From Popol Vuh, the Council Book of the Quiché Maya, the natives of the Guatemala highlands…
Long, long ago, somewhere in the beginning of time, there lived a pair of twins called Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu. They played ball all day and did nothing else. They were really good ball players though they made such a ruckus all the time. All that noise annoyed some very serious folks who lived in the Underworld of Xibalba. These serious men were the Lords of Death and they sent their messengers up to the twins and invited them for a game below.
The unsuspecting twins, who loved nothing more than the challenge of a good game, agreed without a second thought and left for the Underworld immediately. They had been told to bring their ball and protective gear with them. But the twins didn’t want them lost, so they left them behind, hiding them in the rafters of their mother’s house. The journey to Xibalba was fraught with danger. First they had to cross a river full of spikes, then a river of blood and finally a river of yucky pus!
They managed all this successfully and found themselves in the land of Xibalba.
As they entered the throne room, they greeted the Lords of Death by their names. But they turned out to be mere statues made of wood! The Lords walked in shaking their heads. “Did you think we were wood heads?” they asked. The boys quickly apologised. “Now, take a seat,” said one of the Lords with a sly smile, pointing to a bench. They sat down but jumped up instantly because it was scalding hot!
“You may sleep in the Dark House, tonight,” said the lord, giving them a torch and two cigars for light. “And remember, I need these back tomorrow!” he said as he left them at the door of the Dark House. But the twins burned out the torch and smoked the cigars. When the morning dawned the lords of Death came to them and were angry that they had burned away the torch and the cigars. “You wicked, wicked boys! You have failed all the tests we gave you… Off with your heads!” The foolish twins were killed at the ball court of Xibalba and the head of Hun Hunahpu was cut off and placed on the branch of a tree. The tree’s fruit became the first gourds.
One day a girl from Xibalba by the name of Xquic came upon the gourd tree and peered closely at it. When she tried to pick a gourd, Hun Hunahpu’s head spat at her. Soon enough Xquic became pregnant and her angry father ordered she be put to death. But she escaped to the land of the Living and went to live with Hun Hunahpu’s mother. Soon, she gave birth to twins.
Their grandmother made the twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, do gardening all day, just so that they wouldn’t get up to mischief like their father and uncle. But they were awful gardeners. Every time they tried to clear the underbrush, the forest animals would put it back all over again. They tried to snare the animals but met with no success. One day, they managed to catch a rat and were proceeding to burn it over a fire. The rat was a clever fellow and a smooth talker. “Don’t do this! You two are not cut out to be gardeners anyway! There’s something you will be better at... and I’ll tell what if you give me something to eat!” And so it was that the twins heard the whole story about their ball playing father and uncle. The rat helpfully undid the rope that held the ball and the playing gear hidden away in the rafters so long ago.
Much to the exasperation of their grandmother, they began to play ball all day, just like their father and uncle before them but with twice as much noise and cacophony. No surprise the din reached the ears of the Lords of Death below who summoned them down for a game.