Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala


This collection of folklore offers a rich and lively panorama of Mayan mythic heritage. Here are everyday tales of village life; legends of witches, shamans, spiritualists, tricksters, and devils; fables of naguales, or persons who can change into animal forms; ribald stories of love and life; cautionary tales of strange and menacing neighbors and of the danger lurking within the human heart. These legends narrate origin and creation stories, explain the natural world, and reinforce cultural beliefs and values ...
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This collection of folklore offers a rich and lively panorama of Mayan mythic heritage. Here are everyday tales of village life; legends of witches, shamans, spiritualists, tricksters, and devils; fables of naguales, or persons who can change into animal forms; ribald stories of love and life; cautionary tales of strange and menacing neighbors and of the danger lurking within the human heart. These legends narrate origin and creation stories, explain the natural world, and reinforce cultural beliefs and values such as honesty, industriousness, sharing, fairness, and cleverness. Whether tragic or comic, fantastic or earthy, whimsical or profound, these tales capture the mystery, fragility, and power of the Mayan world. Editor and translator James D. Sexton is a professor of anthropology and Regents' Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
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Editorial Reviews

Arizona Daily Sun
The handsome, colorfully designed book recounts the folk tales in simple, straightforward language. The stories are funny, sad, poignant and always moving (Arizona Daily Sun, June 9, 1992).
Book World Washington Post
In many of the stories, kindness to animals is urged. Of the stories with this theme, I especially liked 'The Man Who Changed into a God,' perhaps because its sense of justice most nearly matches my own. (Washington Post Book World, Sunday, July, 1992).
Folklore is both literature and an ethnographic record. Sexton's collection can be appreciated from a wide variety of perspectives that fall somewhere between the literary and the ethnographic. ...the collection serves splendidly the purpose of a wide variety of readers. All levels (Choice, May, 1993).
Colonial Latin America Historic Revie
This wonderful collection of stories from the rich Mayan mythic heritage contains a panorama of tales about witches, shamans, spiritualists, and picaresque figures who inhabit the upper and underworlds.
Resulting from twenty years of careful field research by an esteemed anthropologist, this assembly is a rich array of enduring legends and tales sustained in the Mayan heritage. The work favors known folk heroes and narratives endemic to Mayan culture. Sexton includes classic, vital accounts of fables, legends and cautionary tales and rituals. His lucid collection provides glimpses of ancient and contemporary examples of folk narrative that reflect the values and beliefs thriving in this exotic, tropical land (Come-All-Ye, V. 13, Fall 1992).
The diaries (Son of Tecun Uman: A Maya Indian Tells His Life Story 1981; Campesino: The Diary of a Guatemalan Indian 1985; Ignacio) and the folktales weave together to provide one of the most important sets of documents we have for Guatemala and Mesoamerica. The folktales display aspects of the Tzutuhil worldview and affective life not found in the diaries. For example, in life, a strict morality governs relations between the spouses. In art, there is a tense, lusty, more open relationship. In life, laziness is a scandal, nearly a sin. In art, laziness combined with cunning can pay off. In origin myths, the Tzutuhil rework the Garden of Eden story and somehow make it less stern than the western version. The folktales also describe the morality of reciprocity, beliefs in ultimate justice, robust sexuality, Chaucerian priests, tricksters, and the Tzutuhil natural and supernatural landscape. Many of the tales are cautionary, reflections of what is and what ought to be, and many of them are strong, ribald, just plain racy, and funny stories. The Bizarro-Sexton team is a rare good event for Mesoamerican scholarship. They have produced documents of great value to ethnographers, historians, political scientists, community developers, folklorists, and the general audience. The documents will be mined and minded for generations (Ethnohistory, Vol. 30, 1993).
Mary Preuss
Since the early 1970s, James D. Sexton has been working with Ignacio Bizarro Ujpan, the pseudonym for a Tzutuhil Maya from the Guatemalan area of Lake Atitlan, in an effort to learn and record folktales. Their efforts can be appreciated in two delightful books: Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth and Other Mayan Folktales and Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

The stories captivate the reader's interest by various means. Beside providing a glimpse at the life and beliefs of the people, they are told in a way that allows the peruse to imagine that he or she is present. They also appeal to the emotions and imagination. The characters' nature and circumstances arouse sentiments that enable the reader to identify with and develop keen feelings about the actors.—Latin American Indian Literatures Journal

NACLA Report
A delightful collection by the eminent anthropologist and his Mayan collaborator. Written in an oral style, filled with ancient wisdom (NACLA Report on the Americas, May, 1992).
Publisher's Weekly
Anthropologist Sexton (Ignacio) has compiled nearly 40 folktales from the Mayan Indians, focusing on the Quiche-Maya of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala... They often demonstrate a bawdy sense of humor, as in the story of the promiscuous woman who eats her lover's sex organ and as a result dies of thirst. Others reveal an anti-technological strain (a rich man tries to send his son money by hanging it on the telegraph wire). Finally, the highly entertaining story of the Rabbit and Uncle Coyote, in which the clever rabbit constantly outwits the coyote, cannot help but remind readers of the African-American tales of Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox or modern "Roadrunner" cartoons--thus showing the universality of the emotions tapped by these myths. In an excellent introduction, Sexton contrasts the Guatemalan Mayans with their more familiar cousins in Mexico (Publishers Weekly, April 6, 1992).
Steven Robert Allen
Here you will find exotic traditional folklore, tales of gods and witches, curanderos and devils, the exploits of naguales (people who can change into animal forms), battles between good and evil, and cautionary tales which convey the ethical standards of an insular people. And if that doesn't get you excited there's also one hell of a lot of obscenity, sex and cheap laughs at other people's expense...Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala depicts an unromanticized indigenous culture that is often alien to most of us and fascinating to all.—Weekly Alibi
UCLA Magazine
The native tales in this collection offer a rich and lively panorama of Mayan mythic heritage, with a broad selection of both ancient and contemporary voices. Included are legends of witches and shamans, spiritualists, tricksters, and devils; fables of magic and metamorphosis; absurd and wild stories of love and life; and cautionary tales of the danger lurking within the human heart (UCLA Magazine, Fall 1992).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826321046
  • Publisher: University of New Mexico Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Pages: 299
  • Sales rank: 621,423
  • Lexile: 940L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

James D. Sexton is Regents' Professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University and is the author of many articles and books on cultural change in Guatemala's highland communities.

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Read an Excerpt

The Hill of Chua Kapoj

This hill is located in the southeastern part of our town. Chua Kapoj, or Xe Kapoj, it is called in the Tzutuhil language. It is not known exactly in what year it happened, but they say it is true because almost all the people know and tell this story, which they have learned from their ancestors.

In the past, two or three centuries ago, there was the obligation of each Joseno inhabitant to participate in the dances of the deer, lebal [Tzutuhil name of a dance],4 monkeys, the conquest, and the Moors. They say that the alcalde, or mayor, made the dances obligatory, that each citizen had to be a dancer, and that in each fiesta of the town the dances were presented.

The day for rehearsal was Easter Saturday, a day after Good Friday. The mayor ordered that each family provide a dancer for the dance of the conquest. The inhabitants said yes. All were obliged because there were few townspeople. Even the poorest families had to provide a dancer.

In this kind of dance there were two boys and two girls of 15 years of age who represented the great Quiche king. Well, they looked for the two young people, but one of the poorest parents didn't want his daughter to dance. Since it was mandatory, however, he had to say yes so that he would not spend time in jail.

The father counted each rehearsal with more pain because he didn't have money to rent the traje [suit] for the dance. They say that this man was the poorest of the Josenos. His work was to fetch water for the people and to chop wood, but only once in a while did he sell some reales [money] worth of firewood. With these jobs he only earned money for food for his wife and child, but never was this man able to save any reales. He planned to save for the renting of the suit for his daughter, but he never was able.

Each day the fiesta drew closer. Half the month of June passed, and everyone went to Totonicapan and Santa Cruz del Quiche to rent a suit for the dance, and everyone traveled according to their means. The only one who didn't go was the father of the girl because he couldn't obtain the money.

When the rest of the dancers returned, they exploded bombas [fireworks shot from mortars] in the place called Chua Cruz, a place very respected by the Tzutuhiles, which in those times, they still took care of as a sacred place. When the father of the girl heard the sound of the bombas, he began to cry bitterly and cursed life. Each day he grew weaker from sadness, but he could do nothing to get money. The day before the beginning of the dance the father decided to flee the town so that he would not have to spend the fiesta in jail. In the early morning he made a costumbre [ritual] asking the dios del mundo [god of the world, or earth] to help them because it was certain that they found themselves in a precarious situation.

After doing the costumbre, the man said good-bye to his woman and daughter, who before he left gave him a few tortillas and salt for his food. He left his house very early so that no one would see him fleeing from the great imprisonment that awaited him. He left his house crying, and when he arrived in the place called Chua Cruz, he began to cry again, feeling shame and a lot of worry because he had left his woman and daughter who would suffer the drastic action of the alcalde.

After crying in Chua Cruz, he continued until he reached Cerro Cristalin, and there he began to cry again, despising himself for having been born so disgraceful, cursing his parents because they had been born so unfortunate and poor. When he quit crying, he began to eat a tortilla with salt. This he was doing when suddenly a young boy about twenty years of age arrived. He said: "Where are you going and what are you looking for? Do you feel a little sad?"

The man said: "I don't know where I'm going. I don't have any address. I'm fleeing from my house." The man told him all his feelings and about his poverty.

"Why are you sad? Don't you know that the fiesta of your town is very soon and you can return," the boy told him.

The man answered the young muchacho, "I am feeling sad, really sad. I have left my wife and my daughter. I'm fleeing sad, and my wife and daughter will spend the fiesta in jail. I don't have money, I'm very poor. My work is to carry water to the people, to split firewood, and to sell some reales worth of firewood, and with this I earn the food for my wife and daughter. The mayor obliged my daughter to dance in the fiesta, and pity that when everyone went to get his traje, I didn't go because I didn't have money to rent the suit. Tomorrow begins the dance, and my daughter cannot dance. I'm sure that my daughter and wife will be put in jail because the alcalde is very wicked."

Then the young boy told him: "Don't cry anymore. It is I, the King and Lord of the Hills. Mine is all the gold and silver. I am powerful over everything, the visible and invisible. I have a lot of costumes for dancing. I'm the owner of all the invisible department stores. Mine are all the animals of the earth: the lions, jaguars, monkeys, and deer. I have a lot of game inside the hill. The pacas and the armadillos serve me as chairs and benches when I want to sit down. When an animal commits a fault, or when they do not respect me, my latigos [whips] are the snakes, hitting them. My policemen are the wolves, my alguaciles [runners] are the coyotes. When chickens do something wrong, they are for eating. I just order the coyotes to go to the town to steal and bring a number of chickens from the people. I have a lot of helpers to take care of the animals when I go on visits. Poor man, don't be sad. I'll give you what you need, but first I will warn you. Don't tell anyone about these things that you are seeing and hearing because if you do, you will suffer and die."

Only this the man heard. In a blink of an eye he was in an incomparable place, seeing much wealth in a spacious place but a place where one couldn't see the sun or the moon. One couldn't see the illumination, but it wasn't dark. The owner opened many doors, and they arrived where there were suits for the dance of the conquest. He said, "Look for a traje for your daughter to wear so that she can dance. The trajes began to talk and offered themselves as the finest trajes.

But a man very different from the dueno [owner] spoke with the poor man, "Senor, if you take a traje, you must look for an older suit because if you take a new suit your daughter will die and come to this hill." Obeying, the poor man began to look foran old suit.

The dueno of the hill, however, told the poor man he could take a new suit but to take care not to tell anyone. "If you tell anyone, your daughter will come here for sure. These things only you and I will know."

This is the way it was when the poor man entered inside and then left the hill. In a blink of an eye the father of the girl returned to the place where he was when he met the dueno of the hill.

It seemed that the man had been there only an hour, but he had been there a day and a night. He went back very happy because he had a suit.

When he arrived home, the dance had already started. His wife was in jail and his daughter was hiding because of the shame that she had not been able to go to dance. The man ran to the house of the alcalde to ask for the liberty of his wife. His daughter was ready to dance, and the mayor set his wife free. Thus they arrived at two in the afternoon and visited their daughter. The wife admired the traje because it was incomparable.

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Table of Contents

Introduction xi
The Hill of Chua Kapoj 3
The Story of the Red Brujo (Witch) of the Hill 9
The Story of the Daughter of a King Who Was Carried away by a Poor Person 11
The Man Who Changed into a God 17
The Story of the Rabbit and His Uncle Coyote: A Tzutuhil Story 24
The Story of the Man (Devil) Who Was Put Inside a Tecomate 38
Story of Sebastiana 43
The Story of the Mouse and the Man 47
Story of the Priest When He was Invited to a Birthday Party 48
The Story of the Poder (Power, Ability) of Persons When They Are Born 52
Story of the Dance of the Deer 58
Creation Myth 65
Story of the Lazybonesand the Perfect Intendant 84
Story of the Gods of Corn 90
Story of the Dance of the Conquest 97
The Three Hombres Who Went to Look for Pacayas 115
The Woman Who Loved Many Hombres and Died from Drinking a Lot of Water and a Piece of Sausage that She Had Eaten 121
The Woman Characotel 127
The Characoteles Who Meet Every Twenty Days in the House of the True Jefe 132
The Two Real Children of God: There Were only Two, The Grandfather and Grandmother 139
The Story of Mariano the Buzzard 147
Dance of the Mexicans 151
Dance of the Flying Monkey 153
The Four Indians of Samayac 158
The Two Lazy Men 163
The Padre Picaro 168
The Padre Who Wants the Wealth 176
The Woman and the Guardian 185
Story of Don Chebo 193
The Story of the Lazy Man Who Got to Be King of a Town 200
Story of Chema Tamales 206
Tale of Two Compadres 217
Story of the Enchanted Hill, Tun Abaj 221
The Story of the Hunter Compadre 225
The Goodnatured Father and His Little Horses of Gold 231
Notes 237
References Cited 255
Acknowledgments 259
Glossary 261
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