X is for Xbalanque

Published April 28, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


(Throughout the following post, please remember that in most Mesoamerican languages, the sound indicated by the letter “x” is actually “sh.”)

Xbalanque’s story, if you want the whole story, is very long, and it begins with his father and his uncle.  These two, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, were very talented at the ball game, and very excited by the the game, and their own skill at it.  Since the game involved running back and forth across a stone court and trying to get a stone ball through a stone hoop, it could get very noisy, and the gods who ruled in Xibalba, the spirit realm below our own, were not pleased at all the noise.  They called the brothers down to their realm, and challenged them to a ballgame.  But their ball had a blade on it, and they used it to cut off the heads of noisy surface dwellers, which is just what happened to Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu.  Since Hun Hunahpu was the elder of the two, the lords of Xibalba hung his head from a calabash tree as a trophy to celebrate their victory, and the return of peace and quiet to the lands above.

That should have been the end of the story, but it wasn’t.  One of the lords of Xibalba had a daughter named Xquic, and one day she went to the calabash tree, looking for its fruit.  As she reached up towards the tree, the head of Hun Hunahpu spat in her hand.  From this, Xquic ended up pregnant.  Ashamed of her condition, she fled from Xibalba, and went to the surface world, where she was taken in by Hun Hunahpu’s reluctant mother.

In due time, Xquic gave birth to twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.  These twins were not well regarded by their grandmother, or their cousins, who also lived with their grandmother.  In fact their cousins — who were quite a few years older than they were — tormented them mercilessly.  Eventually, the twins grew so fed up with this torment that they tricked their cousins into climbing a tree, which suddenly began to grow higher and higher, and then they told their cousins to take off their loincloths and tie them around their waists with the end trailing behind them.  The twins claimed this would help their cousins climb down…and in a way it did, because as soon as they had done so, the loincloths became tails, and the cousins became monkeys.  They were able to get down that way, but they couldn’t return to their homes and their lives.

Once Hunahpu and Xbalanque were adults, they found themselves up against a god called Vucub Caquix, who sometimes claimed to be the sun, and sometimes claimed to be the moon, even though he was neither one.  Vucub Caquix had a whole horde of dangerous followers, and the storm god Huracan had asked them to get rid of Vucub Caquix before he could cause any more trouble.  They tried to fight him with weapons, but Vucub Caquix was too powerful for that, and so they had to use their wits and trick him into letting them take away everything that made him who he was.  Without those things, Vucub Caquix faded away.  But his sons remained, and they were also quite dangerous, so Hunahpu and Xbalanque tricked them, too, and were soon victorious once more.

It was not long after this that Hunahpu and Xbalanque discovered that they could use their phenomenal power to make their lives easier.  When their grandmother set them the task of clearing away some of the forest, they found that they had but to swing the axe once to do what other men would do in a while day — or maybe even several days!  They were able to spend the whole day goofing off, and so long as they were covered in dust and wood chips when the day was through, their grandmother couldn’t tell the difference.  But then one morning they went back and found their work of the day before undone.  So that night, they hid in the forest, and waited to see who was responsible.  They found that it was a group of forest animals who came secretly in the night to replant their forest home.  The twins tried to catch the animals, reaching for their tails as they fled.  They were able to grab the tails of the deer and the rabbit, but the tails snapped, and due to the magic of the twins, the new short tails were inherited by all future generations.  The rat they were able to catch, and the burned off all the hair on his tail.  He begged for mercy, promising them that he could do them a favor if they would let him go.

The twins relented, and he told them where they could find the the paraphernalia for the ballgame that their father and uncle had left behind.  Their grandmother had hidden it after the ballgame got her sons killed.  With the help of the rat, Hunahpu and Xbalanque were able to trick their mother and grandmother into leaving the house so they could retrieve the equipment and learn to play for themselves.

Delighted with their success, they soon sussed out the rules, and began playing the ballgame with every bit as much noise as their father had.

Once again, the lords of Xibalba were ticked off, and called down their unruly upstairs neighbors.  So the twins duly went down to see the lords of Xibalba, who set up a number of tricks and traps for them on the way — as they had for their father and uncle — but the twins saw through each one, and survived the first of the deadly tests the lords of Xibalba put them through.  Worried by Hunahpu and Xbalanque’s abilities, the lords skipped the rest of the steps, and went straight for the challenge to a ballgame.  The twins accepted, knowing full well that the ball would also be a trap.

Hunahpu used a racket on the ball to knock it out of play, and pointed out the blades hidden within, objecting that the Xibalbans weren’t trying to play the game, but merely trying to kill them…which was, of course, quite true.  They said they would go back to the surface without playing, and so the Xibalbans allowed them to use their own ball, and they played the game for real.

For real, except that the twins lost on purpose.  In punishment for the loss, they were sent to the Razor House, a deadly trap that should have killed them, had the twins not possessed their amazing gifts.  The next day, another game ensued, with the same result, though they were sent to a different trapped house.  They survived Razor House, Cold House, Jaguar House and Fire House without any difficulty, but then they were sent to Bat House.  At first it went well, as they had brought an excellent hiding place with them.  But towards the dawn, Hunahpu stuck his head out to see if it was safe, and was decapitated.

The lords of Xibalba thought that meant they had won at last, and started playing the ballgame using Hunahpu’s head as the ball.  But Xbalanque had tricks up his sleeve that the Xibalbans would never have guessed.  First, Xbalanque created a temporary head for his brother with the help of the animals, then he and his brother managed to substitute a gourd for Hunahpu’s head during a lull in the game.  With the return of his head, Xbalanque was able to fully restore Hunahpu.

Once the lords of Xibalba saw both twins walking around uninjured, they became desperate.  They built a huge oven to burn the twins up entirely.

The twins knew what their foes were planning, and they had plans of their own, so they pretended to be tricked, and entered the oven.  They were burnt up, and their bones crushed into a powder, which was then cast into the river.  The lords of Xibalba was now certain that they had seen the last of Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

But the powder formed up into a pair of catfish, swimming around in the river and gaining strength.  Then they turned into a pair of boys.

The people of Xibalba didn’t know that these mysterious boys who came out of the river were really Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so they welcomed them, and were soon amazed at their magical talents.  And there was much to be amazed at:  they would burn houses down and then restore them as if the fire had never touched them, and they could even sacrifice one another and revive them, as if death itself was just their plaything.

They performed the same types of miracles before the lords of Xibalba, but soon witnessing them wasn’t enough for the lords, and the two most powerful wanted to experience the miracles first hand.  In a classic mistake, they demanded that they, too, be cut up and revived, just as these boys had done to each other.

The boys were quite obliging…about the cutting up part.  But they naturally refused to revive the dead Xibalbans.  When the others demanded to know why they would do such a thing, only then did the two boys reveal themselves to be Hunahpu and Xbalanque, sons of Hun Hunahpu, whom the Xibalbans had mercilessly slaughtered so long ago.

The remaining Xibalbans pleaded with the twins not to destroy them, apologizing for all their misdeeds.  They were allowed to keep their lives, but they lost all of Xibalba’s former glory.

The twins then went and found the parts of their father’s body and put him back together, trying to raise him from the dead, but it didn’t work properly.  Sorrowfully, the twins left Xibalba, climbing higher and higher, until they entered the sky and became the sun and the moon.

And the moral of the story is that noisy upstairs neighbors and people who destroy nature are to be punished, and that professional ballgames are the root of all evil.  Wait, no, that’s not the moral.  (It just should be.)

Right, so, comparisons…well, we’ll start with the basics.  The concept of the “hero twins” is a common one.  The Navajo and Sioux both have hero twins, and the latter have some similarities to the Mayan hero twins, whose story (I neglected to mention earlier) survives in the 16th century text of the Popol Vuh.  And, of course, there are the Greek heroic twins the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces.  (Or, if you prefer Rome to Greece, you could call them the Gemini, Castor and Pollux.)  On the whole, though, Hunahpu and Xbalanque seem to display more traits of the trickster than what we (in today’s world) think of as “the hero.”

Someone coming in during the night to undo damage that has been done during the day is also very common.  It’s one of those motifs in which the “good guys” can be on either side of the equation.  (For an example in modern popular culture where we’re rooting for the ones undoing, in the Asterix book Mansions of the Gods, the Romans are trying to build something in the forest, and spend every day clearing a space for it, but then every night the Gauls go in with enchanted acorns to make the trees grow back just as they were before.)

I feel sure that I’ve seen the notion of a (temporary) replacement head elsewhere — in European folklore, I think — but I can’t for the life of me remember where.  I am, at this point, starting to crack, unfortunately.

Anyway, on to what I consider the main comparison:  the manner in which the twins gain their vengeance on the lords of Xibalba.  This method of showing off one’s amazing skill at killing and then reviving in order to trick someone into asking for death is very familiar to me.  Though of course the version I’m familiar with added restoring youth into the mix, and in many versions it wasn’t the victim but the victim’s daughters who asked for the treatment, but close enough.  Naturally, I’m talking about Medea, and how she displayed her magical skills before King Pelias, cutting up either an old ram or his half-brother Aison (yes, there are versions where he’s not dead), and then how either Pelias or his daughters demanded that he, too, regain his youth that way, and so Medea gives them the cauldron and the potion so his daughters can restore Pelias’ youth…and funny thing, it doesn’t work!

(Yep…I can’t seem to get away from Greece in these things…)

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