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Returning to the Void: The Sacred Dawn of Mythic History

BY Norland Tellez December 19, 2021

One of the murals at the Maya site of Bonampak, showing a procession of musicians. Created c. AD 580–800. Photo by Jacob Rus, 2004. CC 2.0.

We now enter the festivals of the Winter Solstice and celebrate the birth of the savior archetype, which in the Catholicism of Latin America is presented with the image of the Niño Dios (God Child), putting a greater emphasis on the miracle of a newborn child as the ultimate Christmas gift. On such moments of reflection, we are called upon to an eternal return to the origins. 

What is celebrated with the mythic image of the birth of Christ is the second birth: not the first birth of Adam, but the emergence of a new cultural force through which humanity as a whole may be renewed.

If we turn to the Maya Bible, the Popol Vuh (Book of the Community, Book of the Counsel), we also find at the center of its cosmovision the same archetypal theme of collective self-renewal. In the event of the Winter Solstice, heralded by the image of the Sacred Dawn, the whole of humanity comes to be reborn. Within the Maya cosmovision, this is the momentous experience of the birth of the People of the Corn.

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A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake coverIt is at this point that A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake meets the Popol Vuh. In both texts, we are driven to the birthplace of humankind out of the mythic womb of history, where Campbell writes as though he was referencing the Popol Vuh :

[Step by step the conditions of the dawn moment are being revealed. The Time aspect has been discussed: it is the moment of the first shaft of light. The Place aspect now comes up for consideration; together with the problem of the gist of it all. The place is this fishy river pool where so many things have happened. Here are the great tree and stone. Here a great life festival might flourish, or just as well, a hermit’s hut might stand.] (342)

This is the place where the eternal return of the Feathered Serpent turns to that time (illo tempore), a time before time, a space outside space—like the shapeless, unimaginable universe before the Big Bang. In the light of the Maya cosmos this placeless place is the Void, the vast watery emptiness of the Womb-Sky. So the Popol Vuh describes the moments before the first act of creation:

This is the account; here it is: Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky. (Tedlock)

The first act of creation, before the One can be born, is thus to prepare the sacred unground of the collective soul . There is no act of creation before opening up the space of the Void. The One is thus the second step of the process of creation, not the first. The emergence of the One is already a Two, a Twoness of the Void and the One.

In the Maya cosmovision, the One is already a Twinship that appears in the image of Tepeu and Gucumatz, the Sovereign Plumed Quetzal Serpent, as the creative logos of the Maya soul. This is an archetypal image that brings together the contrasting attributes of a bird and a snake—one as an air being and the other as a being on earth. At the same time, the One is also a Three making up the Heart of Heaven, Huracán, as we can see on key passages of the Popol Vuh

Then came the word. Tepeu and Gucumatz [Sovereign Majesty and Quetzal Serpent] came together in the darkness, in the night, and Tepeu and Gucumatz talked together. They talked then, discussing and deliberating; they agreed, they united their words and their thoughts.

Then while they meditated, it became clear to them that when dawn would break, man must appear. Then they planned the creation, and the growth of the trees and the thickets and the birth of life and the creation of man. Thus it was arranged in the darkness and in the night by the Heart of Heaven who is called Huracán

The first is called [Giant Master Lightning] Caculhá Huracán. The second is [Lightning Splendor] Chipi-Caculhá. The third is Raxa-Caculhá [Trace of Lightning]. And these three are the Heart of Heaven. (trans. Goetz and Morley, Recinos)

The pluralistic aspect of the Maya Logos, Its Root Ancient Word, comes together in both the Heart of Heaven Huracán and the Two Gods who form the Sovereign Plumed Quetzal Serpent, Tepew Gucumatz. The One as both Two and Three.

We can see clearly the strange similarity and the difference between the trinitarian conception of the One in Christianity and that of the Popol Vuh. What other similarities and differences can you sense based on our brief excursion into the Popol Vuh?

Join  us as we kick off another amazing Conversation of a Higher Order with my friend Stephen Gerringer to explore these parallels further.

Yours, Norland Tellez, PhD Norland TellezNorland Tellez is a visual artist and teacher as well as writer and mythologist, combining the art of story-telling with the power of philosophical thought. He is both a visual development artist and a writer, as well as a story analyst in the realm of Mythological Studies. He attended CalArts and graduated from their character animation department in 1999. Norland went on to pursue his masters and doctorate degrees at Pacifica Graduate Institute, graduating in 2009 with a dissertation on the Esoteric Dimensions of the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Quiché-Maya. Find more at mythistorian.com.

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The Way of Art

Our gift to you this month is eSingle. Access this download for free until the end of the month.

In this extraordinary conclusion to The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, Campbell explores art as a tool for “mythopoesis,” or the creation of new myths for a new world. The artist, he argues, is the new hero, and the creation of art—of what James Joyce called proper art—is the perilous adventure on which artists must journey in order to bring back the boon of myth and meaning.

News & Updates

The week of the Winter Solstice bends multiple traditions to itself this week.

As the yin power of the sun declines to its lowest point on December 21, Shinto ritual anticipates its ever growing yang power from this astronomical point onward. Amaterasu Omikami, the Kami of the Sun, is honored in the Grand Ceremony of the Solstice, Tohji-taisai.

On the same date, Wicca turns to its male solar deity, the Winter-born King, as the life-sustaining light drawing us into the season of planting, growth, and harvest.

Even Christianity assigns the birthdate of its incarnated God to the season of the solstice, supplanting the Roman tradition of honoring Sol Invictus, the unconquered sun, on December 25.

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Underneath the verbal ambiguities and philological traps of the Wake, deep speaks to deep about such everyday matters as marital discord, sibling strife, military slaughter, racial violence, theological differences, and financial thimblerigging — fascinating material that academicians (at their peril) fail to discuss or continue to ignore.

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Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices & Visions of the Living Maya

This book shows the myths of the contemporary Maya of Guatemala in tales of tricksters, lords of the underworld, warriors, kings, Spanish invaders and missionaries, and even anthropologists.

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Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, A

Countless would-be readers of Finnegans Wake—James Joyce’s 1939 masterwork, on which he labored for a third of his life—have given up after a few pages and “dismissed the book as a perverse triumph of the unintelligible.” In 1944, a young professor of mythology and literature named Joseph Campbell, working with novelist and poet Henry Morton Robinson, wrote the first guide to understanding the fascinating world of Finnegans Wake.

Page by page, chapter by chapter, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake outlines the basic action of Joyce’s book, simplifies and clarifies the complex web of images and allusions, and provides an understandable, continuous narrative from which the reader can venture out on his or her own. This current edition includes a foreword and updates by Joyce scholar Dr. Edmund L. Epstein that add the context of sixty subsequent years of scholarship.

Book Club

“As 2021 comes to a close, it seems fitting that we end this year by taking a step back and spending some time exploring the origin story of humankind. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Graphic History is a beautifully constructed novel (one of two) that brings forth some of the most crucial—and often overlooked—aspects of how we got to where we are. When did we create our principle social constructs? How long have we had the capacity to change the ecological structure of Earth? And in the grand dance of the universe, how significant or insignificant are humans, really? Harari and a host of terrific characters take us on a tour of the world long ago, and in the process, bring us that much closer to home.”

Prabarna Ganguly
Editorial Advisory Group
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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