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Maya Cosmology

Click to enlarge, the Translation of Quiriguá's  Stela C

In AD 775, the Maya lord  K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yoat (Fire Burning Sky Lightning God) set up an immense stone monument in the center of his city, Quiriguá, in Izabal, Guatemala. The unimaginative archaeologists who discovered the stone called it Stela C. This monument bears the longest single hieroglyphic description of the Maya Creation Myth, noting that it took place on the Maya calendar's day, 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u, a date corresponding to August 13, 3114 BC on our calendar. This date appears over and over in other inscriptions throughout the Maya world. On that day the creator gods set three stones or mountains in the sky after lifting it with the sacred tree of life,  from the dark waters that once covered the primordial world. These three stones formed a cosmic hearth at the center of the universe. The gods then struck divine new fire by means of lightning, which charged the world with new life. The 5th Maya era have begun on 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk'u. This cycle will end in 4 Ahaw 3 Kan'kin, or Dec 21, 2012 AD.

August 13, 3114 BC is as precise and accurate as one can get for a beginning of history: the first Egyptian dynasty is dated to ca 3100 BC; the first 'city,' Uruk, in Mesopotamia, also ca 3100 BC; the Hindu Kali Yuga, 3102 BC; and most interestingly, the division of time into 24 hours of 60 minutes each and each minute into 60 seconds [and the division of the circle into 360 degrees], also around 3100 BC, in Sumeria. If the beginning of history was so accurately placed, then must not the end of history, December 21, 2012 also be as accurate?. In the perspective of the living Maya Timekeepers of Guatemala, calendrically speaking, each element has a 5,125 year cycle. They teach that we have been through fire, earth, air and water already. The next cycle (beginning Dec 21, 2012) will be ether - the Fifth Age - the Age of Center. "The Maya had a mythology about the cyclical creation and destruction of the world." "2012, and the end of the current Maya calendar, has long been the subject of speculation. One book claims the Earth's magnetic poles will switch, destroying life as we know it. Another one says a new age of enlightenment will give birth. Others say 2012 will end up being much like the Y2K rollover in the year 2000: it will come, it will go, and not much of anything will have changed". Dr. Jenkins.  NOTE:
(The Mayan glyphs and hieroglyphs aren't crystal clear about what the calendar end means, but the Maya descendants in the Highlands of Guatemala believe that it will be the beginning of a better world.)

The Maya flourished thanks to a deep understanding of their geographic setting, and surprising adaptations to the environmental conditions that surrounded them. They conceived the world as a quadrangular space that was ordered and measured at the time of creation. The gods created the face of the earth, u wach ulew, as a propitious place for human life. In the words of the Popol Vuh:

"All then was measured and staked out into four divisions, doubling over and stretching the measuring cords of the womb of sky and the womb of earth. Thus were established the four corners, the four sides"The 4 Ik or Winds, conception of the earth

    The world creation  is described in the Popol Vuh the "Bible" of the Maya, the book was found in the 16th century, in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, hidden in the Catholic Church altar and written in Ki’ch’e , thought to be a recent tale in that time, as well as "The Annals of the Cakchiquels" or "Memorial de Sololá",  the parallel History of the Kak'chi'kels. But now proven to be the Maya Myth of Creation since the beginning of the Maya Civilization, in the Pre-Classic, as shown in the recently uncovered Murals in San Bartolo, in Petén, Guatemala, that describe in fine painting the same creation believes.  The well preserved mural depicts the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king, as in the Popol Vuh:

    San Bartolo Mural

 "Here is the story of the beginning when there was not one bird, not one fish, not one mountain. Here is the sky, all alone. Here is the sea, all alone. There is nothing more-no sound, no movement. Only the Creators, only Heart-of-Sky, Huracán alone. And these are his names: Maker and Modeler,  the first is Caculhá-Huracán, the second is Chipi-Huracán, the third is Raxá-Caculhá, those three form Hart-of-Sky. But there is no one to speak his names. There is no one to praise his glory. There is no one to nurture his greatness... 

How should it be sown, how should it dawn?" . . .  And then the Earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth.  For the forming of the Earth they said "Earth." It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding. . . . Such was the formation of the Earth when it was brought forth by the Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, as they are called. . . The Sky was set apart, and the Earth was set apart in the midst of the waters). (Popol Vuh)  

It represent the world as having 13 levels of Heaven and 9 levels of the underworld or Xibalbá, united by a green Ceiba Tree that represent the earth, that have 4 more trees 1 in each cardinal point with a different color for each one:  

When the world was created a pillar of the sky was set up . . .  that was the white tree of abundance in the north. Then the black tree of abundance was set up (in the west). . . . Then the yellow tree of abundance was set up (in the south).  Then the (great) green (ceiba) tree of abundance was set up in the center]. Chilam Balam.

Two masterpieces known as  "Creation Vases" from Naranjo, in Guatemala, (Both in the National Museum of Archaeology) mention the beginning and end of this Era:

 Vase of the 7 Gods (Naranjo, Guatemala) A council of gods aiding in the setting of the jaguar throne. Here the main actor is God L, the commerce and trade god, while the Jaguar Paddler,
Who is named in the
Quiriguá Stela C, sits at the head of the upper row of god, this vase along with the eleven gods mention the war associated god Bolon Yookte' K'uh .The text narrates that “on 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u it was set in order, Black-is-its- Center,” (Chan Ahaw Waxak Kumk’u tzakhi Ek’-u-Tan). The name of the location, Ek’-u- Tan, refers to the state of the pre-creation universe as black because the sky had not yet been lifted away from the Primordial Sea.


The 4 sides of the Square Vase of the 11 gods, (Naranjo, Guatemala National Museum of Archaeology)

The Maya Kings timed their accession rituals in tune with the stars and the Milky Way. They celebrated K'atun endings approximately every twenty years. At the end of the 20-year k'atun period, Maya rulers regularly erected a stela, called a Te' Tun or stone tree, to commemorate the event. On the stone stelas they depicted themselves at the time of these ceremonies dressed in costumes that contained the symbols that were associated with the World Tree. Much has been channeled from the Pleiades. Alcyone figures prominently in Mayan astronomy. The Mayas believe it is the home of their ancestors. The Pleiades star system is referred to as the seven sisters and our sun aligns with Alcyone every 52 years. In Mayan cosmology the precession of the Pleiades is tracked using the Calendar Round (52 years) and the New Fire ceremony.

Complex Q in Tikal, celebrating a K'atún endingTheir headdresses contained the Principal Bird Deity, Itzam Yé, in their arms they held a so-called ceremonial bar that represented the double-headed serpent of the ecliptic. By wearing the costume elements of the World Tree the Maya ruler linked himself to the sky, the gods and that essential ingredient, life. In addition, it has been found that when the k'atun ending coincided with certain planetary positions the Maya went to
war to obtain captives. They also erected "Twin Pryramid Complexes, such as the Complexes Q, R, P from Tikal, and one in Yaxhá

The cosmology of the Maya was a living, religious philosophy that permeated their lives to a degree that might seem excessive to modern people. They were astute observers, sensitive to the cyclical nature of the sun, moon and planets. The most sacred blood is said to come from the ear, tongue, and foreskin. The gods who created mankind wanted man to recognize them, worship them, and provide them with sustenance. The Maya believed that this sustenance came in the form of blood (Schele 1986). They performed self-sacrifices (ch'ab'), by cutting their ears (Tub), the Maya were “opening” them to hear the gods’ oracles and revelations. In cutting the tongue (Ak'), it is said that they could speak what they had heard. When the foreskin ( Pich') was cut, it was to participate in the divine procreation of the cosmos (Gillette 1997). The Maya used offering plates during blood rituals to represent miniature versions of the universe, earth, and sky. By pouring their bloody semen (Pich' ach) into the potential world, the creators are impregnating it with the divine “soul-stuff” that will quicken it to life (Gillette 1997: 52).

Yax Ché, The World Tree biding The heavens and Xibalbá (Left) Representation of the Maya Universe, with the Sacred tree, Yaxché (Ceiba Tree), and the 4 Bacabs in the corners holding the earth, each of the 13 Caan (heaven) levels had its Oxlahuntikú or main god, with Hunab’Kú (father of the twins and the Maize god) at the top. The Earth (Cab) represented as a caiman, with is Tzultacah or gods (we don’t know the number), and Xibalbá or underworld with nine levels and its gods or Bolon Ti Kún being Ah Puch, the God of the Death in the lower level. East (lak'in) is the direction of sunrise, associated with red (chak), the color of dawn. West (chik'in) is the direction of sunset; its color is black (ek'). North (xaman) is white (sak). The color of the south (nohol) is yellow (k'an). Green (yax) is the color of the center, of the green Ceiba tree (yax´che´), representing the great World Tree itself, raised in the centre of the cosmos. This Tree was the conduit of communication between the supernatural world and the human world: The souls of the dead fell into Xibalbá along its path; the daily journeys of the sun, moon, planets, and stars followed its trunk. The Vision Serpent symbolizing communion with the world of the ancestors and the gods emerged into our world along it. The king was the axis and pivot made flesh. He was the Tree of Life. The king sustained his people, but he also required much from them in the way of service.

For the Maya, the trees constituted the ambient living environment, the material from which they fashioned homes and tools, the source of many foods, medicines, dyes, and vital commodities such as chocolate and paper. They provided the fuel for cooking fires and the soil-enriching ash that came from the cutting and burning of the forest. Trees were the source of shade in the courtyards and public places of villages and cities, and the home of the teeming life of the forest. It was natural that the Maya would choose this central metaphor for human power. Like other trees, the king was at once the ambient source of life and the material from which humans constructed it. Together, the kings of the Maya realms comprised a forest of sustaining human World Trees within the natural forested landscape of the Maya world.
Creation in the Paris Codice

   (RightParis Codex:  Showing the Creation: Note the central Ceiba tree. Creation of the Earth-Sky is the central motif of Maya myth and religion

The creation of the present world, the world of humankind, was only one act in an eternal cycle of birth, death, and renewal.  The cycles of the seasons and the stars in their courses are reflections of this cosmic dance.  "I  realized that every major image from Maya cosmic symbolism was probably a map of the sky. . . .  [The] patterns in the Milky Way and the constellations were directly related to the Maya vision of Creation".  (Linda Schele in Freidel, Schele and Parker, Maya Cosmos)

    The Popol Vuh preserved this tradition of successive creations or world orders. According to the Popol Vuh, the gods created humans to honor them: "There would be "no high days and no bright praise for our work, our design, until the rise of the human work, the human design".  But their first three efforts were failures. The third failed race, people fashioned from wood, were destroyed in a universal flood. 

The antediluvian world was lorded over by Itz'am Ye or  K’iche’s, Vukub-Caquix, "Seven Macaw," who took the place of the sun. To prepare for the creation of the true humans, the rule of Seven Macaw had to be ended. This was achieved by the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh, who shot Seven Macaw from his tree. 

Itz'am Ye, (Vucub Caquix) in the tree and Hunahpú shoots at him with his blowgun

The K’iche people still identify the seven stars of the Big Dipper with Vuqub Caquix (Seven Macaw). At sunset on August 13, the Milky Way is nearly erect, and the Dipper is visible in the the northern sky in the Maya area. But as the heavens rotate, the Milky Way turns away from its upright position, and the Dipper dives toward the horizon. About two hours after sunset, the Dipper sets: Seven Macaw is knocked from his perch atop the World Tree. Among the K’iche’, the mid-summer descent of the Dipper just after sunset marks the beginning of the hurricane season, the time of flooding.   

 Classical offering plate. The Maize God, attended by the Twins, bursts from a turtle shell, like a sprout from a kernel of corn.  He becomes the World Tree. Images of the resurrected maize god appear as early as the recently discovered pre-classical mural at San Bartolo (100 AD). 

Night of Aug 13, midnight, looking north
The cosmic crocodile.

 The sky of the old order fell when Seven Macaw was knocked from his perch and the deluge destroyed the wooden people. The sky of the new world could only be raised by an act of sacrifice. The gods created the new world through their sacrifice. Their blood nourished the World Tree. Ritual renews the world, recapitulating the ordering of the cosmos at Creation. The Maya, like other Mesoamerican peoples, believed that blood sacrifices offered by humans repay their debt to the gods. 

Although Maya creation accounts differ in detail, most tell of the defeat and sacrifice of one or more gods by the lords of the Underworld. In the Books of Chilam Balam, the gods of the thirteen heavens are captured and sacrificed by the nine gods of the Underworld.  In the Popol Vuh, the maize god, Hun Hunapuh, the father of the hero twins, journeys to the Underworld, where he is defeated by its rulers in a ritual ball game and sacrificed. In the Dresden Codex, sacrifice of the maize god appears to be the very act that raises the sky of the new world. In the Popol Vuh, he is rescued by his sons, and it is his resurrection that renews of the world as painted in the San Bartolo Murals.   The Kiché, still call the Milky Way  Xibalbá be´ "road to the Underworld;"

   A Carved bone from Tikal depicts the Maize God (or a dead ruler dressed as the God) conveyed through the Underworld in the cosmic canoe.  The paddlers are as called, from the adornments they wear, "Jaguar paddler" and "Stingray Paddler."   Another carving shows the canoe as it sinks. 

Bone  withe canoe scene, (Fragment) in Tikal's Museum  

Night of Aug 13,  3 hrs after midnight, looking South,  and the Cosmic Canoe.   By midnight on August 13, the Milky Way runs across the sky from east to west. It now represents the fallen sky. A great dark bite is visible in the Milky Way, a gateway to the Underworld. This is the "cross-roads" at which Hun Hunahpú disappeared when he took the "Black Road" to Xibalbá

These roads are sometimes imagined as canoe routes. About three hours after midnight, Linda Schele identifies the visible portion of the Milky Way with the cosmic canoe, illustrated in Classic Maya art, that conveys the maize god through the Underworld to the place where he will be resurrected, the hearth of Creation in Orion. Here the sky of the new era will be raised. Later, as the Milky Way begins to turns upright again, the canoe appears to sink.
(Drawing by Linda Schele



Dresden Codex (p. 3) Depicts the world tree, (Ceiba or Yaxché) emerging from the sacrificed body of the maize god. The glyphs at the left name him. The Milky Way/World Tree is the route between the heavens, earth, and  the Underworld.                                                                                  

Toward dawn on the night of Aug 13,  the constellation Orion moves toward the zenith. The K'iche' people still refer to a triad of three bright stars in Orion as "the hearth stones", and the hazy nebula below Orion's belt is called "the smoke from the hearth". Orion is also called the turtle stars (ak' ek), depicted in the Madrid Codex as a turtle with three tun ("stone") glyphs on its back.  Because the sky has not yet been raised, the hearth is a location in both earth and sky. The turtle shell is an earth symbol, like the back of the crocodile at the foot of the World Tree. Here is the place of Creation, where the sky will rise    

                                  The peccary and The 3 stone Turtle in the Creation 

Recently discovered pre-Classical Maya stucco masks from Cival, Petén, Guatemala (200-150 BC) depict the Sun God, but adorn him with corn husks, suggesting that the Sun God/Maize God may have been the original sky-raiser, whose dual functions were only later assigned to different deities.  Other features suggest the prototype of Yax Balam ("great jaguar") as the sun in the underworld. A common theme in pre-Classical art is a ruler wearing a headdress depicting the principal bird deity, Itzam-Ye, such as in the Stela 2 from Kaminal Juyú.  The ruler may represent the sun that rose after the defeat of the false sun, 7 Macaw.



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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:36 -0500
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