Maya Gods and Goddesses
The Maya had many gods and goddesses.
The ancient Maya, only had around a dozen or so gods and goddesses. The misunderstanding stems from seeing many drawings of gods in Maya art and thinking they are all different, when it is really just one god in different disguises. In addition, the names of gods and goddesses changed through time, so two or three different names can be given to a deity depending on the time period.
The Creation Story of the Maya by the Smithsonian Museum of American Indians
- Maya Gods and Goddesses
- The Popul Vuh (Maya Book of Creation)
- Human Sacrifice in Maya religion
- Maya Religion Today
- Activities for Children
- KS2 Resources to Download: Lesson plans, videos and more
This resource can be use for the History Key Stage 2 (KS2) curriculum.
NB: specialists of the Maya civilisation say “Maya gods”, “Maya religion” and not “Mayan gods” etc. The adjective “Mayan” is used only in reference to languages (see: 10 red-flags for spotting unreliable online resources on the Maya).
The ancient Maya saw the universe as being made up of three parts – the earth, the sky and the underworld (Xibalba). The earth is often seen as a turtle or a caiman (type of alligator) floating in the sea.
The world of the living (i.e. the earth) is divided in four 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 when it is at its highest in the sky and south with the sun at its lowest, that is the underworld. Each direction is associated with a specific colour; east is red, north is white, west is black and south is yellow.
At the centre of the world grows the universal tree:
The universal or cosmic tree as seen as the ceiba tree in the Maya world.
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 waterways such as lakes and rivers were considered passageways to the underworld. They were transitional places occupying a position on both sides of the boundary between the world of the living (i.e. the earth) and the world of the dead, ancestors and deities (i.e. the underworld). As such, they were, and still are, important locations for religious ceremonies.
Consequently, for the Maya, water was seen as coming from underground and probably because of the mist that can often be seen at the entrance of many caves in the area, it was believed that the clouds and rain come from the underworld.
Ancient Maya Gods and Goddesses
Around a dozen or so Maya gods have been identified and they could exist at the same time in several different forms. Pawahtuun, for example, was a god who stood at the four corners (cardinal directions) of the world, so he is seen in four different forms.
In the Maya codices and art, certain features distinguish supernatural beings from historical characters:
- goggle eyes
- prominent front teeth / snout
- so called “god-markings”
- combination of various animal and human characteristics
Itsamnaaj / Itzamna, The Supreme Creator
Itzamna was the name of the supreme creator deity, lord of the heavens, day and night and inventor of books and writing.
In the codices, Itzamna is represented as an old man with toothless jaws and sunken cheeks.
Kinich Ajaw, The Sun God
Kinich Ahaw means “Sun-faced Ruler” – that is, the sun god.
K’inich Ajaw is easily recognisable with his large square squinting eyes, roman nose and upper T-shaped incisors and the tendril-like elements curling from each corner of his mouth. The K’in (“Sun”) sign is commonly found attached to his head or body.
Kinich Ajaw is often associated with kings and royal dynasties.
Chaak/Chaac or Chac, The Rain God
Due to the climate pattern of Central America and the importance of rain for agriculture, Chaak was a very important god. He was the god of lightning, thunder, rain and water.
Chaak wears shells over his ears, has a long protruding nose and tendril-like elements curling from each corner of the mouth. He carries an axe that symbolizes thunderbolts.
Yum Kaax, The Maize God
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 codices, the maize god is depicted as a young man wearing an ear of corn as his headdress and sometimes the glyph Kan which is itself a symbol for corn. He is often shown with an elongated head (like the shape of corn on the cob).
Kawiil/Bolon Tsakab, The God of Lightning
Kawiil is the Maya deity of lightning and is often held as a sceptre by Maya rulers. He is recognisable by a mirror on his forehead from which an axe-blade sticks out, an upturned snout and a snake as one of his legs.
Ek Chuwah/Ek Chuaj, Merchant Deity
Ek Chuwah (“Black Scorpion”) was a merchant deity and also the god of cacao.
War and Merchant God
Although his name has not been deciphered yet, this god was a very important aged divinity. He is often represented smoking cigars and wearing a large hat made of black-tipped owl feathers.
Pawahtuun/Bacab, Divinity of the Sky and Earth
Pawahtuun stands at the four corners of the world supporting the sky. He is often represented as an old man wearing a turtle or seashell on his back.
Ix Chel/Chak Chel, Goddess of Childbirth and Healing
Ix Chel (“Lady Rainbow”) was the goddess of childbirth, healing and weaving. She is often depicted as an aged woman with snakes and spindles (used in weaving) in her hair.
According to some sources, she is Itzamnaaj‘s wife.
In 16th-century Yucatan, the cult of Ix Chel was quite popular and she even had a sanctuary on the island of Cozumel.
The moon goddess is shown as a young woman holding a rabbit and seated in the moon crescent.
The Maya generally assumed the moon to be female and they saw the shape of a rabbit in the moon.
The Death Gods
In Maya art, many supernatural beings are connected with death and the underworld (“Xibalba“, “the place of fright”). They are all marked with symbols related to death; disembodied eyes, skulls and skeletal bodies.
Two gods stand out (but they are likely two manifestations of the same deity):
- Hun-Came (Kimi) in the Popol Vuh and “Humhau” or “Yum Kimil” in 16th-century Yucatan.
- Vucub-Came in the Popol Vuh and “Uac Mitun Ahau” in 16th-century Yucatan.
Hunaphu and Xbalanque, The Hero Twins
In the Maya world, the cultural heroes were twins: Hunaphu (Hun Ajaw) and Xbalanque (Yax Balam). Their adventures are recounted in the 16th-century Popol Vuh. The myth of the hero twins begins with the story of their father and uncle and their death in the Underworld. Maya art shows that that various versions of the myth existed and that the young heroes had many adventures.
The twins are represented as handsome young men, usually wearing white headbands. Hunaphu is often covered with black spots while Xbalanque has patches of jaguar skin and a slight beard.
Kukulkan, the “Feathered Serpent”
As a deity, Kukulkan was associated with the rise of Chichen Itza and later with the city of Mayapan.
The worship of the Feathered Serpent by the Maya was heavily influence by the cult of Quetzalcoatl which originated in central Mexico and spread all over Mesoamerica. Do note then that Kukulkan was not originally a Maya deity.
After AD 1000, the Mexican Feathered Serpent was an important deity in the Maya area.
In the Popol Vuh, where it is a creator god associated with wind and rain, the Feathered Serpent is called Qucumatz (Q’uq’umat). The deity, also associated with water and clouds, safely transports the sun across the sky and into the underworld.
The Popul Vuh
The Popol Vuh which translates as the “Book of Counsel” was written in the 16th century by the Maya K’iche.
Maya art shows that earlier and different versions of the myth existed.
The Popol Vuh consists of:
- An account of the creation of the world and of all living beings, mainly the many trials by the gods to create human-beings. They try mud, then wood but fail. Then finally they successfully made human beings out of maize.
- Recounts the story of the father and uncle of the Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu; how they were tricked by the gods of the underworld and how they were eventually killed. This is followed by the account of the life of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque and their quest to avenge their father.
How to pronounce the names of the Hero Twins:
Using actual Maya artwork found on pottery and paintings this video depicts the myths included in the book.
Human Sacrifice in Maya Religion
One commonly held view is that human sacrifice was widespread amongst the Maya but, in truth, there is little evidence of this in the archaeological record.
It seems that, if human sacrifice was carried out, it was primarily linked to warfare with the eventual execution of (some) elite captives, although they were often kept alive as they could be exchanged for a ransom.
More common 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) to let blood.
The blood was collected on a piece of paper, which was then burnt as an offering to the gods. As the gods gave their blood to create the Maya people, so Maya rulers on special occasions would offer the same in return.
One of the most striking illustrations of bloodletting is to be found on a series of sculptures from Yaxchilan. Lintel 24 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.
Maya Religion Today
For the Maya, every day has a special meaning and special day ceremonies are carried out.
The sacred calendar (Tzolk’in) is still used by the highland Maya people today. Each community has their day keeper, generally a shaman, who carries out ceremonies on particular days in this calendar. People will go to the day keepers to ask questions about their future or help in curing an illness. Day keepers then ask the spirits for guidance.
Why don’t you have a Maya day ceremony in class?
Both the ancient and highland Maya today believe that they have a spirit/animal companion, the ancient Maya called it Way (pronounced ‘Why’) and the Maya today call it their nahual/nawale. Your birthdate defines what animal/spirit companion you have and also tells you your character traits.
During day ceremonies the shaman often calls on the person’s Nahual and tells them a bit about their character.
Below is the list of the 20 nawales and their respective calendar name, both in the Yucatecan Mayan language (in italics) and the highland Mayan language of Kaqchikel (in bold).
- Crocodile – Imix – Imox
- Wind – Ik – Iq
- Night – Akbal – Aqabal
- Sky – Kan – Kat
- Snake – Chikchan – Kaan
- Death – Kimi – Kame
- Deer – Manik – Kiej
- Venus – Lamat – Qaniel
- Moon – Muluk – Toj
- Dog – Ok – Tzi
- Howler monkey – Chuwen – Baatz
- Tooth/Jaw – Eb – E
- Maize – Ben – Aaj
- Jaguar – Ix – Ix-balaam
- Eagle – Tzikin – Men
- Candle – Kib – Ajmaq
- Earth – Kaban – N’oj
- Flint, obsidian – Tijax
- Storm – Kawak – Kawoq
- Lord – Ajaw – Ajpu
Activities for Children
Find out your Maya spirit-companion!
Your birthdate defines what animal/spirit companion you have and tells you your character traits. Spirit-companions are linked with the twenty sacred calendar days (Tzolk’in).
Now you know your sign, how about drawing it on paper or clay or even make a pendant with your day sign.
What you will need:
- Your spirit-companion day sign (see above)
- A piece of white fabric approximately 10cm x 10cm (for example, a piece of an old sheet or a handkerchief)
- Two pieces of stiff card – one white and one the colour you would like your frame to be (for example, black)
- Acrylic paints
- PVA glue
- Glue stick
- Black waterproof marker-pen (eg Sharpie pen)
These instructions are for a small nahual fabric painting. If you would like to make a larger version, you will need to increase the size of the measurements given below.
1. Draw a square 8cm x 8cm on a sheet of paper. Make a pencil copy of your nahual inside this square and then draw over the lines with a black marker-pen. Stick this to a flat surface with masking tape so that it stays in place.
2. Cut a piece of white fabric 10cm x 10cm and place it over the top of your paper design. Stick this onto the flat surface to hold it in position.
3. Use the black marker-pen to carefully trace the design onto the fabric.
4. Paint your design using acrylic paints, keeping inside the black lines. Start at the centre of the picture and work outwards. Wet your paintbrush with water if the paint is too thick to easily apply to the fabric but be careful not to over-dilute it as this may cause your black outline to run.
5. You can also use poster paint, fabric paint or felt tip pens to colour your design. When complete, put your design to one side and allow to dry.
6. Cut your two pieces of stiff card into squares 13cm x 13cm. To make the frame, take the coloured piece of card and measure in 2.5cm from each of the four sides making small marks to show this measurement. Use your marks to draw a square 8cm x 8cm inside your larger square.
Cut out the inside square to leave a 2.5cm frame by gently folding the larger square in half so that you can make your first cut and then carefully cut along the lines you have drawn.
7. When your painting is dry, use masking tape to stick it to the back of the frame with the painted side showing through. Now, stick the back piece of card over the reverse of the painting.
8. To enable your painting to stand up, cut two rectangles of card, 5cm x 10cm. Fold each piece in half lengthways and stick the top two folded pieces together to form a ‘T’ shape. When dry, stick the top of the ‘T’ shape to the base of your nahual painting on the reverse side. This will act as a stand for your picture.
You could engrave a small square of modelling clay with your nahual design and then pierce a hole through the top. When the clay is dry, you could thread it onto a piece of string or cord to make a necklace or bracelet. Now you have made your own, how about you make one for your friend or family member?
Resources to Download
These resources were written by teachers on a CPD trip with me to the Maya area. You can download these below.
You can access the complete scheme of work for a small fee, in the form of a donation to the charity Chok Education, which supports the education of Maya children.
The sacred ceiba tree
If you would like a more indepth knowledge on the subject of the Maya religion then have a look at Dr Diane’s article in the public resources section.