The lives of the ancient Maya centered around their religion and gods of nature. Religion touched many aspects of their everyday lives.
Maya Rain God Chaco. Picture by Leonard G.
The Maya believed in a large number of nature gods. Some gods were considered more important and powerful than others.
Itzamna - The most important Maya god was Itzamna. Itzamna was the god of fire who created the Earth. He was ruler of heaven as well as day and night. The Maya believed that he gave them the calendar and writing. It is thought that his name means "lizard house".
Kukulkan - Kukulkan was a powerful snake god whose name means "feathered serpent". He was the primary god of the Itza people in the latter part of the Maya civilization. He is often drawn to look like a dragon.
Bolon Tzacab - Also known by the name Huracan (similar to our word for hurricane), Bolon Tzacab was the god of storms, wind, and fire. Maya mythology said that he caused a great flood to come when the Maya angered the gods. His name means "one leg".
Chaac - Chaac was the god of rain and lightning. He had a lighting axe that he used to strike the clouds and produce rain and storms.
The kings of the Maya served as intermediaries between the people and the gods. In some ways the kings were thought to be gods themselves.
The priests were responsible for performing rituals to keep the people in the favor of the gods. They were very powerful. In the Book of the Jaguar Priest, the duties of the priests are described in detail. Some of the duties included:
To impersonate the gods
To predict the future
To work miracles
To build tables of eclipses
To avert famine, drought, plagues, and earthquakes
To insure adequate rainfall
The Maya believed in a scary afterlife where most people had to travel through a dark underworld where mean gods would torment them. The only people who started out the afterlife in heaven were women who died in childbirth and people who had been sacrificed to the gods.
A big part of the Maya religion included the stars and the Maya calendar. Some days were considered lucky days, while other days were considered unlucky. They set their religious ceremonies and festivals according to the position of the stars and the days of their calendar.
The Maya built large pyramids as monuments to their gods. At the top of the pyramid was a flat area where a temple was built. The priests would get to the top of the pyramids using staircases built into the sides. They would perform rituals and sacrifices at the temple on the top.
How do we know about the Maya religion?
The main way archeologists know about the Maya religion is through Mayan texts which describe the religious ceremonies and beliefs of the Maya. These books are called codices. The primary surviving books are the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex, and Dresden Codex as well as a writing called the Popol Vuh.
Interesting Facts about Maya Religion and Mythology
They believed that the world was created in 3114 BC. This was the zero date in their calendar.
Some aspects of the Maya religion are still practiced today.
Maya mythology tells the story of how man was created from maize.
One popular tale told how the gods opened Maize Mountain where the first seeds to plant maize were found.
Two popular figures in Maya mythology were the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They fought demons as well as the lords of the underworld.
The Maya predicted that the world would come to an end on December 21, 2012.