The Defeat of the Great Bird in Myth and Royal Pageantry: A Mesoamerican Myth in a Comparative Perspective

  • Christophe Helmke
  • Jesper Nielsen


Mythic narratives occupy a privileged position in human cultures, and relate not only the creation of the world, plants, animals and people, but also the origin of social values, rituals and institutions. The pre-eminence given to myths and their explanatory value, means that these narratives are much more than the recollection of fantastic events in the deep past. The study of myths have relied on a wide range of approaches, variously stipulating that these are the product of the social unconscious, the fabricated fantasies of the rulers to bolster their claims to power, or the indistinct recollections of actual events in the distant past — beyond the reaches of orally-transmitted extra-social memory. Here we present a particular mythic motif, involving the defeat of a giant celestial bird, with solar attributes, at the hands of a culture hero or heroic twins. While we will focus on this motif and its distribution across Mesoamerican cultures, it bears remarking that similar motifs occur among Amerindian cultures in both North and South America. Together this collection of myths can be ascribed to a series of mythic cycles, wherein culture heroes set out to vanquish monsters and make the world a place suitable for the creation of humanity. Surprisingly, several Old World myths also exhibit such remarkable structural and substantial similarities, that these point to distant, yet common prehistoric origins and widespread diffusion, rather than independent and coincident convergence.