Hunahpu and Xbalanque


by Xjunajpù

Ancient Depiction of Hunahpu and Xbalanque

Hunahpu and Xbalanque are twin heroes in Maya culture, a that hero myth comes from the ancient Maya text Popol Vuh, or “book of the people”, believed by some historians to be a Maya bible. Written between 1554 and 1558, it’s based on mythical stories of mortals and gods, holding true to the Maya belief that there isn’t a birth and a death, but a creation from Gods and cosmos. This belief comes from the existence of their underworld, Xibalba, heaven, Tamoanchan, and 13 levels between in a tree of life. When someone ‘dies’, it was believed they actually begin their journey to Tamoachan, a heaven on Earth. Mayans frequently practiced human sacrifice due to this belief, since death did not mean someone was gone, but that they were beginning a new stage of life. The story of Hunahpu and Xbalanque tell of how the brothers avenge their father’s death, bring an end to human sacrifice in the underworld, and become the Sun and the Moon.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque were born form Seven Hunahpu, who was vanquished by the gods in Xibalba with his brother One Hunahpu, during a series of trials in the underworld before they played the gods in a game of ball. Years later, Hunahpu and Xbalanque are called to Xibalba to also play a ball game, but the twins effortlessly pass through the different trials and Houses, until they reach the House of Bats. Here, Hunahpu has his head taken off, which Xbalanque replaces with a turtle. The two head to the ball court of the underworld to face the gods, who use Hunahpu’s head as a ball.

The brothers replace the head with a pumpkin (or squash), Hunahpu gets his head back, and they end up winning the game. The brothers kill One Death and Seven Death, the most powerful rulers of Xibalba ,and the remaining gods plead for safety. They promise the brothers to cease practicing human sacrifice, and the brothers return to Earth with their father’s body. Here they rise to become the Sun and the Moon, marking the birth of the Maya People.

Maya_civilization_location_map_-_geography.svg By Simon Burchell via Wikimedia Commons.

Map of the Maya region. By Simon Burchell.

Hunahpu and Xbalanque fit into Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, described in his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which is based on an age old idea of ‘archetypes’, the belief that myths have reoccurring characters cross-culturally. This first stage, separation/departure, begins with a call to adventure that the
hero(es) may initially refuse or accept, and is meant to disrupt an otherwise average life and spark a desire. The brothers are called by a messenger owl,  bringing the realization that they could possibly avenge their father’s death. Once accepting the call to Xibalba, the brothers easily beat the trials at the entrance, and use cunning to uncover the gods, using a mosquito that flies down each path until they’re found. The heroes enter this “belly of the beast” as the mosquito bites cause the gods to reveal their names, weakening their powers.

By Daderot

Vase featuring Gods of Xibalba

This second stage of Campbell’s monomyth, initiation, is “the main part of the story the hero is initiated into true heroic stature by various trials and rites. . .the true character emerges”. This stage begins with a road of trials, which for the brothers is a series of Houses that they must pass through. First, they refuse the seat offered to them by the gods, which would have badly scorched them. From there, they pass the House of Gloom where they must keep a torch and a cigar lit all night but whole in the morning, by use of red feathers and fire flies. They then go to a House of Knives, a House of Cold, a House of Jaguars, and a House of Fire, all passed through the use of cunning. In the House of Bats, Hunahpu has his head taken off by a passing bat. The trials increase in difficulty as the heroes increase in confidence, as Campbell stated.. The end of this stage features an ultimate boon, where the hero(es) achieve their goal. After winning the ball game with the gods and killing One Death and Seven Death, the brothers control the fates of the remaining gods of Xibalba. They make them agree to cease practicing human sacrifice, and are given the crowning achievement of taking their father’s body home.

Campbell’s final stage of the hero journey is the return home. Hunahpu and Xbalanque do not refuse their return, nor do they require magic or rescue. Given their father’s body, they are free to journey back home from Xibalba and lay him to rest. The brothers become the “masters of two worlds”, since they’ve mastered both the natural and supernatural worlds, and become the sun and the moon. This creation of the sun and the moon allows for the Maya people to be born out of the corn, in what Maya call the “third coming of the people”.  The brothers are now granted a freedom to live, having avenged their father and defeated the gods of Xibalba.

 By UNESCO/Michel Ravassard

The Myth Father, Claude Levi Strauss

Claude Levi-Strauss, often known as the father of myth in anthropological studies, said that “myth has to do with the inability, for a culture which holds the belief that mankind is authochthonous to find a satisfactory transition between this theory and the knowledge that human beings are actually born from the union of man and woman” (Levi-Strauss, The Structural Study of Myth, 434). This is true to the Maya and their hero myth of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, a culture, like many, that does not believe they’ve come from colonists, and create myth to help make sense of their own existence. Myth is important to anthropological studies, a pillar in understanding how a culture identifies themselves and creates their own realness.


-By Rachel Billiet




Changing Minds. “Campbell’s ‘Hero Journey’ Monomyth.” Accessed October 27, 2015.

Featured Image
By Daniel Schwen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Myers, Bethany J., “Hero Twins: Explorations of Mythic and Historical Dichotomies” (2002). Honors Theses. Paper 1

Patterson, Don, Journey to Xibalba: A Life in Archaeology. University of New Mexico Press, 2007.

Recinos, Adrian, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiche Maya (Civilization of the American Indian). University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Stookey, Lorena L., Thematic Guide to World Mythology. Greenwood, 2004.

Tedlock, Dennis, Popol Vuh: The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Turner, Victor W., “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage” (1964). The Symbolic Analysis of Ritual, 231-243.

Winzeler, Robert L., Anthropology and Religion: What We Know, Think, and Question. Altamira Press, 2012.


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