The religion of the ancient Maya was polytheistic, its pantheon containing about a dozen major deities and a host of lesser ones. At its head stood Itzamna, the father of the gods and creator of mankind, the Mayan Zeus or Jupiter. He was the personification of the East, the rising sun, and, by association, of light, life, and knowledge. He was the founder of the Maya civilization, the first priest of the Maya religion, the inventor of writing and books, and the great healer. Whether Itzamna has been identified with any of the deities in the ancient Maya picture-writings is uncertain, though there are strong reasons for believing that this deity is the god represented in figure 1. His characteristics here are: The aged face, Roman nose, and sunken toothless mouth.
Figure 1. Itzamna – chief deity of the Maya PantheonFigure 2. Kukulcan – god with a snake like tongue Scarcely less important was the great god Kukulcan, or Feathered Serpent, the personification of the West. It is believed that he came into Yucatan from the west and settled at Chichen Itza, where he ruled for many years and built a great temple. During his sojourn he is said to have founded the city of Mayapan, which later became very important. Having brought the country out of war and dissension to peace and prosperity, he left by the same way he had entered, pausing only at Chakanputun on the west coast to build a splendid temple as an everlasting memorial of his residence and time among the people. After his departure he was worshipped as a god because of what he had done for the public good. Kukulcan was the Maya counterpart of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican god of light, learning, and culture. In the Maya pantheon he was regarded as having been the great organizer, the founder of cities, the framer of laws, and the teacher of their new calendar. Indeed, his attributes and life history are so human that it is not improbable he may have been an actual historical character, some great lawgiver and organizer, the memory of whose benefactions lingered long after death, and whose personality was eventually deified in much the same way as the ancient Egyptians deified dead pharohs. The episodes of his life suggest he may have been the re-colonizer of Chichen Itza after the destruction of Chakanputun. Kukulcan has been identified by some as the “old god” of the picture-writings (fig. 2), whose characteristics are: Two deformed teeth, one protruding from the front and one from the back part of his mouth, and the long tapering nose. He is to be distinguished further by his peculiar headdress.
The most feared and hated of all the Maya deities was Ahpuch, the Lord of Death, God “Barebones” as an early manuscript refers to him, from whom evil and especially death were thought to come. He is frequently represented in the picture-writings (fig. 3), usually in connection with the idea of death. He is associated with human sacrifice, suicide by hanging, death in childbirth, and the beheaded captive. His characteristics are typical and unmistakable. His head is the fleshless skull, showing the truncated nose, the grinning teeth, and fleshless lower jaw, sometimes even the cranial sutures are portrayed. In some places the ribs and vertebrae are shown, in others the body is spotted black as if to suggest the discoloration of death. A very constant symbol is the stiff feather collar with small bells attached. These bells also appear as ornaments on the head, arms, and ankles. The familiar crossbones were also another Maya death symbol. Even the hieroglyph of this god (fig. 3) suggests the dread idea for which he stood. Note the eye closed in death.
Figure 3. AhPuch Closely associated with the God of Death is the God of War, who probably stood as well for the larger idea of death by violence. He is characterized (fig. 4) by a black line painted on his face, sometimes curving, sometimes straight, supposed to be symbolical of war paint, or, according to others, of his gaping wounds. He appears in the picture-writings as the Death God’s companion. He presides with him over the body of a sacrificial victim, and again follows him applying torch and knife to the habitations of man. His hieroglyph shows as its characteristic the line of black paint (fig. 4).
Another unpropitious deity was Ek Ahau, the Black Captain, also a war god, being represented (fig. 5) in the picture-writings as armed with a spear or an ax. It is said that he was a very great and very cruel warrior, who commanded a band of seven blackamoors like himself. He is characterized by his black color, his drooping lower lip, and the two curved lines at the right of his eye. His hieroglyph is a black eye (fig. 5).
Figure 5. EkchuahFigure 6. Yum Kaax Contrasted with these gods of death, violence, and destruction was the Maize God, Yum Kaax, Lord of the Harvest Fields (fig. 6). Here we have one of the most important figures in the whole Maya pantheon, the god of husbandry and the fruits of the earth, of fertility and prosperity, of growth and plenty. The Maize God was as well disposed toward mankind as Ahpuch and his companions were unpropitious. In many of the picture-writings Yum Kaax is represented as engaged in agricultural pursuits. He is portrayed as having for his head-dress a sprouting ear of corn surrounded by leaves, symbolic of growth, for which he stands. Even the hieroglyph of this deity (fig. 6) embodies the same idea, the god’s head merging into the conventionalized ear of corn surrounded by leaves.
Another important deity about whom little or nothing is known was Xaman Ek, the North Star. He is spoken of as the “guide of the merchants,” and in keeping with that character is associated in the picture-writings with symbols of peace and plenty. His one notable characteristic seems to be his curious head, which also serves as his name hieroglyph.
Other Maya deities were: Ixchel, the Rainbow, consort of Itzamna and goddess of childbirth and medicine; Ixtab, patroness of hunting and hanging; Ixtubtun, protectress of jade cutters; Ixchebelyax, the inventress of painting and color designing as applied to fabrics.
Although the deities which we have described represent only a small fraction of the Maya pantheon, they include, beyond all doubt, its most important members, the truly great, who held the powers of life and death, peace and war, plenty and famine—who were, in short, the arbiters of human destiny.
The Maya conceived the earth to be a cube, which supported the celestial vase resting on its four legs, the four cardinal points. Out of this grew the Tree of Life, the flowers of which were the immortal principle of man, the soul. Above hung heavy clouds, the fructifying waters upon which all growth and life depend. The religion was dualistic in spirit, as with many of the world’s great religions, a constant struggle between the powers of light and of darkness. On one side were arrayed the gods of plenty, peace, and life; on the other those of want, war, and destruction; and between these two there waged an unending strife for the control of man. This struggle between the powers of light and darkness is graphically portrayed in the picture-writings. Where the God of Life plants the tree, Death breaks it in two; where the former offers food, the latter raises an empty vase symbolizing famine; where one builds, the other destroys. The contrast is complete, the conflict eternal.
The Maya believed in the immortality of the soul and in a spiritual life hereafter. As a man lived in this world so he was rewarded in the next. The good and righteous went to a heaven of material delights, a place where rich foods never failed and pain and sorrow were unknown. The wicked were consigned to a hell called Mitnal, over which ruled the arch demon Hunhau and his minions; and here in hunger, cold, and exhaustion they suffered everlasting torment. The materialism of the Maya heaven and hell need not surprise, nor lower our estimate of their civilization. Similar realistic conceptions of the hereafter have been entertained by peoples much higher in the cultural scale than the Maya including modern Christianity.
Worship was the most important feature of the Maya scheme of existence, and an endless succession of rites and ceremonies was considered necessary to retain the sympathies of the good gods and to propitiate the malevolent ones. Bishop Landa (most famous for his zeal in destroying Mayan codices and records), says that the aim and object of all Maya ceremonies were to secure three things only: Health, life, and sustenance; modest enough requests to ask of any faith. The first step in all Maya religious rites was the expulsion of the evil spirits from the midst of the worshipers. This was accomplished sometimes by prayers and benedictions, set formula of proven efficacy, and sometimes by special sacrifices and offerings.
It would take a much more in depth discussion here to describe ceremonies of the Maya religion. Their number was many, and they answered almost every contingency within the range of human experience. First of all were the ceremonies dedicated to special gods, as Itzamna, Kukulcan, and Ixchel. Probably every deity in the pantheon, even the most insignificant, had at least one rite a year addressed to it alone, and the aggregate must have made a very considerable number. In addition there were the annual feasts of the ritualistic year brought around by the ever-recurring seasons. Here may be mentioned the numerous ceremonies incident to the beginning of the new year and the end of the old, as the renewal of household utensils and the general renovation of all articles, which took place at this time; the feasts of the various trades and occupations—the hunters, fishers, and apiarists, the farmers, carpenters, and potters, the stone cutters, wood carvers, and metal workers—each guild having its own patron deity, whose services formed another large group of ceremonials. A third class comprised the rites of a more personal nature, those connected with baptism, confession, marriage, setting out on journeys, and the like. Finally, there was a fourth group of ceremonies, held much less frequently than the others, but of far greater importance. Herein fall the ceremonies held on extraordinary occasions, as famine, drought, pestilence, victory, or defeat, which were probably solemnized by rites of human sacrifice.
The direction of so elaborate a system of worship necessitated a numerous and highly organized priesthood. At the head of the hierarchy stood the hereditary high priest, or ahaucan mai, a functionary of very considerable power. Although he had no actual share in the government, his influence was none the less far-reaching, since the highest lords sought his advice, and deferred to his judgment in the administration of their affairs. They questioned him concerning the will of the gods on various points, and he in response framed the divine replies, a duty which gave him tremendous power and authority. In the ahuacan mai was vested also the exclusive right to fill vacancies in the priesthood. He examined candidates on their knowledge of the priestly services and ceremonies, and after their appointment directed them in the discharge of their duties. He rarely officiated at sacrifices except on occasions of the greatest importance, as at the principal feasts or in times of general need. His office was maintained by presents from the lords and enforced contributions from the priesthood throughout the country.
The priesthood included within its ranks women as well as men. The duties were highly specialized and there were many different ranks and grades in the hierarchy. The chilan was one of the most important. This priest was carried upon the shoulders of the people when he appeared in public. He taught their sciences, appointed the holy days, healed the sick, offered sacrifices, and most important of all, gave the responses of the gods to petitioners. The ahuai chac was a priest who brought the rains on which the prosperity of the country was wholly dependent. The ah macik conjured the winds; the ahpul caused sickness and induced sleep; the ahuai xibalba communed with the dead. At the bottom of the ladder seems to have stood the nacon, whose duty it was to open the breasts of the sacrificed victims. An important elective office in each community was that held by the chac, or priest’s assistant. These officials, of which there were four, were elected from the nucteelob, or village wise men. They served for a term of one year and could never be reelected. They aided the priest in the various ceremonies of the year, officiating in minor capacities. Their duties seem to have been not unlike those of the sacristan in the Roman Catholic Church of to-day.
Nothing could be more appropriate than to call attention once more to the supreme importance of religion in the life of the ancient Maya. Religion was indeed the very fountain-head of their civilization, and on its rites and observances they lavished a devotion rarely equaled in the annals of man. To its great uplifting force was due the conception and evolution of the hieroglyphic writing and calendar, alike the invention and the exclusive property of the priesthood. To its need for sanctuary may be attributed the origin of Maya architecture; to its desire for expression, the rise of Maya sculpture. All activities reflected its powerful influence and all were more or less dominated by its needs and teachings. In short, religion was the foundation upon which the structure of the Maya civilization was reared.