B is for Bacab

Published April 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

B

The Bacabs are four Mayan deities — or the aspects of a single quadripartite deity — who were associated with the cardinal directions.  Each was also associated with a color:  the northern Bacab was associated with white, the eastern Bacab with red, the southern Bacab with yellow, and the western Bacab with black.

I haven’t been able to find much in the way of myth associated with them, apart that they held up the sky, and had escaped when the world was destroyed in a flood.  (Guess I missed them yesterday, lol!)  Of course, if they were holding up the sky, then they obviously couldn’t do much without dropping it, and that would be bad…so they probably featured in a lot of now-lost stories of destruction at the ends of the various ages of the Mayan calendar.  (Or maybe they wouldn’t have; maybe there weren’t even such stories in the first place.  I didn’t have as much time to research as I wanted, due to class work and work work.)  In any event, the one myth I saw mentioned that featured them was one of upheaval on a truly massive, “I think we should call the Avengers” scale.  (Okay, that sounded totally out of left field, but…it’s less crazy than you think, between my post for today on my other blog and between my plans for today IRL.  And, now that I think about it, gods like these (but fictional ones, not ones stolen from a real culture) would make a pretty sweet opponent for a superhero team…)

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex.  Wikimedia Commons.

Bacabs, from the Madrid Codex. Wikimedia Commons.

As the gods who held up the sky — and had associations with weather, particularly rain — the Bacabs probably had a much larger ritual presence than a mythological one.  All the more so since the Maya had another set of four gods, the Chaacs, who had pretty much the same function, and who were closely associated — perhaps even somewhat conflated — with the Bacabs.  (And yes, the Chaacs had been in the running for Monday’s post.  But I had fewer good options for B, so the Bacabs won.)

Okay, so that seemed a bit light, I know.  But now we get to the comparative side!

Obviously, an easy comparison is Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek mythology.  ‘Cause, you know, they both hold up the sky.  But that’s actually a pretty weak comparison.  After all, Atlas isn’t associated with any of the cardinal directions (in fact, his location was never quite certain and changed from version to version) and he isn’t associated with any colors as far as I know.  So let’s look for some better matches!

  • The Four Symbols.  Chinese (and Korean and Japanese).  This is very common in Japanese (and Korean) popular culture, so this was the first thing I thought of when I came across the Bacabs!  These four spirits are associated with colors and cardinal directions.  They also have animal forms and are not holding up the sky, but they are associated with constellations, so they are at least associated with the sky.  The northern spirit is the Black Turtle (Xuán Wū, or Genbu in Japanese), the eastern spirit is the Azure Dragon (Qīng Lóng, or Seiryu in Japanese), the southern spirit is the Vermilion Bird (Zhū Què, or Suzaku in Japanese), and the western spirit is the White Tiger (Baí Hǔ, or Byakko in Japanese).  None of the colors line up, but three colors are represented in both cases.  These four spirits are associated with the seasons, so that’s another tie to the rain and weather functions of the Bacabs, though again it’s not a perfect comparison.
  • The Four Heavenly Kings.  Buddhist.  This was the second comparison I thought of when I read about the Bacabs.  (Admittedly, I thought of them because I know their Japanese names from video games, but…ahem.  Moving on.)  They’re protective gods, and they don’t hold up the sky.  But they are associated with colors and the cardinal directions:  north (Vaiśravaṇa, or Bishamonten in Japanese) with yellow or green, east (Dhṛtarāṣṭra, or Jikokuten in Japanese) with white, south (Virūḍhaka or Zochoten in Japanese) with blue, and west (Virūpākṣa or Komokuten in Japanese) with red.  A number of the colors are the same, but not lined with the same direction.  (Which is hardly surprising.)  And their functions are different, so this is definitely a weak comparison when you get right down to it.
  • The Four Sons of Horus.  Egyptian.  Not a strong comparison, I’ll say that right now.  These four sons of Horus are each associated with a cardinal direction, but their primary role was as the heads on the canopic jars that received the Pharoah’s internal organs, and the jars were then left facing in the direction associated with the son of Horus in question.  (Though early canopic jars had the Pharaoh’s own head depicted on them.)  I saw an image on Wikimedia — a modern drawing of canopic jars — that depicted each jar a different color, and three of the four lined up exactly with the colors on the Four Heavenly Kings, but I don’t think that had anything to do with ancient Egyptian belief, and was modern cross-pollination of ideas, or whatever that might be called.  (Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.  I’m no Egyptologist.)
  • The four dwarves who hold up the dome of the sky.  Norse.  Now this is a pretty good comparison!  They’re holding up the sky from the four corners of the world, just like the Bacabs.  They don’t have colors associated with them, and they probably didn’t see much in the way of worship (especially considering Norse dwarves turned to stone when hit by sunlight) but they’re still a pretty strong parallel.  Their names translate to Northern, Eastern, Southern and Western, and they’re believed to be associated with the four winds.

I didn’t find any perfect comparisons for the Bacabs — apart from the Chaacs, and even that’s a flawed comparison since they’re both Mayan — but there are several strong points of comparison between four cultures that are all quite distant and different from the Mayan culture.  (And also I found a Hindu comparison that I elected to leave out because it wasn’t four gods associated with the four cardinal directions, but eight gods associated with eight directions.)

Of course, the four cardinal directions are pretty universal.  Or rather, they’re always there, whether a culture comes to acknowledge them as important or not.  (Whether or not they are, in fact, important is a metaphysical speculation that I don’t really have time for right now.)  And colors are present in every culture, no matter how they’re named or recognized.  Beings holding up the sky…are also not uncommon.  After all, you cannot personally touch the sky (unless you’re on some really psychadelic medications) so it has to be far away, and before the advent of modern science, coming to the conclusion that it’s a dome of air and the color we see is the way it refract the light is not likely.  So some other explanation had to be arrived at, and some god(s) — or monster(s) — holding up the sky is as likely an explanation as any other, perhaps even a more likely explanation than any other.  (As silly as Aristotle’s crystal dome may sound to us now, it was actually an amazing leap forward in scientific thought at the time.)

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