Maya Cosmology and Religion

by McNab Editorial Team

Belief System:  

The most astonishing perception of the Maya is that they saw the earth as four-sided and, like a crocodile or turtle, floated in the primordial sea. Each cardinal direction had a color: North—white; South—yellow; East—red; and West—black. They believed their universe had three levels—vertically. The heavens were above and home to various gods and sky deities. Earth was in the middle, with four deities, or bacabs, at its corners and the sacred Ceiba (Yaxche) tree of life at its center. Below was the watery underworld.  Known as Xibalba or Metnal, the underworld was filled with evil spirits, diseases, and the spirits of dead ancestors. 

The sacred Ceiba tree transcended all levels because its branches held up the heavens, its stem was planted on earth and its roots descended into the underworld. The Maya believed that the earth had been created and destroyed several times. Humans had been created three times.  In the first creation, they were made of clay; in the second, from sticks; and in the third, from corn. The last creation dated to 3114 BC and was expected to end in the year AD 2012. 

Religious Objects and Spirits: 

In the Maya religion, objects that we consider to be inanimate had spirit. They believed in numerous gods that were dualistic (two-sided) in nature. For example, a benevolent Chac (rain god) brought rain to nourish crops; a malevolent Chac brought hurricanes, hailstorms, and floods.  Their supreme deity was known as Hunab Ku, and because he was believed to have no body or form, they never produced effigies or other graphic representations of him. 

Important Gods: 

Most of their most important gods were associated with agricultural fertility.  The four Chacs controlled the corners of the world and resided deep within the underworld. In times of drought, important rituals that included offerings of agricultural products, plants, and the sacrifice of men, women, and particularly children were made to the rain god deep within caves. Kinich Ahau was the sun god who rose in the east and withdrew into the underworld every evening. Itzam Na, one of the most important deities, was the provider of all things to the Maya people. Ixchel was the goddess of healing and Yum Cimil or Kisin was god of death and ruler of the underworld.  


There was a prescribed ritual for every ceremony.  One of the most important was the ritual ballgame. The game was played with a hard rubber ball that was directed from one side of the court to the other by use of one’s legs, hips, and shoulders.  The bouncing ball was synonymous with the movements of the sun, from its birth in the east to its death in the west. Games that followed the capture of important elite warriors traditionally ended with the symbolic defeat of the enemy and the sacrifice of the captured noble.  Another notable ritual was the Cha Chac. A wooden altar was placed at the entrance of cenotes or caves. People brought offerings of atole (corn porridge), beans tamales, tobacco and other goods presented to the Chacs by one or more priests and their assistants.  

No doubt these beliefs helped to foster and continue the practices of today and the enormous respect the Maya have for the cosmos. 

Written by Nelita Castillo

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