Death unites us all (in the end).
Ah Puch, the Mayan Death God
Kevin Tumlinson | WrittenWorld.us
What’s one thing we all have in common?
Regardless of your wealth or poverty, your skin color, your nationality, your politics, or even religious affiliation, there’s one thing you can count on sharing with every other living human being—and that is, one day, NOT being a living human being.
Death unites us all. In the end.
In my novel The Girl in the Mayan Tomb one of the most pivotal characters never actually shows up, never has a line of dialogue, and never interacts with any of the other characters. Still, the Mayan god, Ah Puch, has a sinister and ominous presence in the story, for sure. He helps to drive the action, giving Dan Kotler plenty to work with regarding legend and mythos and hidden secrets. Ah Puch manages to threaten the modern world from deep within the tomb of history. Pretty cool stuff. The kind of legend that archaeological thrillers are made of.
In the book, I give some details about Ah Puch and his role in Mayan culture. There are tidbits and cool facts, plenty of Wikipedia-level information about him. I'd call it a nice overview, rather than an in-depth look into who and what he was, and that's intentional.
I'm not writing histories here, I'm writing fictional adventures. Still, you want to get some things right.
I admit that some details are skewed, if not made up entirely. There's no evidence linking Ah Puch to the Inca god Viracocha, for example. At least, none I'm aware of. But connecting those two ideas helped me to build some intrigue into the story, plus a bit of that "misplaced history" that I love folding into the batter of these books before baking them to a nice, crispy brown. Little concessions to the history behind the fiction were a necessity for the story, but the core of the Ah Puch legend is real, and I kept that intact as much as possible.
True, Ah Puch is one of the names of the Mayan god of death, darkness, and destruction, but what fascinates me is that he is also the god of birth and new beginnings, making him a study in opposites. He actually manages to embody the two extremes of human existence, as if he would be the one standing at the door between life and death, greeting you no matter which direction you're moving. That appeals to me for its aesthetic encapsulation of the cycle of life: Ah Puch alone would have a complete outsider's perspective on both life and death in the Mayan world. He'd be the unbiased witness to all of it.
Having an outsider's perspective on something as profound as all of life and death has to lead to an equally profound level of wisdom. At least, that's how I see it, from my own highly biased perspective as a living human. And so I think it's not entirely a coincidence that one of the dominant totems for Ah Puch was the owl—a creature we've come to associate with wisdom itself. Though there's really no reason why ancient Mayan cultures would have seen the owl in just this way—I could be backfilling my own cognitive bias onto the symbolism of an ancient civilization. But the idea of "wise old Mr. Owl" has some deep roots, and there's nothing to say that ancient Mayans didn't think of owls in more or less the same way.
Again, it's fiction. I'm pretty ok with making a few leaps.
It’s far more likely, though, that the owl became associated with Ah Puch because of his role as not only the god of death but the god of darkness and disaster as well. Owls, by their very nature, are nocturnal, hunting small prey in the night and taking them off into the darkness where they are consumed. If you happen to be a rodent, that’s some pretty disastrous stuff. I can certainly see the Mayans watching this and connecting it to their own small roles in the panoply of the Amazon jungles. If anyone was wise to the cycle of life and death, it was the Mayans.
It isn’t much of a leap to think of the god of death as a predatory bird swooping down to snatch the lives of humans, to carry them off into the dark and indiscernible underworld. Which underworld, however, was sort of up in the air.
In Western culture, we tend to lump the Mayans into one solid category, but their civilization was a lot more complex and nuanced than we might imagine. As a general not-quite-unified civilization, the Mayans were spread throughout Central America and Mexico, with some hints of them extending to further extremes on the Southern Continent. Mayan settlements peppered the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize—it was an empire widespread enough to rival the Roman and British empires, at least to scale, though it predated both by thousands of years.
Wrap your brain around that one for a second. The Mayans were a fully functional, tool-wielding, government-operating culture, building epic stone structures and inventing mythologies and unfolding histories before most Europeans ever were Europeans.
Though all of these Mayan tribes (if "tribes" is even the right word) shared some common core beliefs, by necessity some of the specifics would skew from the core as an ancient game of telephone played out. One tribe would take its beliefs and mythology in this slightly shifted direction, while another took it in that moderately altered perspective. As such we find that Ah Puch had a catalog of names: Hun Ahau, Yum Cimil, Cum Hau, Pukuh, Cizin, and a host of variations on some of these, alongside a plethora of mythical and mystical origins, motivations, and enemies.
Ah Puch also ended up with a wealth of homeworlds. Nearly every Mayan group had its own ideas of where Ah Puch lived when he wasn't capturing souls on Earth, relegating them to an array of underworlds. The Yucatec Maya referred to Ah Puch's home turf as Xibaba, for example, while the Quiche Maya called the underworld Metnal.
I sort of prefer the latter.
Metnal was the lowest level of the underworld, which makes a kind of sense. When we die, regardless of our culture and traditions, we are almost always on a one-way trip into the dirt at our feet. It's only logical that most cultures would begin to think of the afterlife as a place below us, a world played out in caverns and caves.
What I find fascinating is the presence of "levels" of the underworld in Mayan culture, in a close and bizarre parallel to the way Westerners defer to Dante's Divine Comedy, particularly Inferno, to describe the afterlife. Metnal was the lowest level of the underworld to the Mayans in much the same way that the Inferno was represented as stacked layers of hell to Europeans. What a strange place to find parallels between two distant and disparate societies, right?
And then there was the devil himself.
As a god of death, Ah Puch was associated with some of the more heinous aspects of human culture and life, including disease, war, and that horrific but macabrely fascinating practice—human sacrifice. I drew from this for Girl in the Mayan Tomb, principally the disease bits, and I regret nothing. History and legend and myth tend to have some root in real-world, discernible fact, and it seems plausible (to me, at least) that if a culture worships a god who controls disease, they might hold disease itself in some reverence. If you haven't read the book, I don't think I'm throwing any spoilers out there, but it relies pretty heavily on this idea of disease as a form of worship.
We Westerners tend to filter our perspective of history and mythology through the pantheons of ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, the Romans, the Norse. But there are so many gods out there—an endless parade of them in every culture, and in every shape and form imaginable. The thing that tingles in my brain and my soul, every time I read and learn more about these pantheons and their gods, is how similar they can be.
Ah Puch has his parallels in the Greek god of death Thanatos (which may sound a little familiar to fans of the Avengers films and Marvel Comics in general, as an inspiration for the character Thanos). There are parallels as well with gods such as Hades (Greek), Anubis (Egyptian), Yama (Hindu), Osiris (Egyptian), Azrael (Judaism), Yan Luo (Chinese), the Morrigan (Celtic) and many, many more.
I could have chosen any Mayan death god—there were several. But Ah Puch piqued my attention for a variety of reasons. His symbols—including the skeletal figure you might expect, as well as the predatory owl—were intriguing to me, as was the sort of cognitive dissonance of his roles as both the god of death and the god of birth. His name itself was a sort of draw, giving me a chance to have Agent Roland Denzel continually fumbling it, getting close but never quite getting it right. How could I pass on a good "Ah-Choo" joke?
Trick question. I can't.
History and mythology are so overripe with characters like Ah Puch that I could write about them for the rest of my life and still leave stories untold. That, of course, is the biggest draw of all. There's also the satisfaction of knowing I'm calling attention to characters who may otherwise have been lost to history, or at least to the pop-culture filter of history.
I'm happy to have helped bring Ah Puch into the modern spotlight a little. He probably wouldn't like it much, but it was fun all the same. Delivering a dark and forgotten god forward into history allowed me to dig a little deeper into a lost (mostly lost) culture, to think about how they thought and lived and understood the world around them, and to come away with some new insights and perspectives that I could share, hopefully in exciting, action-packed ways.
That's half of why I write in the first place—to explore the Written World we sometimes live in parallel to, and never fully realize is there. If you enjoyed this little tale …
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS LITTLE TALE …
You might enjoy a good thriller novel. And I happen to write thriller novels. Find something to keep you up all night at KevinTumlinson.com/books