The boys loved playing pohatok on a ball court that happened to be located on a path to the netherworld, or land of the dead. This netherworld was called Xibalba (shee-bahl-BAH), which means “place of fear.”
The boys enjoyed a reputation for being the toughest pohatok competitors in the land. They had the best-made arm- and leg-guards and the strongest helmets, so they never injured themselves. In fact, the twins were so skilled at making the most challenging hip shots that they simply never lost a game.
However, their constant playing disturbed the Lords of Death, who lived in Xibalba and had names such as One Death, Bone Scepter, Blood Gatherer, and Pus Master.
The lords were so annoyed by the constantly resounding thumps of the bouncing balls that they decided the twins must be punished by death. To attract the twins, the lords sent four owl messengers, challenging the twins to a game of pohatok in Xibalba. Although their mother begged them to say no, the twins accepted the challenge and were soon led by the owls down to Xibalba.
Making the trip to the underworld was no easy feat. The road leading to the land of the dead was an obstacle course filled with dangerous hazards. Just after they set out on their journey, the twins came upon a cliff with a steep face they had to scale down. When they reached the base of this cliff, they saw the first of three disgusting and hazardous rivers that they would have to cross.
The first river was full of floating sharp spikes. Somehow, the boys made it across without being stabbed. Next, they successfully crossed a river of blood. Finally, they had to ford a stream of flowing pus. Again, they were successful. Yet after crossing this last rancid river, the twins soon found that their ordeal was just starting.
Continuing their journey, they came to a four-way intersection. One road, called the Black Road, spoke to the twins, persuading them to follow it. Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu did as the road told them. Eventually, they came to the throne room of Xibalba where they saw sitting figures whom, they thought, must be the Lords of Death.
The twins greeted these imposing figures, but the figures did not answer. Then the twins realized the figures were only wooden mannequins, or statues, costumed to look like the Lords of Death. The Lords of Death had tricked the twins to make them look foolish.
When the lords finally stopped laughing at their prank, they offered the twins a bench where they could sit and rest. No sooner had they sat down than Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu realized that they had been tricked again.
The bench was a slab of fiery hot stone used for cooking. In pain, both boys jumped off the bench and danced around, but nothing they could do helped. The Xibalbans began to shriek with laughter as strongly as they had ever laughed before.
When they finally calmed down, the Lords of Death told the boys to go in the house where a torch and cigar would be brought to each of them. Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu did not realize it, but these items were to play an important part in their next test.
This test required that the boys keep their cigars and torches lit all night. Yet there was not enough fuel to keep either lit for very long. They were unable to complete the task to which they were assigned, so the twins were sentenced by the Lords of Death to be murdered.
The next day, the lords cut off the twins’ heads and buried their bodies under the ball court in Xibalba. To show off their victory, the death lords took the head of Hun Hunahpu and stuck it in an old, dead tree as a trophy.
Suddenly, a miracle happened. The desolate tree began bearing fruit. It began to sprout calabash gourds, a fruit similar to squash. Even the head of Hun Hunahpu changed into a calabash gourd. A young underworld maiden named Xquic (sh-KIHK), or Blood Woman, heard of this magical tree and journeyed to see it.
Taken in by the tree’s charm, Xquic reached out her hand to pick a gourd. As soon as she did, the head of Hun Hunahpu, disguised as a gourd, spit into it. The spit was Hun Hunahpu’s saliva, which made Xquic pregnant.
When Xquic’s father noticed that his daughter was pregnant, he insisted on knowing the name of the baby’sfather. But Xquic could not name anyone. In response, her father announced that she had shamed him, and he demanded that she be put to death.
Immediately, Xquic’s father ordered messenger owls to take her away to be sacrificed. The owls were told to bring back the girl’s heart in a bowl as proof that she was dead.
Xquic was desperate. She decided there was nothing to lose by telling the owls the truth—that she had become pregnant by the saliva that shot out of a gourd she had picked.
The owls believed her and, because of her innocence, set her free. Having saved Xquic, the owls now wondered how to save their own lives. Xquic’s father was expecting his daughter’s heart in a bowl, and would be bound to punish them if they failed to obey his orders.
So the owls thought and thought and decided they could trick Xquic’s father by substituting a glob of tree resin for the heart. When they returned to Xquic’s father with the heart-shaped mound of tree resin in a bowl, the residents of Xibalba, thinking it was Xquic’s heart, decided to burn it. When they did, the resins emitted a weird scent the Xibalbans were not familiar with.
Intrigued with the intoxicating smell, they stood around gazing at the burning mass. They were so distracted, in fact, that they did not notice the messenger owls leading Xquic to freedom through a hole that led from the underworld to the Earth. Xquic had escaped, fooling all the Xibalbans in the process.
The first thing Xquic did after reaching the Earth was to pay a visit to Xmucane (sh-MOO-cane), the mother of the dead twins. Xquic convinced Xmucane that she was the widow of Hun Hunahpu, and was carrying his child. Soon however, Xquic realized she was carrying two children. Xquic gave birth to the Hero Twins, whom she named Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
As they grew, these new twin boys wanted to be great gardeners. There was one major problem; they were not very good at gardening. Every time they cleared away weeds and brush, wild animals brought more back. The boys kept trying to catch the guilty animals without much luck.
Finally, they caught a rat and tried to choke and burn it to death. But the rat pleaded with the boys to be released. If they did, the rat said, he would tell them a special secret. The boys agreed that hearing this secret was worth the life of the rat.
The rodent advised the boys they were wasting their time gardening. He told them the story of their father and uncle, who were also twins, and who had been superb ballplayers.
Like their father and uncle, Hunahpu and Xbalanque were destined to be great ballplayers. So the twins took the rat’s advice, and in time became two of the best ballplayers around.
... To be continued to ... The Hero Twins
Label: Mayan and Aztec mythology