Mayan Mythology

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The Underground World of Xibalba

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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.

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 Yucat‡n 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 colorŃ 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 Quichˇ 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 Ń 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.

Mayan Sacred Tree

The Wacah Chan (or Whac Chan, a.k.a. Mayan Sacred Tree, Mayan World Tree or Mayan Tree of Life) represented the three levels of the Mayan universe. It was believed that all three universes were joined by a central tree. The roots of the tree plunged into the Maya underworld and its branches reached into the Overworld or the Heavens. The central tree was associated with the color green and the four trees in the Middle World were white, red, yellow, and black. The white tree represented the ancestral dead and the North, the red represented the rising sun and the East, the yellow represented the South and right hand of the sun, the black represented the West and the Underworld.

Maya Vision Serpent

The Vision Serpent is an important creature in Pre-Columbian Maya mythology. The serpent was a very important social and religious symbol, revered by the Maya. Maya mythology describes serpents as being the vehicles by which celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars, cross the heavens. The shedding of their skin made them a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

They were so revered, that one of the main Mesoamerican deities, Quetzalcoatl, was represented as a feathered serpent. The name means "quetzal serpent".

The Vision Serpent is thought to be the most important of the Maya serpents. "It was usually bearded and had a rounded snout. It was also often depicted as having two heads or with the spirit of a god or ancestor emerging from its jaws". During Maya bloodletting rituals, participants would experience visions in which they communicated with the ancestors or gods. These visions took the form of a giant serpent "which served as a gateway to the spirit realm". The ancestor or god who was being contacted was depicted as emerging from the serpentÕs mouth. The vision serpent thus came to be the method in which ancestors or Gods manifested themselves to the Maya. Thus for them, the Vision Serpent was direct link between the spirit realm of the gods and the physical world.

The Vision Serpent goes back to earlier Maya conceptions, and lies at the center of the world as they conceived it. "It is in the center axis atop the World Tree. Essentially the World Tree and the Vision Serpent, representing the king, created the center axis which communicates between the spiritual and the earthly worlds or planes. It is through ritual that the king could bring the center axis into existence in the temples and create a doorway to the spiritual world, and with it power". The Vision Serpent is prevalent in Bloodletting ceremonies, in Maya religious practices, Maya jewelry, pottery and their architecture.

Bloodletting Rituals

Many have attempted to explain the manifestation of the Vision Serpent in association with Maya bloodletting. One conclusion is "that massive blood loss causes the brain to release an abundance of natural endorphins, which are chemically related to opiates. As the body goes into shock, a hallucinatory vision occurs". Once the actual bloodletting was over, the blood soaked ceremonial papers were burned, releasing a column of smoke. The smoke provided the perfect medium for the Vision Serpent to appear. Every major political or religious event involved bloodletting because it provided a medium by which the gods could be called upon to witness and actually participate in the ceremony. Sometimes the spirits of ancestors were also called upon to give guidance. The Hauberg Stela (A. D. 199) from the Maya Lowlands "is one of the first dated monuments that depict the Vision Serpent's connection to bloodletting".

Lintel 25 depicts one of the bloodletting rituals. "One of Shield Jaguar's wives, is seen gazing up towards an enormous bicephalous Vision Serpent. In her left hand, she holds a bowl containing a stingray spine, an obsidian lancet, and papers spattered with blood. The Vision Serpent appears to be emanating from the bowl. From the jaws of the Vision Serpent, spews forth an ancestral Tlaloc warrior complete with spear and shield".

Lintel 17 refers to "Bird Jaguars as Blood Lord of Yaxchilan" and shows him preparing to draw blood from his penis with a stingray spine. Opposite Bird Jaguar is Lady Balam-Ix, who proceeds to pass course rope through a gouge in her tongue. The blood is being collected in the vessel near Bird Jaguar's feet. The Vision Serpent's mouth is green and, the trickles of blood characteristic of bloodletting are red". Lintel 15 depicts the appearance of this Vision Serpent. "The serpent can be seen rising out of the bowl with trickles of blood along a column of blood scrolls. This lintel shows the queen of Yaxchilan involved in a visionary experience following an elaborate bloodletting ceremony. She holds the ritual paraphernalia in her arms while the vision serpent rises from a bowl of blood stained paper".

Maya Religious Rites

There was a Vision Serpent named Och-Kan, lord of Kalak'mul. One of the most common rituals associated with the Vision serpent involved invoking ancestral sprits. Especially during coronation rites, the kings would contact the spirits for guidance and blessings. It is the Vision Serpent who provides the medium for contacting these deities.

It is believed that Lord Pakal's sarcophagus lid, which was located at Palenque, is probably the single most comprehensive image which relates the Vision Serpent to Maya religion. It depicts the death of Pakal and his descent into the Underworld. The bicepalous serpent bar is placed horizontally on the World Tree and is the conduit for this transition. In the same way that the Vision Serpent represents a conduit between the physical world and the spirit realm of the ancestors, this bicephalous serpent bar represents a conduit between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.

Maya Jewelry and Pottery

A piece of Maya jewelry depicts an anthropomorphic, bicephalous serpent. It is believed to have been worn during a bloodletting ceremony. It clearly shows the arrival of an ancestor from the spirit realm. The portrayal of the Vision Serpent was very prevalent in Maya pottery. Vessels used during bloodletting ceremonies, depict the Vision serpent. The vessels below are excellent examples. They are carved in stone and are some of the earliest depiction of Vision Serpent iconography. Blood spews forth from the open jaws of the front head. Although the rear is not physically attached, it sits just above the serpent's tail and also represents blood".

Maya Architectural Motifs

The Vision Serpent also finds a place in Maya architecture and is especially prominent in the decoration of pillars on the interior and exterior of Maya temples. In the palace at Labna, serpents adorn the corners of the principle facade. Characteristic of the Vision Serpent, there appears to be either an anthropomorphic deity or the spirit of an ancestor emanating from the gaping jaws of the serpent's mouth.

Maya Contemporary Observances

Remnants of the Vision Serpent have survived until modern times. As recently as 60 years ago, a documentary was done in San Antonio, Belize, revealing that the Q'eqchi Maya still perform a ritual very similar to the vision quest of the classic Maya. The ritual marks the initiation of a new shaman for the village. Although there are not many remnants of the bloodletting ceremony, the participant comes into direct contact with a giant serpent, Ochan (Och-Kan) - (National Geographic Society, 1982). It is through this experience that he completes his initiation rites and gains the knowledge that is needed to become a powerful shaman. Thus, modified vision quests still include contact with the Vision Serpent among the Maya today.

Mayan Gods and Goddesses