The Maya were a polytheistic people who believed in a multitude of gods and goddesses. The deities of the Maya pantheon governed every aspect of natu
The Maya were a polytheistic people who believed in a multitude of gods and goddesses. The deities of the Maya pantheon governed every aspect of nature and human life and were quite complex characters. Maya gods and goddesses were dualistic in nature and were changeable. To date, at least 250 Maya deities have been identified.
Interpretation was in the Eye of the Beholder
The complexity of the Maya pantheon may in part be attributed to the way Maya society was organized. Unlike the Aztecs, who were able to integrate their entire cultural sphere into a single state, the Maya were not able to do so. Instead, the Maya civilization was a patchwork of loosely confederated political entities. Each Maya community was free to interpret their religion in the way that best suited them. As a consequence, the names and even nature of the Maya deities changed according to space and time. In addition, while information about the Aztec pantheon was being assembled as early as the Colonial period, it was only during the early 20 th century that scholarly attention was first drawn to that of the Maya.
Maya god of corn. (Francis Robicsek / Public Domain )
Identification and Understanding Comes to Light
The scholar credited with the first compilation of the iconography of the Maya deities was Paul Schellhas, whose monograph on the Maya deities found on manuscripts was published in 1910. As the Maya writing script had yet to be deciphered, and therefore the names of the deities were unknown, Schellhas designated a letter for each of the deities he identified. It was only later on, when the Maya writing script was deciphered, that the names of these deities could be identified. Moreover, it is thanks to the efforts of such scholars that we have some understanding of the Maya religious system.
Did the Maya Worship Just One Supreme Deity?
It is unclear if the Maya had a supreme deity, but we do know that they worshipped a number of important ones. One of these, for instance, was Schellhas’ ‘God B’, later identified as Chak, who is thought to be one of the oldest gods in the Maya pantheon. Chak was the god of lightning and rain and was closely associated with the fertility of the land , hence making him a very important deity. He is sometimes depicted in art as an old man with reptilian / amphibian features and a long, pendulous, curling nose.
Terra cotta statue of Chak – Maya god of rain also the Maya god of war at San Francisco’s deYoung museum. (Leonard G. / Public Domain )
The Divine God – Maya Sun God / Maya God of Fire
Another prominent Maya deity was ‘God G’, the Maya sun god, later identified as Ahau Kin or Kinich Ahau. The significance of this deity is evident in the use of his name as a royal title, which indicates the divine status of the king. Moreover, depictions of Ahau Kin can be found in many carvings on Maya pyramids. The god is often portrayed with a beard, which may symbolize the rays of the sun. Nevertheless, he has been represented either as a middle-aged man or an elderly individual. Apart from rulers, Ahau Kin was also associated with jaguars, fire, and decapitation.
God G – Kinich Ahau – Maya god of the sun also the Maya jaguar god. (mayavase / Public Domain )
The Maya Moon Goddesses
Ahau Kin is not the only Maya deity to be depicted as belonging to two different age groups. This is also the case for ‘Goddess I’, identified as Ix Chel, the moon goddess. To complicate matters further, there is another goddess, ‘Goddess O’, or Chac Chel, the rainbow goddess. While Ix Chel is associated with such aspects as childbirth, pregnancy, and fertility, Chac Chel ruled over death and destruction. It is entirely plausible that the two goddesses were in fact two opposite aspects of a single deity, in accordance to the dualistic nature of the Maya gods. Nevertheless, it is also possible that Ix Chel and Chac Chel were two distinct goddesses.
Goddess I – Ix Chel – Maya god of the moon she was also known as Maya god of snakes. (Museum of Fine Arts Boston / Public Domain )
Partial List of Maya Gods and Goddesses
Apart from the deities mentioned previously, many of the other gods and goddesses of the Maya pantheon rule over aspects of nature and human life that are easily relatable. For instance, there was a god of death, Yum Cimil or Ah Puch; a god of extreme bad weather, Huracan (from which the English word ‘hurricane’ originates); and a god of the woods, Yum Kaax. Nevertheless, there are also certain deities that may be regarded today as somewhat unusual. For instance, there is Ixtab, the goddess of honourable suicide. She is depicted as a woman with a rope around her neck, as hanging was considered by the Maya to be the honourable way to commit suicide.
While as many as 250 gods or goddesses have been identified to date, there is thought to have been many more in the enormous Maya pantheon.
God A – named Ah Puch or Kimi, a hunter, was known as the Maya god of death. (Justin Kerr / Public Domain )
Top image: Mayan Gods ( xunantunich / Adobe Stock)
By Wu Mingren