The Hero Twins, an Ancient Maya Myth Illustration

Ancient Maya Myth

The Hero Twins

The nobles in the Maya empire all claimed they were descendants of the Hero Twins. This gave them the right to rule. The ancient story of the hero twins tells the tale of two brothers, a bunch of ball games, the tricky gods, and a happy ending!

See The Exciting Adventures of The Hero Twins (cartoon PowerPoint written by Lin Donn and illustrated by Phillip Martin)

Or, this is the story written out for you to read and enjoy.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there lived two brothers. The brothers tried very hard to be good gardeners. But even the rabbit that rooted in their garden for food each day knew they were not very good at gardening. What they were good at, great at, absolutely excellent at, were ballgames. Onlookers cheered so loudly whenever the boys played ball that the noise attracted the attention of the Lords of Death.

The Lords of Death lived in the Underworld. They liked to trick people into dying. They especially liked tricking people who were bothering them, and the boys were bothering them. They were far too noisy! The Lords of Death sent a message to the brothers praising their wonderful talent. The message included an invitation to play a ballgame in the Underworld. The brothers were instructed to bring their ball and their protective gear as none could be provided. No one played ball in the Underworld normally, so this would be a great treat for everyone.

The brothers did not trust the Lords of Death. They hid their ball and protective gear under the rafters in their mother's house. Perhaps without gear they would not have to play and thus could avoid whatever trickery the Lords of Death had planned. The boys set out for the Underworld. They made it safely across the river of spikes. They made it safely across the river of blood. They made it safely across the river of pus. They arrived safely at the house of the Lords of Death.

There, a Lord waited for them to say hello. It was a trick. That Lord was only a wood statue. When the boys said hello to a wood statue, the real Lords rushed out from where they had been hiding. They shook their heads in pretended shock. "Do you think our heads are filled with wood?" they cried. The brothers had been royally tricked. They had failed a test.

"Now wait," interrupted one of the real Lords. "They did get across all three rivers safely."

"Hum," said one of the other Lords thoughtfully. "You're right, of course. Hardly anyone ever does that! That's quite an accomplishment and needs to be taken into consideration."

"Have a seat while we think about what to do with you," a third Lord nodded to the brothers.

Feeling hopeful that perhaps they would not be killed after all, the brothers sat down on a bench. The bench was burning hot. The boys leaped up, but it was too late. They had failed another test. For failing two tests, the boys were immediately sacrificed. Their bodies were buried under a ball court back on earth.

 The Sons

That would have been the end of the story except for one thing. One Lord thought it would be a good warning if the head of one of the boys was placed in a tree where everyone would see it - a kind of "see what might happen to you if you are too noisy" warning. There the head stayed. No one saw it much because hardly anyone ever entered that part of the forest. The head had made such a racket calling for help that the people who lived in that part of the world were sure their forest was haunted. One day, a young woman came through the forest. She had lost her way while picking berries.

Before she even noticed the head stuck in the branches, the head said, "When my child is born, take him to my grandmother."  After telling the the young woman how to find his grandmother's house, the head disappeared.

The young woman blinked in surprise. A short time later, she gave birth to the Hero Twins. She took the twins to the house of their grandmother, as instructed. Their grandmother loved the twins dearly. But they did set her to sighing. Like their father before them, the Hero Twins were not very good at gardening. What they were good at, great at, absolutely excellent at, was catching rats.

One day, they caught a rat that could talk. The rat said, "If you will let me go, I'll tell you why you're so good at catching rats. Your father and uncle could catch things, too. I will tell you all about a game of ball they played with the Lords of Death."

The Hero Twins let the rat go. In exchange, the rat told them about the Lords of Death. He even told them what their father had hidden high in the rafters of their grandmother's home. The Hero Twins dug out that old gear and soon became the most wonderful ballplayers in the world!  There were so many cheers each time they played that, once again, the racket attracted the Lords of Death.

"I thought we got rid of those noisy boys," snapped a Lord. "Something has to be done to stop that racket immediately."

And so, a messenger was sent with an invitation to play a game of ball in the Underworld. Their grandmother was sad when she heard about it. She knew she was going to lose her grandsons, just as she had lost her sons before them. Nobody ever beat the Lords of Death. The boys packed carefully for their trip. When the boys arrived at the house of the Lords, one of the Lords was waiting to greet them. Thanks to the rat, they knew that this was not a real Lord.

"We are not about to say good morning to a wooden dummy," they announced loudly.

The real Lords came out from where they had been hiding. "You passed the test," smiled one of the Lords. "Take a seat," he said warmly, pointing at a cozy looking bench.

"No hot seat for us," said the twins politely. "We'll stand, thanks."

"You passed the second test," beamed one of the Lords. He sounded delighted about it.

The twins were not fooled. They were challenged to more tests. They were sent to the Dark House. They did not light the cigars the Lords had given them to "light their way." Instead, they attached fireflies to the end of their cigars and got out that way. They were sent to the Razor House. Sharp blades were supposed to cut them to ribbons. They escaped as a rat would, by crawling under the blades. They were sent to the Jaguar House. They escaped by feeding the Jaguars the bones they had brought along, just in case. The twins knew there would be test after test, until finally they died. Nobody ever beat the Lords of Death. When a Lord said, "Let us see if you can jump over these ovens", the boys jumped into the oven instead and died.

The Lords scattered their ashes in the river. That was the only way the twins could have ever come back to life. The life giving water cooled the fire. Always magical, first the Hero Twins came back as catfish. Finally, they turned back into their normal selves. The Hero Twins discovered quite by accident that they had picked up some additional powers during their transformation. They could cut themselves up and come back to life again, over and over. They could burn a house down and then restore it to its original shape.

The Hero Twins traveled from town to town, performing tricks for a living. The Lords of Death heard of their amazing act. They sent the twins an invitation to the Underworld, not knowing that they were inviting the very twins they had killed so recently. When the twins performed their act, the Lords were delighted. "Do me next," one Lord cried. "Chop me up and put me back together again!" The twins were delighted to chop up the Lord. Only, they did not put the Lord back together again. The other Lords knew they had been defeated. Rather than risk losing any more Lords, they sent the twins back to earth.

And all the sons thereafter

The gods of the heavens, who had lent a hand in all this, and who had provided a great deal of the magic although no one knew that except the gods of the heavens, honored the courage and cleverness of the Hero Twins by bringing them up to the sky. One twin became the sun; the other became the moon. The gods of the sky honored the children of the Hero Twins by making them the rulers of the earth. The rulers of the earth honored their parents and the other gods of the sky by giving them the best present they could think of. They built ball courts in every town in the world. And every game played, for the rest of time, was played in honor of their fathers and their fathers before them.  

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