Learn about the most important gods of Maya mythology that built the cosmogony of this ancient civilization.
According to Maya mythology, they were the creators of the valleys and mountains that emerged from the seas, then gave life to plants and animals. But they needed rational beings who felt fear and worshipped them with prayers, stories, and figures of clay and stone. Then after several failed attempts, they created the human race when they used corn to mold them. However, when they realized that these beings were able to see everything through time and space, the gods decided to cloud their vision.
This is a part of the creation of the universe and the living beings that inhabit it, according to the Quiché Maya vision put in evidence in the book, known as Popol Vuh, one of the most important texts of Antiquity and of Maya mythology in particular. It is distinguished by its great literary gifts and its overflowing imagination.
The great protagonists of the Popol Vuh, or Book of the Community, are the different gods that manage at will the destiny of the universe and living beings. They tell their great stories, their exploits, their whims, and all kinds of details that have amazed thousands of readers and scholars of one of the most fascinating ancient cultures. Below, you will learn about some of the most important gods of Maya mythology that are part of the Popol Vuh or whose birth took place through other oral or written sources.
This fearsome serpent was considered the guardian of the cenotes, sacred places for the Maya, and gateways to the Underworld. Tsukán was of bestial proportions: its head was as big as a horse’s, and in general, its appearance must have been threatening. According to researcher Carlos Augusto Evia Cervantes, it used to strike those who dared to lurk in the cenotes, and sometimes wings emerged from its body with which it flew to unknown destinations, returning to the cenotes after a certain time.
He was the god of corn and agriculture, which is why he was one of the most beloved and venerated gods of the Maya people. He was also considered a benefactor of animals. His most common personification was that of a middle-aged man with a headdress on his head and a kind of receptacle with corn cobs inside.
The Maya believed that the universe and all its creatures were created by Hunab Ku, the father of all that could be seen, heard, touched, and tasted. Hunab Ku was present everywhere and at all times: he was perceived through light, water, sound, wind, and even in the feelings of every person. From childhood, Maya people were educated to worship this god and dedicate each of their deeds and thoughts to him. Being an essential incorporeal force, there are no known physical representations of this god other than a symbol that has become part of the most popular Maya tradition.
Just as light exists in all areas of life, there is also its counterpart: darkness. This element was represented by Yum Kimil, the most feared god in the Maya pantheon. It was believed that this god manifested himself on Earth in the form of owls, dogs, and jaguars. His dwelling place was the Underworld (Xibalbá), to which Yum Kimil carried sick people.
He healed diseases and protected against the demons of the world of darkness. He was the god of the sun, that star that illuminates our galaxy and that so many cultures worshiped in ancient times, as was the case of the Egyptians. The Maya worshiped him by burning incense in the morning, while they intoned prayers and chants.
He was one of the most ruthless judges in Xibalbá. The stories say that the good god Hun-Hunahpú invented the Maya ball game and that he played it daily with his brother and his sons, the twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué. But in the Underworld, Hun-Camé was annoyed by the noise they caused. So, teaming up with another ruthless judge, Vucub-Camé, he invited Hun-Hunahpú to Xibalbá. Once there, both judges subdued their guest. When they found out what had happened, the twins Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué went to Xibalbá to avenge their father.
Best known as the goddess of the moon, she was also the goddess of love, gestation, medicine, and textile works. Above all, women were the ones who felt the greatest gratitude for this deity seen as benevolent among the Maya. Ixchel was the counterpart and wife of Ah Kin, but she was also married to Itzamná, fathering thirteen children. Those who venerated her made pilgrimages to the current island of Cuzamil (present-day Cozumel), where there was a sacred precinct dedicated to her.
It was the representation of the Feathered Serpent or Quetzalcóatl of the Mexica. Its broad meaning is related to the elements of air and earth. Among the Maya, it was believed that Kukulkan had arrived at the present Yucatan Peninsula from the sea to settle among the people and teach them everything concerning hunting, fishing, agriculture, and medicine. The Temple of Kukulkan in the archaeological zone of Chichén-Itzá is the most popular pyramid of the Maya civilization: every spring equinox, a fascinating phenomenon of shadows draws what appears to be a serpent’s body on the steps of the building. These shadows end in the snake heads at the lowest part of the temple.
The gods, the inhabitants of the Maya cities, and their main customs are still fascinating subjects worth exploring to learn more about one of the civilizations that made a difference in the world.
Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva