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Xibalba (shee-BAHL-bah):

Xibalba is the name of the underworld in the K'iche' Maya creation epic, the Popol Vuh. This story describes the creation of multiple worlds, and the journey of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in the world prior to the present creation. The father of the twins, Hun Hunahpu, was killed in Xibalba after he and his brother lost to the Lords of Death in a ball game.

Hun Hunahpu's head was placed in a dead and barren tree, much like that in the glyph for K'an k'in, that magically began to bear new fruit that resembled his head. In the Popol Vuh, this was the first gourd tree, the skull-like fruits of which are used for drinking chocolate. Many centuries earlier, for the Maya of the Classic Period, this tree also appears to have been seen as a cacao tree (Theobroma cacao), the beans of which make the chocolate drink.

The Lords of Death made this tree forbidden to all citizens of Xibalba, but the allure of this strange and forbidden fruit was too strong for Xkik', the daughter of an underworld Lord, who had heard that the fruit was sweet. She approached the tree, and the head of Hun Hunahpu spoke to her there. He asked why she had come. She insisted that she wanted what he had to offer. She reached up her hand as if to pick the fruit, and through her hand, she became pregnant with the children of Hun Hunahpu.

After escaping the underworld, Xkik' became the mother of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who would later return to Xibalba to avenge the death of their father and uncle. The Lords of Death invited the twins to play another game of ball, but this time, it was the Lords of Death who were defeated. The underworld Lords subjected the twins to further tests, but each time the twins emerged unscathed, outsmarting their opponents.

Finally, the Lords of Death decided to trick the Hero Twins by inviting them to a drinking game that involved jumping over a huge pit of fire. The Twins had already foreseen their immanent deaths, and without fear, they willingly jumped into the fire together. Just as they had planned, the twins were burned, their bones were ground into powder and poured into a river.

The Hero Twins had convinced the advisors of the Lords of Death to tell their masters that this was the one way to ensure that the twins would never return. However, this was the precise recipe that would ensure their rebirth.

The burned and powdered bodies of the Hero Twins were poured into a river, and within five days, the twins were reborn as two fish. They re-emerged from the water as masked magicians who had gained the powerful ability to bring anything back to life, including themselves. Performing for a growing audience in Xibalba, the twins were able to demonstrate their magic on one another, and with any audience member who would volunteer to be killed and resurrected. After the masked magicians were invited perform for them at their palace, the Lords of Death enthusiastically volunteered. So the Hero Twins killed the Lords of Death, but this time they did not bring them back to life.

The Hero Twins defeated death, avenging the deaths of their uncle and father, the latter of whom is known to be the deity of Maize from the Classic Period. In this way, the twins brought about the present creation, and the Popol Vuh says that they finally emerged from Xibalba as the sun and the moon.

Within this ancient story is a possible riddle of cacao. As children of their cacao pod father, the Twins returned to Xibalba, where they were roasted, ground into powder and poured into water, just as cacao is refined into chocolate. This is the recipe for rebirth. They reappeared as two fish...

In fact, the Maya word 'kakaw' is spelled with two fish glyphs, both representing the syllable 'ka'. These glyphs derive from the Maya word for fish as 'kay' or 'kar'. Sometimes, the scribe would use a two-dot reduplication symbol before the fish glyph, indicating that the sound is to be repeated twice. It is curious that the Maya word for 'two' is also 'ka'. In the example above from the famous Rio Azul cacao pot, we find both the two 'ka' glyphs together with the reduplication symbol, as well as the final syllable 'wa', spelling 'kakaw'. It therefore seems likely that the story of the Hero Twins transforming into 'two fish' derives from a pun on the word 'kakaw', and this pun is reinforced by the hieroglyphic script that spells this word with these fish glyphs.

To find out more, read my research on FAMSI here: The Recipe for Rebirth: Cacao as Fish in the Mythology and Symbolism of the Ancient Maya