Bird’s Eye View: A Tapestry of Maya Mythology, Motherhood, and Making Life Anew

By Jan Capps

The Tz’utujil, one of the 22 indigenous Maya groups of Guatemala, see themselves as people of the birds.  Birds are revered for the many benefits they bring. They are viewed as charmers of the ear, as messengers. Birds know the Earth and sky well, so they can recognize and announce changes. If you watch the birds, you know what the sky will do. For example, robins and thrushes swarm in a specific pattern when rain is coming. The hoot of owls, in particular, but also the calls of other birds, can signal trouble nearby.

Birds spread and solidify life. When a person’s house is destroyed, she or he seeks to rebuild it in the same place, often foolishly, because what destroyed it may come back again. When a bird’s home is destroyed, it flies away to find another place to build its nest. Birds carry the seeds of fruits they’ve eaten with them, which allows new plants to sprout and helps other birds make future homes. Flycatchers stuff the roofs of thatched houses with moss, thereby adding stability and durability.

The Tz’utujil assert that bird calls are not only signals for people and other birds, but also brings into existence the changes in the annual natural cycle. They say there is a type of bird that calls the wind of January, another that calls the pollen haze of March, and yet another calls the fuchsia cactus flowers in July. The appearance of hummingbirds brings an end to the dry season.

The Tz’utujil are also a tree people. The birds help spread the trees, but the trees in turn provide a home for the birds, as well as for other animals. Though trees appear solid and stationary, they are communicators as much as birds.

According to Maya legend, the god Huracán (also called Heart of the Sky) formed the Earth between the underworld, also called Xibalba, and the upper world in the sky. The lords of death occupied the thirteen levels of Xibalba, and the gods and spirits occupied the thirteen levels of the upper world. Seeing that he left no space between the Earth and the upper world, Huracán planted a ceiba tree that stretched its branches into the upper world and expanded its roots deep into Xibalba. The ceiba’s trunk grew to separate the Earth from the sky and leave space in between for all beings. The gods, spirits, and the dead can pass through the ceiba as a communication route between Xibalba, the Earth’s surface, and the upper world.

Groundbreaking research on the “minds of trees” has confirmed the connectedness and communication capacity of trees. Previously, trees were considered individual beings operating separately from others and depending solely on the sun over their heads and the soil at their roots. Scientists have since discovered an intricate underground communication and support system consisting of a web of tendrils connecting species. They recognize when one in the network is deficient in nutrients and can send what is lacking to it. When trees are injured or dying, they send messages of resilience to the next generation of seedlings, increasing their resistance to future stresses. Through back-and-forth conversations, they increase the strength of the whole community. They also give life to an ecosystem of lichens, vines, moss, liverworts, ferns, bromeliads, and orchids that live symbiotically within them.

These two natures are often in conflict with each of us, and at certain times in our lives, we must call upon one and suppress the other.  Yet, we must also recognize their interdependence and honor both.


Book synopsis: When Jan Moves to Guatemala with her young daughter to run a medical clinic on the heels of her divorce, she knows the experience will be difficult and life-changing. But she doesn’t anticipate all the ways she will change. To make sense of her professional, personal, and parenting turmoil in a country with plenty of its own turmoil, Jan finds herself adopting a Maya worldview that weaves together concepts of duality (there can be no light without dark, no joy without pain), harmony with nature, and the importance of connecting to the past to understand one’s present self. Awash with elements of Mayan mythology, history, and culture and innumerable revelations of the compassion, intelligence, and resilience of the Guatemalan people, Bird’s-Eye View is a coming-of-middle-age story that shows how viewing life through the prism of a different set of myths can help an individual understand the familiar tales they have unwittingly followed.
Bio: Jan Capps has been a public health advocate for immigrants, farmworkers, domestic violence victims, and people of color in the US, Guatemala, and Mexico for over thirty years, focusing on building local capacity and health equity. During her two stints living in Guatemala, she organized and trained community health workers and midwives, managed a medical clinic, and studied the Maya Tz’utujil language. She has presented, trained, and written for national audiences. Her greatest joy and most humbling experiences have been being a mother and watching her glorious daughter grow and launch into the world.