In the folklore of the Yucatec Maya exists a type of supernatural being called yumtsilo’b, “worthy or deserving lords.” This term designates a number of protector or guardian spirits who might be divided into three classes according to their functions or attributes:
- The balamob, charged with protecting people, farms, and villages.
- The kuilob-kaaxob (or ah canan k’aax), who watch over mountains.
- The chacob, who control the clouds and send the rain.
Though they can be distinguished by function, these are likely three names designating the same sort of being. According to Ascención Amador Naranjo,
In our opinion, these three categories are no more than invocations of a singular being that manifest according to the functions with which it identifies on a given occasion. In Maxcanú, the term used with the most frequency to refer to them as a whole is balam, which flows together with the other specific names in the references of the informants. (“Yumtsilo’b/balamob: los dueños de la noche,” Perspectivas antropológicas en el mundo maya, ed. María Josefa Iglesias Ponce de León and Francesc Ligorred Perramon [Sociedad Española de Estudios Mayas, 1993] 488. All translations of Dra. Amador Naranjo’s paper are my own)
Balamob (singular, balam) can thus refer either to all of these protective spirits or specifically to the first of Amador Naranjo’s three subtypes. Balam literally means “jaguar.” These beings are also sometimes called balam uincob or “jaguar people,” although the Spanish plural balames is also sometimes heard.
The jaguar was highly respected and venerated by the people of Central America. In pre-Columbian iconography, it is associated with gods and sacred structures. The Maya believed jaguars had the ability to cross between the mortal realm (associated with the day) and the realm of the spirit (associated with the night). Powerful kings and warriors also availed themselves of jaguar iconography.
The earliest depictions of balamob were as gigantic terrifying guardians of the four directions. In modern times, they are seen more as guardians of nature. They protect the people along with their villages and farms. Their main function is seen to be protecting people from evil or calamity during the night. One of Amador Naranjo’s informants describe them thusly:
“They are the ones that walk on the mountain, the masters of the mountain, who watch thus by night—or better said, who watch over us. They are ghosts, balam uincob.” (489)
Although their appearance is very similar to that of human beings—old men with white hair, beards or moustaches, dressed in traditional clothing also colored white—they are not of the same nature. Rather, they are described as creatures of “pure wind” or “pure air.”
Another function of the balamob is to instruct and help the h’men or medicine man. They feel a predilection for certain children, whom they take to their abodes to impart a knowledge of traditional medicine.
Like the mound-warriors of the American Southeast, balamob are sometimes said to dwell in ancient ruins. For this reason, many people fear to touch the ruins lest they provoke their ire.
Humans and balamob have a reciprocal relationship. Whenever a mortal takes something that belongs to the balamob, he or she must repay them. If they don’t, their crops might fail or they might fall ill. In this, the balamob sound quite similar to legends of “little people” all over the world.
Some contemporary Maya have folded their belief in balamob into their Catholic faith. They say, for example, that these beings are subordinate to the will of God although they have power over the forces and phenomena of nature that most influence people’s destiny. For many, the balamob‘s function of protecting mortals during the night takes on special significance on the night following Good Friday when, they say, the rule of the crucified Christ does not prevail upon the earth.