Mayan Mythology

    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.

    There are MANY similarities with the Native American Indians, as the Mayan people were considered to be caregivers of the Earth as well and their culture and spirituality was enwoven with Nature. In this way plants and animals played a more important and honorable place in their day to day living.

    The Popol Wu was the sacred text of the Mayan Civilization, all Mayan literature was later destroyed. This story was initially translated by the Jesuit Priests before that destruction and some words did not translate so it is not known how accurate it is, this is yet another interpretation from those writings.

    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 color‹ 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 color, 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 center 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.