The Supernatural World
To the Maya, the supernatural was as real as the natural world they could see and feel around them. They believed that all things (rocks, plants, animals, mountains, streams, even manmade creations like buildings and pottery) were alive and had a spiritual essence. Any interaction with the natural world - such as farming or hunting - would only succeed if the relevant spirits were appeased with rituals and offerings.
Sacred things like ritual items, ancestor bones, burial places and temples were filled with a potent spiritual power which increased over time. That’s why the Maya often built new pyramids over old ones, like the layers of an onion, to harness the spiritual power. When a piece of pottery was discarded or a building was abandoned, they were ritually “killed” to release and dissipate their power.
Overseeing everything were as many as 250 named gods who were involved in all aspects of life. (See MAYA GODS section.) If humans wanted the world to turn and rain to fall and crops to grow and good fortune to transpire, it was essential to please the gods. So the goal of Maya religion was to make earthly life better (or at least more bearable) - not about scoring points towards a comfortable afterlife. In essence, the gods expected payment for their favors - payment that had to be made in advance.
The Popul Vuh
The Maya Cosmic Topography
The Maya Soul & the Afterlife
The Maya had rituals for every aspect of life: the dedication of buildings & monuments, the birth of children, marriage, coronations, political events, ballgames, moments of transition in the calendar and every step in the seasonal cycles. Shamans were also called on for help with the stuff of everyday life from problems in love, to sickness, business deals, agricultural decisions, travel plans, and choosing auspicious dates.
Because the gods created humans out of corn and gave them life, it was the sacred duty of humanity to thank the gods by giving their own blood. However, it is a misconception that human sacrifice was rampant in the Maya world. There were certainly times when rival kings, captives and orphaned children were relieved of their hearts on the sacrificial altar - but most blood sacrifice was not fatal. It was more usual for Maya kings and queens to use a little of their own blood for the rituals. They would nick their tongues, ears or private parts and drip the blood onto bark paper strips, which would then be burnt with pine resin incense to send the blood up to the gods. Maya royals were seen as sacred beings and, as such, the conduit between the divine and the earthly. They could channel the gods or connect to their ancestors by spilling their own blood. Royal blood kept the wheels of the universe turning and the world from falling into chaos.
Rituals & Blood Sacrifice
Many Maya cities had observatories and their astronomers kept scrupulous records of the heavenly bodies that were visible to the naked eye. Their 365-day solar calendar was as accurate as our calendar today. When the Maya looked up at the night sky, they saw the arc of the two-headed cosmic monster which held the sun, moon, stars, Venus, and the Milky Way.
Just as many Native Americans refer to the earth or North America as Turtle Island, so the Maya believed that the earth (Middleworld) was carried on the back of a turtle (or crocodile) surrounded by an endless primordial sea. They believed the world was flat and square. Each cardinal direction had its own ruling god and its own color: north was white, south was yellow, east was red, west was black and the center was green. (Jaguar Stones readers will recognize this as the layout for the Five Pyramids in Middleworld.) The corners of the world were determined by the points where the sun rises and sets at the summer and winter solstices; as such, the east-west direction was most important, as it followed the trajectory of the sun. Plazas, pyramids, temples, palaces and even cities were laid out to symbolize this mythic landscape.
To the ancient Maya, souls were not an abstract concept but a potentially visible reality that could take form and materialize in rituals and blood sacrifice. The “white flowery breath” was implanted at birth and left at death. Like an ethereal form of the daemons in His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, everyone also had a “Way” - a protective spirit that took the shape of an animal. The higher someone’s status, the more impressive the animal - so only kings got jaguars. The fate of a human and their “Way” were interlinked - sickness or injury would affect them both.
Death was a part of life. The Maya buried their ancestors under their homes or in their family compounds to keep them close. Dead ancestors were revered, conversed with, and consulted for advice on decisions in everyday life.
All common folk spent their afterlife in Xibalba, a cold, damp, wretched place whose name meant “well of fear”. It was similar in concept to Hades, and its various layers were inhabited by assorted demon creatures. Xibalba was accessed from Middleworld through caves or stretches of water. To reach the underworld, the dead had to surmount many obstacles. The road was arduous and perilous, and there were soul stealers along the way. For that reason, burial rituals included the burning of consecrated plants to ward off evil spirits. The mouth of the deceased was filled with maize and food and drink were placed in the grave along with their most prized possessions to provide sustenance for the journey. Kings had a more comfortable time, often being ferried to the underworld by THE PADDLER GODS.
Only kings (as divine lords) could escape spending their afterlife in the underworld. When Maya kings died, they were thought to reenact the story of THE HERO TWINS. If they had the cunning to pass the tests set by the Death Lords, they could overcome death and take their place in the heavens as defied beings. On the sarcophagus of King Pakal (see right), entombed deep within the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque, the king is depicted as simultaneously descending into the jaws of the underworld, and being reborn and rising into the heavens.
At the time of the Conquest, the Yucatec Maya were said to think that death in childbirth, war, sacrifice or suicide for heroic reasons would also qualify for a ticket to the heavens, but this notion may have been influenced by Catholic beliefs. It’s interesting that while Xibalba is described as bone-chillingly damp and cold, the heroes were said to sit under shady trees, enjoying a pleasant breeze - heaven indeed for residents of the sticky, humid jungle.
The Popul Vuh (literally “Book of the Mat” - meaning the mat where council members met to discuss community matters - so with the sense of “Book of the People”) is one of the few surviving Maya texts. It is the sacred book of the K’iche’ Maya, and it chronicles their history, myths, and creation story. Although the K’iche’ live in Central Guatemala, the myths and characters described in the Popul Vuh are pictured in carvings, murals and pottery right across the Maya region. The ancient story had survived mostly as oral tradition, until it was written down somewhere between 1554-58. A Dominican friar translated it into Spanish in 1701. In the chaos of the Conquest and the ensuing destruction, that manuscript became the sole surviving written version until it was published in the 20th century. It is a beautiful and poetic text. According to the Popul Vuh,
Lesson plans & activities to download:
The Queen of Yaxchilan, Lady Kabal Xook conjures
an ancestor through a vision serpent.
(Color has been added for clarity.)
1701 CE copy of the Popul Vuh hand written in both K'iche Maya and Spanish.
the gods created the world and all living things (except humans) out of the silent nothingness. The gods then realized that the animals could not speak or give praise to their creators, so the gods decided to make beings that were providers and nurturers - in other words, humans.
They first attempted to make humans out of mud, then wood, but these beings had no heart and did not praise the gods. Those failed creations were destroyed, but some of the wood people survived as monkeys. In their third, successful, attempt, the gods made humans out of corn. However, the first batch of these corn people was too successful, they were too much like gods themselves, so the gods downgraded them, making the humans of today: mortal and less all-knowing.
The Popul Vuh also includes the story of the HERO TWINS who went down to XIBALBA and defeated the Lords of Death. You can read about them here.
Murals discovered at San Bartolo illustrate scenes echoed in the Popul Vuh. They were painted in 100 BCE
The Maya Worldview
Before the Spanish conquest, the Maya worldview was centered on keeping their legions of gods happy. Like most ancient civilizations, they did not require their gods to set a good moral example. A Maya god could be both a hero and a villain, a creator and a destroyer. Nor were dead souls divided into saints and sinners. The Maya worldview seems to have recognized good and bad, light and dark, in most things. In fact, they were drawn to the concept of liminality - the ambiguity that exists at the edges of places, things, and states of being - that is neither one thing nor the other. After the conquest, their beliefs were influenced by the catholic church of their invaders.
The World Tree
Passing through the centre of the world like a giant Ceiba in the jungle, is the mighty World Tree. With its upper branches in the heavens above and its roots in the underworld, the World Tree connects the human world with the realms of gods and ancestors. There were thirteen layers of sky, each with its own god, and nine layers of the underworld, Xibalba, each ruled by a Lord of the Night. Sandwiched in between was Middleworld, the world of humans. It was thought that pre-eminent humans - in both life and death - could pass to and fro between this world and the underworld through Maya rituals.
Maya History & Religion, Eric Thompson, University of Oklahoma Press, 1990
Reading the Maya Glyphs, Michael Coe & Mark Van Stone, Thames & Hudson, 2003
The Popul Vuh, translated by Dennis Tedlock, Touchstone, 1985
The Popul Vuh, translated by Allen Christenson, Mesoweb Publications, 2007
Essential Mayan Gods, Editorial Veras
The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, Mary Miller & Karl Taube, Thames & Hudson, 1993
Yucatan before and after the conquest, Friar Diego de Landa, Dover Publications, 1978
Reading Maya Art, Andrea Stone & Marc Zender, Thames & Hudson, 2011
Aztec & Maya Gods and Goddesses, Clara Bezanilla, British Museum Press, 2006
Maya: Divine Kings of the Rain forest, Nikolai Grube, Konemann, 2012
Disaster, Deluge, and Destruction on the Star War Vase, Marc Zender, The Mayanist 2(1):57-76, 2020
A Forest of Kings, Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow, 1990
The lid of Pakal's tomb depicts the King being reborn out of the jaws of the underworld and rising into the heavens.
(Color has been added for clarity.)
Based on a diagram from
Maya - Divine Kings of the Rainforest, Nokolai Grube