Cautionary Tales

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Told by don Pedro Miguel Say, Q'anjob'al Maya. Translated and edited by Fernando Peñalosa and Janet Sawyer


Once there was a gentleman jaguar and a lady skunk. Mrs. Skunk had a son, who was baptized by Mr. Jaguar, so Mrs. Skunk became his comadre. And as Mr. Jaguar had baptized the little skunk, he was Mrs. Skunk's compadre.

Mr. Jaguar decided to go looking for food and came to Mrs. Skunk's house."Well, compadre, what are you looking for? What have you come here for?" the skunk asked the jaguar.

"Comadre, what I have come to do is to look for some food," said Mr. Jaguar.

"Oh," said Mrs. Skunk.

"I want my godson to come with me so that he can learn to hunt," said Mr. Jaguar.

"I don't think your godson ought to go; he's still very small and something could happen to him. He better not go, compadre," said Mrs. Skunk.

But the little skunk protested:"No, mother, I had better go. What my godfather says is true. I need to get some practice, if I'm going to learn to hunt," said the little skunk.

"But if you go, you'll be so far away," said Mrs. Skunk.

"I'm going, I'm going. Come on, let's go." So they set off on a long walk.

"We're going to where there's a river. That's where we're going," Mr. Jaguar explained to the little skunk, his godson.

"When are we going to get there?" asked the little skunk.

"We're getting close. Follow me so you won't get lost," said Mr. Jaguar.

"All right," answered the little skunk. They finally came to the river. "This is where we're going to eat," said Mr. Jaguar to the little skunk.

"All right," said the little skunk.

"Come on over here. I'm going to sharpen my knife," said Mr. Jaguar.

"All right," said the little skunk, looking at his godfather. Mr. Jaguar sharpened his claws, which he called his "knife."

"I sharpened my knife. Now you're going to be on guard, because I am going to sleep. When you see them come, wake me up," said Mr. Jaguar.

"All right," said the little skunk, "all right, godfather."

Then Mr. Jaguar told him: "Don't shout. Just scratch my belly when they come. Scratch my belly, so I won't alarm them. But don't wake me up if just any little old animals without antlers come along, only when the one with big antlers gets here. That's when you'll wake me up."

"All right," said the little skunk. Then the one with the big antlers came, and the skunk awakened Mr. Jaguar. He scratched his belly, and pointed out the deer to Mr. Jaguar, who attacked the animal with big antlers. He went after him and seized him.

"All right, my godson, let's eat. We're going to eat meat," said the jaguar. "All right," said the little skunk. And so they ate and ate.

"Now we're going to take whatever leftovers there are to your mother," said the jaguar. "Since we are full, we can take something to your mother. Your mother will have meat to eat, just as we did. We will take some to your mother," said the jaguar.

When they came back to the mother's house, he told the lady: "Look at the food here. Look, we've brought you some food, the food that we hunted. Eat your fill of the meat, comadre," the jaguar said to Mrs. Skunk.

"All right," said the skunk, and ate the meat. "I'm full," she said.

"It's good that you're satisfied. I've seen that you are, so I'll be leaving now," said Mr. Jaguar to Mrs. Skunk. And so he left. After the jaguar left, the little skunk stayed with his mother.

When they ran out of meat, Mrs. Skunk said to her son: "Dear, our meat is all gone."

"Yes, the meat is all gone. I better go and get us some more food," said the little skunk.

"How can you, son? Do you think you're big enough? You're very small. Don't you think you'll be killed?" asked Mrs. Skunk.

"No, mother, I already know how to hunt, my godfather taught me how," replied the little skunk. "I'm leaving now."

He left, and Mrs. Skunk was very worried. Her son came once more to the river, the place to which he had come with his godfather to get the meat.

"This is how my godfather did it. Why shouldn't I be able to do the same thing?" said the little skunk. "This is how you sharpen a knife," said the little skunk. He sharpened his "knife."

"This is the way my godfather did it. I'm not going to hunt the little animals, I'm just going to hunt the one with the great big antlers. I'm going to hunt one for myself just like the one I ate with my godfather. I have my knife here and I'm going to sleep for a little while."

The little skunk lay down to sleep, but then he awakened. He was waiting for the one with the big antlers, and when he came, he attacked him, thinking he was as strong as his godfather. But he just hung from the neck of the one with big antlers. His claws had dug into his skin. He was hanging from his neck and was carried far away and fell on his back. He was left with his mouth wide open.

Since he had not come home to his mother, she wondered: "What could have happened to my son? Why hasn't he come back yet? Something must have happened to him. I better go and look for him." And so Mrs. Skunk went as far as the bank of the river. She was looking everywhere for her son, but couldn't find him. She began to cry when she found the tracks where the one with the big antlers had come by running.

"They must have come by here," said Mrs. Skunk, and began to follow the tracks. She came to the place where her son had been left lying on his back. When the mother caught sight of him, she noticed that his teeth were showing and shouted at him: "Son, what are you laughing at? All your teeth are showing," she said to him before she had gotten very close.

When she did get close she told him: "Give me your hand. I've come to get you, but you're just laughing in my face." She put her hand on him, thinking that he was still alive, but when she noticed that he was already dead, she began to cry.


A deer went to look for a place to build himself a house. There was also a jaguar who was out looking for a place to set up a house. He came to the same place the deer had chosen, and thought he would build there also.

The next day the deer came and thoroughly cleared the ground with his antlers. The jaguar came later and said: "It seems somebody is helping me." Then he stuck some big poles in the ground and set up the framework.

The next day the deer came back and when he saw this, he said: "It seems somebody is helping me."

Then he covered the house with branches and made two rooms, one for him and the other one for whomever was helping him.

The next day the jaguar saw that the house was finished. He went in one room and fell asleep. The deer came later and went to sleep in the other room.

One day the two came home at the same time. When they saw each other, the jaguar asked the deer: "Was it you who was helping me?"

The deer answered: "Yes, it was me."

Then the jaguar said: "Let's live together."

"Yes, let's live together in the same house," said the deer. They went to sleep and the following morning the jaguar said: "I'm going hunting, so sweep the floor, prepare wood and water, because I'll be hungry when I come back."

The jaguar went to the woods to hunt and got a very large deer. He brought it home and said to his companion: "Let's eat what I have caught."

But the deer didn't want to eat; he was very much afraid. He couldn't sleep all night long on account of fear. Early the next morning he went to the woods and met a very large jaguar. Later he met a large bull and said to him:

"I met a jaguar who was bad-mouthing you."

The bull went looking for the jaguar and found him resting. The bull came up to him slowly, leaped on top of him and gored him. Then the deer went off dragging the dead jaguar. When he got home, he said to his companion:

"Let's eat what I have caught."

The jaguar approached him, but he didn't want to eat; he was very frightened. That night he couldn't sleep thinking about the deer killing jaguars; and the deer couldn't sleep thinking about the jaguar killing deer. Both were very frightened.

At midnight as the deer moved his head, his antlers struck the wooden walls of the house. The jaguar and the deer were frightened by the noise, and both of them ran out of the house without stopping. And so the deer and the jaguar each went his separate way.


Once upon a time a hen was up in the branches of a tree, and a coyote came up to her: "I've brought some good news for you. Do you want to hear it?" asked the coyote.

"Do you really have some good news?" the hen asked.

The coyote answered: "It's about the two of us. Hear this: The coyote and the hen have made peace! Now we're going to be friends and you can come down from the tree. We'll hug each other as a sign of good will."

The hen kept asking if it was true what the coyote was saying: "Where was the peace treaty approved, brother coyote?" The coyote answered:

"Over there by the hunting grounds on the other side of the mountain. Hurry up and come down so that we can celebrate this moment of peace."

The hen asked: "Over there on the other side of the mountain?"

"May God witness that I am telling the truth. Come on down from the tree," insisted the coyote.

"Maybe you are telling the truth, brother. I see that the dog is coming to celebrate the fiesta with us, because you and he are also going to make peace. I see him coming near, I hear him coming. He's coming fast and he's going to grab me, now that you and he have made peace. Do you hear, brother coyote, do you hear?" asked the hen. She was very happy and came down from the branches of the tree.

The coyote accepted this explanation and ran away. As the hen said, the dog was coming, that's why he left. The hen didn't want to come down from the tree. She didn't fall in front of the coyote; if she had, he would have eaten her. She realized he was just telling her lies.

Thus ends the story of the coyote and the hen.


These stories too have a disguised meaning within the simple children's story content. They seem to caution against everyday problems, but they are cautionary, too, to all Mayans against the Spanish and Ladino rulers.

Little skunk -- fesity Mayan youth, who resent the rulers -- isn't big enough to go hunting alone. The peasant men lack knowledge, arms, and organization to take on the rulers. Little Skunk, after a bit of training by his compadre, tries it but can't handle it and is killed. The hidden caution here is to hot-blooded youth: wait until our people's forces are ready, or you will be killed and accomplish nothing but to leave your mothers weeping.

In the jaguar-and-deer story, the jaguar now represents the bad guys -- the Spanish, but perhaps at a lower level than rulers. A colonist (jaguar) moves onto land the Mayan (deer) has prepared and starts to build an estancia there, which the deer-Mayan finishes with his labor. The deer thinks maybe he can get along with whoever it is, so they live together (Mayan farm laborers on the Spanish estancia). But deer discovers that jaguar lives by killing and eating (exploiting) other Mayans, and seeks help from a bull (perhaps revolutionaries). The bull kills another jaguar, which deer brings home to eat. The Spanish on this particular estancia now become frightened of their Mayan laborers, and an accidental noise in the night sends both parties -- Spaniards and Mayan, running away separately.

Coyote in the wise old hen story may represent Spaniards or assimilated Ladinos who exploit Mayan peasants. He tries to trick hen into becoming vulnerable to his exploitations, by telling of a peace that's been made between his kind and her kind far away. She knows he's lying and doesn't fall for it. The dog chases Coyote away. The story expresses the idea that there is no distant peace they can rely on -- if the remote peasants make themselves vulnerable to betrayers, they will be eaten up.

These stories are a sophisticated method of communication in a situation where everything said among the Mayan people can pose dangers to the one who tells it and to the ones who hear it. It is interesting to look at certain Native North American "myths and legends" from that perspective. More often, though, one seees sly little jokes played on anthros who collect such stories through interpreters, because they don't actually know the language or the culture they are supposedly studying. Prim, sanitized little fables then get printed up as examples of primitive lit, with the cleverness, sophistication, and bite all removed.


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CREDITS: The jaguar face was sent to Akwesasne Notes in 1975 as one of several Indian ink drawings from a Mexican artist whose name was lost. The textile pattern of reflected images peering apprehensively back at each other -- suggesting the deer and the jaguar who mirror each other's actions and fear each other -- was in the same packet of drawings but by a different artist. Other graphics on the page -- the young skunk, the coyote, the hen -- are from tracings of stonework at Bonampak. Computer tracing, arrangement and coloring of these anthropological tracings is by me for these pages.

Page prepared by Paula Giese. Text and graphics copyright 1995.
Mayan stories copyright Yax:Te' Press 1995, used with permission.

Last updated: Friday, July 05, 1996 - 1:37:38 PM