Myth, Belief, Narration, Image: Reflections on Mesoamerican Mythology

Article excerpt


A meeting of specialists in the study of different American mythologies gives a rare opportunity to exchange knowledge. Each person present takes a particular approach to a particular mythological expression, suggesting to the others present a novel theoretical, methodological, and technical point of view. Such an exchange of ideas is not common among us students of indigenous myth. In general we form academic groups marked off by cultural areas: Andes, Chibcha, Mesoamerica, southeast of the United States, etc. It is useful to break up this compartmentalization and to profit from our varied experiences. We should assume at the start that there were mythological differences within each cultural area, but also that differences in colonial history and academic tradition--historical, literary, and anthropological--have rendered, and perhaps have also perceived, the indigenous traditions differently. Perhaps we can profit from sorting this out.


The historic particularity of the Mesoamerican tradition (which includes precolumbian Mesoamerica and the indigenous peoples descended from those societies) offers several benefits to the student of mythology. Among them are the following:

Temporal and Geographical Extent of the Object of Study

Mesoamerica was a culture area of very different peoples with respect to ethnicity, language, and length of residence in the area. The region's unity was forged by the first sedentary groups (2500 BC), cultivators of maize and builders of a common macroregional culture. Thus, despite the differences between the Olmecs, Zapotecs, Teotihuacans, Mayas, Toltecs, Mexicas (Aztecs), Huastecs, Totonacs, Tarascans, Mixtecs, and many other peoples who were part of this tradition, they all shared central and fundamental elements. These included basic agricultural techniques, forms of political and societal organization, and principles of cosmovision as shown in calendar, mythology, and rituals. This macroregion embraces an extensive time period (from the twenty-fifth century BC to the sixteenth century ad) and a vast territory (the southern half of Mexico and eastern half of Central America).

To the Mesoamerican era proper one must add the subsequent centuries of colonial life. For despite the genocide of the Spanish conquest, and the colonization, evangelization, misery, and dependence to which the indigenous people were subjected, from the sixteenth century to the present, a considerable part of the core of the Mesoamerican cosmovision persisted in communal and family relationships, in beliefs about work on the land, in the treatment of the human body, and in many other aspects of daily existence. These continuities offer a great advantage to students of mythology because the contemporary myths, added to the prehispanic ones, form an armature of great, rich complexity.

Knowledge of the Socio-cultural Milieu in Which the Mythical Thought Evolved

The Mesoamerican cultures are better known than most other precolumbian cultures of the Americas thanks to the combination of the durable Mesoamerican archaeological remains, the saving of a few precolumbian documents, and the alphabetic documents made by Natives and Europeans early in the colonial period. There is also abundant documentation from ethnographic studies of the twentieth century. These sources allow us to study myth in its broad cultural context, from the economic and technological base of the agricultural societies, to the social and political structures, to the cosmovision of which myth is a most privileged expression.

Knowledge of the Historical Milieu in Which the Mythical Thought Evolved

The span of centuries covered by the historical sources allows us to see Mesoamerican cosmology and mythology as historical transformations of (in Braudelian terms) long duration. …