Hunahpu and Xbalanque — The Maya Hero Twins

The Mayan Myth of the Hero Twins — Stories from the Popol Vuh

The Hero Twins Consult with God L
The Hero Twins Consult with God L. Francis Robicsek: The Maya Book of the Dead. The Ceramic Codex, University of Virginia Art Museum (1981)

The Hero Twins are famous Mayan semi-gods called Hunahpu and Xbalanque, whose story is narrated in the Popol Vuh (“The Book of Council”). The Popol Vuh is the sacred text of the Quiché Maya of the Guatemalan highlands, and it was written during the Early Colonial period, probably between 1554 and 1556, although the stories within it are clearly much older.

The First Hero Twins

Hunahpu and Xbalanque are the second Hero Twins in Maya mythology. Like all Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya believed in cyclical time, including periodic cosmic destruction and renovation, called the "ages of the world." The first pair of divine hero twins were the Maize Twins, 1 Hunter "Hun Hunahpu" and 7 Hunter "Vuqub Hunahpu," and they lived during the second world.

Hun Hunahpu and his twin brother Vucub Hunahpu were invited down into the Maya underworld (Xibalba) to play the Mesoamerican ballgame by the Xibalban lords One and Seven Death. There they fell prey to several trickeries. On the eve of the scheduled game, they were given cigars and torches and told to keep them lit all night without consuming them. They failed in this test, and the penalty for failure was death. The twins were sacrificed and buried, but the head of Hun Hunapu was cut off, and only his body was buried with his younger brother.

The Lords of Xibalba placed Hun Hunapu's head in the fork of a tree, where it helped the tree bear fruit. Eventually, the head came to look like a calabash—the American domesticated squash. A daughter of one of the lords of Xibalba named Xquic ("Blood Moon") came to see the tree and Hun Hunapu's head talked to her and spit saliva into the maiden's hand, impregnating her. Nine months later, the second Hero Twins were born.

The Second Hero Twins

In the third world, the second pair of hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, avenged the first set by defeating the Lords of the Underworld. The names of the second set of Hero Twins have been translated as X-Balan-Que “Jaguar-Sun” or “Jaguar-Deer,” and Hunah-Pu, as “One Blowgunner.”

When Hunahpu (One Blowgunner) and Xbalanque (Jaguar Sun) are born, they are treated cruelly by their half-brothers but make themselves happy by going out every day to hunt birds with their blowguns. After many adventures, the twins are summoned to the underworld. Following in the footsteps of their fathers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque descend the road to Xibalba, but avoid the tricks that captured their fathers. When they are given a torch and cigars to keep alight, they trick the lords by passing off a macaw's tail as the glow of a torch, and by putting fireflies at the tips of their cigars.

The next day, Hunahpuh and Xbalanque play ball with the Xibalbans, who first try to play with a ball made of a skull covered with crushed bone. An extended game follows, full of trickery on both sides, but the wily twins survive.

Dating the Hero Twins Myth

In prehistoric sculptures and paintings, the Hero Twins aren't identical twins. The older twin (Hunahpuh) is depicted as larger than his younger twin, right-handed and masculine, with black spots on his right cheek, shoulder and arms. The sun and pronghorn antlers are Hunahpuh's main symbols, although often both twins wear deer symbols. The younger twin (Xbalanque) is smaller, left-handed and often with a feminine guise, with the moon and rabbits his symbols. Xbalanque has patches of jaguar skin on his face and body.

Although the Popol Vuh dates to the Colonial period, the Hero Twins have been identified on painted vessels, monuments, and cave walls dating to the Classic and Preclassic period, as early as 1000 BCE. The names of the Hero Twins are also present in the Maya calendar as day signs. This further indicates the importance and antiquity of the myth of the Hero Twins, whose origins date back to the earliest period of Maya history.

Hero Twins in the Americas

In the Popol Vuh myth, before avenging the fates of the first twins, the two brothers have to kill a bird-demon called Vucub-Caquix. This episode is apparently portrayed in a stela at the early site of Izapa, in Chiapas. Here a couple of young men are portrayed shooting a bird-monster descending from a tree with their blowgun. This image is very similar to the one narrated in the Popol Vuh.

The myth of divine hero-twins is known in most Indigenous traditions. They are present in myths and tales both as legendary ancestors, and heroes that need to overcome various trials. Death and rebirth are suggested by many of the hero-twins appearing in the form of men-fish. Many Indigenous Mesoamericans believed that gods catch fish, human embryos floating in a mythical lake.

The Hero Twin myth was part of a suite of ideas and artifacts that arrived in the American southwest from the gulf coast beginning about 800 CE. Scholars have noted that the Maya Hero Twin myth appears in southwestern United States Mimbres pottery about that time.

Updated by K. Kris Hirst


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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Hunahpu and Xbalanque — The Maya Hero Twins." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Maestri, Nicoletta. (2023, April 5). Hunahpu and Xbalanque — The Maya Hero Twins. Retrieved from Maestri, Nicoletta. "Hunahpu and Xbalanque — The Maya Hero Twins." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).