In the lore of the Quiché Maya, One and Seven Hunahpu were the first generation of hero twins. These boys were passionate ballplayers. They were so good at it, and so noisy about it, that they came to the attention of the Lords of Death. The rulers of the Underworld sent messengers to summon them to a ballgame. They were told to bring their rubber ball and their protective gear. Instead, they hid them up under the rafters of their mother's house.
Then they set out for Xibalba, the kingdom of the Lords of Death. At the bottom of a cliff, they made it safely across a river of spikes, then a river of blood and a river of pus. When they came to the throneroom of the Lords of Death, they greeted them by name. Only these weren't the Lords of Death at all, but carved wooden replicas. This was a test, and they had failed it. "No hard feelings," said the Lords of Death. "Have a seat." The twins sat right down on a burning bench and shot right back up again. For failing tests like these they were sacrificed. Their bodies were buried under the ballcourt in Xibalba.
But the head of One Hunahpu was placed in the fork of a tree. A maiden named Blood Woman approached the tree, and the head of One Hunahpu spoke to her. And when she reached out her hand, he spat into it. The saliva of One Hunahpu grew into babies in the womb of Blood Woman. And she gave birth to the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Here's how the Hero Twins found out that they were destined to be great ballplayers. They were trying to make a garden, but every time they cleared away the underbrush, the forest animals put it back again. They tried to snare the animals but had no success until at last they caught a rat. They held his tail over the fire (which is why rats have no hair back there). They were starting to kill him when the rat protested, talking fast to save his hide. "Look, you two aren't cut out to be gardeners anyway," he squealed. "There's something you'd be better at. I'll tell it for some food."
And the rat told them about how their father and uncle had been great ballplayers, and how they were cut out to be great themselves. "You just need the proper gear," said the rat. "And I happen to know where they hid it."
But the rat didn't want to get caught in the house by the Twins' grandmother. So they let him loose in the wall and then asked their grandmother for food and drink. The water jar needed filling, because they had secretly emptied it. So their grandmother went out to the well. And the boys let loose a mosquito that punctured her water jug, so water leaked out every time she filled it. While she was gone, the rat bit the twine that held the ball gear to the ceiling, and down it fell.
So one day they were playing ball like their father and uncle before them. Their gleeful shouts were heard down below in Xibalba. The Lords of Death were affronted. These twins were no more humble than the others. And so messengers were dispatched, summoning them to a ballgame in Xibalba. It broke their grandmother's heart to think that she would lose her grandsons to the Lords of Death, just as she had lost her sons before them.
But this generation succeeded where the first had failed. They knew that the Lords of Death expected to be greeted by name. So one of them plucked a hair from his shin, and it turned into a mosquito. And the mosquito went on ahead and bit the first Lord of Death. Only there was no reaction, since this wasn't a real Lord of Death at all but only a wooden replica. Then the mosquito bit a real Lord, and he let out a cry. "What's the matter?" asked the one seated next to him, calling him by name.
And when the mosquito bit the other Lords and each cried out in turn, the twins learned all the names. Then they entered the throne room of Xibalba and declared that they weren't about to say good morning to wooden dummies. "Then have a seat," said the Lords of Death, gritting their teeth in frustration.
"Not on that cooking griddle," said the Twins.
Now the Twins were challenged to a series of ordeals, each in a special "house". In the Dark House they were given a torch and two burning cigars. They were supposed to return these in the morning just as they had received them. Their father and uncle had let the torch burn out, and they had smoked the cigars. But the Hero Twins knew better. They swapped a macaw's scarlet tail feathers for the torch's flame. And they stuck fireflies on the ends of their cigars.
When they were sent to the Razor House, sharp blades were supposed to cut them to pieces. But they convinced the blades that their job was to cut up animals, not hero twins. And when they were sent to the Jaguar House, they distracted the tigers by feeding them bones. The Cold House they survived by locking out the cold. The Fire House didn't burn them to ashes, but only toasted them golden brown.
It was when they were sentenced to the Bat House, they made their first mistake, in accordance with their destiny. Hunahpu decided to peek outside the blowgun and see if it was morning yet. When he did so, a bat sliced off his head and it went rolling out onto the ballcourt of Xibalba. His brother called all the animals together, asking each to bring its favorite food. The coati brought a squash, and with the help of the gods this became a new head for Hunahpu. Meanwhile the Twins told a rabbit to hide outside the ballcourt.
When the Lords of Death started the game, they used Hunahpu's head for the ball. As far as they were concerned, this made them victors automatically. But when they kicked the ball, Xbalanque deflected Hunahpu's head flying toward the rabbit's hiding place. The rabbit hopped off, and the Lords of Death thought it was the bouncing ball and raced off in pursuit.
The boys got Hunahpu's head back and put the squash in its place. When the game began again and Xbalanque gave the ball a particularly energetic boot, it split open and all its seeds came spilling out. The Hero Twins had defeated the Lords of Xibalba.
So the Lords of Death, with all their tricks and all their tests couldn't kill the Hero Twins. But still the boys knew that they would have to die for their quest to be complete. They even knew how the Lords of Death would kill them. So when they were called before the Lords of Xibalba and challenged to a new and different game, they knew it was a trick. "See this oven?" said the Lords of Death. "Bet you can't jump over it four times."
"We're not falling for that one," said the boys, and without any further ado they jumped right into the flames. At this point the Lords of Death made a big mistake. Instead of throwing Xbalanque and Hunahpu over a cliff or hanging their bodies in a tree, they ground their bones on a grinding stone and sprinkled them in the river. This was the only way that the Twins could come back to life. And come back they did, first as catfish and then as their normal selves.
Only now their outward appearance was different. They looked like tattered beggars, the kind who go about dancing and performing tricks for a living. And their tricks were amazing. They'd burn a house down and then make it like new. They'd even sacrifice each other, laying down under the blade then springing up again. Word of their renown reached the Lords of Death, and they were summoned for a command performance.
The Lords of Death asked that a dog be sacrificed and then brought back to life. And when this was done, they asked that it be repeated with a human. And when this too was accomplished, they asked the Twins to sacrifice each other. So Xbalanque dismembered his twin and cut out his heart. Then he started dancing and commanded Hunahpu to get up and join him. And when Hunahpu got up as good as new, the Lords of Death were caught up in a frenzy of delight.
"Now do us!" they cried. And so the Twins sacrificed the two foremost of the Lords of Death. Only they didn't bring them back to life. And the other Lords knew that they had been defeated, and from that day forth Xibalba had lost its glory.
The Twins took the head of One Hunahpu from the tree in which it hung, and they put him back together and restored him to life. They left him there in a place of honor beside the ballcourt in Xibalba. And then the Hero Twins, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, their heroic quest complete, ascended into the sky and became the sun and the moon.
[Based on the Popul Vuh., translated by Dennis Tedlock, published by Simon & Schuster. Available in paperback and highly recommended.]