Here and There in Yucatan/Fables Told by the Mayas Indians


Among the great number of languages now spoken by mankind, one of the most mellifluous and expressive is the Maya tongue of Yucatan, Peten, and the frontier of Guatemala. There is a great charm in listening to fables told by the natives of those places as they have learned them from their fathers, one generation after another, for centuries past.

The ancient Maya poets, whose writings were burned by the first Spanish priests that went among them, generally sought in the voices of the animals for something that would enable them to give a pleasant lesson in morality. Thus it is that the songs of the various birds, and even their most mournful cries, are explained in fables. We have already published the story of that gorgeous bird called Toh, and how it always cries toh! toh! (straight! straight!), because at the time of the deluge (destruction of Atlantis) it was ordered to perch at the cross-roads and direct divers creatures to a place of safety.

The pretty dove called Cucutcib seems to be ever grieving. From the depths of those forests where sunbeams dance among the leaves and struggle with them in a vain endeavor to reach the delicate ferns and flowers that nestle below, her sweet but plaintive cry is wafted to us on the breeze that comes laden with forest echoes. Soft and clear, each syllable strikes our ear—cuuc-tu-tuzen! ending as with a sigh, and the Maya poet tells us why the bird is lamenting.

This violet-plumed dove, emblem of the faithful wife, was, on a lovely morning, carefully guarding the little eggs in the nest. Along came the squirrel, a sagacious and artful creature, and perched on a pliant bough near by the tranquil nest. Making himself as pretty and winning as possible, he addressed himself to the dove.

"My dear friend, why do you thus always remain at home, lonely and unsociable?"

"My husband is out," said the innocent wife; "when he returns I will go. We must not leave the tiny eggs unprotected." "Poor little one!" replied the sly animal, "while you are taking care of the nest your husband is amusing himself with other doves. This very day, I have seen him with my own eyes."

Like a poisoned arrow, jealousy wounded the heart of the dove and she hastily abandoned the nest.

Immediately the squirrel devoured the small eggs, having won his breakfast by his own cunning, and the credulity of the simple and jealous dove.

When she returned to the nest, alas! she sighed with anguish to find it empty and the frail shells scattered in fragments upon the ground beneath! Since then she only repeats in soft and sorrowful accents, cuuc-tu-tuzen! cuuc-tu-tuzen, that is, "The squirrel deceived me, the squirrel deceived me."

The fable concludes by saying that in view of what happened to the dove, the married woman should always be extremely prudent; and that people in general should be on their guard against malignant and cunning mischief-makers, who are ever ready to reach their own ends by cheating unsuspicious people.

A similar fable is that of the owl and the iguana (large lizard), supposed to account for the doleful cry of certain owls that give vent to prolonged O's! at all hours of the night.

In a snug little grotto the mother owl was arranging her feathers and saying to herself. "I shall go when he returns."

Soon her mate was by her side, and she told him to be very watchful, because she had seen a large iguana close by. "Be sure you do not abandon the nest one minute," she said, as she put the last touch to her feathers and flew away.

Hardly was she out of sight when an acquaintance came to invite Mr. Owl to go a short distance with her to look at her own beautiful offspring that had just opened their lovely eyes.

"Impossible!" he said, "my wife has left me to take care of this nest."

But the other enticed him, saying. "You can return immediately, and she will not know you have been out."

The foolish bird allowed himself to be persuaded, and away he flew to gratify his neighbor's wish and his own curiosity.

Meanwhile, the dreaded iguana had the nest in view, being on the trunk of a tree near by. As soon as the white-breasted owl had gone, he crawled down to the ground and rustled through the dry leaves scattered at the foot of the tree. Stealthily approaching the coveted eggs he carefully took one between his jaws and went behind a big stone to enjoy his ill-gotten meal. Before he had time to go for the other, the truant owl returned, and great was his dismay.

"Is it possible!" he exclaimed, "why! I have only been away a minute. What can I do? Come what may, I shall not say that I have left the nest, and I will try to persuade my wife that there was but one egg when she went from here."

Very soon he saw her coming and his heart was all in a flutter, but he tried to look unconcerned as if nothing had happened. He stood on one side of the nest and made himself as pretty as he could to attract her attention; but the maternal eye instantly fell on the nest, and a cry of indignation made the owl start. However, with feigned surprise he said: "Why! what's the matter?"

"Wretch! where is the other egg?" she demanded

"Other egg!" echoed he.

"Yes, other egg! There were two, and well you know it. Monster! you have been away and the iguana has come."

Pretending to be very innocent, the owl opened his eyes wider and said: "You are certainly mistaken; there was only one egg."

But his wife knew better, and upbraided him bitterly, in spite of his assertion that he knew nothing about it. Loudly lamenting her loss she searched around the grotto, piteously exclaming O! O! O! and soon found fragments of egg-shell which told their own sad story, and destroyed all her doubts and the confidence that she had ever had in her mate, who had lied to try to hide the wrong he had done. Ever since then the owl has remained inconsolable, and in the dead of night we hear her bewailing her loss, always repeating O! O! O! Now this, concludes the poet, should teach us never to be persuaded to do what is contrary to our conscience or good judgment, if we would keep out of trouble.