by Carol E. Robertson

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 riddied 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 srapple 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 bre2k 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.

Myth as Performance

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, eitherspoken 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 Utatlan 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 ali 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 Hunahptii Vuch [Goddess of Dawn], Hunahpi Utiti [God, of Night], Zaquo-Nima Tziis [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 Palé (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, Huracan.” (Arias-Larreta 1968: 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 problems. This complex creation myth remains in Keres oral traditions 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 befveen humans and their life source. Contemporary Mapuche peoples of Andean Argentina (not to be confused with the Chilean Mapuche) acknowledge tne sonic nature of the cosmos and the sacred nature of sound through the use of a ritual language essential to supplications (lukutin) and through the performance of lineage songs (tayil) and sacred chants (6l) that link the living to creator beings and to original ancestral families (Robertson 1979; RobertsonDeCarbo 1977). Many Mapuche state that sacred Deings 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 Euro-American 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 shitt 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 intepral 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 (Le6n-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 Tainos (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), i.e., 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, tor 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 Rios 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 Jink 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 creat 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 areito 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 (AriasLarreta 1968: I20). 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 hist6ricos (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 Crénicas de Indias: the uprising of the collas led by Xipana; the mutiny of Tocay Capay and his huallacanes; the struggle of the Chima 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, ond 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” (Le6n-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. 750-150 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” (LeonPortilla 1980: 19, 220). The duality of the sacred is also reflected in the Nahuatl names OmetecuhtliOmecihuatl (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 (Le6én-Portilla 19838: 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 rath-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 (Le6n-Portilla 1980: 19-21).

The accounts collected by Bernardino de Sahagun from indigenous informants some years after his arrival! in Mexico in 1529 and during the sixty years he lived in New Spain (see Codice Matritense, Codice Florentino, and Leén-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 Quetzalcoail mirrored the name of an important deity, Tezcathipoca—whether god or man—carried the name given to the four sons of the creator Omeiteotl. 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 (Le6n-Portilla 1980: 28-209).

Aztec prophecy

Fig. 1: New Fire Ceremony performed every 52 years and 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 DeGoyler Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

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; Leén-Portilla 1988: 3).