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Maya mythology

Related subjects: Myths

Background Information

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Maya mythology refers to the pre-Columbian Maya civilization's extensive polytheistic religious beliefs. These beliefs had most likely been long-established by the time the earliest-known distinctively Maya monuments had been built and inscriptions depicting their deities recorded, considerably pre-dating the 1st millennium BC. Over the succeeding millennia this intricate and multi-faceted system of beliefs was extended, varying to a degree between regions and time periods, but maintaining also an inherited tradition and customary observances. The Maya shared many traditions and rituals with the other civilizations and cultures in the Mesoamerican region, both preceding and contemporary societies, and in general the entire region formed an interrelated mosaic of belief systems and conceptions on the nature of the world and human existence. However, the various Maya peoples over time developed a unique and continuous set of traditions which are particularly associated with their societies, and their achievements.

Despite the ca. early 10th century "Terminal collapse", during which Maya monument construction and inscription recording effectively ceased over large areas and many centers were subsequently abandoned, the Maya peoples themselves endured and continued to maintain their assorted beliefs and traditions. The maintenance of these traditions can be seen in the relics and products of those centers which flourished during the Post-Classic phase, such as in the northern Yucatán Peninsula, occasionally combined with other influences more characteristic of the Gulf coast and central Mexican regions. Although the southern lowland and highland Maya regions of present-day Guatemala saw very little further monument building during this period, the maintenance of traditional beliefs among the local Maya is attested by the accounts and reports of the 16th and 17th century Spanish.

Though the Spanish conquest interrupted the Maya tradition of elite literacy and destroyed the large majority of Maya codices, the stories and traditions of the Maya continued to be handed down to succeeding generations, albeit much influenced and restricted by the influx of European practices and beliefs, Roman Catholicism in particular. Many Maya have experienced considerable persecution for their beliefs and political oppression over the centuries since the first European arrivals; although there can be no doubt that Maya society and tradition has undergone substantial change, many Maya people today maintain an identity which is very much informed by their collective history, traditions and beliefs– a heritage which is distinctively Maya even where substantially combined with the widespread adoption of Christianity. Modern Maya oral traditions are often referred to as Maya folklore to distinguish them from the pre-Columbian literate mythology.

Apart from epigraphy on monuments (which deal primarily with commemorations and dynastic successions), only three complete Maya texts and fragments of a fourth are known to have survived into the present day. The majority of the Maya codices were burned by Europeans like Bishop Diego de Landa during their conquest of Mesoamerica and subsequent efforts to convert the Maya peoples to Christianity. Available knowledge of Maya mythology, as such, is rather limited. What is known is drawn largely from 16th - 17th century accounts of post-conquest Maya beliefs and traditions, which do not necessarily correspond with the traditions which were maintained in earlier times.


In common with other Mesoamerican civilizations, each of the cardinal (or world-) directions were ascribed certain properties and associations. These attributes held a particular significance, and they provided one of the major frameworks which interlinked much of Maya religion and cosmology. The Maya world-view recognized the four primary compass directions, and each of these was consistently associated with a particular colour— east with red, north with white, west with black and south with yellow. These associations and their respective glyphs are attested from at least the Early Classic period, and also figure markedly in the Postclassic Maya codices.

A fifth 'direction', the "center", also formed a part of this scheme. Associated with a blue-green colour, this was most frequently represented by a great ceiba tree, conceptualized as the " world tree" or "tree of life". In Maya cosmology this formed a kind of axis mundi which connected the Earth's center with the layers of both the underworld and the heavens. It is believed that living ceiba trees were maintained at the centre of many pre-Columbian Maya settlements in symbolic representation of this connection, and possibly one was placed at each of the four cardinal directions as well.

Maya deities each displayed different aspects based on these five directions as well as a number of other natural and symbolic cycles observed by the Maya.

Maya deities also had dualistic natures associating them with day or night, life or death. There were thirteen gods of the thirteen heavens of the Maya religion and nine gods of the nine underworlds. Between the upperworlds of the heavens and the underworlds of the night and death was the earthly plane which is often shown in Maya art as a two-headed caiman or a turtle lying in a great lake. Natural elements, stars and planets, numbers, crops, days of the calendar and periods of time all had their own gods. The gods' characters, malevolence or benevolence, and associations changed according to the days in the Maya calendar or the positions of the sun, moon, Venus, and the stars.

The Quiché Maya creation story is outlined in the Popol Vuh. This has the world created from nothing by the will of the Maya pantheon of gods. Man was made unsuccessfully out of mud and then wood before being made out of maize and being assigned tasks which praised the gods — silversmith, gem cutter, stone carver, potter, etc. Some argue this story adds credence to the belief that the Maya did not believe in art per se; all of their works were for the exaltation of the gods.

After the creation story, the Popol Vuh tells of the struggles of the legendary hero twins, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque, in defeating the lords of Xibalba, the underworld. The twins descend into the underworld, perish, and are eventually miraculously reborn. This myth provides a metaphor for the agricultural cycle and the annual rebirth of the crops. These two stories are focal points of Maya mythology and often found depicted in Maya art.

Creation myth

In Maya mythology, Tepeu and Gukumatz (also known as Kukulcan, and as the Aztec's Quetzalcoatl) are referred to as the Creators, the Makers, and the Forefathers. They were two of the first beings to exist and were said to be as wise as sages. Huracan, or the Heart of Heaven, also existed and is given less personification. He acts more like a storm, of which he is the god.

Tepeu and Gucumatz hold a conference and decide that, in order to preserve their legacy, they must create a race of beings who can worship them. Huracan does the actual creating while Tepeu and Gucumatz guide the process. Earth is created, but the gods make several false starts in setting humanity upon the earth. Animals were created first; however, with all of their howling and squawking they did not worship their creators and were thus banished forever to the forest. Man is created first of mud, but they just dissolved and crumbled away. Other gods are summoned and man is next created of wood but has no soul, and they soon forgot their makers, so the gods turned all of their possessions against them and bring a black resinous rain down on their heads. Finally man is formed of masa or corn dough by even more gods and their work is complete. As such, the Maya believed that maize was not just the cornerstone of their diet, but they were also made out of it.

Notable Gods

PV=Popol Vuh, L=Landa

  • Ah Puch - god of Death
  • Bacab - Aged thunder deity carrying the earth and/or sky (L).
  • Chaac - god of Rain and Thunder
  • Camazotz - Bat god, tries to kill the Hero Twins (PV).
  • Gukumatz - Snake god and creator (PV).
  • Hunahpu - One of the Maya Hero Twins (PV).
  • Huracan - Storm and fire god, one of the creator deities (PV).
  • Ixbalanque - One of the Maya Hero Twins (PV).
  • Ixchel - Aged jaguar goddess of midwifery (L).
  • Ixtab - goddess of suicide (L).
  • Zipacna - Underworld demon (PV).


The Bacabs were four brothers, the sons of Itzamnaaj and Chak Chel. A creator god placed these skybearers at the four corners of the universe. Because each stands at one of the four cardinal directions, each is associated with a colour, and also with a specific segment in the Maya calendar.

  • Hobnil - bacab of the east, is assigned the colour red and the Kan years.
  • Can Tzicnal - bacab of the north, is assigned the colour white, and the Muluc years.
  • Zac Cimi - bacab of the west, is assigned the colour black and the Ix years.
  • Hozanek - bacab of the south, is assigned the colour yellow and the Cauac years.

References to the Bacabs are found in the 'Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán', of the sixteenth-century bishop, Diego de Landa, and in various Yucatec 'Books of Chilam Balam'. The four brothers were intimately associated with the four Chaacs, or rain deities. In the Yucatán, the Maya of Chan Kom referred to the four skybearers as the four Chacs. Like many other deities, the Bakabs were important in divination ceremonies, being approached with questions about crops, weather, or the health of bees. Their counterparts among the Huaxtecs (the Mamlab) were also thunder gods.

The First Humans

According to the Quiche tradition of the Popol Vuh, the names of the first ancestors were as follows.

The Men

B'alam Agab
Meaning "night jaguar," he was the second of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakan. He married Choimha.
B'alam Quitze
Meaning "jaguar with the sweet smile," was the first of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakan. The gods created Caha-Paluma specifically for him to marry. Alternative names: Balam Quitze, Balam Quitzé
Iqi B'alam
Meaning "moon jaguar," he was the third of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakan. The gods created Cakixia specifically to be his wife.
Meaning "distinguished name," he was the fourth of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakan. The woman Tzununiha was created just for him.

Their Wives

Meaning "falling water," she was a woman created specifically to be the wife of Balam-Quitzé.
Meaning "water of parrots," she was a woman created specifically to be the wife of Iqi-Balam.
Meaning "beautiful water", she was a woman created by the gods specifically to marry B'alam Agab.
Meaning "house of the water," she was a woman created specifically to be the wife of one of the first men, Mahucatah.


The lowest and most horrible of the nine hells of the underworld. It was ruled by Ah Puch. Ritual healers would intone healing prayers banishing diseases to Metnal.
Also known as Xibalbá or Xibalbay, is a dangerous underworld ruled by the demons Vucub Caquix and Hun Came. The road to it is said to be steep, thorny and very forbidding. Much of the Popol Vuh describes the adventures of the Maya Hero Twins in their struggle with the evil lords of Xibalba.
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