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The ancient Maya created an incredible civilization in Central America around 1000 BCE to 1500 CE. They worshipped many nature gods, and built pyramidal temples, palaces, and statues for them. The Maya religion is described on surviving codices, including the Madrid Codex, Paris Codex, and Dresden Codex, as well as the Quiche Mayan religious text, the Popol Vuh.
The Maya religion was polytheistic, and the main deities sometimes morph with less notable gods and share attributes of both deities. In codices and art, Maya gods typically feature goggle eyes, god-markings, and combinations of animal and human characteristics. The Maya also believed in the underworld—referred to as Xibalba by the Yucatec, and Metnal by the Quiche—where gods were said to torment them.
Contrary to popular belief, the Maya religion was distinct from that of the Aztecs. The Maya civilization began at least 1500 years before the Aztecs, and their mythology was well established by the time of the Aztecs.
Today, the Maya people, who number around six million, still live in Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize—and some aspects of the ancient religion are still practiced today. Here’s a look at the most powerful and significant Maya gods, and their importance to the Maya people.
The supreme Maya deity and creator god, Itzamna was the ruler of heaven, day and night. It’s thought that his name means iguana house or lizard house. In the codices, he’s depicted as an old man with sunken cheeks and toothless jaws. The Maya believed that he was the inventor of writing and calendar. He was also the patron deity of medicine, and the protector of priests and scribes.
Itzamna also appeared as four gods called Itzamnas, represented by two-headed, dragon-like iguanas. They were associated with the four directions and corresponding – colors north, white; east, red; west, black; and south, yellow. In later post-Colombian writings, he’s referred to as the son of a creator deity called Hunab-Ku, whose name means One-God.
In Postclassic times, central Mexican influences were introduced to the Maya religion. Identified with Quetzalcóatl of the Aztecs and Toltecs, Kukulcan was the feathered serpent god of the Maya. He wasn’t originally a Maya deity, but later became significant in Maya mythology. In the Popol Vuh, he’s regarded as a creator god associated with wind and rain, safely transporting the sun across the sky and into the underworld.
As a deity, Kukulcan was associated with Chichen Itza, where a large temple was dedicated to him. However, the city isn’t purely Maya as it was only inhabited during the late Maya period, and was greatly influenced by the Toltecs who may have lived there. Scholars believe that Kukulcan was a foreign religious belief adapted to fit a local religious belief.
Bolon Tzacab was thought to be a god of royal descent, as he’s often seen held as a scepter by Maya rulers. He’s also associated with agricultural abundance and lightning. It’s believed that maize and cacao were discovered after the god struck the mountains with one of his lightning bolts.
Bolon Tzacab is also known as Huracan, as well as K’awiil. In iconography, he’s commonly depicted with large eyes marked by a spiral, an axe blade sticking out from his forehead, and a snake as one of his legs.
In Central America, rain is significant for agriculture, so naturally rain deities were very important to the people. Chac was the Maya god of rain, water, lightning and thunder. Like other Mayan gods, he also appeared as four gods, called Chacs, who were believed to pour rain by emptying their gourds and hurling stone axes upon the earth.
In iconography, Chac has reptilian attributes and is often depicted with a human body. He wears shell over his ears and carries an axe that represents thunderbolts. During the post-Classic period at Chichen Itza, human sacrifice became linked with the rain deity, and the priest who held the sacrificial victims were called chacs.
The Maya sun god, K’inich Ajaw was feared and worshipped, as he could offer the life-giving properties of the sun but could also give too much sun to cause a drought. His name literally means sun-faced lord or sun-eyed ruler, but he’s originally designated as God G. Some of his aspects include a jaguar and a water bird, where the former symbolizes the sun during his nocturnal journey through the underworld.
As a jaguar, K’inich Ajaw is associated with warfare, being a war advisor in the underworld. He’s also associated with kings and royal dynasties. He’s commonly depicted as being born or rising in the east, and aging as the sun sets in the west. In iconography, he’s most recognized by his large square eyes, aquiline nose, and K’in or sun symbol on his head or body.
Also spelled Ixchel or Chak Chel, Ix Chel was the goddess of the moon, childbirth, healing, and medicine. Some sources say that she was possibly a female manifestation of god Itzamna, but others suggest that she’s his wife. During the 16th-century Yucatan period, she had a sanctuary at Cozumel and her cult was popular.
In iconography, Ix Chel is often depicted as an aged woman with spindles and snakes in her hair, as well as clawed hands and feet. She was the patron of womanly crafts, especially weaving, but was commonly portrayed as evil woman with unfavorable aspects.
In Mayan mythology, Bacab is any of the four gods who stood at the four corners of the world supporting the sky and the earth. These gods are thought to be brothers and the offspring of Itzamna and Ixchel. In the Postclassic Yucatan period, they became known by the names Cantzicnal, Hosanek, Hobnil, and Saccimi. They each guided one year of the four-year cycle, as well as one of the four cardinal directions.
For instance, Cantzicnal was the bearer of the Muluc years, so the ancient Maya expected these years to be the greatest, as he’s also the greatest of the four gods.
In some interpretation, the Bacabs may have been the four representations of a single deity. Bacab is also known as Pawahtuun, the patron of scribes, and is depicted as an old man wearing a netted headdress and a snail or a turtle shell on his back.
Also spelled Kisin, Cizin is the Maya god of earthquake and death, often depicted in scenes of human sacrifice. Scholars suggest that he may have been one aspect of a malevolent underworld deity who became known by several names, such as Yum Cimil and Ah Puch. He was also called the stinking one because he was always said to be accompanied by a foul smell.
In pre-Conquest codices, he’s often portrayed as a dancing skeleton, holding a cigarette. Sometimes, he’s accompanied by an owl—a messenger of the underworld. It’s said that he keeps the souls in the underworld with his trickery and torments. He’s also illustrated destroying trees planted by Chac, the rain god. After the Spanish Conquest, he became associated with the Christian devil.
Ah Mucen Cab
The god of bees and honey, Ah Mucen Cab is usually depicted with the wings of a bee, commonly in landing or taking off position. He’s associated with Colel Cab, a Maya goddess who was also responsible for bees and honey. The Mayan word for honey was also the same term for world, suggesting that he was also involved with the creation of the world. Some believe that he was the patron of Tulum, a region that produced a lot of honey.
According to the Popol Vuh, gods created humans from water and maize flour. The Maya maize god, Yum Kaax, is often depicted with an elongated head, resembling the shape of corn on the cob. In the Books of Chilam Balam, there are several designations given to the maize god, associated with the different stages of corn growth.
While the Foliated Maize God is illustrated as a corn plant with its cobs having the shape of the god’s head, the Tonsured Maize God is depicted with a shaved head, wearing a netted jade skirt and a belt with a large shell. The latter is thought to be associated with the agricultural cycle, as well as creation and resurrection myths.
Also known as Ek Ahau, Ek Chuah was the Maya god of merchants, travelers, and warriors, and is only found in the Postclassic codices. In the Dresden Codex, he’s illustrated as black-and-white, while the Madrid Codex depicts him entirely black and carrying a bag over his shoulder. He’s the god of cacao but is also associated with war and death.
The Maya god of war and violence, Buluc Chabtan is commonly represented with a flint knife and a blazing torch, killing people, and setting homes on fire. Also known as God F, he’s associated with human sacrifices and violent death. In the Dresden Codicex, he’s illustrated as being eaten by maggots. Even though he was feared and wasn’t so much worshiped, people prayed to him for success in war.
The Maya religion was based on a pantheon of nature gods. Modern-day Maya people, which totals about six million people, still observe a religion composed of ancient ideas and animism, but most Maya today are nominal Roman Catholics. However, their Christianity is generally overlaid upon the native religion, and some Christian figures are identified with Maya deities.