The Emergence of Land and the Importance of the Word in the Popul Vuh and Several Origin Myths of the Indigenous Populations of North and Central America

This is an excerpt from Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype) by Mark Greene, Ph.D. More information about Mark and his book can be found at the end of this excerpt.

The way things are before anything new is created bears a marked similarity across several origin myths of the southwestern Native American tribes and the Popol Vuh, the Quiché Mayans’ sacred origin narrative. The existence of the primordial element, water, as manifest in the form of “the calm sea” appears in every case of this study either alone or accompanied by the emptiness of “the expanse of sky” (Goetz & Morely, 1950, p. 81). In addition, a pair of creator gods can be found in each myth acting in unison or opposition to create the rest of the world. The tension between opposites is manifest in the binary units of sky/ocean, good/evil and light/dark. One common resolution to these opposing forces appears in each myth in the form of upward-moving earth from the under-sea-world and eventual surfacing so that living creatures and a landscape may be created upon it.

            In the case of The White Dawn of the Hopi, the earth is covered with water over which a solitary sun rises and sets every day. Eventually, the two goddesses living below the water, each in her own kiva—one in the east and the other in the west—“…cause the waters to recede eastward and westward so that some dry land appeared” (Erdoes & Ortiz, 1984, p. 115). The Sun points out that no living creature is to be seen during his daily arc across the sky. His comment prompts the goddesses to bring creatures to life who will populate the earth.

            In the Yuma origin myth, The Good Twin and the Evil Twin, the earth begins as “only water—there was no sky, there was no land, only nothingness” (Erdoes & Ortiz, 1984, p. 77). An upward movement finds expression in the mist which rises from the ocean’s surface and eventually becomes the sky. From the ocean’s depths eventually emerge Kokomaht, the good creator twin, and Bakotahl, the evil one. After creating the four directions upon the water, Kokomaht stirs “the waters into a foaming whirlpool with his hand.” After the bubbles and foam subside, land is visible and the creator god sits upon it (p. 77).

            In the Jicarilla Genesis, of the Jicarilla Apache, the earth is “covered with water, and all living things were below in the underworld.” Here, the roles of opposition are played by those people and animals who want more light and those night animals “the bear, the panther, and the owl (who) wanted darkness.” The light-desiring coalition is incrementally victorious as they win four rounds of the “thimble-and-button game.” After the fourth win, “the sun came up in the east, and it was day, and the owl flew away and hid” (Erdoes & Ortiz, 1984, p. 83). Eventually, four separate storms, each distinguished by its own color, “roll up” the encompassing waters thus allowing the emergence of land and the rising up of the underground creatures (p. 84).

            As is the case with previously mentioned narratives, the Popol Vuh begins with nothing but sea and sky. In this story, the two creator gods Tepeu and Gucumatz, hide “under green and blue feathers” in the ocean (Goetz & Morely, 1950, p. 82). They confer and meditate upon the primordial situation and conclude that “when dawn would break, man must appear.” Again, the water is made to recede in order to “let the earth appear and become solid” (p. 83).

            One aspect of the Popol Vuh which distinguishes it from the other narratives considered is the gods’ insistence upon producing a creature that will be able to speak the names of its creators. The gods of the Popol Vuh seem quite concerned with language. “Then came the word” is what is written just before Tepeu and Gucumatz come together in the darkness of night. In their “discussing and deliberating; they agreed, they united their words and their thoughts” (p. 82). The gods’ obsession to create beings capable of speaking their names becomes the motivating force behind creation itself and eventually results in the creation of humanity.

            The gods make several attempts at achieving this end. First, they create the animals of the forest and then beseech their creation to, “Speak, then, our names, praise us, your mother, your father.” Since their creation is only able to hiss and scream and cackle, the gods decide that these creatures shall have their “flesh torn to pieces” and tell them to accept this as their fate since they could not speak the names of the gods (p. 85). The gods then attempt to create humankind first from clay and then from wood. Both experiments fail; the man of clay “at first . . . spoke, but had no mind. Quickly it soaked in the water and could not stand” and the figures made of wood were capable of multiplying, “but they did not have souls, nor minds, they did not remember their Creator, their Maker; they walked on all fours, aimlessly” (pp. 86-87).

            It is feasible to conclude that in making their gods in their own image, the Quiché Maya required literate progenitors. By contrast, the Southwest Indians, all lacking written languages, did not put as much emphasis on the word in their origin myths as did their southern counterparts. In this way, we can see cultural differences manifest in their various myths and legends. On the collective level, however, the symbolism common to all of these origin narratives speaks to a shared primordial set of images of earth rising from the sea under the canopy of sky all under the rule of two divine forces.


Erdoes, Richard & Ortiz, Alfonso. (1984). American Indian myths and legends. New York: Pantheon.

Goetz, Delia & Morely, Sylvanus G. (1950). Popol Vuh - The Sacred Book of the Ancient Quiché Maya. Trans. Adrián Recinos. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma UP.

About The Book

You've just read an excerpt from Mark Greene, Ph.D's Adventure in Archetype: Depth Psychology and the Humanities (Essays in Archetype).

This volume comprises a collection of essays written from an archetypal perspective. Intended for students of literature, the arts and psychology, this book was also written for the reader intent on self-discovery. Archetypal theory refers to one aspect of the work developed by the pioneering psychoanalyst C. G. Jung (1875-1961) and taken further by psychologist James Hillman (1926 - 2011). These theories, or their derivatives, may also appear under other headings such as analytical psychology, archetypal psychology, Jungian psychodynamic theory, depth psychology or, in general terms, a psychology of the unconscious.

About The Author

Mark Greene received his Ph.D. in mythological studies and depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, USA in 1999. Passionate about psychology, mythology and the significance of symbols in dreams and consciousness, he teaches a range of subjects including the psychology of consciousness, analytical psychology, positive psychology, abnormal psychology and how to use mythology and psychology to better understand the archetypes present in our personal narratives and the media and arts around us. 

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Counselling and Psychology at Hong Kong Shue Yan University, he is also the OECD Project Coordinator and Senior Researcher at the Economic and Wellbeing Project. Besides conducting one of Hong Kong's best known subjective wellbeing surveys since 2007, other areas of interest and research include exploring the meaning of symbols and images in myths, legends and fairy tales. Mark Greene is also a registered counselor at the Dream Therapy Institute in Hong Kong (

Plans for further volumes in the Essays in Archetype series include books on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and an archetypal look at China and the west using modern and ancient myths to elucidate mutual understanding.

Book Review

"As a professor of the Psychology of Personality for many years I can attest to the fact that for beginning students of Jung's psychology, one of the more difficult concepts to grasp is that of the Archetype. Understanding the concept with examples has often proved elusive. But with Mark Greene's new book we have the solution to hand. He has written a most readable and accessible set of essays which illuminate archetypal experience in many areas of literature, art, religion and mythology with a view to helping us understand ourselves better. As he succinctly puts it: "Familiarizing oneself with the concept of archetypes and their myriad manifestations in myths, legends and fairy tales can provide a better understanding of how individual psychology functions". Dr Greene has done teachers and students of personality alike a great service by a writing a comprehensive and accessible book which should serve as a standard in archetypal psychology for years to come." - Prof. Geoffrey Blowers, University of Hong Kong.