Mayan Mythology, History, and A Little Bit of Everything

In the olden times, people resorted to mythology to explain everything they could not understand, from natural phenomena to virtues and values. In the stead of religion, people worshipped a multitude of gods. To appease them, sacrifices and offerings were made. In the world of mythology, the Greek, Roman and Norse gods loom large. Names like Thor, Zeus, Athena, Bacchus, Aphrodite, Apollo, among others, are household names in ancient times and even until now, not mainly for religious purposes but as parts of the world of literature. It cannot be doubted that mythology’s influence transcend time.

In Mesoamerican mythology, Quetzalcoatl is a prominent figure. However, Mesoamerican mythology, including Mayan mythology, remains largely shrouded in a veil of mystery to the general public. In her 2019 novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, Mexican-born writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia draws inspiration from her native country to compose an upbeat narrative that incorporated Mayan mythology with Jazz-era Mexico. It was both a commercial and critical success; it even ended up being nominated for 2020 Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Gods of Jade and Shadow commenced in the small town of Uukumil in the Yucatán Peninsula where the story’s eighteen-year old heroine, Casiopea Tun, lived with her family. However, as she was a “bastard” and “not a boy”, she was treated as an outcast by the rest of her family. Particularly, she was treated like a servant by her grandfather and her cousin, Martin Leyva. Akin to Cinderella’s wicked cousins, Martin’s resentment towards her presence made him go out of his way to make her life difficult. While tending to all the errands that she was asked to perform, she endlessly dreamt of escape.

“She woke to an ache so deep in her bones and such copious sorrow that she thought she would not be able to rise from bed. The world outside seemed muted and gray, which she thought fitting. Had it not been gray for her since birth? The burst of colors she had experienced during the past few days was the anomaly.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow

The escape Casiopea has been dreaming of happened one unsuspecting day. While her family went out, she was left all alone to tend to their family home. Out of sheer curiosity, she opened a chest that her grandfather has been safekeeping for years. This chest was off-limits to everyone and no one was allowed to open it. But it was enchanting and Casiopea couldn’t resist the temptation to find out what secret lurks within the mysterious chest. Little did she know that this one-time act of defiance would turn her life upside down.

From the chest emerged Hun-Kame, the Mayan god of death, the former ruler of the Mayan Underworld, Xibalba. However, he was overthrown by his twin brother, Vucub-Kame and locked down his bones in the chest. Vucub-Kame commissioned Casiopea’s grandfather to look after the chest. As added precaution, Vucub-Kame took parts of his brother – an eye, a finger, and a necklace. He scattered these parts all over Mexico, commissioning more safe keepers. If ever he manages to escape, Hun-Kame will never be whole again, hence, a shadow of his old powerful self. Roused from his long sleep, Hun-Kame enlists the assistance of Casiopea to wrest back control of himself and of the Underworld.

What makes an immediate impression in the novel is the incorporation of some elements of Mayan mythology. In a world pregnant with references to Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology, Gods of Jade and Shadow offer a breath of fresh air. However, despite each mythology originating from various parts of the world, they still share similarities. One such similarity is how gods obtain strength from the worship of the people, thus, their biggest fear is “irrelevance”. Irrelevance weakens them and they must constantly remind worshippers, in subtle ways, of their presence.

Through this novel, Moreno-Garcia vividly captured the relevance of deities and mythology in our daily life. She underscored how mythology is anchored on the power of imagination. As one character related, “The imagination of mortals shaped the gods, carving their faces, and their myriad forms, just as the water molds the stones in its path, wearing them down through the centuries. Imagination had also fashioned the dwellings of the gods.”

“Some people are born under a lucky star, while others have their misfortune telegraphed by the position of the planets. Casiopea Tun, named after a constellation, was born under the most rotten star imaginable in the firmament.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow

Parts-historical fiction, parts-coming-of-age story, Gods of Jade and Shadow is a multifaceted, multilayered narrative. The elements of mythology and folklore were lush and compelling. By using mythology and folklore and mixing in elements of time, Moreno-Garcia managed to subtly underline a young woman’s fight against discrimination, and domestic violence. It is about standing up against expectations, against the norms in a society where being a “boy” buys more premium.

The narrative draws strength from Casiopea. Well-developed, she propelled the narrative. At a young age, she was forced to mature by the circumstances surrounding her. However, she was never disheartened. When she discovered that the world beyond Uukumil was filled with hostility and darkness, she didn’t buckle down. She didn’t allow herself to be swallowed by this hostile world, rather, she used it to learn and gain wisdom. She remained faithful to the values inculcated by her father.

There was a balance in the natures of Casiopea and Hun-Kamé. The complexity of their characters add texture to the narrative, although there were parts where their actions go against their nature. In this aspect, the novel, at times, reduces itself into a mere young adult fiction. And yes, the readers kind of predict that there are romantic undercurrents lingering at the fringes and Moreno-Garcia didn’t prove otherwise. The romance felt forced, almost an after thought.

There was a lot to like about Gods of Jade and Shadow. There was a consistency in the voice and tone of the narrative. Moreno-Garcia’s conviction was commendable as the omniscient presence creates the atmosphere of a fairy tale. The writing was light and accessible. The incorporation of the vernacular rarely felt forced, unlike in most novels.

“And she had to admit to herself that part of what kept her next to him was not just the promise of freeing herself of the bone splinter or a sense of obligation, but the lure of change, of becoming someone else, someone other than a girl who starched shirts and shone shoes and had to make do with a quick glimpse of the stars at night.”

~ Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow

Gods of Jade and Shadow projected itself as a Jazz era story. However, Moreno-Garcia was so invested in the adventure and action that she forgot to lend credibility to the period. The perceived element of Jazz era didn’t resonate. Descriptions of the setting didn’t make it feel like it was from that era. It could have been set in the modern period and none would be wiser. There was, as well, a distance between the readers and the characters. An upbeat and relentless adventure, readers tend to get invested more in the action and not in the characters.

In Gods of Jade and Shadows, Moreno-Garcia managed to introduce to the world details of Mayan mythology. However, some key elements didn’t work out. The romance angle was a little forced and the story predictable. Moreno-Garcia also used some well-established notions vis-à-vis the relationship of gods and men, such as men being pawns or chess pieces in the grander schemes of gods. These apprehensions were offset by the more positive messages – learning to forgive, giving second chances, and believing that people can change. In the end, what mattered was the development of the characters.

Rating

69%

Characters (30%) – 17%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

I never intended to buy a copy of or read Gods of Jade and Shadow. I originally planned to read Mexican Gothic. Unfortunately, the local bookstore didn’t have of it but has a copy of Gods of Jade and Shadow. I thought I might as well try since I am planning to read one of Moreno-Garcia’s works anyway. I didn’t have an iota on what the book was about really but when I read that it involves Mayan mythology, I was ready to immerse. Although it is branded to evoke Jazz-era, there was very little Jazz-era atmosphere in the book. Action was relentless and before one could breathe in the details, the story moves on. It was a good book but fell flat on some aspects. I loved how Moreno-Garcia regaled readers with some details of Mayan mythology.

Book Specs

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Publisher:  Del Rey
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 334
Genre: Fantasy, Mythology

Synopsis

The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this dark fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

The Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it – and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatan to the bright lights of Mexico City – and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

About the Author

To learn more about Silvia Moreno-Garcia, click here.