The ancient Mayan people had a complex religion based around worshipping many nature gods in order to ensure success in war and crops. The earliest recorded practising of the religion was in 250BC, Mesoamerica. At its peak, it was worshipped by around two million people.
The supreme god of the pantheon was Itzamná, the god of fire and hearth. He was worshiped as the god who gave many crafts to the Mayans, including growing corn, writing, astrology, mathematics and a fair way of dividing the land, and also as the patron of medicine and divination. It is currently believed he was either the creator god or his son, and that he was married to the moon goddess Ixchel. As a human, he is portrayed as a kindly old man with a hooked nose, no teeth and square eyes.
Ixchel was another very important deity, believed to be Itzamná’s wife. She was the goddess of the moon, and gave the Mayan womanly crafts such as weaving. She was also goddess of fertility and procreation. She had two ‘human’ appearances: the first was a young woman connected to the crescent moon and the growing of the moon, whilst the second was an older woman connected to the waning of the moon. Where Itzamná appeared to be kindly, Ixchel was known to have a cruel side and can cause disasters if she was displeased.
There were two deity’s associated with death: Ah Puch and Ixtab. Ah Puch was the general god of death, and was depicted as skeletal. He was often surrounded by corpses and skulls. He may also have been shown as a human body in an advanced state of decomposition, or as a skeleton with an owls head. He was the ruler of the ninth level of the underworld, which I will explain in greater detail later on! Ixtab was the Goddess of the hanged and suicides, depicted as having a rope around her neck. It is interesting to note that the Mayans believed that suicides went to the Upperworld, or Heaven.
Chac, or Chaac, was the highly important god of agriculture, rain and fertility. It is believed that he also represents the five points of the compass and their corresponding colours (green, black red, white and yellow. There was no specific way each of these colours aligned to a direction). He was often shown as having a human body with a lizard head, and using a lightening axe to create storms.
Kukulcan was the feathered snake god, god of rain. He was closely associated with Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of rain. He was another hero-god, and it was believed he taught the Mayans about civilization. He was worshipped using human sacrifice and bloodletting, usually from the tongue or genitals.
The Upperworld, Middleworld and Underworld.
Unlike today’s concepts of Heaven and Hell, the Mayans believed that there were three realms of existence. There was the Upperworld, which was similar to heaven only it was divided into thirteen planes, the Middleworld, where humanity resided, and the Underworld, with nine planes. They were all connected by Tzuk’te, the world tree. It was believed that all dead, no matter where they ended up, would enter the afterlife through special caves.
Much like modern concepts of Heaven and Hell, the Upperworld/Underworld were both based on what you did in life. However, the things that could get a person into the Upperworld differs greatly from what can get a person into heaven. Suicides, warriors who died in battle, women who died in child birth and dead priests all went into the Upperworld, while kings and lords, no matter how good they were, all ended up in the Underworld. This was because it was believed that the tasks involved in ruling a kingdom or demesne, and the death that usually came for them was less honourable than it could be.
The concept of the Mayan underworld is a very difficult one, and I say now that my research has been rather confusing. The lowest level of the Underworld, the ninth, is ruled over by the death god Ah Puch, and the rest are ruled over by minor death gods and demons. There is also Xibala, and I am not sure if this is another name for the Underworld itself, or another level of it, or even a physical, underground city. Regardless of what it was, it was a horrific place. In fact, the name means “Place of fear” or “Place of phantoms”. It was ruled over by twelve gods or powerful demons, that worked in pairs to rule the Six Houses of Xibala and were referred to as the Lords of Xibala. The names of these Houses were: Dark House, Hot House, Jaguar House, Razor House, Cold House, and Bat House. Each of these houses held tests, designed to humiliate and possible kill those who entered Xibala. There was also a ball court, which held great sway in Mayan mythology. It is unclear now if the tests offered a reward, or if they were just punishments for the souls that ended up in the Underworld, but either way Xibala was a place of fear and horror for the Mayans.
As commonly known, a lot of the worship of Mayan deities revolved around human sacrifice and blood-letting. It is important to remember, however, that being sacrificed was a fate that set you immediately for the Upperworld, and having someone close to the family sacrificed bought great honour upon the family.
The way the sacrifices were chosen was quite simple. As the great ball game was an important part of Mayan life, a game would be held to choose sacrifices. It was a death match, literally, as the losing side were then sacrificed to the gods. By being sacrificed, they regained the honour they had lost by losing a ball game. Another form of worship, done to maybe small shrines or whilst praying in temples was letting blood from the tongue or genitals.
Blood-letting and human sacrifice was done as a form of worship because it was believed that the greatest gift to show give a god was life, and so to appease them and make sure the grain grew, the rains came and they had success in battle they had to give the gods the greatest gift.
Although not directly related to worship, it is interesting to note that the Mayan’s believed their Kings were descended directly from the gods, and upon death buried them with riches both human and physical, as well as a death-mask. This is all very similar to the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, despite there being an ocean or two between them!
Despite this complex religion being bought crashing to the ground by what is believed to be a combination of the Spanish, internal warfare and climate problems, I hope you will agree with me that it is still a fascinating subject even today!