 120). Ancient songs that revived ancestral memory and lamented the death of an Inca with elaborate accounts of his deeds and his character have become known in Peru as cantares históricos (Lara 1967: 317–18; Schechter 1979: 191).

Epics were used even in the most remote corners of the Andean empire to recall uprisings against the Incas. Some of these incidents are documented in the Crónicas de Indias: the uprising of the collas led by Xipana; the mutiny of Tocay Capay and his huallacanes; the struggle of the Chimú against serfdom. The play Ollantay depicts a late 14th-century uprising against the hegemonic rule and class structures imposed by the Incas. The warrior after whom the drama is named defies the laws that separate nobles from commoners to pursue a dangerous liaison with the fair Cusi-Coyllur, daughter of the Inca Pachacutec (Arias-Larreta 1968: 126–27; see also Betanzos 1551 in 1924; Farfan Ayerbe 1952). Through song, dance, and poetry (inseparable ingredients of Andean performance) both the strength and fragility of an empire and the complex relationships between order and chaos were reenacted. The tradition of collapsing time and representing resistance through dramatization persists in this region to this day. Contemporary Kechua-speaking peoples continue to rehearse their resistance to domination through the dramatic event known as “La muerte de Atahualpa,” which depicts the Inca Atahualpa’s 16th-century struggle against Spanish colonization (Millones 1992; see also Millones, “Popular Dramas and Commemorations: The Incas of Carhuamayo” in these volumes).

Thus, the actual “practice” or performance of myth and history stands as a place where line and circle intersect. It is important to remember that among the Incas, as well as for the Mayas and Aztecs (and their descendants), different belief systems coexisted long before the arrival of Christianity. Moreover, no matter how deeply we analyze the multiple references of a symbol, there is a level of understanding that is only accessible to those who practice the belief system—those who embody it through performance.


Death appears as a central theme in the Aztec and Yucatec-Maya song texts that survived the Spanish invasions and book-burnings of the sixteenth century. Indeed, many composers seem deeply preoccupied with and ambivalent about the nature of life, death, and the hereafter. Their focus on death can be understood in part through the reinterpretations of cosmology that characterized their epoch and the manipulations of dogma that were used to justify Aztec imperialism.

The teotlatolli (divine words) and teocuicatl (divine songs) of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexicas (Aztecs, ca. 1300–1521 C.E.) told of five cosmic ages or “suns” representing different stages of creation. Each sun referenced a consecutively perfected and evolved world characterized by the introduction of a particular element or primordial force—earth, wind, water, and fire. These forces ruled earlier worlds until the beginning of the present epoch, known as the “Sun of Movement” (León-Portilla 1980: 27–29).

The god Ometeotl stood at the center of these consecutive stages of creation. Ometeotl was one of the many names of a dual being comprising the all-begetting Father and universal Mother, or Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl. The Toltecs (ca. 750–1150 C.E.) also invoked him/her as Quetzalcoatl (Precious Feathered Serpent or Precious-FeatheredTwins), whom they sometimes paired with Coatlicue, the Mother goddess of the “skirt of serpents” (León-Portilla 1980: 19, 220). The duality of the sacred is also reflected in the Nahuatl names Ometecuhtli Omecihuatl (Lord/Lady of Duality, also known as Xolotl-Cuaxolotl), Tlaltecuhtli (Lord/Lady of the Earth), Centeotl (He/She God of Maize), and Xochipilli/Macuilxochitl, two of the names of the deity of music and all other arts (León-Portilla 1988: 13).

The worship of the benevolent Dual God, Ometeotl, was introduced to the people of Mesoamerica by the historic Quetzalcoatl. Named after the Feathered Serpent, this 12th-century mystic made a pilgrimage to Huapalcalco, where he devoted himself to meditation. Awed by his wisdom and extraordinary powers, the Toltecs chose him as their ruler. Under his leadership the city of Tula became a gathering place for composers, scientists, artisans, and tradesmen; many towns, palaces and temples were built and the arts flourished. The exile and death of Quetzalcoatl (ca. 1150 C.E.) brought about the collapse of Tula and the eventual ruin of the Toltecs. Many defeated Toltecs migrated south, spreading belief systems that extolled the god Quetzalcoatl, known in Quiché and Cakchiquel as Gucumatz, and in Yucatec Maya as Kukulcan (León-Portilla 1980: 19–21]).

The accounts collected by Bernardino de Sahaguin from indigenous informants some years after his arrival in Mexico in 1529 and during the sixty years he lived in New Spain (see Códice Matritense, Códice Florentino, and León-Portilla 1969: 15–16) state that the fall of Quetzalcoatl and the city of Tula was precipitated by the appearance of a god named Tezcatlipoca. Just as the mystic Quetzalcoatl mirrored the name of an important deity, Tezcatlipoca—whether god or man—carried the name given to the four sons of the creator Ometeotl. The four Tezcatlipocas (Smoking Mirrors) had appeared during the manifestation of Ometeotl that formed the first epoch. These brothers, born of an androgynous father/mother, were the white, black, red and blue primordial forces that set the sun in motion. After working together to bring order and bounty to the world, one of the Tezcatlipocas sought to aggrandize himself, angering his brothers and the other gods. Quetzalcoatl intervened in this cosmic struggle, destroying the earth and the first sun. Each consecutive stage of creation was again destroyed by attempts by one of the Tezcatlipocas to surpass his brothers.

The fifth era augured the appearance of human beings and the age of the “Sun of Movement.” By this time a truce had been made between the four warring sods and each one had been given power over a different cosmic quadrant and cardinal direction.

The Fifth Sun had materialized through a massive and voluntary sacrifice of all the gods, who shed their blood so that the new creation could come to fruition. These patterns of destruction and creation led the Aztecs to mark the end of certain calendrical cycles with rites in which all fires were put out and then rekindled to represent the terrifying passage from one sun into another (Fig 1). According to the Tonalamatl, the sacred astrological books of the Aztecs, the Fifth Sun was destined to end in a cataclysm that would leave the world in chaos (León-Portilla 1980: 28–29).

This apocalypse also had been foreseen in the chilames, the oral histories and prophecies of the Mayas of Yucatan. The twenty-year period called 4-Ahau Katun (4-Lord-Twenty-Years), corresponding to 1477–1497 C.E., was awaited with foreboding:

The Katun [the twenty-year period of time] is established at Chichen Itza … The quetzal bird shall come. Kukulkan [Quetzalcoatl] shall come, the green bird shall come. Blood vomit shall come. Kukulcan shall come with them for the second time. It is the word of God. The Itza shall come (Roys 1967: 161; León-Portilla 1988: 3).

New Fire Ceremoney

Fig. 1: New Fire Ceremony performed every 52 years at the end/beginning of each calendar cycle. Seven priests impersonating deities surround the fire that will rekindle hearths throughout the Aztec empire (Códice Borbónico, 1938 edition: 34). Courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

the Cosmos

Fig. 2: Schematic rendering of the cosmos, where four cardinal directions emanate from the center (Códice Fejérvary-Mayer, 1945 edition: 1). Courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

The Annals of Cuauhtitlan and other extant codices of the people of Central Mexico tell us that in the year 13-Flint (1492 C.E.) “the Sun was devoured” (folio 58). The Third Relation of the chronicler Chimalpain Cuauhtlehuanitzin, based on the ancient texts of Mexico, describes additional calamities that occurred in 13-Tecpatl/1492:

Here, there was disease, the sun was devoured, there was hunger … A mountain, between the volcanoes Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, split. Water sprang from the interior of it, and many ferocious beasts devoured the children … (León-Portilla 1988: 4).

The appearance of Hernán Cortés also was accompanied by portents that spelled disaster. In the Códice Florentino, Sahagin’s informants assert that in the year 12-House (1517) the temple of sun/war god Huitzilopochtli burst into flames, the temple of the fire god Xiutecuhtli was struck by lightning, fire streamed through the sky, the wind heated the water until it boiled, the earth goddess Cihuacoatl would wail night after night for her children, a strange, mirror-topped bird appeared, and monsters roamed the streets of Tenochtitlan. These and additional omens appearing in 1519 led the counselors of Motecuhzoma II (Moctezuma) to speculate that Cortés might be the returning Lord Quetzalcoatl.

The Aztecs, who saw themselves as the chosen race and as the “Children of the Sun,” sought to avert these prophecies and their own final destruction through a reinterpretation of cosmology: if the gods of previous epochs had been able to restore life and engender humans by sacrificing their own blood, humans could perpetuate the Fifth Sun and prolong their existence by sacrificing their own blood.

The Aztecs of the fourteenth century destroyed their own records and the sacred books of the peoples they had conquered, rewriting history so that they could inherit the mantle of the much-admired Toltecs. Ironically, they replaced the Lord/Lady of Duality with a god who might protect them from annihilation: Huitzilopochtli, the Divine Warrior. The priests of this deity taught that warriors who perished in the shadow of Huitzilopochtli would survive death to become companions of the Sun. According to the eminent Mexican scholar, Miguel León-Portilla,

Huitzilopochtli is the Mexican interpretation of Tezcatlipoca, “The Smoking Mirror,” a double, and later on a fourfold manifestation (present in the four quadrants of the world [Fig. 2]), of the supreme Ometeotl, the Dual God. Huitzilopochtli was, in sum, the warriors’ own conception of [the] Toltec Tezcatlipoca, and, ultimately, of the primeval Ometeotl (1988: 12).

The terror of Tezcatlipoca’s destructive powers led Aztec warriors to offer the blood not only of prisoners of war but also of their most beloved family members in sacrifice to the thirsty Huitzilopochtli, thus seeking to perpetuate life as the gods of the four earlier epochs had done through mysterious self sacrifices. In the sixteenth century, Diego Duran (1579–81) collected oral histories documenting a ceremony in which Ahuitzotl, Lord of Tenochtitlan from 1469 to 1481, sacrificed 80,400 people to his god. By the time Cortés imprisoned Motecuhzoma II, death had become an obsession and warfare had taken on an aura of mysticism for the Aztecs, much as it had for the invading Spaniards.

Because the myths that sustain warfare and carnage are ultimately fragile, their retelling and interpretations must be closely regulated. The Aztecs sought to control the teocuicatl or divine songs and the epic poems recalling the birth of Huitzilopochtli, subjecting new compositions to censorship and manipulating performances to justify the expansion of their empire. The Códice Matritense describes the process of church/state approval that ensured the purity of the dogma:

The tonsured priest of “The Mother of Pearl Serpent” was concerned with the songs. If someone composed a song, he consulted with him, so that he could .. . dispatch the singers to his house. When someone composed a song, he had to pass judgment upon it (folio 260 r.).

Based on the descriptions in Diego Durán’s Historia de las Indias de Nueva España, León-Portilla adds that

The obtention of approval meant, among other things, that the submitted composition could be intoned in public, as nothing in it contradicted the prevalent dogma. Evidence exists that not only the sacred “official” hymns, which were chanted in the religious ceremonies throughout the year, but also many of the poems were conceived to be sung in one way or another. Thus for the native Mesoamericans, as has been the case in other ancient cultures, the universe of poetry existed closely related to music and also to dancing, with the participants often dressed in a variety of costumes, in a sort of performance anticipating the appearance of drama. Some of the extant poetic texts in Nahuatl [see Cantares mexicanos] are in fact accompanied by musical notation and imply the active participation of various persons. Their singing takes the form of a dialogue through which human and divine beings communicate (1980: 45).

The florid glorification of warfare through ritual song and dance is evident in the first and fourth verses of the one surviving text by Macuilxochitl (b. 1435), daughter of the state counselor, Tlacalel. Macuilxochitl (Five-Flower) is one of the names of Xochipilli, deity of song, dance, poetry and all other aspects of performance and artistic endeavor (see Fig. 3). Although the codices frequently show women engaged in performance, this is the only song composed by a woman that survived the conquista (see Fig. 4).


Fig. 3: Stone sculpture of Xochipilli, deity of song, poetry, and dance. Photo by Manuel Álvarez Bravo (León-Portilla 1967). Courtesy of Dr. Miguel León-Portilla.
I raise my songs,
I, Macuilxochitl,
with these I gladden the Giver of Life, may the dance begin!
Slowly he [Axayacatl] makes offerings of flowers and feathers
to the Giver of Life.
He puts the eagle shields on the arms of the men,
there where the war rages,
in the midst of the plain.
Like our songs, like our flowers,
thus you, warrior of the tonsured head,
give pleasure to the Giver of Life.
(León-Portilla 1967: 165)

Many songs in Nahuatl show evidence of strong dissent against the warring ways of the Aztecs. The numerous surviving works of Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472), Sage, composer, architect and Lord of Texcoco, show the confluence of the Aztec focus on Huitzilopochtli and the earlier mythology of the Toltecs, attributed to the wise Quetzalcoatl. Nezahualcoyotl built vast palaces and halls dedicated to musical performance and artistic excellence. As a warrior, he had to engage in battle and participate in rituals with which he frequently expressed disagreement. He attempted on several occasions to dissuade his peers from human sacrifice and ultimately ceased to participate in the state religion (León-Portilla 1969: 45).

Nezahualcoyotl was a composer/sage, or tlamatinime (“he who understands things”) in the deepest sense of the word. The themes of his songs address the fragility and temporality of life, the inevitable paradox of death, the enigma of humankind in relation to the Giver of Life, the mysteries of the land of the dead (Mictlan), the reality of disembodied spiritual beings, the doubts engendered by experience, the difficulties of grasping the creative force that animates all life (represented by “He Who is Continually Inventing Himself”), the importance of trying to find and speak “true words” and the meaning of “flower and song” (León-Portilla 1969: 48). The latter expression, “flower and song,” was the Nahuatl metaphor for art and symbols, and was at the heart of Central Mexican semiotic discourse. Like the historical Buddha, Netzahualcoyotl taught that the path to enlightenment required the act of fully embracing one’s humanity. Understanding could be entered and cultivated through the arts, which presented the possibility of immortality:

My flowers will not come to an end,
my songs will not come to an end,
I, the singer, raise them up;
they are scattered, they are bestowed.
Even though flowers on earth
may wither and yellow,
they will be carried there,
to the interior of the house
of the bird with golden feathers.
(Ms., Collection of Mexican Songs, fol. 16 v.; translated by León-Portilla 1980: 243–44)

In the cosmology of Nezahualcoyotl and many of his peers, the mysteries of life rest in the hands of the Lord of Near and Close, Tloque Nahuaque, who through his own flowers and songs paints all life on earth in his amate-bark book:

With flowers You write,
O Giver of Life;
with songs You give color,
with songs You shade
those who must live on the earth.
Later you will destroy eagles and ocelots;
we live only in Your book of paintings,
here, on the earth.
(Ms., Romances de los señores de la Nueva España, fol. 35r.; translated by León-Portilla 1980: 244)

The temporality of life, which wilts like a flower, pervades the Nahuatl song texts that survived the conquista. Indeed, this theme persists in Nahuatl songs to this day, as shown by Mexican anthropologist and linguist Fernando Horcasitas: “The wistful laments over the withering of flower and song are not dead. In the mountains of northern Puebla, during a curing ceremony at the entrance of a cave, I heard a Nahua woman in her cups, half tears, half laughter, sing”:

Let there be violin playing,
Let there be guitar playing.
May I enjoy myself, may I laugh before the world!
I am only here for a while, I am only passing;
Tomorrow or the day after I will be under the earth,
I will become dust.
Let us drink our liquor, let us enjoy it!
Today, this afternoon, we will rejoice,
We will laugh here.
Let those who are sour forget their sourness,
Let those who are angry forget their anger.
Not every day, not every afternoon,
Will we be here to enjoy life on earth
(1980: xvi).

Mesoamerican conceptualizations of the sacred have transcended both time and culture, surviving the cataclysmic changes of the last five hundred years. The paradoxical concepts of the duality of the sacred and the motherhood/fatherhood of God, the significance of sacrifice and the inevitability of death are central to the ways in which the peoples of Mesoamerica have “converted” Christianity to fit their own cosmologies and ceremonial needs. With few exceptions, indigenous peoples throughout the Americas have chosen to build shrines to the Mother of God rather than to the Son of God. The Son of God becomes the symbol of sacrifice—the god who must die so that humans may populate the earth and, at the same time, the human whose blood must be shed so that the gods may live. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, hundreds of converts to Catholicism joined orders of penitentes, flagellating and mortifying (killing) their flesh to achieve salvation and composing alabanzas (or alabados) to praise the Mother and Son of the Creator. Thus, notions of life and death were again reshaped to blend the mythologies of the conqueror and the conquered.


Códice Florentino

Fig. 4: Drawing of women composers from the Códice Florentino, p. x (León-Portilla 1992: 176). Courtesy of Dr. Miguel León-Portilla.


The periodic destruction of the universe by fire, flood, or darkness is described in the myths of people throughout the Americas. The jaguar often stands at the center of these explanations of cosmic regeneration as a symbol of transformation and knowledge. Among the Makiritare of Brazil and Venezuela, the beginning of European colonization marks the period of mythic time characterized by the appearance of the fañuru (Carib pañoro, or español), beings whose greed and madness leads them on an up-river pilgrimage of pillage, murder, rape, and cannibalism. Eventually, the fañuru kill the creator god, Wanadi, on a cross. The 1775 Makiritare uprising against the Spanish is recalled in oral tradition as a mythic stage in which the great shaman Mahaiwadi and his jaguar demodede (spirit double) put in motion yet another cycle of destruction and regeneration:

Mahaiwadi lived on the banks of the Arahame. He was very wise. He was huhai [a medicine man who defends the village against evil powers]. He took his demodede out of his body. No one saw him. He hid in the jungle, playing maraca, singing, smoking. He went to the mouths of the Arahame, the Kuntinama, the Tamatama. He threw tobacco leaves and wiriki [small quartz crystals] all around there. He called the mawadi [giant spirit anacondas]. Then he went to Kashishare (Casiquiare). He threw his maraca in and hid in the forest. He just stayed there singing and smoking.
The Fañuru’s canoes turned over and the mawadi ate them. Some of them left their canoes and ran into the jungle. Mahaiwadi lay down in his hammock. He left his body there as a trick. He went out in a new body, like a jaguar. He sent the jaguar into the forest to eat the Fañuru.

When his task was finished, the jaguar summoned the people:

He screamed: “The Fañuru are in my stomach. You can come out of your caves now.”
Mahaiwadi woke up. He turned into a bird and took off singing: “Free, free, I’m free.” That’s how he sang.
When Mahaiwadi died, a star crossed the sky. They say his demodede was returning to Heaven. They keep Mahaiwadi’s skull and bones in the Arahame as proof, as a reminder. They have power. They cure the sick (Civrieux 1980: 158).

Throughout the continent, the jaguar is a crucial symbol of the creation/destruction cycles of the cosmos. Beginning ca. 1300 B.C.E., the Olmecs carved enormous representations of their Jaguar God in stone. Jaguar masks made of green mosaics have been found in many ancient Olmec sites. Elements of this deity became associated with the Mesoamerican Rain God (known in Nahuatl as Tlaloc) and are invoked to this day in ritual performances held by the descendants of the Maya and Quiché (Fig. 5).

Jaguar Lord of Animals

Fig. 5: The Jaguar as Lord of the Animals (Aztec) (Cédice Telleriano-Remensis, 1963 edition: 9 verso). Courtesy of the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

In the Hohdédeni-Baniwa myths of the upper Rio Negro (northwestern Amazon), it was the jaguar, Yaperikuli (=Iñapirrikuli, literally “made out of bone’), who engendered the primordial hero, Kuai (=Kuwái), with his thought. Kuai excreted the pebble which became the present world. The voice of the jaguar, which in current rituals is embodied in the resonant bass tone of wooden trumpets, made the earth open and increase with each note of the song. Robin Wright states that “whenever the jaguar-song occurs in myth or shaman-song, it indicates [that] a transformation—Ipadámawa—is being made” (1981: 382). When the hero Kuai, son of the jaguar, is eventually burned by the cosmic fire at the center of the earth, he is reborn in immortal forms, “including the multiple forms of musical flutes and trumpets and the sounds that generate the distinctions between species of animals and people (linguistic groups)” (Sullivan 1988: 70). Thus, “Kuai’s spirit lives an immortal existence in the Other World, while Kuai’s body is represented in the sacred flute, Kuai, which men play today” (Wright 1981: 532). (See the Dzáwinai, literally “keepers of the jaguar” version of this creation myth by Jonathan D. Hill, “Metamorphosis: Mythic and Musical Modes of Ceremonial Exchange Among the Wakuénai of Venezuela,” in this volume.)2

Throughout the Americas the jaguar may appear as male, female or a male/female pair. It is often the female manifestation of the jaguar that is the most fearsome, for the very life force of women emanates from the great felines. The Canelos Quichua (Ecuador) account for the soul-substance of women through a myth in which Apayaya, the black jaguar grandfather, captures a pregnant woman and extracts the twins from her womb, raising one of them as a jaguar son. The son eventually slays his father and reigns over the animal kingdom. His mother is later instructed by the female spirit of garden soil and pottery clay, Nunghuí, to differentiate the domain of cultivated land from the forests. Jaguars and cougars protest this demarcation and are killed by caymans (alligators). This intricate mosaic of stories-within-stories informs female spirituality, lineage structures and origins, and long-standing patterns of social organization (Whitten 1976: 55–56).

The initiation rites of Barasana (Colombia) males involve elaborate performances focusing on the He house. The flutes and trumpets used in the second phase of the ceremony are fed tobacco snuff by the shaman, who blows the substance into the instruments through the air holes. The initiates, whose food intake and behavior have been restricted for the two months preceding these rites, have been kept away from the sacred he flutes. At sundown of the second day of this stage of the ritual, the initiates, whose hair has been cut and whose bodies have been covered with black paint, are instructed to sit in a fetal position and to remain motionless. They must accept the cigars, coca and yagé (a psychotropic drink made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine) in this womb-like position. Only after ingesting these offerings are the initiates allowed to see the instruments as each he flute is slowly paraded in front of them. As they are played, the instruments breathe and come alive, emitting the roar of the ancestral jaguar: “The he instruments, brought from the forest, breathe life into the house. At Fruit House [the earlier stage of the rite], this same life-giving ancestral breath is blown from the trumpets over the piles of fruit so that its soul is changed and becomes ripe and abundant, and at he house, it is blown over the initiates themselves to change their souls and turn them into strong adults” (Hugh-Jones 1970: 151).

Wherever the jaguar appears, it walks the fine line between chaos and order. Many jaguar myths speak of destruction and dismemberment, not in the sense of sacrifice but in the sense of transformation. Human beings are meant to learn from these acts that the dismantling of the self is often necessary for growth and healing. Nahére dances among the Toba (Bolivian focus on the healing powers of the jaguar and provide a context within which young women are initiated into the animal powers that they will receive at death. In the dance, young men circle around the initiates, lashing their loins with strands of cloth. Thus having been killed, the girls lie “dead” in the center of the dance circle, where they are “attacked” by a healer impersonating a jaguar. He revitalizes each girl not by harming her, but by performing a series of healing actions: “He puts his mouth to the girl’s breast, sucks it on two spots and blows on it, after which he spits out what he pretends to extract. Then he treats the head in the same way, sucking it and blowing on it” (Karsten 1923: 73). Toba men undergo no major initiations, and it is women who are more frequently transformed into jaguars after death. The ritual encounter of women with the jaguar, who in appearing to attack and destroy actually heals, brings them into contact with a cosmic force that pulsates between life and death.

The identification of shamanic healers with jaguars can be found from the earliest chronicles of the conquista to the ethnographies of the twentieth century. Among the Desana (Tukano) of Colombia

… it is thought that a shaman can turn into a jaguar at will and that he can use the form of this animal as a disguise under which he can act as a helper, a protector, or an aggressor. After death, the shaman may tum permanently into a jaguar and then manifest himself in that form to the living, both friend and foe, again in a benevolent or malefic way, as the case may be … The connection is so close that shamans and jaguars are thought to be almost identical, or at least equivalent, in their power, each in his own sphere of action, but occasionally able to exchange their roles (ReichelDolmatoff 1975: 43–44).

The mythical domain is populated by many other animals, all of whom have special powers and attributes. Many kin groups trace their ancestry, special characteristics, or protective spirits to these animals. We have focused on the jaguar because of its association with creative and destructive cycles and because of its special link with transformation, especially through the introduction of fire, which marks the emergence of civilization. In The Raw and the Cooked (1969), Claude Lévi-Strauss links the emergence of fire and the technology of cooking food to the emergence of culture and social organization. In the myths of Native American peoples it is often the cosmic jaguar that brings fire, the transformative element that moves humans into a social world.


Participation in a social world requires a grasp of the myths that illuminate common assumptions among members of a population. Such esoteric knowledge is usually gained through performance, for it is in the act of recreating the myth that the performers and their audience (both human and extra-human) collapse time and become one with the ancestors and spirits. The performance of myth also serves to legitimize the power structures that bind and define a society.

Among the now extinct Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego in southernmost Argentina and Chile, the songs, dances, and costumes of the Hain initiation ceremony were used to reinforce the power of men over women:

The [male initiation] rite has come to an end. The kloketen now knows that [the god] Shoort is only a man and he may have guessed already that all the spirits are the same … He will be repeatedly admonished never to tell the women “the secret” nor ever to mention to them what transpires in the Hain [ceremony]. He will be warned time and again that he will be spied upon when he returns to normal life, that if he lets out the slightest hint of the forbidden knowledge to the women or to the children, he will be immediately killed as well as the woman in whom he confides (Chapman 1977: 6).

The protected secret of the Hain was that men and their gods are one and the same. Beneath the secret was yet another: these secrets originally had been given to women who held sway over the behavior of men. Led by Kra, the Moon Woman, the women sought to deceive the men into submission. Led by Kran, the Sun Man, the men killed the women and stole their secrets, thus cementing the primordial antagonism between Sun and Moon, mirrored in the social antagonism between men and women (Gusinde 1931 in 1975: 859–69). Ironically, the songs of the Hain ceremony of induction into manhood, which the kloketen initiates were instructed to keep secret, were recorded for Anne Chapman by Lola Kiepja, a woman who was the last representative of her people. The fact that Lola Kiepja was able to record many hours of secret male ceremonial material from memory suggests that the division of ritual repertoires by gender was as permeable as the division between gods and men (Robertson 1987: 227–28).

The Kalapalo of the Upper Xingu Basin (Brazil) also focus their central rituals on mythic as well as social gender antagonisms. The women’s Yamarikumalu and the men’s Kagutus ceremonies exclude members of the opposite sex. According to Ellen Basso, “the Yamarikumalu features collective performances by the women of a variety of songs, whereas during the Kagutu, men (normally in groups of three) play on large flutelike instruments of the same name… Women must not see the flutes or the men playing them; men can observe the women singing during the Yamarikumalu, but they are supposed to keep a respectful distance” (Basso 1985: 261).

Again, the flutes are kept from women but are female in origin. These are the kinds of instruments anthropologists frequently have referred to as “phallic.” However, “the language used by the Kalapalo to talk about the kagutu is characterized by metaphors of female sexuality. The shape and appearance of these large, tubular instruments, rather than seeming phallic to them, are likened to the female sexual organ: the mouth of the flute is called its “vagina” (igïgï), and when the set of kagutu is stored in the rafters of the sponsor’s house during periods when it is not played, the instruments are said to be ‘menstruating’” (Basso 1985: 304).

The menstrual power of women is one of the elements that men seek to control ritually. Among Guayakí peoples of Paraguay, female behavior directly affects the endeavor of hunters. A hunter becomes attractive to the forest beings and to game when his wife is giving birth or menstruating, when his daughter reaches menarche, or when his wife aborts a child (Clastres 1968: 23–24). Hunting is the one activity that puts men on a par with women as shedders of blood. The ability of women to shed their own blood associates them with the cataclysms and transformations of past worlds.

Myths that explain successions and inversions of gender-based power are ubiquitous in rites of initiation. Sullivan suggests that,

by following the mythic history of initiatory processes and by noting the degree to which male and female initiatory processes overlap, one can see how male initiation seems to have stolen, borrowed, or shared the regenerative strategies of females … Whereas women’s initiation displays the hiddenness and constancy of the powers of dissolution and metamorphosis, male initiation more often highlights the violence of change inherent in all symbolic display (1988: 344).

Further research may reveal the extent to which ritual repertoires reflect these tendencies throughout the continent.

The performance of myth also exists in permutations that emphasize the need for cooperation and reciprocity that crosses gender, moiety, or kinship boundaries. The processes of life described in myths often require male/female pairings, and the effectiveness of collaboration has entered the imagination of many storytellers, including the composers of the Inca empire. Garcilaso de la Vega translated a song in his Comentarios reales (1609) in which a heavenly ñusta (a woman or maiden of royal lineage) works with her brother to produce rain. The female aspects of precipitation are hail, rain, and snow. The male dimension requires the action of “fierce men and not tender women,” and results in thunder and lightning, produced when brother rain breaks his sister’s water vessel (Garcilaso 1609 in 1953: 149–51, reproduced below).

The people of ancient Peru reflected this tension between male and female in ceremonies performed to bring rain and fertility and in rites honoring the Sun God and his descendants, the Incas. The gender play between Sun and Moon remains part of Andean oral tradition to this day. Many aspects of ritual performance mediate such cosmological and social appositions. (See Max Peter Baumann, “Music and Worldview of Indian Societies in the Bolivian Andes,” in this volume.)

Sometimes performance reenacts the introduction of a particular technology, such as the cultivation of corn, manioc, potatoes, or other staples. In some cases, ritual enactment of the arrival of such knowledge is accompanied by assertions of ownership or transmission of information that transforms the lifeways and worldviews of a community. The telling of stories and the enactment of myths that involve transformation or metamorphosis always seem to involve song. Because the knowledge referenced by song, dance, and gesture is often linked to the survival of a people, it continues to be as important to indigenous cultures today as it was five centuries ago. In his study of the Suya (Brazil) Mouse Ceremony, wherein men sing for their sisters and boys sing for their mothers, Anthony Seeger Says:

It should be clear that Suyá song meant much more than what we call music today. It was far from being simply entertainment. Songs were obtained from dangerous beings through an intermediary who had lost his or her spirit through the actions of a witch, or who had confronted foreigners and learned from them. They had to be performed carefully and seriously. Ceremonies and their associated songs transformed members of the society and also each individual’s experience of self and social relationships. Song was associated with euphoria and with personal and society-wide transformations. Songs, and the Mouse Ceremony among them, were not something at the periphery of essential experience, but at its very center (1987: 61).


Although he later denied the integral relationship between ritual performance and myth, Lévi-Strauss was keenly aware of the link between the mythical and the musical experience. “Mythology and music have in common the fact that they summon the listener to a concrete form of union, with the difference, however, that the myth offers him a pattern coded in images instead of sounds. In both cases, however, it is the listener who puts one or several potential meanings into the pattern, with the result that the real unity of the myth or the musical work is achieved by two participants, in and through a kind of celebration” (1981: 654).

Every society develops ideas about the nature of the universe that influence its development and technological goals. The difference between ideology and mythology is that the latter always embraces a mystical component—a means of communing with the sacred and transcending the common boundaries of temporal existence. Out of the generalized notions of time, space, and performance summarized above, peoples of the Americas devised “technologies” that helped them expand their experience. Rather than emphasizing a material technology that would produce mechanical flight, they embraced a technology that led to pneumatic flight. Rather than compartmentalizing experience only into linear segments, they searched for the interconnectedness of forms of energy and the recurring patterns of events, thus validating a simultaneously linear and spiral experience of time.

Cúmac ñusta
Puiñuy quita
Páaquir cayan
Hina mantara
Camni ñusta
Para munqul
Mai ñimpiri
Chichi munqui
Riti munqui
Pacha rúrac
Pacha cámac
Vira cocha
Cai hinápac
Hermosa doncella
Aquese tu hermano
El tu cantarillo
Lo está quebrantando
Y de aquesta causa
Truena y relampaguea
También caen rayos
Tú, real doncella
Tus muy lindas aguas
Nos darás lloviendo:
También a las veces
Granizar nos has
Nevaras asimesmo
El Hacedor del mundo
El Dios que le anima
El gran Viracocha,
Para aqueste oficio
Ya te colocaron
Y te dieron alma.
Beautiful ñusta,
your brother there
your vessel
is breaking
and for this reason
come thunder and lightning:
lightning also falls.
You, ñusta
your lovely waters
you will rain down;
at the same time
you will hail;
you will snow.
The Maker of the world,
the God who breathes life into it,
the great Viracocha,
for this task
they chose you
and gave you a soul.
(Garcilaso de la Vega 1609 in 1953: 151; Spanish trans. by Garcilaso of a song collected by Father Blas Valera; English trans. by C. Robertson.)

The cosmologies of the Americas are many. We sometimes encounter a culture in which two or more systems of explanation have coexisted for centuries. What appears to the outsider as a contradictory panoply of beliefs is experienced by the participant as part of the paradox of life. In most cases, that paradox is constantly mirrored in each culture’s complex relationship with the land and the cosmos. The ways in which these systems of relationships came to be were told throughout the continent in myths that circumscribed and explained the nature of life. Over time, systems of spiritual relationships became the model for social relationships. In these myths, as they have been bequeathed to the people of our century, sound appears time and again as an important tool for creation and regeneration. The Aztec composer Nezahualcoyotl alluded to this process in his hymns to Tloque Nahuaque, “He Who is Continually Inventing Himself.” The unfolding of creativity through constant reinvention offers an apt metaphor for the way the “sounding” of myth works in our lives, for performance allows us to collapse temporality and bring mythical and present time into one and the Same experience.

1 Mochica civilization flourished on the northern coast of Peru from 200 B.C.E. to ‘700 C.E., when it was assimilated into the Huari empire. Nazca culture, on the southern coast, was contemporaneous with the Mochica State. The plain of Socos, centered in the Nazca area, is the site of the large land-drawings that have thus far defied Western scientific explanations.

2 The term Wakuénai can be glossed as “people with whom we speak” and includes the Dzáwinai, Waríperídakéna, Ádzanéni, Kumadámnainai, and Hohódeni peoples of the Isana and Guainía river basins. These groups speak mutually intelligible dialects of the language Waku, all trace their cultural origins to mythical emergence from the ground at a place near Hipana on the Aiarí River (“The Center of the World”) and all intermarry. “Wakuénai” is used by Jonathan D. Hill in his contribution to this volume (see “Metamorphosis: Mythic and Musical Modes of Ceremonial Exchange Among the Wakuénai of Venezuela”) in lieu of “Baniwa,” a term designating all Arawakan speakers along the Isana river and its tributaries in Brazil; “Curripaco” is a name used in Colombia and Venezuela to refer to all Wakuénai groups. Baniwa and Curripaco are both local terms. Baniwa is the name of a distinct northern Arawakan group living in Venezuela whose language is not mutually intelligible with Waku. Curripaco denotes a dialect of Waku that is associated with the Ádzanéni phratry of the Guainía River (= Río Negro) and is therefore not an ethnologically precise term for the Wakuénai as a whole. The use of different ethnonyms reflects the geographical position of Wakuénai lands, some of which are in Brazil and the rest in Venezuela and Colombia.



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