Mayan Worldview

The Indigenous Subplot

My Mayan studies have revealed what I like to call the “indigenous subplot,” the story of humankind that indigenous peoples have long been aware of but to which modern society has been oblivious.  Their worldview provides a sweepingly different sense of human history, a poignant way of relating to each other and a deepened sense of personal and collective identity.

My research has shown that three consistent themes permeate Mayan and other indigenous worldviews. The components of the "subplot" are:

1.)  Enormous amounts of time, often referred to as “world ages”

To the Hopi, we are in the Fourth and final age, the Inca believe that we are nearing the end of the fifth and moving towards the sixth. The Vedics of India use the Yugas, or world ages, which indicate that we are now in the Kali Yuga, the Iron Age, a stage of depravity, ignorance, greed and delusion but headed for the Satya Yuga, the Golden Age. The Maya and other Mesoamericans believe that we are in the process of shifting from the fourth to the fifth age, passing from the Vale of the Nine Hells to the Time of Warning, popularly known as “The Shift of the Ages.”

2.) Existence of prehistoric civilizations on our planet

The Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures believe that the creator made several versions of people, the current version fashioned from maize (Indian corn). As seen in the Popul Vuh, highly revered as the Kiché Mayan bible and one of only five remaining texts of the ancient Maya, the Gods tried several times to create sentient beings of greatness. Previous peoples were made from other materials such as mud and wood but, because they did not possess or develop the capacity to worship the creator, those cycles perished. Each of the ages was ruled by a God of an element, such as wind, fire or water, and was destroyed by the opposite element, i.e., the world of fire was destroyed by water.  The people made from corn are the most advanced version of the species to date, because they know how to speak, pray, make offerings and perform ceremony to the gods and the “Maker, Modeler, Bearer, Begetter.”

3.) Extra-terrestial, intelligent life forms have visited and influenced people of the Earth

The other common theme found in indigenous creation stories is that earth has been visited by beings from the sky that helped the creator establish a new civilization. Some groups believe these beings come from star constellations of Sirius, Orion or, as the Mayan tell it, Pleiades. Don Alejandro, a 13th generation Quiché Elder told the story (verbatim) to our group as follows:

"In the beginning, the Maya were created out of maize, white corn for the bones, yellow corn for the flesh, black corn for the hair and eyes and red corn for the blood. At this time there was no light, no joy and no knowledge found within the people. When the creator heard their anguished cries for help, he sent four prophets from Pleiades to assist the creation of the Maya in the location that we now know as Maya land in Central America. The people were perplexed about life and how to live it and the prophets taught them everything they needed to know. They showed them that they had everything they needed to live a good life. They began to chant for light to come and, one day, they saw something in the sky start to shine. It was Venus. They gave an offering, collecting sap from different types of trees, incense. They called everyone together to see Venus from a mountain and this was the first ceremony. Half-way through the ceremony they saw a beautiful light come to the earth. It came in the form of an Elder wearing a white tunic. The Elder thanked them and asked them to teach their children about ceremony. “I am the heart of the heavens. I am the heart of the air. I am the heart of the earth. I am the heart of the water. Earth is yours, populate her.” Then, he left.

It became dark again. The people felt sad and deceived. As they were sitting there in their sadness, they noticed that one side was lighter than the opposite side. Maybe there was hope and joy coming back to them. It was then that they saw the first light of the sun and began to celebrate. The four prophets lived here for many years, married and had children. When they got old, they gathered the community and told them that their time was up. The people again asked, where did you come from? They pointed to the group of stars.

The prophets took their sacred bundles and went to rest. After many hours of sleeping the people came to wake them. They lifted up their clothing but the bodies were gone. They came the same way they left. They left many things, scriptures, calendars, glyphs, engraved stones."

Don Alejandro has told this story to a wide range of audiences around the world, including indigenous people from every continent and academics from well-respected institutions. At a conference at Harvard University where leaders from many traditions were participating, representatives from East India and China confirmed that his story was the same as theirs. They invited him to their countries to see the same glyph that he had drawn. They honored him because his work was opening people’s minds. According to Don Alejandro, he has seen this glyph in Mt. Abu, India, and at Angkor Wat in Cambodia and uses this story to accentuate that we are all one and came from the same source.

Don Alejandro's "Drawing in the Dirt"

The day following this teaching, I asked Don Alejandro to expound on the connections among indigenous people. We were walking on a path in Tikal and he reached into the brush to grab a stick. With it, he sketched the figure below to further explain this prophecy.

He said that the prophets from Pleiades first came to Mesoamerica to establish the Maya, then they returned to Pleiades. (Note: The arrows in the figure show this back and forth movement.) Later, they returned to the earth again, this time to the area around Greece and Egypt and created the Cara Maya, returning, once again to Pleiades. They made four round trips, to India to create the Naga Maya, and then to the land where Cambodia is today. 

The Mayan creation story as told by Don Alejandro sounds magical, mythical and impossible to the Western mind which has no similar frame of reference. However, his teachings raise questions that have been pondered for centuries by researchers, explorers and independent thinkers. Documentation for Don Alejandro’s teachings is supportive but indirect and comes in a variety of forms, i.e., antiquated documents archived in research libraries, subtle references in scientific writings, new-age analysis and media stories about the use of modern technology to answer age-old questions. The nature of scientific discovery limits the anthropologic and archeological scope to the reconstruction of the physical and mental nature of the ancient Maya, and the independent researchers offer insight into their spirituality.

Evidence for Previous Civilizations

Research about the connectivity of the Maya’s connection with other ancient civilizations has been capturing the attention of Westerners dating back to the early 19th century. After almost three hundred years of oppressive rule under the Spanish conquistadors, Guatemala and much of the rest of Central America became independent from Spain. At that point in time, more scientifically styled explorations ensued, ushered in by the first archeologist in Maya land, Augustus Le Plongeon, a Franco-American savant and M.D.  He wrote about the striking similarities of the Maya with other ancient world cultures of Asia, Africa and Europe that he had also visited.

LePlongeon believed that these resemblances could not have been accidental and were connected in some way. He stated “such similarities are not merely effects of hazard, but the result of intimate communications that must have existed between all of them; distance was no greater an obstacle to their intercourse than it is today.”  He insisted, to the contrary of most Mayanists at the time, that the Maya predated the Egyptians. The Maya he encountered called their land “Mayach” and inspired him to analyze the universality of the name “Maya” throughout Japan, the Asia Pacific, Hindustan, Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, equatorial Africa and the Americas. He demonstrated the word “Maya” is synonymous with ancient wisdom, learning and power. He was steadfast in his belief that “the Egyptians boasted, according to Herodotus, (the 5th century BCE Greek “Father of History”) that their ancestors, from the lands of the West, were the oldest men on earth.” 

...From the East

James Churchward, another 19th century Mesoamerican explorer, prehistorian, scholar and author of The Lost Continent of Mu, based his thesis on two different sets of ancient records, the Naacal tablets discovered in India and the Codex Cortesianus of the Maya. He claims that the Indian tablets came through Burma, which was once a part of the Angkor Wat civilization in what is now Cambodia. He quotes Valmiki, compiler of the Mahabharata which is India’s biggest cosmological and ideological work which ascertains the origins of Hindustan.

"The sun had not yet risen above the horizon when the Maya, great navigators, terrible warriors and learned architects conquered the southern parts of the Indo-Chinese peninsula and established themselves there. The Maya adepts, the Naacals, starting from this land of their birth in the East, as missionaries of religion and learning, went first to Burma and there taught the Nagas. From Burma they went to the Deccan India, where they carried their religion and learning to Babylonia and Egypt."

Churchward also cites a linguistic study conducted by 19th century German philologist and Orientalist Max Műller, considered the originator of comparative religious studies. Műller compared “words among the ancient languages of Sanskrit, Zend (Persia), Greek, Latin and English to show that they all came from a distant and singular source that may be traced to the ancient Mayan language.” 


...From the Theosophists - Africa

In the same era and in the same vein, Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophist movement in 1875, and strong supporter for Műller’s work, noted that the sandals worn by the Chac Mool sculptures in the Yucatan, Mexico, were of the same design as what had been found on the feet of the indigenous Guanches in the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast.


All of the mentioned pioneers in world religious studies were operating amidst the earliest forms of archeology and anthropology and based their findings solely on observation and common sense. Independent of scientific convention, they were often ridiculed by those upholding the principles of the establishment.

...From the Modern Maya

For centuries the Maya themselves did not openly or actively participate in research. Don Alejandro told us that since the time of the conquest the Maya hid in the mountains and, for fear of their lives, kept their knowledge among themselves, passing it to future generations through the oral tradition. Many of the outstanding discoveries of Mayan sacred sites were not made until the 1940’s; among them the stele of Cobá depicting the Mayan Long Count calendar and the opening of Mayan ruler Pacal Votan’s sarcophagus in Palenque. By the 1980’s these discoveries brought a new breed of spiritual explorer and an entire new-age movement tied to ancient teachings. An unprecedented event, the Harmonic Convergence of August 16-17, 1987, led by artist, author and writer Jose Arguelles and his wife Lloydine, synchronized gatherings at sacred sites all over the world with focused attention on the global awakening of love and the countdown to the Mayan calendar end date of 2012. Arguelles’ contact with shamans and ceremonial leaders encouraged the first Mayan elders to come forward to tell their story to Westerners.

To date, few Mayans have published findings in English, which was part of the impetus for my ethnographic study. Most historical documentation was compiled through the eyes of Spanish clergy or early European explorers, though Mayans were invaluable guides that assisted the Western efforts. One of the first Mayans to be published in English is ceremonial leader and scholar Hunbatz Men. Written for his own  people, then translated into English, Men’s work explains ancient Mayan cosmology and compares the Maya with the ancient cultures of India and Tibet.  In Ku’ is Sacred in Maya, Ku’s is Sacred in Tibet, Men analyzes the linguistics of spiritual terms in both languages and includes interviews with Tibetan monks regarding their likenesses. His emphasis is that the monks and the Mayans consider themselves brothers in sharing the expanded sense of world history that includes previous prehistoric civilizations. Men cites the work by Valmiki, stating that the Naga Maya are referred to as those who brought their culture to India in 2700 BCE.

Similar to Le Plongeon’s linguistic work, Men demonstrates that the word “Maya” means “ancestor” and translates in Greek to Cara Maya, in Hindustan to Naga Maya and in Africa to Mayax. This correlates to what Don Alejandro told us while drawing in the dirt. Making phonetic comparisons between Greek and Mayan, Men suggests the existence of one language thousands of years ago which “fell into linguistic confusion with the separation of the continents.”

...From Contemporary Researchers

Contemporary orthodox scholars do not refer to prehistoric civilizations. Instead, the assertion is that the Maya of Guatemala have lived there for more than two thousand years and experienced a long continuum of mutual, commercial influence with the Toltecs of Mexico. Connections made with far distant civilizations is derived from the Popul Vuh reference to travel “across the sea” to Tulan Zuyva to receive tokens of kingship. The exact location of this place across the sea remains conjecture, but it is thought to be one of many major Toltecan ceremonial and administrative centers in Mexico which were generically called Tulan, meaning “place of the reeds” or “city” as found along the shores of a lake or river. The highland Maya today remember the legendary Toltecs as great sages and artists and have incorporated elements of the Nahua language into their own Kiché.

Recent news reports reveal how much remains to be discovered about ancient civilizations. On January 9, 2007, PBS television’s program “Nova Science Now” describes how the use of NASA remote sensing technology is being used to locate Mayan sites buried beneath one thousand year’s worth of tropical rainforest vegetation. In the spring of 2001, archeologist William Saturno discovered the oldest Mayan paintings ever found,  known now as the San Bartolo murals. On the ceilings of an eighty-foot pyramid, scenes depicting Mayan religion and government spell out the Maya’s relationship between God and kings in colorful hieroglyphic art. This discovery predates other readable texts by five centuries. The only archeologist on NASA’s payroll, Tom Severs, scrutinized these areas with satellite sensors to obtain closer detail. The output from the remote sensor device’s computers revealed both the big picture and hidden features of Mayan sites in the lowlands of Guatemala. This technology shows the entire irrigation system with reservoirs, roadways, canals and causeways, all providing a greater understanding of the rates of deforestation and drought that are thought to have been the demise of the Maya around 950 AD.

Later in the same year, NASA reported that their infrared radar exposed the Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat to be surrounded by an ancient city hidden by tropical vegetation. They discovered   “The engineered landscape hasn’t been matched anywhere else in the preindustrial world and spreads 1,000 sq. kilometers. (Tikal is 150 sq. kilometers) It is tightly linked by an integrated network of roads and water channels.”


As the implications of these recent breakthroughs unfold, one thing is clear. The immensity and sophistication of past civilizations and the parallels one can draw among them increase the possibility that Mayan and other indigenous people's wisdom is indeed that, and not to be taken lightly as mythical, magical nonsense. The earliest research cited here may, in fact, be well founded. At the least, these findings underline the notion that a reality assembled by what is seen with the naked eye is a mere piece of the whole. Scientists who collaborate with indigenous cultures may discover additional clues that have the potential to penetrate our understanding human history.

Don Alejandro, the most travelled and prolific teacher among the Maya, tells his stories in earnest and with reverence. He reminds us that for centuries the Maya were required to keep these prophecies secret, for fear of losing their lives for holding unpopular, misunderstood beliefs. The timing was  not good for spreading their version of the truth until recently. Like many indigenous story tellers, he is sensitive to the mental stretch required for his non- indigenous listeners to grasp his teachings. He also senses the need for the uninitiated to find their soul and heal their ancestral wounds.