Maya mythology

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Maya civilization

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Spanish conquest of Yucatán

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.

During and after the Spanish conquest, 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.

Apart from epigraphic inscriptions on monuments (which deal primarily with commemorations and dynastic successions), only three complete Maya texts and a fragment of a fourth have survived through the years. 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 " 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 alternatively 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 exaultation 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.

The Creation Myth

In Maya mythology, Tepeu and Gucumatz (also known as Kukulkan, 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 crumbled and dissolved 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 brought 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 of the same stuff.

Notable Gods

  • Ah Puch - God of Death
  • Chaac - God of Rain and Thunder
  • Camazotz - Bat god, tries to kill the Hero Twins in the Popol Vuh.
  • Gucumatz - Snake god and creator.
  • Hunahpu - One of the Maya Hero Twins.
  • Huracan - Storm and fire god, one of the creator deities.
  • Ixbalanque - One of the Maya Hero Twins.
  • Ixchel - Earth and Moon goddess.
  • Ixtab - Goddess of suicide.
  • Zipacna - Underworld demon.


The Bacabs were four brothers, the sons of Itzamna and Ixchel. 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 with a specific segment in the Maya calendar.

  • Hobnil (later replaced by Chaac) - 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 writings of sixteenth-century historian Diego de Landa and the various Maya histories known as the Chilam Balams. At some point, the brothers became associated with the figure of Chac, a Maya rain god. In the Yucatán, the Maya of Chan Kom referred to the four skybearers as the four Chacs. They were also believed to be jaguar gods, and are associated with beekeeping. Like many other deities, the Bacabs were important in divination ceremonies, being approached with questions about crops, weather or the health of bees.

The First Humans

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.

Gods and Supernatural Beings

Ac Yanto
Considered responsible for the creation of European immigrants and their products. He appeared in the latter days of Maya civilization. His brother is the creator god Hachacyum and his name means 'our helper.'
The god of wine. His name means 'groan.'
The god of tattoo artists.
Ah Bolom Tzacab
Meaning "the lead-nosed god," he was a god of agriculture, thunder and rain. He was depicted with a leaf in his nose. Alternative names: Ah Bolon Dz'acab, God K
Ah Cancum
A god of hunting.
Ah Chun Caan
The patron deity of the city of T'ho, modern Mérida, Yucatán.
Ah Chuy Kak
A god of war.
Ah Ciliz
A god of solar eclipses.
Ah Cun Can
A god of war.
Ah Cuxtal
A god of childbirth.
Ah Hulneb
Associated with the island of Cozumel, he was a god of war. Ah Hulneb means "he the spear thrower."
Ah Kin
Meaning "he of the sun," he was a solar deity and controlled disease and drought.
Ah Kumix Uinicob
Minor water gods.
Ah Mun
A maize god.
Ah Muzencab
The gods of bees.
Ah Patnar Uinicob
Minor water gods.
Ah Peku
The god of thunder.
Ah Tabai
The god of the hunt.
Ah Uincir Dz'acab
A god of healing and medicine.
Ah Uuc Ticab
A chthonic god of the Earth.
Ahau Chamahez
A god of medicine and good health.
Meaning "lord of the sun face," he was a sun god and moon god; he had two manifestations. At night, he became a jaguar god and lord of the underworld.
An agriculture god who protected crops from the wind.
A war god, also called the archer. The island Cozumel was the location of Ahulane's shrine.
One of the thirteen creator gods who helped construct humanity from maize.
One of the thirteen creator gods who helped construct humanity from maize.
The goddess of childbirth.
Meaning "mother," she was a goddess of fertility and childbirth.
Alaghom Naom
A goddess of wisdom, consciousness, education and the intellect. Also known as Alaghom Naom Tzentel and the Mother of Mind.
A sky god and one of the creator deities who participated in the last two attempts at creating humanity.
Backlum Chaam
The god of masculine sexual prowess.
Any of a group of jaguar gods who protected people and communities against threats.
Meaning "night jaguar," he was the second of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakan. He married Choimha.
A sky god and one of the creator deities who participated in the last two attempts at creating humanity.
A group of underworld gods.
Buluc Chabtan
Sometimes referred to as "God F," he was a war god who received human sacrifices.
A sky god.
A god of mountains and earthquakes. He was a son of Vucub Caquix and Chimalmat. He had six children, though only the name of one survives: Chalybir.
A creator god.
A lightning god, an underling of Yaluk. His brother was Coyopa.
A god of hunting, war, fate and fire (which he invented). He was one of the four creator gods, who made the Earth. The Chichimec considered him their tribal deity.
A bird that ate the heads of the first men.
A water deity.
Chac Uayab Xoc
A fish god and the patron deity of fishermen. He blessed their catches, yet also ate them if they drowned.
The son of Cabrakan. He is only mentioned once in the surviving literature, in the epic "On the Shores of the Dead".
A god of death, particularly popular in Guatemala. He was married to Ixtab.
The four wind gods.
A goddess of the earth.
A group of four rain gods who live in lakes and make rain clouds from the water in those lakes. Each of the rain gods was associated with a cardinal direction, similar to the Bacabs. Chiccan was also the name of a day in the Tzolkin cycle of the maya calendar.
A fertility goddess.
A boar-headed god of medicine and healing.
A giant who, by Vucub Caquix, was the mother of Cabrakan and Zipacna.
A god of death who lived in Metnal.
Colel Cab
A mother and fertility goddess.
Colop U Uichkin
A god of the sky.
The god of thunder and brother of Cakulha.
Cum Hau
A god of death and the underworld.
Also spelled Ek Chuah, the "black war chief" was the patron god of warriors and merchants, depicted carrying a bag over his shoulder. In art, he was a dark-skinned man with circles around his eyes, a scorpion tail and dangling lower lip. In early modern studies of Maya art and iconography, he was sometimes referred to as God M before his identity was firmly established.
An agricultural and fertility god.
Worshipped by the Lacandon people, he was their patron deity.
Hun Came
A demonic lord of the underworld Xibalba who, along with Vucub Caquix, killed Hun Hunahpu. They were killed by his sons, the Maya Hero Twins.
Hun Hunahpu
The father of the Maya Hero Twins Ixbalanque and Hun-Apu by a virgin. He was beheaded in Xibalba, the underworld, by the rulers of Xibalba, Hun Came and Vucub Caquix. His sons avenged his death.
Hunab Ku
The highest god. He rebuilt the world after three Great Floods, which came from the mouth of a sea monster. He is father of Itzamna and husband of Ixazalvoh.
Was also known as Kinebahan.
One of the thirteen creator gods who helped construct humanity.
The founder of the Maya culture, he taught his people to grow maize and cacao, as well as writing, calendars and medicine. With Ixchel, he was the father of the Bacabs. He was associated with snakes and mussels. His father was Kinich Ahau or Hunab Ku. The city of Izamal was sacred to him.
The patron god of the Lacandon people.
One of the thirteen creator gods who helped construct humanity.
One of the thirteen creator gods who helped construct humanity.
A goddess of water and weaving.
A protector of cities.
A creator god.
The god of foreign aliens, and the disease they brought with them.
Meaning "Sun" or day, he was a solar deity.
Kinich Ahau
A solar deity and father of Itzamna.
Kinich Kakmo
A solar deity represented by a macaw.
A god of war.
The god who invented the mind and consciousness.
A creator god, he is the most important deity of the Lacandon. His name means "Our True Lord".
one of the second set of creator gods.
A bird that dearly injured the first men.
A sky god and one of the creator deities who participated in all three attempts at creating humanity.
A god of evildoers and villains.
Tohil is the Quiché name for Huracan and was their patron deity. There was a great temple to him at their ancient capital of Rotten Cane (Q'umaraq aj or Gumarcaj).
An earth and drum god (originally a human hero who was deified), married to Ixchel.
Vucub Caquix
A powerful ruling demon in the underworld, Xibalba, and, by Chimalmat, the father of the demonic giants Cabrakan and Zipacna. He and his children were arrogant and the divine twins Hunahpu and Ixbalangue killed Vucub Caquix and Zipacna, along with Vucub Caquix's co-regent in the underworld, Hun Came, as revenge for the beheading of their father Hun Hunahpu.
Xaman Ek
A god of travelers and merchants, who gave offerings to him on the side of roads while traveling.
A bird which tore the eyes out of the first men.
Xmucane and Xpiayoc
A deific creator god couple who helped creat the first humans. They are also the parents of Hun Hunahpu (one hunahpu) and Vucub Hunahpu (seven hunahpu). They were called Grandmother of Day, Grandmother of Light and Bearer twice over, begetter twice over and given the titles midwife and matchmaker.
The chief lightning god, and ruled over the lesser ones, such as Cakulha.
Yum Caax
The personification of maize and a god of agriculture and nature. Alternative names: Yum Kaax, God E
The god of bats, caves and the patron of the Tzotzil people. Zotz was also the name of one of the months of the Maya calendar. Alternative name: Zotzilaha, Sotz'


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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