Mayan FolktalesMayan Folktales

University of New Mexico Press

Albuquerque (trade paperback, March 1999, reprinted July 2002, January 2005, November 2006, June 2011, November 2013, January 2015)

Originally published by Doubleday/Anchor, New York, in May 1992 (reprinted 1992, 1994, and 1996)


Book Description:

This magnificent collection gathers together tales from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, to offer a rich and lively Mayan mythic heritage.  Compiled and translated by James D. Sexton, an eminent anthropologist, Mayan Folktales reflects nearly twenty years of research and travel, and offers the reader a broad selection of folkloric voices both ancient and contemporary.

Here are everyday tales of village life; legends of witches and shamans, spiritualists, tricksters, and devils; fables of magic and metamorphosis--of  naguales, or persons who have the power to change into animal forms; absurd and ribald stories of love and life; cautionary tales of strange and menacing neighbors, and of the danger lucking within the human heart.  These legends provide an explanation for the origin and creation of the world and the plants and animals in it.  They reinforce cultural beliefs and values, such as honest, industriousness, sharing, fairness, and cleverness, and reveal much about the natural habitat of Mayan civilization.

Whether tragic or comic, fantastic or earthy, whimsical or profound, these tales transport us to the haunting and mysterious world of the Maya, capturing its fragile majesty and power.


Excerpted from Mayan Folktales: Folklore from Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, translated and edited by James D. Sexton. Copyright © 1999. All rights reserved.

The Hill of Chua Kapoj [which is the title of the first folktale in the book] 

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 Joseño inhabitant to participate in the dances of the deer, lebal [Tzutuhil name of a dance], 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.5

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 Quiché 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 Joseños. 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 Totonicapán and Santa Cruz del Quiché 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 Cristalín, 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 feeling 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 látigos [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 dueño [owner] spoke with the poor man, "Señor, 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 for an old suit.

The dueño 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 dueño 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.

Then the girl went to dance, but when she arrived to dance, the people admired her and inquired where she had obtained the money to rent a new suit, among other things. The suits of the other dancers were put to shame, and the same dancers weren't able to dance as the daughter of the poor man danced. The most unique dancer with the most unique traje was the poor man's daughter. On the main day of the fiesta of San Juan, 24 June, all the dancers were dancing in the atrium of the church. Then the parents of the dancers began to drink a lot of chicha [corn liquor] with the mayor.

Then there was a procession with the young girl in front. When they were in the middle of the procession, suddenly a very strong wind came and nearly carried away the young girl. The people were very scared. Suddenly another wind blew even stronger and picked the girl up some meters into the air, but she fell on the ground where the other dancers were. The people were frightened because these things were happening.

When they finished the procession and drank more chicha, because the dance was very pleasant, a man asked the father of the girl, "Amigo, when you were having difficulties and went to get your daughter's traje, you got the most unique one of all! It's the most beautiful and newest! Before we left at the same time to get our suits, you told me that you didn't have any money, but you brought back the most beautiful suit of all, which makes ours look bad. You brought back the best suit of the fiesta!"

Under the glow of chicha, the father of the youngster confessed that he didn't have any money and that it was a gift of the dueño of the hill of Qui'talin. "I wasn't able to pay for the renting of this traje, and he only lent it to me for the fiesta. Afterward I'm I going to return it to the dueño of the hill. He told me not to tell anyone, but because I'm a little drunk, I'm telling you, my friend."

At this moment the youngster was dancing, and another strong wind came in the form of a hurricane, lifted her up, and turned her around many times above the church. The young girl was visible in the air, but the people were unable to do anything for her. The girl was in the air and the people were running behind after her, but they could do nothing to help her. They clearly saw the wind take her away in the sky to the hill. And from then on they called it Chua Kapoj, which is to say, the dwelling of the youngster.

When these things happened, the whole town was indignant and frightened because of all that had happened. At that moment they suspended the dance, and everyone was sad. And the father was repentant for having told his amigo.

Thus the young girl now lives in the hill, and her parents from pure grief died within 20 days. They were wrapped in palm mats because they were poor, and the two were put in the same tomb.

        --Ignacio Bizarro Ujpán


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