Once upon a myth: Exploring Yucatec Maya stories

woman in jean shirt shows book to audience
Emily Wiley

Mary Preuss shares her book with interested listeners at the third Research Unplugged conversation of the spring season.

We all know the story of Cinderella. But have you heard the version in which Cinderella sleeps on the ground next to the fire, makes tortillas, and cooks frijoles for her wicked stepmother? She wears a very simple old dress called a huipil, and her fairy godmother is a magical butterfly. This story has been told to many generations of Maya children and was just one of the folktales told by Mary Preuss at last Wednesday's Research Unplugged event.

Preuss, professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Penn State McKeesport, first began traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico in the early 1970s. She gained the respect of the indigenous Maya people and was invited into their homes to hear their stories. "I was told tales about Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk," she said. "But they were different versions from the ones we know. The Maya culture was reflected in their adaptations."

Over the years she recorded the unique tales of the Maya. She chronicled the native storytellers and her favorite myths of Maya folklore in her new book, Yucatec Maya Stories: From the Chen-Ja' to the Milpa.

"Maya myths describe the origins of the sun and moon, bodies of water, and birds," she said, "things of nature." One such myth tells how two lovers, the beautiful maiden Sujuy Ja ("Virgin Water") and her beloved, the warrior Kaatsin Ek, were transformed into a water lily and a sapota tree to stand together for all eternity. "If you go to the El Remate region today, the lily and sapota tree still grow near one another and are symbols of eternal love," Preuss said. "This is an area tourists don't know exist, and I hope they never find it."

Speaking to a large, attentive crowd in the Penn State Downtown Theatre, Preuss told legends of Xtabay, the Yucatec Maya version of the siren stories found in Greek mythology, as well as legends about mischievous little men called aluxes. The aluxes—who bear some similarity to pixies or leprechauns—smoke cigars, wear wide-brimmed hats and sandals, hide people's belongings, and tip them out of their hammocks as they sleep.

woman shows book and stands by Maya dress.
Emily Rowlands

Preuss stands beside authentic Maya dress.

As usual, Research Unplugged attendees did more than simply listen: Preuss fielded questions from curious audience members about the culture, government, and language of the Yucatec Maya people, as well as questions about how the myths mixed with long-established religious traditions.

"These stories have opened a whole new world to me," Preuss said, recalling how a shaman once urged her to observe every detail in life, like the designs naturally etched in tree bark and the form of a rabbit in the moon.

Preuss shared a painting of a typical Maya hut, windowless and humble. "The Maya people don't put value on material things. They value their stories," Preuss said. "If you want a deeper value you have to go further than your fingertips."

Mary Preuss, Ph.D., is professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Penn State McKeesport. She can be reached at mhp1@psu.edu. Katie Feeney is an undergraduate communications student and intern for Research Unplugged. She can be reached at kaf254@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 29, 2006