| | About Us | | |



Maya Religion

Pacific Lowlands,
The  Faces of K'inich Ahau,
 the Sun god

The Classic Maya Chocolate god
Chokola'j, (
Chocolate) god

The Incense burners were found in Royal Tombs, Nebaj and Tiquisate, produced the finest Classic Incense burbers
Nebaj, Quiché,
Western Highlands,
Incense burner, Hunab’Kú, Maize god

See the Gallery

In mythological times, the deities underwent birth, stages of growth, rites of passage, transformations, death and re-birth. They created

Jade mosaic of the Maize God
Maize God, Tikal Jade Vase

 cornfields, planted and harvested corn, performed divinations, conducted business, fought wars, formed alliances and intermarried. From all of these actions and interactions a hierarchy was formed in which members had overlapping duties and responsibilities. The behavior of the deities was a model for appropriate human conduct and provided justifications and rationalization for elite activities, social hierarchy and political structure. Maya elites are frequently illustrated wearing the costumes of certain deities, including face masks in the likeness of the god. When humans donned the costume of a deity, they assumed the traits of the deity or were temporarily transformed into the deity. (Houston and Stuart (1996). They also  had "Way' ob" singular "Way", (Alter Egos in animal forms as well as their gods had).

In the long darkness before creation, the Maya gods pondered the dawning of a new age and the making of a people who would give them honor. They sought yellow corn; they sought white corn, for, as the Maya later wrote in the Popol Vuh, "these were the ingredients for the flesh of the human work, the human design" (Tedlock 1985:163). Water was ground with the maize to yield blood and flesh. The gods had tried to create humankind before, but their first attempt at creation, the animals of the earth, could not praise their makers. When the gods formed humans of earth, they collapsed as mud; when the gods carved humans out of wood, the forms looked like people, but they could not worship the gods and so the gods destroyed them. The gods succeeded in populating the earth only when humanity was shaped from maize, the very staff of human life.

 From the beginning of their recorded time, sometime in the first millennium B.C., the cycle of maize, the cycle of seasons, and the cycle of life guided the understanding of the world shared by Maya king and Maya peasant, man and woman, victorious warrior and humiliated captive, hunter and hunted.

Accordingly, humankind held maize to be sacred. During Classic times (A.D. 250-900), The Maize God figured prominently in Maya art. Recognized as young and beautiful, the image of the Maize God was the image emulated by Maya lords, many of whom donned his attire. Handsome young faces, multiple Maize Gods, formed ears of maize, their luxuriant tresses creating the corn slid, and a strand for every kernel. In life, maize plants sway to and from, their crisp green leaves moving like limbs of the human body; the Maize God, too, is in motion, often seeming to dance and sway. The Maize God wears enormous back racks in which small creatures are wedged among mat and feather frame; he often dances in the company of a tiny dwarf of hunchback. Usually attired in a netted hip cloth or skirt, perhaps strung with green jade beads, the Maize God also characteristically wears a carved Spondylus princeps shell, concave face outward, at the groin. Such Spondylus shells are bright red-orange and give the wearer a symbolic vagina. In this attire, then, the Maize God was both male and female, progenitor and progenitrix, or what the modern Maya might call a "mother-father" (Tedlock 1985:350). Like maize itself, the Maize God moves through the cycle of life: in one season, he is the handsome young man, alive and in motion; in another, he is decapitated, the harvested head resting on a plate as offering. Ground into masa and formed into tamales (corn cakes) and tortillas (corn pancakes), maize nourishes and sustains humankind, but humans return some seeds to the ground to start the cycle anew. The barren earth yields to the forces of regeneration: the young Maize God emerges once again, ready to dance to the tune of life.

One central aspect to Maya religion is the idea of the duality of the soul. The Maya saw one part of their soul as indestructible, invisible, and eternal. The Maya referred to this soul as "ch’ul," "k’ul," or "ch’ulel." The second soul, is the "Way', defined as "supernatural guardian" or "protector": This is a supernatural companion, which usually takes the guise of a wild animal and shares ch’ulel with a person from birth. The fates of the baby and the animal spirit are intertwined, so that what befalls the one affects the other for good or ill" (Freidel et al. 1993: 182).
THERE is no document of greater importance to the study of the pre-Columbian mythology of America than the "
Popol Vuh."

The First Humans made of maize were according to the Popol Vuh: (K'iche' names)
B'alam Quitzé: Meaning "jaguar with the sweet smile," was the first of the men created from maize after the Great Flood sent by Hurakán. To destroy the men made of wood. The gods created Choim'há "beautiful water",  specifically for him to marry. They had two sons Qo'caib and Qo'cavib
B'alam Akab: Meaning "night jaguar," he was the second of the men created from maize. He married Ka'há-Palumá, (
"falling water") They had two sons Qo'acul  and Qo'acutec.
Iqui' B'alam: Meaning "moon jaguar," he was the third of the men created. The gods created Cak'ix'há "water of parrots," specifically to be his wife. They did not had sons.
Mahucatah: Meaning "distinguished name," he was the fourth of the men created. The woman Tzununi'há  "house of the water," was created for him.  They had one son, who was called Qo'ahau. Popol Vuh.

This History is described very similar in the "Annals of Kak'chi'kels", and other Post Classic
Guatemalan texts such as the "Totonicapán Memorial" and the "Xpantzay Memorial"

   "So, then, they bade [their sons] farewell. The four were together and they began to sing, feeling sad in their hearts; and their hearts wept when they sang the camucú, as the song is called which they sang when they bade farewell to their sons. "Oh, our sons! we are going, we are going away; sane advice and wise counsel we leave you. And you, also, who came from our distant country, oh our wives! they said to their women, and they bade farewell to each one. "We are going back to our town, there already in his place is Our Lord of the stags,
C'Ahau'al Queh, to be seen there in the sky. We are going to begin our return, we have completed our mission [here], our days are ended. Think, then, of us, do not erase us [from your memory], nor forget us. You shall see your homes and your mountains again; settle, there, and so let it be! Go on your way and you shall see again the place from which we came." Popol Vuh, Part IV, Chapter 5.

"As for B'alam-Quitzé, B'alam-Acab, Mahucutah, and Iqui'-B'alam, it was not known where they were. But when they saw the tribes that passed on the roads, instantly they began to shout on the mountain-tops, howling like a coyote, screaming like a mountain cat, and imitating the roaring of the puma and the jaguar. And the tribes seeing these things, as they walked, said: "Their screams are like those of the coyote, of the mountain cat, of the puma, and of the jaguar. They want to appear to the tribes as though they are not men, and they only do this to deceive us, we the people. Their hearts wish something. Surely, they do not frighten us with what they do. They mean something with the roaring of the puma, with the noise of the jaguar which they break into when they see one or two men walking; what they want is to make an end of us."..... "Then they punctured their ears and their arms before the divinities; they caught their blood and put it in a vase near the stones.  They were not really stones, but each one appeared in the likeness of a youth. They were happy with the blood of the priests and sacrifices' when they arrived with this example of their work. "Follow their tracks [those of the animals which they sacrificed], there is your salvation!. "
Popol Vuh, Part IV, Chapter 1. An excellent study of the Post Classic Highlands Maya, and Classic Maya Texts is in this Mesoweb Report (PDF file) .
The Classic Maya, were consumed astronomers, and  had a standardized set of creator gods, the evidence for which is embedded in their calendar system. The Maya believed that each of the intervals within such units of time as the day, the night, the solar year, the K’atun, the lunar cycle and the greater Venus cycle was ruled by a different deity or set of deities. Their
system was not merely a method for tracking the various celestial cycles, but a complex system used to ascertain which of the many deities were ruling a particular moment. As Thompson (1950) and Kelley (1976) have demonstrated, the gods of the time periods were standardized across the Classic Maya realm and venerated. These calendar-related deities were worshipped for more than just their roles in divination; they also played a key part in creating, ordering and renewing the world and all the beings within it.

Vase of the 7 gods, Naranjo, Petén, Guatemala
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, (see Cosmology for description of it's text), 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 or Xibalbá.

The 4 sides of The 11 gods Vase
 (Naranjo, Guatemala) Museo Nacional de Arqueología

Deities could be manifested in a variety of forms that reflected their spheres of control and responsibilities. These manifestations could take the formAh Mucan Cab, bee god, esden codex of plants, animals, natural formations and phenomena such as wind, lightning, thunder and fire. The Maya divided animals into four major categories based on means of locomotion: Crawlers (lizards, turtles, snakes, etc.), Walkers (mammals), Flyers (insects, birds and bats) and Swimmers (crocodiles, fish) (N. Hopkins 1997), and their gods can adopt each one of this forms.

The notion that a Maya deity could have multiple aspects or manifestations is a well-established act. For example, many of the major gods had four different aspects, one for each direction. On Kerr 530, (Right, Click to enlarge) two sets of such gods are illustrated. In this scene, four Chaac deities and four God N deities are shown interacting. Each of these four deities embodied the central concept associated with the god but each aspect had a slightly different responsibility or trait associated with his particular direction. Ethno-historical evidence suggests that the four directional aspects of a god were viewed as siblings who were ranked into a hierarchy just as siblings were in Maya society (Tozzer 1941:135).

The most complete description of the beginning of human life is given in the Pop Wuj or Popol Vuh of the Postclassic K'iché Maya, but the Murals recently discovered in the Pre Classic (250 BC) site of San Bartolo  in Guatemala, confirm that the Popol Vuh, is the true and Original Maya creation Myth. This narrative relates the deeds of three generations of deities. The creator grandparents of the sea and the lightning bolt gods of the sky were the first generation of gods. The second generation consisted of the creator grandparents’ sons Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpú. Hun Hunahpú had two wives and two sets of sons. Hunahpú (Great Wizard) and Xbalanqué (Little Magician), were his youngest sons, engendered  by the goddess Xquic, the Blood Woman. The legend says that  Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpú, were skilful ballplayers.Classic Nebaj Vase Showing The Hunahpú Head in the Tree, Museo Popol Vuh UFM Guatemala When they played the noise disturbed the gods from Xibalbá, that defeated the twins and sacrifice them, and buried its bodies under the ball court,  Hun Hunahpú's, head was hanged in a tree that produced pumpkins shaped like humans,  the Blood Woman,  Xquic decided to go to the tree to meet him, Hun Hunahpú spited  her hand, impregnating her with Hunahpú e Xbalanqué. Most of these deities have Classic Period parallels (Coe 1973, 1977, 1989; Taube 1985, 1992, D. Tedlock 1985, Bassie-Sweet 1996, 1999). Although it primarily focuses on the deeds of Hunahpú and Xbalanqué and the establishment of the celestial cycles, the Popol Vuh briefly describes or alludes to many core myths.

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

The Maya had a large pantheon of gods (more than 165) that often had different aspects (the combination of young and old characteristics or human and animal forms) and fulfilled different functions. The Kings were the incarnation of the Maize God as depicted in the San Bartolo Murals and the Popol Vuh. By comparing Classic Period imagery and contemporary beliefs with the Popol Vuh story line, these basic myths and their associated deities can be fleshed out and expanded.  The Popol Vuh god called Feathered Serpent was identified with sheet lightning and was parallel to the Waterlily Bird Serpent found in Maya art, and Vak’ (the laughing falcon of the Popol Vuh) was parallel to the Principal Bird Deity of the Classic Period, who was the bird manifestation of the creator grandfather.

Evidence that different manifestations of a god could interact with each other is found in the pottery scene on Kerr 7226. This image shows God D and God N sitting side by side and gesturing to one another. David Stuart has demonstrated that God D and God N are manifestations of the same god (see below).

The ability of the deity manifestations to interact with each other is an important point that is relevant for understanding the sea gods that are named in the "Annals of Kak'chi'kels" as well as in the Popol Vuh. This narrative begins by giving a long list of paired male and female god names:

Framer and Shaper
She Who Has Borne Children and He Who Has Engendered Sons
Hunahpú Possum and Hunahpú Coyote
Great White Peccary and Pizote
Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent
Heart of the Lake and Heart of the Sea
Creator of the Blue-Green Plate and Creator of the Blue-Green Bowl
Midwife and Patriarch
Xpiyacoc and Xmucané
Embracer and Shelterer
Twice Midwife and Twice Patriarch
 Later in the text, the pairs Hunahpú Possum/Hunahpú Coyote, White Great Peccary/Pizote, and Creator of the Blue-Green Plate/Creator of the Blue-Green Bowl are specifically said to be names for the creator grandparents called Xpiyacoc and Xmucané.

Maya Pantheon

'Xpiyacoc and 'Xmucané, the creator grandparents. In Maya culture, grandparents were valued and consulted for their knowledge, wisdom and experience. Although physically weaker, they were considered spiritually stronger than younger members of the society.

Engraved Skull,
Kaminal Juyú

In The Popol Vuh, the Grandparents were the original priests, diviners, healers and craftsmen. The story says very little about the nature of the sky but indicates that the sky gods were lightning bolts. It begins by referring to an entity called the Heart of the Sky and saying that his name was Juraqán, (Huracán). Then it rather cryptically states that Lightning Bolt Juraqán was first, Ch’ipi (youngest child) Lightning Bolt was second, Raxá (sudden or green/blue) Lightning Bolt was third, and together they were the Heart of the Sky.

Itzamná and Ix´Chel were the Classic parallels of the K'íchés, Xpiyacoc and Xmucané (Bassie-Sweet1996:53). Like the Popol Vuh grandparents, Itzamná and Ix´Chel were the deities of medicine, and the priests and healers invoked them in their prayers (Tozzer 1941:153-55, Taube 1992). Ix' Chel was the first woman to spin cotton, weave, bear children and be a midwife. Itzamná was considered to have been the first priest and rainmaker.The Ceiba tree bounds the Heaven and Xibalbá

eft) Representation with the Yax'ché (Ceiba Tree), and the 4 Bacab in the corners holding the earth, each of the 13 Caan (heaven) levels had its Oxlahuntikú or gods, with Itzam Ye, or 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" , That included the B'alam (Jaguar gods) Lords of the underworld - associated with caves, night, hunting (shamans often are depicted transforming into jaguars "Way". Itzam Yeh (Vucub Caquix), 
Cama Zotz, the one that  kill the Hero twin Hunahpú in the Bat House, 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. Och Chan, 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.

Major Maya gods included Hun Hunahpú father of Itzam Ná, ("Iguana House"), The principal deity in the Classic, Creator God, a reptilian deity, In the daytime he is also the Sun God:  Kinich Ahau. His feathery serpent mode was Kukulkán, Also known as Ah Xoc Kin, and associated with Chaak, Tikal Tripodpoetry and music, and his wife, Ix’Chel, the Moon, Medicine and rainbow goddess, represented by a woman seated in a crescent moon holding a Rabbit,  they were parents of the four Bacabs. or guardians of the cardinal points, (See Cosmology), Hobnil - bacab of the east, is assigned the color red and the Kan years. Can Tzicnal - bacab of the north is assigned the color white, and the Muluc years, Zac Cimi - bacab of the west, is assigned the color black and the Ix years. Hozanek - bacab of the south, is assigned the color yellow and the Cauac years, Hunahpu' and Xbalanque', the hero twins, Chaak, a rain deity, Bolon Tza’cab, K'awil or God K a ruling-lineage deity, fire & lightning Hun Ka'ax, Hunab’Kú or Ah Mun maize god, always represented Young. Maize’s cycle of planting, growth, harvesting, and replanting is the cycle of life itself (birth, death, rebirth). Ah Mak'ik: a god of Agriculture who locks up the wind god ('Ik) when it threatens to destroy the crops. Kisin: (Kabracán in the Popol Vuh), Earthquake god, youngest son ofItzamná, called Kukulcán by the Postclassic Maya-Toltecs Itzam Yeh, along with Zipacná (Maker of mountains), the oldest, also tricked by the hero Twins.  Hum Cimil, a death deity, Ah Chicum 'Ek, a North Star deity, 'Ek Chuah, a merchant deity, Bulac Chabtan, a war and human sacrifice deity, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen (monkey gods) Patrons of scribes.  Ah Puch death god, Och Chan or God K  He is the power behind conjuring, transformation and transcendence in Maya ritual practice; he is the Hunab Kú, Maize god, always represented Young, Codex Style, Nakbébearded dragon of Xibalbá; he is the essence of the sacred dance that empowers the Maize God to dance out of Xibalbá; he is the essence of human royal power that allows mankind access to the cosmos from the heavens down to earth and into Xibalbá itself. He is also the power of the Rain God’s lightning ax that splits the earth making the resurrection of the Maize God possible, and many others. There were thirteen deities in the Upper World and nine deities in the Lower World. The deification of deceased rulers, and their veneration in funerary shrines, was an elaborated expression of ancestor worship, a theme that probably permeated ancient Maya religion, they had a Patron god for each month of the Haab' year, (See Calendar)


Xibalbá related Vase scene
Black background vase A god being born at Na-Ho-Chan-Witz-Xaman, “First-Five-Sky-Mountain-North.” The twisted
cords with the snake heads are the Classic-Period version of the kuxan-sum, the living cords,” that
form the sky umbilicus.  two Xibalbian deities
( Och Chan and Vucub Caquix), with blood stained wristlets

The entrance to Xibalbá was traditionally held to be a cave in the vicinity of Cobán, (could be Candelaria Caves or Naj Tunich Cave, in southern Petén), Guatemala. To some of the K'iché and Kek'chí, descendants of the Maya people still living in the vicinity, the area is still associated with death. In the heavens, the Road to Xibalbá (Xibalbá bé), was represented by the dark rift visible in the Milky Way.   The World Tree (Yax'ché) is at the center of The World, and grows through the 9 Underworld levels, this Middle Level and the 13 Upperworld regions. Each level or subregion had its own ruler, with the lowest level and most horrible of the nine hells of the underworld (Mitnal), were everybody suffers, being ruled by the Death God, Ah Puch, He is shown as a skeletal frame or inHul Nal Yé Cave offerings Alta Verapaz various stages of decomposition.

Below the sea was the Underworld, a region called Xibalbá “place of fright” that was ruled by two gods called Hun Caquix, One Death and Vucub Caquix, Seven Death.  That killed Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú, the Father and Uncle of the Hero Twins. They were playing ball, and annoying the Lords of Xibalbá, with their noisiness. The Lords  challenge them to a game, but first they must pass the six tests of Xibalbá:  Passing The Darkness House, Shivering (Cold) House, Jaguar House, Bat House, Blade (Razor) House and Fire House that no average person could enter without dying. (see Glyphs in the left). Failing any of the tests results in death. They do fail and are sacrificed in the morning - at "The Place of the Ball Game Sacrifice." Hun Hunahpu's head is placed on a tree, which later  bears fruit with the shape of human heads, but the Lords of Xibalbá forbid anyone to eat that fruit. Ixquic (Blood Gatherer), though, went and the head of Hun Hunahpú spit her hand and impregnated her. Later she had twins - the children of One Hunahpú, named Hunahpú and Xbalenqué, who later become the Sun and Moon. Life in Xibalbá was similar to life on earth. Like humans, the death gods had wives and children, they feasted, played ball and conducted business. In their council house, One Death and Seven Death presided over a host of death gods whose names reflected the manner in which they killed people. Adjacent to the council house were a number of buildings known  the afore mentioned six houses, as a good portion of the Popol Vuh story involves the subordination of the Underworld lords by the hero twins, and this epic battle was a paradigm for territorial warfare. God K or Och Chan
is the bearded dragon of Xibalbá; he is the essence of the sacred dance that empowers the Maize God to dance out of Xibalbá. In Classic paints the "The Water Lilly" and "Watery Jaguar", are often depicted in Xibalbá scenes.

Hunahpú swims away from Xibalbá, with his Father's head
Preclassic, El Mirador, Guatemala

Ball game with Hun Hunahpú and journey to Xibalbá

After the creation of the earth, the Popol Vuh describes one of the routes from the surface of the earth to the Xibalbá council house via a cave passageway located at the eastern horizon. This underground route passed through steep canyons and rivers of birds, scorpions, blood and pus. The Maya region is primarily a limestone shelf that is honeycombed with underground rivers and impressive cave systems. The cave was the transition zone from the safe human space on the surface of the earth to the dangerous supernatural space of the gods, and the Maya performed important rituals at these sacred access points (Bassie-Sweet 1991, 1996).  Although many researchers refer to any supernatural location below the surface of the earth as the underworld, the Popol Vuh clearly indicates that the sea and the underworld were thought to be distinct locations and that they were inhabited and ruled by very different kinds of deities.

The Princeton Vase.
Nakbé, Guatemala, Northern Petén, Late
Classic, 600 to 800 AD Ceramic with mineral inclusions and orange-red
and brown-black slip; h. 21.5 cm., diam. at rim 16.6 cm. Princeton
University Art Museum

Young Hero Twins, Princenton Vase, Nakbé area
Princeton Vase Roll Out

The finest example of Maya Art is according to Coe, the Princeton Vase, that depicts the God L from Xibalbá, and the Hero Twins seated on his throne in Xibalbá, in a court not unlike the palace scenes of mortals. Behind him stand three animated ladies of the court who converse while one pours liquid from a vase; it has been assumed that she is frothing chocolate by pouring it from one container to another. God L is tying a bracelet of Jade beads around the wrist of a young woman (it is of interest to note that even the gods give young ladies expensive gifts). Another girl tries to attract her attention by tapping on her foot, but the young woman is watching the magic trick being performed by the Hero Twins, who are masked to hide their true identities from the court of Xibalbá.    


Incense burner with deer deityThe Maya,  are well known for their elaborate religious ceremonies. Because religion played such a large role in Maya existence, it is extremely hard to discern the line between religion and politics. Some of the rituals that appear to have a solid religious backing may have also been used politically. The Maya believed in blood sacrifice (ch'ab') and  bloodletting. Bloodletting permeated Maya life. Kings would perform bloodletting rites for every stage in life, every important political or religious event, and significant calendar period endings (Schele 1986). For the ancient Maya, beginnings and endings were an occasion for pageant and ceremony (Freidel 1993).  The most sacred blood is said to come from the ear (Tub), tongue, (Ak') and penis foreskin (Ach). By perforating ( Pich') their ears, the Maya were “opening” them to hear the gods’ oracles and revelations. In cutting the tongue, it is said that they could speak what they had heard. When the penis foreskin was cut (Pich' ach), it was to participate in the divine procreation of the cosmos. (Gillette 1997).

 The blood of kings and queens from their genitalia,  was pour in paper and then burned, to keep the cosmos in balance. Performing this ritual was supposed to call forth ancestors’ spirits, with the spirits taking the appearance of a vision serpent (Gillette 1997). The serpent was a direct way for the Maya to communicate with the gods. It acted as a link, or portal (Freidel 1993), between the supernatural and human worlds (Schele 1986). The rulers may have dramatized this self-sacrifice (B'ah ch'ab')  ritual, using it to intimidate their people and convince them of the necessity of royalty, divine blood to communicate with the gods. Performing these rituals would, in turn, maintain order in the universe.

During ceremonies the priests practiced the impersonation of gods, use hallucinogens or other substances in order to enhance their powers of divination. Kings would perform bloodletting rites for every stage in life, every important political or religious event, and significant calendar period endings. (Schele 1986). For the ancient Maya, beginnings and endings were an occasion for pageant and ceremony (Freidel 1993). The king would often be joined by his wife or other members of the nobility in the rituals. A religious story provides the base for the bloodletting ceremony and can be found in the creation stories of the Popol Vuh. The Ch'akba' or "Suicide autosacrifice" in the carotids, depicted in Ceibal, Quiriguá and Palenque among others,  may possibly be understood as a ritual in which Hunahpu's and Xbalanque's dance of decapitation and resurrection as related in the Popol Vuh was either mimicked or reenacted as real suicide in a ceremony. See the Altar de Sacrificios vase bellow. The Classic Maya  used the Ek' Balam shrub, (Croton flavens L.), which rapidly seals the damaged blood vessel. To treat and close wounds in muscular tissue the bark of the bakalche'  tree (Bourreria pulchra Millsp.) was applied. In the “Scattering” rite, blood would be drawn from the hands and sprinkled into the
offering plates, symbolizing the earth, and imitating the
planting of maize.

The priests were part of the elite and had as their superior, the ruler, that was also a political leader. During the ceremonies they were helped by assistants. As common women were considered impure because of their menstruation, they were not allowed to attend the ceremonies. An exception was made to the vestal virgins that could attend the fires.

 During the Classic period, and after its Collapse, the heart of Maya life was the ritual of Bloodletting. Giving the gift of blood from the body was an act of piety used in all of their rituals, from the births of children to the burial of the dead. This act could be simple as an offering of a few drops of one’s blood, or as extreme as the mutilation of the different parts of the body to generate large flows into a Hasal, of this precious fluid.

Hauberg Stela (84 cm.)
Preclassic 192 AD,
 Petén Lowlands
 Bloodletting Ritual

 Blood could be drawn from any part of the body, using obsidian or bone piercing tools, but the most sacred sources were the ears, tongue for males and females (Using a rope), and the penis for males, although a recent finding of a Queen's tomb in Waka', that had a ceremonial stingray spine in her genital area, may indicate that royal women also performed the genital piercing. The Maya used offering plates during blood rituals to represent miniature versions of the universe, earth, and sky. By doing this, the Maya nobility would enter into a creative partnership with the lords of life in their continuing recreation and resurrection of the universe (Gillette 1997). The role created here made their performing of blood rituals seem essential to the continuation of Maya life. Elite women also played a central role in bloodletting events (Freidel 1993). Women would often let blood before their husbands went into battle. In addition, women would participate in bloodletting rites associated with a king’s accession. They would do this to communicate, through a vision, with a warrior god who regularly took the form of an ancestor (Schele 1986). 

Pennis perforator, Naranjo Guatemala 
Naranjo, Penis Perforator (Bone)
Hasal was the name of the pennis perforator
Conch player with HASAL on penis


Representations of the act carved on stelas depict participants drawing finger-thick ropes through the wounds to guide the flow of blood down onto paper. Men with perforated genitals would whirl in a kind of dervish dance that drew the blood out onto long paper and cloth streamers tied to their wounded members. The aim of these great cathartic rituals was the vision quest, the opening of a portal into the Otherworld through which gods and the ancestors could be enticed so that the beings of this world could commune with them. The Maya thought of this process as giving “birth” to the god or ancestor, enabling it to take physical form in this plane of existence. The vision quest was the central act of the Maya world.  The ceremonies were often held at nighttimes with torches and a great display was made. People would gather in a big public plaza to observe the king and other participants on top of the great temples. There were elaborately costumed dancers, musicians, and warriors. The bloodletting implements were specially carved, usually bone and stingray spine or a blade of flint or obsidian, and adorned with bright feathers (Schele 1986).

Blood sacrifice scene
God A prime (Mok Chi) dances in blood sacrifice costume as he 1) cuts his head with stone knife, 2) uses a hand stone,3) transforms into the bee keeper

The ceremonies generally began with preparation and purification through fasting and abstinence (obligatory for those celebrating the ceremony and voluntary for others). Then there were offerings of food, ornaments and valuables belonging to the elite and the practice of sacrifice (including human sacrifice), as well as the own blood sacrifices of the rulers and priests (this, was done by means of cutting themselves in the tongue with a string, arm or pennies with carved bone needles or ray spines, and letting the blood fall into a special paper that was afterwards offered to the gods). In the ceremonies there was also burning of incense, dancing, and expulsion of evil spirit from the worshipers. To close the ceremonies there was usually feasting and drunkenness.

 A Ruler with perforator stains paper. A priest offers the bloody paper to an idol. One text says "on 13 Ajaw 8 Kej (AD 796) this surface was painted"

The rituals were performed in order to satisfy the gods and guarantee some order to the world. Different rituals and ceremonies corresponded to different practices such as marriage, divination, "Way" Alter Ego in the form of Jaguar Pacific Lowlands Ceremonial Potbaptism, rites related to the cycles of the year, cycles of time and ceremonies of sacrifices for the gods.  A variety of drugs and alcoholic beverages (Balché) were used in these ceremonies. Drunkenness was connected with the wide-spread practice of divination, a ritual act designed to allow direct communication with the "Way" certain supernatural forces such that an individual could foretell the future or understand due causes far events not otherwise understood. A drunken state was supposed to give one the insight to interpret the reasons for illness, misfortune, adverse weather, and so forth.

The Snake Lady entwined with Och Chan (God K) and a frog  "Way". The text makes it clear that conjuring was
associated with bringing  forth "Way" as well as gods and ancestors.

Ritual enema scene, Classic, Pacific lowlands

    Enema Figurine, Escuintla

The Bal'ché was made with the bark of the tree with the same name (Lonchocarpus longistylus Pittier) and honey. Wild tobacco, "Kutz" (Nicotiana rustica), that is stronger than the domestic one and could be hallucinogen,  and other species of plants were smoked or administered in enemas to induce a trance-like state, (ingesting psychoactive drugs anally produces a more powerful and instantaneous reaction than drugs taken orally).  Some mushrooms names clearly indicate their use, such as one type called "K'aizalah Okox," the "lost judgment mushroom" (Psilocybe cubensis). There is evidence the Maya used the seeds of The Morning Glory or "Campanillas" (Ipomoea violacea) to achieve a trance-like state connected with divination. Easily the most entertaining device for altering the mind was due large tropical Wad tod, (Bufo marinus). Used to deter would-be predators, the compound was extracted by the Maya and taken in measured doses to transport their minds to another level of thinking. The Spaniards reported that Mayas added tobacco or toad skins to their alcoholic beverages to give it an added kick. The Peyote Cactus (Lophophora wiliamsii), known in Central America as "Aguacolla" and a well known Mescaline source, (Related to LSD), was also used.  The Spaniards priest describe it's use as medicine and ceremonially for many ills, and, that when intoxicated with the cactus the user saw "horrible visions", now is named  "Psicodelia". The Angel's trumpet or "Florifundia" (Brugmansia arborea) is a psychoactive plant, was also used in ceremonies and as an sleep aid. The Devil's trumpet or "Dormidera" (Datura Metel), was also used. All these substances could be involved in the Bloodletting rituals, to kill the pain, and a better communication with the gods. The Na'ab or Water Lilly (Nymphaea ampla) found in Lakes and Lagoons in Guatemala, also was smoked, or eaten raw, due to the hallucinogen characteristics' of its bulbs and roots. The water lilies are prominent plants in the iconography of the Maya, often interpreted as indicative of death and the gods of the underworld, as well as references to the afterlife. (See Pictures Below)

water lillies frecuently associated with Xibalbá
Water Lilies emerging from Maize God and Och Chan is dancing in ecstasy


To have an Idea of the Divination in the Classic Maya we can see this description of the Cak'chik'els by DANIEL G. BRINTON in 1885 in the introduction of  his translation of "THE ANNALS OF THE CAKCHIQUELS":

 "Magic and divination held a very important place in Cakchiquel superstition, as the numerous words bearing upon them testify. The form of belief common to them and their neighbors, has received the name Nagualism, from the Maya root na, meaning to use the senses. I have traced its derivation and extension elsewhere,[46-1] and in this connection will only observe that the narrative of Xahilá, in repeated passages, proves how deeply it was rooted in the Cakchiquel mind. The expression ru puz ru naual, should generally be rendered "his magic power, his sorcery," though it has a number of allied significations. Naual as a noun means magician, naual chee, the spirit of the tree, naual abah,  of the stone, or the divinity embodied in the idols of these substances.

Another root from which a series of such words were derived, was hal, to change. The power of changing or metamorphosing themselves into tigers, serpents, birds, globes of fire, etc., was claimed by the sorcerers, and is several times mentioned in the following texts (Annals). Hence the sorcerer was called haleb, the power he possessed to effect such transformations halibal, the change effected halibeh, etc. Their remarkable subjection to these superstitions is illustrated by the word lab, which means both to divine the future and to make war, because, says Ximenez, "they practiced divination in order to decide whether they should make war or not."[47-1] These auguries were derived frequently from the flight and call of birds (as in the Annals, Secs. 13, 14, etc.), but also from other sources. The diviner who foretold by grains of maize, bore the title malol ixim, the anointer or consecrator of maize". 

 The priesthood was represented by two high priests, elected for life by the ruler and council. The one who had especial custody of religious affairs wore a flowing robe, a circlet or diadem on his head ornamented with feathers, and carried in his hand a rod, or wand. On solemn occasions he publicly sacrificed blood from his ears, tongue, and genital organ. His associate was the custodian and interpreter of the sacred books, their calendars and myths, and decided on lucky and unlucky days, omens and prognostics. In addition to these, there were certain old men, of austere life, who dwelt in the temples, and wore their hair in plaited strands around their heads (trenzado en círculo), who were consulted on ordinary occasions as diviners".  Annals of the Cakchiquels,  Daniel G. Brinton THE ANNALS OF THE CAKCHIQUELS  pp 15-16

Several species, were used by the divinators
Psilocybe spp.

Wild Tobacco


Angel's Trumpet

 Devil's trumpet

Water Lilly
Its seeds are hallucinogens
Morning Glory



Locations of visitors to this page


Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:36 -0500
© 2005 Copyright, Authentic Maya