Readings for this Audio Essay

(PDFs listed above are available within the Learning Management System, or Blackboard.)

Audio Essay Transcript


I’m Steve Anderson, and this audio essay or podcast is about Origin Myth readings in Latin American history.

This audio essay discusses Maya, Aztec, Inca, and Spanish primary source documents. The term “primary source” means that these documents were written by eye witnesses, during or near the time when historical events took place.

Consider though, that these are also “Origin Myths” describing the beginnings of the universe of various peoples, and that they were written down or transferred into text not at the beginning of the universe itself, but during a time of great transition. These documents were transcribed just after the Spanish Conquest of the Americas, at the beginning of Spanish colonial rule in the New World.

As you listen, please have your readings out, either on the computer or in printed form, and as we go through the readings you can take notes. I find that downloading the PDFs to the computer, instead of viewing them in the browser window, makes them a little easier to navigate. I’ll pause between the documents so you can organize your readings.

The first thing to keep in mind while you’re reading the Origin Myths, is the date of the documents. Notice that the indigenous readings from the Maya, Aztec, and Inca are all dated after the Discovery of the Americas, after the arrival of Columbus in 1492.

The original, indigenous Origin Myths were either pictographs written in the form of a codex such as with the Maya and Aztec, or oral stories that were never written down such as with the Inca. For our class, however, we are reading text-based documents in English. The translations from indigenous languages to Spanish were made possible by the friars and priests that accompanied the Spanish conquistadors. Later scholars and historians then translated the Spanish documents into the English versions we have here.

For the Spaniards, the idea was to convert the Indians of the New World to Catholicism, and in the process indigenous history and religion were documented and preserved for further study. Most often, the friars and priests that studied indigenous religion did so in an attempt to root-out and destroy it — they believed it was to blame for the so-called paganism and witchcraft practiced by the Indians.

All of these stories, including Genesis, have much longer histories than the dates would suggest. As you read through the documents, keep in mind that in the attempt to document the history, the Spanish friars and priests were also changing the stories, sometimes in subtle ways, and other times quite explicitly.

All five of these readings are referred to as “myths” — they are historical folktales or religious stories told over many generations, and in many versions, over hundreds or perhaps even thousands of years. In modern times, some tend to see myths as fictional or magical, but this does not make them untrue. With careful reading, you’ll be able to find many essential truths for each particular culture, and perhaps for all of humanity as well.

Maya – Popol Vuh

The first Origin Myth reading is the “Popol Vuh,” or the “Community Book,” a Quiché Maya Origin Myth transcribed into Spanish by Maya lords in the mid 1500s. The Quiché Maya were located in the area that is now the country of Guatemala, and other Maya groups extended outwards into the Yucatan peninsula as well.

Notice that the first page number here is page 16. Each reading comes from a different source or book, and the page numbers are not the same across all of the readings.

On first page here, or page 16, begins an introduction to the primary source reading, and the actual primary-source text begins on page 18.

A few important points to consider about the Popol Vuh:

  1. Consider the role of animals and food — especially maize.
  2. Also consider the roles of men and women, as well as the power of spoken words or breath.
  3. Notice in the Introduction to the reading, that the Popol Vuh was not written as an Origin Myth for all of the peoples of the world, but for a very specific group instead. And yet, many of the themes in the Popol Vuh are universal and shared by other Mesoamerican peoples.

We’ll go on to the second reading now by the Aztecs, the “Origin of the Nahuas and the Birth of the Fifth Sun” — pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Aztec – The Origin of the Nahuas and the Birth of the Fifth Sun

For this second reading, the Nahuas are the larger group of peoples from the central and northern areas of Mexico. A small subset of this group were the Aztecs, which were the ruling classes of lords, nobles and elected leaders in the region. The capital of the Aztecs was Tenochtitlan, the floating city in the Valley of Mexico. The term “Aztec” was not used by the Nahua people, the word was invented by later historians to help describe the empire and its culture. For purposes of our class, we can use the terms “Nahua” and “Aztec” somewhat interchangeably — the Aztecs spoke Nahuatl, an indigenous language that is still used on a daily basis by many people in Mexico.

The first page, or page 25 of this document, is an introduction to the reading. Three pages in, or on page 27, the primary source begins with “The Historia Eclesiástica Indiana,” or the Ecclesiastical, or Religious History of the Indians.

Here are a few important points to consider in the reading:

  1. First, consider the role of the Christian friars in interpreting the Nahua story. How would this be different from the previous Maya reading?
  2. Notice the importance of destiny, purpose, and acceptance, as well as betting and luck.
  3. Consider the importance of the sun, and also the precariousness of its movement, or passing through the sky.

The next reading, the Huarochirí Manuscript is by the Incas. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Inca, the Huarochirí Manuscript

The introduction for the Huarochirí Manuscript is much shorter than the previous two, just a paragraph, and the primary source begins with “A long, long time ago….”

In each of the readings, be sure to look up any words or phrases that might not be familiar, such as “lousy” (which means covered in lice, and a way to view indigenous priests or shaman as powerful), also “auto-da-fé” (these words translate literally as “act of faith,” but it means a bonfire, often the burning of books, religious artifacts deemed heretical, or even people — colloquially, this would be referred to as being “burned at the stake”).

Much as the previous two readings, the action within the Huarochirí Manuscript takes place before people such as you and I inhabited the Earth. This is the time of the gods, before regular people, when the essential characteristics of life and nature were still being formed.

Some items to consider for this reading:

  1. First, consider the role of trickery in this story. Are there any morals being told, and how would these effect the audience, which might include young Andean children?
  2. Animals are again central to the story, but notice which animals are present (for example, this story takes place before there was a “single fish in the ocean”). Consider what the animals do, and how they interact with one another.
  3. Consider the wisdom of children in this mythical time, and also flattery, truth, and consequence.

Our fourth reading is also on Inca religion and culture. Pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings for “The Origins of the Incas.”

Inca, The Origins of the Incas

This reading, “The Origin of the Incas,” was written by Garcilaso de la Vega, also known as “El Inca.” As a mestizo, or half-Spanish/half-Indian person, El Inca inhabited two cultural worlds. El Inca wrote down the “Origin of the Incas” in an attempt to capture an oral history, it was a way of preserving a culture that was changing rapidly in the wake of the Spanish Conquest.

The introduction to this reading is also short, only a paragraph before the primary source begins with “While these people were living or dying…”

Some items to consider for this reading:

  1. First, notice that El Inca is considered “one of the most unreliable chroniclers” in the introduction — how does this compare to the documentary practices of the Spanish friars and priests?
  2. Consider the role of history and books, or the documentation of culture and religion in a text-based format.
  3. The origin story El Inca is about writing about begins on page 52, the last paragraph just after “The Inca said….” In effect, we have two introductions to this primary source, one from a modern historian, and one from El Inca himself. What effect does the introduction by El Inca have on the story?

The fifth or last reading is “Genesis” from the Catholic Bible. You can pause the recording here to organize your notes and readings.

Spain & Catholicism – Genesis

The story of Genesis might be more familiar to many of you than the previous readings. As you read Genesis, consider it as an historical document more so than a religious text to be taken on faith. Just as with the previous readings, look for the hidden meanings and morals, and consider why this document would be important for Catholicism and Christianity.

Remember that the Spanish conquistadors, friars, and priests, all knew this story well. In the 16th century, during the Conquest of the Americas, to be Spanish was was also to be a proud and well-versed Catholic.

In “Genesis,” Chapter 3, the eating of the fruit from the tree of knowledge is known as “The Fall” or “The Fall of Man.” This is also referred to as “original sin,” a sinfulness which is transferred from Adam and Eve to the rest of humankind through ancestry. Consider that ancestry and lineage play a key role in all of the Origin Myth readings.

Some further points for Genesis:

  1. First, when does the story take place? Who is present, and who does the storytelling — and how does this compare to the other readings?
  2. How do plants, animals, and geography compare with the other readings?
  3. What is the role of men and women? How are they created, and why?

Thanks for listening, and if you have any additional questions before you write your Blog Posts, please post them to the discussion board, “Questions for Steve.”