The Mayan civilization flourished in Mesoamerica from around 300 B . C . until the Spanish conquest of the early A . D . 1500S. The mythology of the Maya had many elements in common with those of other civilizations of the region. But the Maya developed their own variation of the Mesoamerican pantheon of gods and goddesses, the stories about them, and the image of the universe and the place of humans in it.
In Mayan mythology, the gods and heroes had many different names and appearances, stories occurred in varying forms, and scenes and figures changed and shifted with confusing rapidity. Beneath this seeming confusion, though, lay a sense that the universe was an orderly, structured place and that proper behavior toward the gods played an important role in maintaining its harmony and balance.
Background and Sources. The earliest known images of Mesoamerican gods were created by the Olmec civilization of Mexico. Emerging sometime after 1400 B . C ., the Olmecs lived along the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico for roughly a thousand years. They built pyramids that were sacred places where the human realm touched the realm of the gods. They also carved enormous stone heads as images of their leaders and created a long-distance trade network across Mesoamerica to obtain valued items such as jade.
The Olmec pantheon probably included deities of rain, corn, and fire, as well as a feathered serpent god. These figures reappeared in the myths of later Mesoamerican peoples. Olmec art included images of jaguars and of creatures that were part jaguar, part human. People of the region believed that magicians could turn themselves into jaguars.
The Zapotecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs were among the Mesoamericans who inherited and built upon Olmec traditions. So did the Maya, who were concentrated in the lowlands of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and in a highland region that extends from the present-day states of Tabasco and Chiapas into Guatemala. The Maya enjoyed their greatest wealth, power, and success from around A . D . 300 to 900. Historians call this their Classic period. During this time, the Maya built vast stone cities and ceremonial centers such as Tikal and Palenque. After the Classic period, Toltecs from central Mexico arrived in the Yucatán and eventually merged with the Maya. Their influence shaped late Mayan civilization at Chichén Itzá and Mayapán.
Mesoamerica cultural region consisting of southern Mexico and northern regions of Central America
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
deity god or goddess
divination act or practice of foretelling the future
ritual ceremony that follows a set pattern
The Maya shared in a common Mesoamerican culture. The peoples of the region believed in the same gods and myths, built temples in the form of pyramids, practiced divination, and had an interest in astronomy. They also had a ball game in which teams competed to pass a ball of solid rubber through a stone ring or hoop. Only certain men and gods could play this game. Sometimes it was simple sport, sometimes a sacred ritual. Scholars do not know the full meaning of the Mesoamerican
|Ah Puch (Yum Cimil)||god of death and destruction, brought disease and was associated with war|
|Cizin (Kisin)||god of death, linked with earthquakes|
|Hun-Hunahpú (Ah Mun)||god of maize and vegetation|
|Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe||twin sons of Hun-Hunahpú, tricked the lords of the underworld|
|Itzamná||chief god, ruler of heaven, of night and day, and of the other deities|
|Ixchel||goddess of fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth|
|Kinich Ahau||sun god, sometimes considered an aspect of Itzamná|
|Kukulcan (Quetzalcoatl)||Feathered Serpent, god of learning and crafts|
ball game, but it may have represented the movement of the heavenly bodies or a symbolic kind of warfare that ended in human sacrifice.
The Maya also shared the elaborate calendar system used across much of Mesoamerica. One part, called Haab by the Maya, was a 365-day calendar based on the sun's annual cycle. The other, called Tzolkin, was a 260-day sacred calendar. The two calendars meshed in a cycle known as the Calendar Round, which repeated every 52 years. The Maya used the calendar both for measuring worldly time and for sacred purposes, such as divination. Each day in the Calendar Round came under the influence of a unique combination of deities. According to the Maya, the combination that occurred on a person's date of birth would influence that person's fate.
archaeological referring to the study of past human cultures, usually by excavating ruins
Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya used a writing system based on symbols called glyphs that represented individual syllables. They recorded their mythology and history in volumes known as codices. Although the Spanish destroyed most Mayan documents, a few codices have survived. Other written sources of Mayan mythology include the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala; and the Chilam Balam (Secrets of the Soothsayers), writings by Yucatecan Maya that date from the l600s and 1700s and contain much traditional lore. Accounts by Spanish explorers and missionaries—such as Diego de Landa's description of Mayan life and religion in the Yucatán with the first key to the written language (ca. 1566)—provide useful information. Inscriptions found at archaeological sites are also helpful.
Major Deities and Characters. The chief god of the Maya was Itzamná—ruler of the heaven, of day and night, and of the other deities. Itzamná was a culture hero, a figure credited with giving people basic tools of civilization, such as language and fire. Said to have been the first priest and the inventor of writing, Itzamná was also linked to healing. His wife, Ixchel, was goddess of fertility, pregnancy, and childbirth. Women made pilgrimages to her shrines.
Ah Puch, often shown with decomposing flesh and a head like a skull, was the god of death and destruction. He brought disease, was associated with war, and ruled the lowest level of the Mayan underworld. The modern Maya call him Yum Cimil (lord of death). Cizin or Kisin (stinking one) is another death god. He is linked in particular with earthquakes, which often strike Mesoamerica with devastating force. The ancient Maya depicted him as a dancing skeleton with dangling eyeballs. His opponent was the god of maize and vegetation, called Ah Mun and or Hun-Hunahpú, often shown with an ear of maize growing from his head.
The sun god was Kinich Ahau, sometimes said to be one aspect of Itzamná. He was associated with jaguars. The rain god, a major figure in all Mesoamerican mythologies, was called Chac by the Maya. He was often portrayed as a fisherman or as a figure with the features of a fish or reptile. Like Itzamná and other Mayan deities, Chac could appear in four forms, each associated with a particular color and compass direction. (This fourfold aspect is a common feature of Mesoamerican mythology.) Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, called Kukulcan by the Maya, was also a figure of great importance throughout Mesoamerica.
Major Themes and Myths. The Maya believed that creation was related to divination and magic, and they often referred to their heroes and creator gods as diviners. The men and women who practiced divination regarded it as a form of creation similar to the divine miracle that produced the world and humankind.
Like the Aztecs and other Mesoamericans, the Maya believed that the present world is only the most recent in a series of creations. The earlier ones perished or were destroyed one after the other, just as this world will one day come to an end too.
According to the Popol Vuh, creation began with the god Huracan, who blew as a great wind over the primeval ocean, causing the earth to rise from the depths. Then Xpiacoc and Xmucane, "old man and old woman," performed magical rites that helped Huracan and other creator deities form plants, animals, and eventually the human race. The gods fashioned the first man out of clay, and he melted into the water. The next race of people, made of wood, were dull, spiritless, and easily destroyed by fire. For their third attempt, the gods mixed yellow and white maize flour together and made the First Fathers, the ancestors of men, from the dough.
underworld land of the dead
primeval from the earliest times
rite ceremony or formal procedure
The First Fathers were worshipful, handsome, and wise—too wise, the gods decided. Fearing that their creations would become
One section of the Popol Vuh tells the myth of the Hero Twins, sons of the maize god Hun-Hunahpú. The lords of death, seeing the maize god and his twin brother play the ball game constantly, grew annoyed and summoned the two to Xibalba. The brothers fell into a series of tricks and traps, which allowed the lords of death to sacrifice them and to hang Hun-Hunahpú's head from a tree. But the maize god's twin sons, Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe, grew up to be even more skilled ballplayers.
When in turn the lords of death summoned the twin sons to the underworld, Hunahpú and Xbalanqúe had tricks of their own. They played the ball game every day, and each night they passed some test. Eventually, they decided to set a trap for the lords. In the final part of their trick, the twins cut themselves in pieces and then restored themselves to wholeness. The underworld gods wanted to try the same trick. However, after the twins cut up the
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
gods, they simply left them in pieces. The twins then restored their father and their uncle to life before passing into the sky to become the sun and moon.
The mythology of the ancient Maya included the belief that humans had been put on earth to nourish the gods. Human sacrifices served this purpose. So did the ritual called bloodletting, in which priests or nobles pierced parts of their bodies and offered the blood to the gods or to ancestors in exchange for guidance. Clouds of smoke from burning blood offerings were thought to summon the Vision Serpents, images of snakes with Mayan gods and ancestors coming from their mouths. Such visions probably symbolized the renewal and rebirth made possible by sacrifice.
Legacy. Striking images of the deities and myths of Mayan civilization can be found today in archaeological sites. Southern Mexico and northern Central America are dotted with the remains of great stone cities and temples that are still yielding a wealth of information about the history and culture of the ancient Maya. Some of these sites have become tourist attractions and educational centers.
Other remnants are literary. Mayan texts—those recorded by both Native American and Spanish chroniclers in the years after the Spanish conquest, as well as new translations of inscriptions and codices—are available to interested readers. Some have inspired modern writers. Stories in Charles Finger's Tales from the Silver Lands and Miguel Angel Asturias's Men of Maize are based on the Popol Vuh.
A Many-Layered Universe
Like many peoples, the Maya pictured a universe consisting of heavens above and underworlds below, with the human world sandwiched between. The heavens consisted of 13 layers stacked above the earth, and the earth rested on the back of a turtle or reptile floating in the ocean. Four brothers called the Bacabs, possibly the sons of Itzamná, supported the heavens. Below the earth lay a realm called Xibalba, an underworld in nine layers. Linking the three realms was a giant tree whose roots reached into the underworld and branches stretched to heaven. The gods and the souls of the dead traveled between worlds along this tree.
There is a living Mayan legacy as well. The descendants of the Maya number about 5 million today Proud of their heritage, they still tell old myths at festivals and funerals, although perhaps less often than they used to. Some of them remember the old gods, asking Chac for rain, thanking Hun-Hunahpú for a good harvest, and fearing that Ah Puch is prowling about, hungry for victims. In the Yucatán, a television series called Let Us Return to Our Maya Roots promoted traditional language and customs. The mythology that once expressed the visions and beliefs of much of Mesoamerica remains part of a culture that is still alive.