Maya Gods and Religious Beliefs

Maya gods, goddesses and deities, along with the religious beliefs attached to them, changed over the course of several millennia. This creates much confusion that I will try to dissipate in this article.

A depiction of the maize god from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala

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The Maya Cosmos: The Underworld, the Earth and the Sky

Despite strong continuities, Maya cosmography (i.e. worldview), mythology and religious beliefs have changed through time and the influence of other cultures such as the Olmecs, Teotihuacan, Toltecs, Aztecs and Spanish catholics is noticeable.

The Classic Maya conceived the universe as a threefold world composed of the earth, the celestial realm (i.e. the sky above), and the Underworld (“Xibalba” in Maya Quiché) below. The earth is seen as a caiman or a turtle floating in the primordial sea1.

The world of the living (i.e. the Earth) is divided in four quadrants organised according to the cardinal directions. West and East are determined by the points where the sun rises and sets during the winter and summer solstices. North is linked with the Sun at its zenith and the South with the Sun at its nadir and consequently with the Underworld. Each direction is associated with a specific colour. At the centre of the world grows the cosmic tree2.

Representation of the Maya cosmos

The watery underworld was the dwelling place of the gods and also the resting place of the ancestors. This is where the souls of the people would go after they passed away.

Waterways to the afterlife

Caves and bodies of water, such as lakes were considered passageways to underworld. They were “liminal” (i.e. “transitional”) places occupying a position on both sides of a boundary between the two worlds: the world of the living (i.e. earth) and the world of the dead, ancestors and deities (i.e. the underworld). As such, they were, and still are, important loci for religious ceremonies.

Maya Maize god emerging from turtle
Ceramic plate with Maize god emerging from the earth symbolized by a turtle shell. The elements underneath the shell represents the primordial sea (Late Classic Period A.D. 680–750) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The idea of a watery underworld is supported by observing the natural environment. The Maya area is a giant karstic plateau characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves created by the dissolution of the limestone bedrock.

The world’s longest cave systems are found in the Yucatan Peninsula3 and the most dramatic features of this type of topography are cenotes. Cenotes are natural pits, or sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.

Cenote Samula Dzitnup Yucatan
Cenote Samula Dzitnup near Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico.

The Lowlands (mainly the Yucatan Peninsula), are almost totally devoid of surface waterbodies such as rivers, streams and lakes, except for cenotes and seasonal swamps. Consequently, for the Maya, water is related to the underground and probably because of the mist that can be seen often at the entrance of many caves in the area, it is believed that the clouds and the rain come from the underworld.

In Maya art, the “portals to the netherworld” (i.e. lakes, cenotes, caves, etc) are represented by so-called “quadrilobed medallions” (i.e. elements looking like stylised four-leaf clovers) or T-shaped elements.

Maya Earth Monster

In many ways, the celestial realm is an empty place that the sun and the clouds travel through. At night, the sun descends into the underworld under the guise of a jaguar. At dawn, the sun rises like a bird.

Xibalba is more than just a different geographic/topographic location. Like Lewis Carroll’s underground wonderland, the Maya underworld is a peculiar place where physical laws are different from those of the world of the living. Interestingly, dates written in Maya hieroglyphs on the walls of many caves do not make sense. They are incoherent (for human beings). Time and space are warped in the underworld which mirrors the world of the living, but things (and behaviours) are inverted, distorted and bizarre. In the underworld, trees are the roots of the trees that grow above ground. The Lacandon Maya still represent trees with the roots mirroring the branches. Similarly, sociocultural norms of the living are inverted in the underworld.

More recent sources suggest a celestial realm with 13 layers and 9 layers for the underworld, but these have been shown to be of Christian influence4. Sixteenth century Christian worldviews were heavily influenced by Dante’s work, particularly his description of Inferno’s nine circles.


Ancient Maya Deities

Due to the time depth of the Maya culture and the various influences from elsewhere in Mesoamerica, the pantheon of Maya gods and deities is particularly rich and the nature of Maya religious beliefs makes it difficult to grasp for the western eye.

The seemingly well ordered polytheistic nature of the Maya pantheon derived in large measure from the study of Maya manuscripts written in hieroglyphs from the time just before the Spanish Conquest (i.e. “Postclassic Codices”), which were the most accessible collections of Maya text and images in the early years of Mesoamerican archaeology.

One of the first and highly successful attempts to organise the various Maya deities represented in the Codices was made by German scholar Paul Schellhas in 18975. Since then, our knowledge of Maya iconography and epigraphy has grown immensely thanks to the discovery of thousands of artefacts (painted pottery, carved monuments, mural paintings, etc.). We now know that some Codex deities can be linked to non-Maya gods and that Maya religion didn’t evolve in a vacuum, but was opened to influences from other Mesoamerican cultures (and vice versa).

A dozen or so Maya gods are well identified and can be found throughout the corpus of Maya iconography. Many of them have their counterparts elsewhere in Mesoamerica. For example, the Mexica (i.e. Aztecs) god Tlaloc and the Maya god Chaak are both gods of rain and lightning. But, for the rest, there is much confusion.

To the ancient Maya, all things, living as well as inanimate, had an inherent “power” which could be manifested in supernatural beings (i.e. “deities”). The Maya also believed in a host of lesser supernatural beings such as the Way (pronounced “why”) who were spirit alter-egos. Ancestors too, were part of that supernatural world and their role was to intercede, with the gods, for the living.

Maya gods could simultaneously exist in several forms or aspects. Pawahtuun, for example, was a quadripartite divinity who stood at the four corners (cardinal directions) of the universe. Quite commonly deities were paired, expressing primary cosmic oppositions such as light vs darkness, wet vs dry (there are only 2 seasons in the Maya area: the rainy season and the dry season). Many other deities appear to be linked to specific Maya cities or even dynasties and the territory they controlled.

Supernatural beings were characterized by a variety of criteria such as function, sex, direction, age, colour, etc., and attributes such as glyphs, symbols, iconographic elements and so on. Some of these elements could change to reflect the various aspects of the deity.

In the texts and iconography, certain features distinguish supernatural beings from historical characters:

  • goggle eyes
  • prominent front teeth / snout
  • so called “god-markings”
  • combination  of various animal and human attributes
Maya Gods Features

Major Maya Gods and Goddesses

The number and variety of groups which fall under the term “Maya” lead to a long and diverse list of gods. It wouldn’t make sense to list them all, so I have selected the most relevant. 6

All these divinities are named on the monuments, painted vessels and in the surviving codices, but not all the names have been deciphered and in some instances we still use the letter designation (i.e. God A, God B, etc) devised by German scholar Paul Schellhas. The gods from the Classic and Preclassic periods, in particular, are rarely known with certainty7.

Itsamnaaj / Itzamna, The Supreme Creator (God D)

In Maya mythology as understood from various early colonial sources, Itzamna was the name of the supreme creator deity, lord of the heavens, day and night and inventor of books and writing. In these sources, he is connected with Hunab Ku, the creator of the universe (Hunab Ku very likely refers to the Christian God), but also with K’inich Ajau (the sun deity) and Yaxcocahmut (a bird of omen). He is also said to be the father of the Pawahtuuns/Bacabs (fourthfold deities of the earth’s interior).

In the codices, Itzamna is represented as God D, an old man with toothless jaws and sunken cheeks.

In Maya Classic iconography, the main representations of Itsamnaaj are God D and his avian manifestation, the so-called Principal Bird Deity (maybe an earlier version of Yaxcocahmut).

Maya God Itsamnaaj

Iconographic attributes:

  • Large squinting eyes
  • Roman nose (typical of old gods)
  • Toothless jaws
  • Logogram of his name sometimes attached to the front of his head

K’inich Ajaw, The Sun God (God G)

Originally designated as “God G” by Schellhas, K’inich Ajau (also spelled “K’inich Ahaw”), literally means “Sun-eyed Ruler” or “Sun-faced Ruler”.

K’inich Ajaw is easily recognisable by his large square squinting eyes, his aquiline (roman) nose, his upper T-shaped incisors, the tendril-like elements curling from each corner of his mouth and a “string” (called “cruller” in studies of Maya iconography) running below his eyes and looping above his nose. The K’in (“Sun”) logogram is commonly found attached to his head or body.

In Classic Maya iconography, K’inich Ajaw is often associated with kings and royal dynasties. Some of his aspects include a Water Bird and a Jaguar (the so-called “Jaguar God of the underworld” which represents the sun during his nocturnal journey through the underworld). In his nightly aspect, he is connected with warfare, as the presence of his face on war shields indicates.

Maya Sun God - Kinich Ajaw

Iconographic attributes:

  • Large squinting eyes
  • Aquiline (roman) nose
  • Upper T-shaped incisors
  • Tendril-like elements curling from each corner of his mouth
  • K’in (“Sun”) logogram over his ears and sometime covering his forehead
  • A string twisting and looping above his nose between his eyes (known as the “cruller”)

God GI, another Sun Deity

A major deity during the Classic period whose hieroglyphic name remains undeciphered, God GI is easy to confuse with Chaak. His association with water is expressed by a number of shark attributes: prominent shark upper tooth, Xoc monster (i.e. mystical shark-like creature) often worn as headdress, water lilies and aquatic birds. All these aquatic elements refer to the underworld, the watery netherworld of the ancient Maya.

GI is also linked to the sun as indicated by jaguar attributes, the K’in (“Sun”) hieroglyph that he sometimes wears and also his association to aquatic birds, which are symbols of the diurnal sun in ancient Maya mythology.

These iconographic elements along with a number of representations indicate that GI was the rising sun.

Maya God GI

Iconographic attributes:

  • Large eyes marked by a spiral
  • Spondylus shell over each ear
  • Fish fins/barbells on each side of the mouth
  • Prominent shark upper tooth
  • Tripartite emblem

Chaak / Chaac or Chac, The Rain God (God B)

Due to the climate pattern of Central America and the importance of rain for agriculture, the most important deities all over Mesoamerica were the rain gods. In the Maya area, the rain maker was Chaak. He was the embodiment of lightning, thunder and, by extension, rain and water.

He had four main aspects, each linked to the cardinal directions and each associated with a specific colour (East is red, North is white, West is black and South is yellow).

Originally designated God B by Schellhas, Chaak has reptilian attributes. In Classic Maya iconography, he is often depicted with a human body. He wears Spondylus shell over his ears, he commonly has a long protruding snout, and tendril-like elements curling from each corner of the mouth. He carries a serpentine axe that symbolize thunderbolts (K’awiil, see below).

Maya Rain God Chaak

Iconographic attributes:

  • Protruding snout /upper lip
  • Spondylus shell over each ear
  • Tendril-like elements curling from each corner of the mouth
  • Serpentine axe (K’awiil)

Yum Kaax, The Maize God (God E)

According to the Popol Vuh, human-beings were created by the gods with maize (corn) flour and water.

Beyond the creation myths, the Maya still identify strongly with their staple crop and the agricultural cycle is still used as an analogy for the cycle of life, death and rebirth, and the succession of generations in a family.

In the Postclassic Codices, maize is embodied by Schellhas’s “God E” depicted as a young man wearing an ear of a corn as his headdress and sometimes the glyph Kan, which is itself a symbol for corn. He is often shown with an elongated head.

In Postclassic times the Maize god seems to have been conflated with Yum Kaax, a deity of agriculture. In the book of Chilam Balam, there are several designations for the Maize God that relate to the various stages of corn growth.

Maya Maize God

Iconographic attributes:

  • Maize/corn elements
  • Glyph Kan (“Maize”)
  • Elongated head
  • Netted jade skirt
  • Spondylus covering the loin

In Classic Maya iconography, two manifestations of the Maize god have been identified; the so-called “Foliated Maize God” and the so-called “Tonsured Maize God“.

The “Tonsured Maize God” typically wears a netted jade skirt and a belt with a large Spondylus shell covering the loins, and his head is shaved (hence the nickname). The “Foliated Maize God” (God E in the codices) is depicted as a corn plant with its cobs being shaped like the deity’s head.

The “Tonsured Maize God” seems to be associated with creation and resurrection myths and the agricultural cycle.

The Popol Vuh (the only existing text concerning creation beliefs), explains in Book 1 how the gods tried and failed to make humans out of mud and then wood, but both failed.

The gods created the world and all living things except humans. The animals could not speak or praise their gods, however, and so the gods declared, “we must make a provider and nurturer. How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth?” They try to create human beings, but fail because the creatures “have no heart” and do not remember their makers. They try again, this time making people out of wood, but this also fails and the creatures are destroyed by a great flood. Those not destroyed by the deluge are set upon by their dogs, by their cooking pots and tortilla grinders, by all of the things of the earth they have misused and mistreated.

In Book 4, humans are finally made out of maize.

At first, the gods make out of maize four men who had the understanding of existence as the gods themselves. This troubles the gods who understand that humans should not have the same gifts as their creators. They confer among themselves, saying, “Aren’t they merely ‘works’ and ‘designs’ in their very names? Yet they’ll become as great as gods unless they procreate, proliferate at the sowing, the dawning, unless they increase. Let it be this way: now we’ll take them apart just a little.” The gods introduce mortality to humanity and only let them understand things that were close to them. The gods then provide the men with wives and “right away they were happy at heart again, because of their wives” and they forget that once they knew everything and were like the gods. The men and women content themselves with having children and planting crops and appreciating the gifts the gods have given them.

K’awiil / Bolon Ts’akab, The God of Lightning (God K)

K’awiil is the Maya deity of lightning and in Classic Maya iconography, he is often seen held as a scepter by Maya rulers. He is recognisable by a mirror sign on his forehead from which an axe-blade sticks out, an upturned snout and a snake as one of his legs.

He is God K of the Postclassic codices. In 16th-century Yucatán, K’awiil was refered to as Bolon Dzacab (“He of nine generations”). The lightning deity is the god of agricultural abundance.

Kawiil - Maya god of thunder

Iconographic attributes:

  • Large eyes marked by a spiral
  • God-markings / Mirror signs
  • Axe blade jutting out from the forehead
  • Protruding snout
  • Serpent-leg

Simon Martin, a Maya epigrapher, gives a great lecture on the relationship between royalty and particular gods and mythic events. Watch in full below:

Ek’ Chuwah / Ek Chuaj, Merchant Deity (God M)

Only found in the Postclassic codices, Ek’ Chuwah (“Black Scorpion”) was a merchant deity and also the patron of cacao.

In Maya iconography, God M is depicted as black-and-white (Dresden Codex) or entirely black (Madrid Codex) and carrying a bundle of merchandise on his back. He is often confused with God L, but he has a long nose instead of God L’s Roman one, and his large lower lip is drooping. He lacks God L’s feather hat.

Maya God Ek Chuah

Iconographic attributes:

  • Black face/body
  • Long nose
  • Drooping lower lip

War and Merchant God (God L)

Although his name has not been deciphered yet, God L was a very important aged divinity. In Classic Maya iconography, he is often represented smoking cigars and wearing a large hat made of black-tipped owl feathers.

He was a god of war and of merchants during the Classic period.

Maya-God-L

Iconographic attributes:

  • Large hat made of black-tipped owl feathers, often with the head of the bird as well
  • Face is often blackened
  • Large eyes

Pawahtuun / Bacab, Divinity of earth and water (God N)

Also referred to as Bacab, God N is a quadripartite deity who stands at the four corners of the world holding both the sky and the earth. In Maya iconography, they are often represented as old men.

In Postclassic Yucatan, each of the four Pawahtuns -named Cantzicnal, Hosanek, Hobnil and Saccimi– presided over one of the four cardinal directions. They had one associated colour and one Year Bearer day (The Bacabs presided over the end of the year):

  • Cantzicnal : North : White (year bearer: Muluc)
  • Hosanek : South : Yellow (year bearer: Cauac)
  • Hobnil : East : Red (year bearer: Kan)
  • Saccimi : West : Black (year bearer: Ix)

According to some sources, the Bacabs were the sons of Itzamnaaj, the creator god. Pawahtun was a major patron of scribes.

Pawahtuun-bacab-Maya-god

Iconographic attributes:

  • Netted headdress
  • Large eyes
  • Roman nose
  • Wrinkled face and toothless jaw
  • Sometimes a snail or turtle shell on the back

Ix Chel / Chak Chel, Goddess of Childbirth and Healing (Goddess O)

Ix Chel (“Lady Rainbow”) was the goddess of childbirth and healing. Her other manifestation, Chak Chel (“Great Rainbow”) is represented in the Dresden Code as an aged woman and was also a patroness of weaving. According to some sources, she is Itzamnaaj‘s spouse.

In 16th-century Yucatan, the cult of Ix Chel was quite popular and she even had a sanctuary on the island of Cozumel.

Maya Goddess Ix Chel

Iconographic attributes:

  • Snakes and spindles in her hair
  • Aged often toothless face
  • Clawed hands and feet
  • Crossed bones on the skirt

Moon Goddess (Goddess I)

The Moon goddess appears frequently in Classic Maya iconography. She is shown as a young woman, often with bared breasts, holding a rabbit (the Maya saw the shape of a rabbit in the moon), and commonly seated in the moon’s crescent.

The Maya generally assume the moon to be female, and the moon’s phases are accordingly conceived as the stages of a woman’s life. Consequently, the moon goddess is associated with sexuality, procreation, fertility and growth.

She is the patroness of the month of Ch’en (meaning “well”). The “Moon has gone to her well” is a Maya expression referring to New Moon when the lunar disk is not visible.

Maya Moon Goddess

Iconographic attributes:

  • Young woman
  • Often bared breasts
  • Rabbit
  • Moon crescent

The Death Gods (God A and A’)

In Maya art, many supernatural beings are connected with death and the underworld (“Xibalba“, “the place of fright”). They are all marked with symbols pertaining to death (disembodied eyes, defleshed jaws and heads, crossed bones, marks of putrefaction, etc.), or the Underworld (jaguar attributes, deer attributes, “%” sign, glyph Akbal “darkness”, etc).

Among all the denizens of Xibalba, two stand out (although they are likely two manifestations of the same deity):

  • God A: “Hun-Came” (“One Death”) in the Popol Vuh and “Humhau” or “Yum Kimil” in 16th-century Yucatan. He is also called “xib” (“fright”) or “kisin” (referring to “flatulence” and “stench”).
  • God A’: “Vucub-Came” (“Seven Death”) in the Popol Vuh and “Uac Mitun Ahau” in 16th-century Yucatan

During the Classic period, the head of the skeletal God A serves as the hieroglyph for the day Kimi (“Death”) also spelled “Kame/Came” in Quiché. The word Came is part of the name of the rulers of Xibalba in the Popol Vuh (“One Death” and “Seven Death”).

Maya Death God (God A)

Iconographic attributes:

God A

  • Fleshless skull
  • Skeletal body
  • “death spots” (i.e. signs of putrefaction)
  • “sleigh-bell” ornaments (sometimes interpreted as disembodied eyes)
  • “%” sign

God A’

  • Young man depicted in the act of self decapitation
  • Akbal (“Darkness”) sign
  • Crossed-bones sign
  • Black line over the eyes
  • “%” sign

Hun Ajaw & Yax Bahlam, The Hero Twins

In the Maya world, the cultural heroes are two twins: Hun Ajaw (Hunahpu in the Popol Vuh) and Yax Bahlam (Xbalanque in the Popol Vuh). Their adventures are recounted in the 16th-century Quiche Popol Vuh. The myth of the hero twins begins with the story of their father and uncle and their death in the underworld. Classic and Preclassic Maya iconography indicate that various versions of the myth existed and that the young heroes had many adventures.

According to the Popol Vuh, their father, Hun Hunahpu, and their uncle, Vucub Hunahpu, who were also twins, were tricked and killed by the Lords of the Underworld. Hun Ajaw and Yax Bahlam later avenged their father when they defeated these deities in a ballgame.

In Maya iconography, the twins are represented as handsome young men, usually wearing white headbands and god-markings. Hun Ajaw also is also covered with black spots while Yax Bahlam has patches of jaguar skins.

Maya Hero Twins

Iconographic attributes:

Hun Ajaw

  • Young man
  • White headband
  • God-markings
  • Black spots
  • Pictogram (hero’s head) – this is used as a variation of the day sign “Ajaw

Yax Bahlam

Hun Ajaw (Hunahpu) and Yax Bahlam (Xbalanque) became great ballplayers and were summoned to a ballgame by the underworld lords. In their first game, the lords tried to use a skull as a ball, to which the Hero Twins refused. However, they had to undertake several trials in various underworld houses such as the “House of Bats” where Hunahpu was decapitated. The lords hung his head over the ballcourt and announced that it would be used as the ball at the next match. Yet, Xbalanque fashioned a temporary head for his brother’s body and persuaded a rabbit to impersonate the ball, so he could retrieve Hunahpu’s head and restore him whole.

The Way (pronounced “why”, plural: wayob), Maya Spirit-Companion or Co-essence

Wayob are supernatural beings, often in animal form, with whom a person shares his/her consciousness. In other words, a Way is a spiritual alter-ego with which a person remains in communion throughout life. They are “companion spirits”.

The bonds between a person and his/her Way is so strong and close that when the co-essence is wounded or destroyed, the owner grows ill or dies too.

Way spirit-companion

This concept is widespread in Mesoamerica. It was brought to public attention by Carlos Castaneda‘s 1968 book: The Teachings of Don Juan.

Previous anthropological work on Nahuatl shamanism, though, had explored the topic and made the distinction between the Tonal, a spirit companion attached to a person by fate or fortune, and the Nagual (also Nahual or Nawal), a shape-shifting witch.

The Way is neither Nagual nor Tonal, and both at the same time. It’s a “co-essence”, both attached to and independent from its owner8. In a way, it’s like Peter Pan’s shadow. Co-essences take many forms such as an animal (e.g., reptile, bird, jaguar), a celestial phenomenon (e.g., rain, lightning, wind, rainbow), an inanimate object and even a composite creature.

The root for the word Way in Mayan languages is “sleep” with various semantic extensions including “other spirit”, “dream”, “witchcraft”, “nagual” and “animal transformation”.

Wayob manifest themselves to their owner in their dreams and, whilst they are incorporeal most of the time, they roam when their owner is asleep. Maya co-essences then can be described as a person’s double from the “dreamtime” and, by extension, the netherworld (sleep is sometimes equated with death in Maya culture).

Kukulkan, the “Feathered Serpent”

As a deity, Kukulkan was associated with the rise of Chichen Itza during the Terminal Classic and Mayapan in the Postclassic. The worship of the Feathered Serpent by the Maya was heavily influenced by the cult of Quetzalcoatl which originated in central Mexico and spread all over Mesoamerica.

According to some scholars, the Maya origins of Kukulkan can be found in the so-called “Vision Serpent” of the Classic period9. Others, though, have pointed out that based on comparisons with representations of fish in Classic Maya iconography, the prevalence of the aquatic theme in Classic Maya art, as well as the importance of the watery underworld in Maya mythology, elements that were thought to be feathers could very well represent “fins” instead10. So, Kukulkan is most likely a case of a foreign religious belief adapted to fit an old local religious belief. It’s a good example of  Maya religious syncretism.

Nevertheless, by the Postclassic period, the Mexican Feathered Serpent was an important deity in the Maya area and was used to promote the Itza’s political and commercial agenda11.

In the Popol Vuh, where the creator god was associated with wind and rain, the feathered serpent, called Qucumatz (Q’uq’umat), was associated with water and clouds, safely transporting the sun across the sky and into the underworld.

Maya Deity kukulkan
Serpent head (Kukulkan) at the base of El Castillo (Chichen Itza, Mexico). By Frank Kovalchek [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Human Sacrifice in Maya religion

One commonly held idea is that human sacrifice was a widespread practice amongst the Maya but, in truth, there is scarce evidence of this in the archaeological record.

As far as we know, no human remains have ever been recovered from excavations in the Maya area with marks suggesting the person was indeed sacrificed. Cut marks on the ribs, from removal of the heart, or on the cervical vertebrae from decapitation can be due to a number of reasons, so alone they cannot be definitive evidence that sacrifice was at play. Further evidence is required.

One good example comes from Teotihuacan (Valley of Mexico) where the remains of 12 people were found inside the Pyramid of the Moon; their heads hacked off AND their hands bound behind their backs. This strongly suggests that human sacrifice occurred, as people are rarely buried with their hands bound behind their backs. However, nothing similar has ever been found in the Maya area.

For the Maya, evidence of human sacrifice mainly comes from depictions in Maya art, but these are rare, and the chronicles of 16th-century bishop of Yucatan Diego de Landa who led a violent campaign against Maya religious beliefs and practices.

More common, though, was “bloodletting”, animal sacrifice and incense burning. Bloodletting, also called “autosacrifice”, is the self-cutting or piercing of an individual’s soft body part (e.g. tongue, ear, penis) to let blood12. The blood was collected on a piece of paper which was then burnt as an offering to the gods.

One of the most striking illustrations of bloodletting is to be found on a series of sculptures from Yaxchilan. Lintel 24 (below) represents the king of Yaxchilan, Itzamnaaj Bahlam II (“Shield Jaguar II”), holding a flaming torch over his wife, Lady K’ab’al Xook, who is pulling a thorny rope through her tongue. Scrolls of blood can be seen around her mouth.

Yaxchilan Lintel 24 - ritual bloodletting
Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (Late Classic Period A.D. 723-726) British Museum, London

In 16th-century Yucatan, Maya rituals were quickly labelled by the Spanish conquerors as idolatry, superstition, or even devil worship. Landa’s Inquisition was marked by a conspicuous level of physical abuse and cultural destruction.

On July 12, 1562, Landa ordered a number of Maya codices and thousands of “cult images” (including statues) to be burned. The conquest of the Maya by the Spanish was a long and brutal process and even to some contemporary observers, the pervasive use of torture was abhorrent. Landa justified his actions by claiming that human sacrifice was widespread amongst the Maya and he evidently coerced many confessions by torture.

Although the ancient Maya did engage in human sacrifice, it was not as commonplace as usually described. The dredging of the so-called Cenote of Sacrifice (most commonly referred to as “Sacred Cenote”) at Chichen Itza in 1905-1908 by Harvard University archaeologists, yielded 50 human crania.

Even if we considered these to be all from sacrificial victims (although think of burials at sea for sailors, water disposal in Hindu tradition etc.), Chichen Itza was occupied at least from the 7th-century until the 13th-century and remained a place of pilgrimage well into the 16th-century. That is at least eight centuries. Even just one sacrifice a year would equate with 800 people hurled into the Cenote over that period. Obviously, the numbers do not support the idea of commonplace human sacrifice.

It seems that human sacrifice amongst the Maya during the Classic period was primarily linked to warfare with the eventual execution of (some) elite captives (although, they were more useful alive as they could be exchanged for a ransom). It is also important to acknowledge our biases. Would we call the execution of a death row prisoner or a war prisoner as “human sacrifice”? Do we ever call the killing of people by the Inquisition “human sacrifice”?


How do we know what we know: Sources on Maya religious beliefs

There is a variety of sources from which we have learnt about Maya religious beliefs:

Ethnohistorical sources

Ethnohistory is the study of cultures and indigenous peoples’ customs by examining historical records.

For the Maya, the main historical record is Diego de Landa Relación de las cosas de Yucatán written around 1566. The book includes information concerning the Maya language, hieroglyphs, religious beliefs. rituals and culture in general.

The Popol Vuh

The Popul Vuh is a 18th-century translation of the creation narrative of the Maya K’iche by Dominican friar Francisco Ximenez. Initially preserved through oral tradition, the Popol Vuh which translates as the “Book of Counsel” was written in the 16th century. Preclassic and Classic Maya art show that earlier and different versions of the myth existed.

The Popol Vuh is made up of five parts:

  1. The preamble which explains the purpose of the book.
  2. Book 1 is an account of the creation of the world and of all living beings, mainly the many trials by the gods to create human beings.
  3. Book 2 recounts how the Hero Twins killed the bird demon Vucub Caquix and his sons.
  4. Book 3 is the story of the father and uncle of the Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu (also spelled “Junjunajpu“) and Vucub Hunahpu (also spelled “Wukub Junajpu’b“), how they were tricked by the gods of the underworld and how they were eventually killed. This is followed by the account of the early life of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu (also spelled “Junajpu“) and Xbalanque (also spelled “Xb’alanke“), and their quest to avenge their father.
  5. Book 4 focuses on the Maya themselves.

The Maya Vase Database includes a photographic essay on the Popul Vuh using Maya artefacts and paintings on vases.

You can also learn more by reading Dr Davies’s article:

The Books of Chilam Balam

The Books of Chilam Balam were written in the Yucatec Mayan language using the Latin alphabet during the 17th and 18th centuries. Both language and content indicate that parts of the books date back to the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatan (1527–1546).

The manuscripts are attributed to a legendary author called Chilam Balam (a chilam is a priest, particularly an oracle, and balam is a common surname meaning “jaguar”). There are nine known books of Chilam Balam. Each of them was kept in a different town in the Yucatan Peninsula. The most important are those from Chumayel, Mani and Tizimin.

These books are concerned with some aspects of local history, Maya myths, calendrical matters, medicinal recipes and even a few Spanish traditions.

Ethnographic studies

Ethnography is the scientific description of peoples and cultures with their customs and habits.

Altar for a Maya Day Ceremony

There are many ethnographic studies such as the work of Frans and Gertrude Blom on the Maya Lacandon of Chiapas13 or Charles Wisdom on the Maya Chorti14.

The Codices

The codices are Maya books from the Postclassic and Early Colonial periods written in hieroglyphs. Only four books have survived; Dresden Codex (74 pages), Madrid Codex (112 pages), Paris Codex (22 pages) and the controversial Grolier Codex. Most of the codices were destroyed by conquistadors and Catholic priests in the 16th century. Some codices have been recovered from archaeological excavations, but they had degraded into unopenable lumps of plaster and paint.

Maya Codex

A copy of the Dresden Codex

Archaeology

Our last source regarding Maya gods and religious beliefs is the archaeological record; iconography (painted ceramics, sculpture, wall paintings, stucco, etc.), and epigraphy.

If you want to learn more about this, have a look at Dr Davies’s article:


References Cited

  1. Thompson, Eric (1970) Maya History and Religion. Civilization of the American Indian Series, No. 99. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
  2. Wagner, Elizabeth (2000), “Creation Myths and Maya Cosmography”, in The Maya, art and civilisation, ed. Nikolai Grube. Konemann Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Cologne
  3. Dockrill, Peter (2018), Divers Found the World’s Largest Underwater Cave, Science Alert (retrieved 14/03/2018)
  4. Nielsen, Jesper & Toke Sellner Reunert (2009), Dante’s heritage: questioning the multi-layered model of the Mesoamerican universe, Antiquity 83:399-413.
  5. Schellhas, Paul (1904), Representation of Deities of the Maya Manuscripts, Peabody Museum of archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Papers 4(1):1-47.
  6. Taube, Karl (1992) The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan, Dumbarton Oaks
  7. Coe, Michael & Mark Van Stone (2001), Reading The Maya Glyphs, Thames & Hudson
  8. Houston, Stephen & David Stuart (1989), The Way Glyph: Evidence for “co-essences” among the Classic Maya, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing 30, Center for Maya Research, Washington DC
  9. Freidel, David A.; Linda Schele; Joy Parker (1993). Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow and Company
  10. Bonnafoux, Patrice (2008), Etude iconographique des céramiques du Classique ancien dans les basses terres mayas. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. Paris: Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
  11. Sharer, Robert J.; Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th ed.). Stanford University Press.
  12. Joyce, Rosemary; Edging, Richard; Lorenz, Karl; Gillespie, Susan (1991), “Olmec Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study” in Sixth Palenque Roundtable, 1986, ed. V. Fields, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma
  13. Blom, Frans & Gertrude (1955), La Selva Lacandona, Editorial Cultura, University of Texas
  14. Wisdom, Charles (1940), The Chorti Indians of Guatemala, University of Chicago Press

One response to “Maya Gods and Religious Beliefs”

  1. Lewis says:

    Intersting

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