Origins » Maya Writing › How to Read a Maya Glyph › Maya Food & Agriculture » History

Characters and historical events ››

  1. Maya Writing
  2. How to Read a Maya Glyph
  3. Maya Food & Agriculture
  4. The Maya Calendar and the End of the World: Why the one does not substantiate
  5. The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya
  6. Early Explorers of the Maya Civilization: John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick
  7. Early Explorers of the Maya Civilization: From Aguilar to Waldek

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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Maya Writing

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

The celebrated hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya was a sophisticated combination of pictographs directly representing objects and ideograms (or glyphs) expressing more abstract concepts such as actions or ideas and even syllabic sounds. Maya writing has survived in stone carvings, on stucco, wood, pottery and cloth artefacts, and in codices. These artefacts derive from across Mesoamerica covering territories in modern-day Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. The writing was deciphered in the 20th century CE and now around 75% of surviving texts can be understood.

Origins

The hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya may have developed from the less sophisticated systems of earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmec, which used only literal images (pictographs) or it may have developed completely independently; scholars are not in agreement on the point. More certain is when the Maya began their writing system: the second half of the Middle Preclassic period, c. 300 BCE. However, the more sophisticated writing system of this time almost certainly would have had earlier, less complex precedents present in the preceding centuries of Mayan culture. From the Early Classic period onwards there was a significant increase in stone monuments bearing inscriptions and the language reached full maturity and flourished throughout the Classic period (250-900 CE).
Mayan Glyphs

Sources

The best preserved examples of Maya writing are often from stone monuments, most commonly altars, stelae and elements of architectural sculpture, especially around doorways and stairs. Pottery is another important source of script as vessels often carry either painted or inscribed writing. Examples of painted writing, although much rarer, also survive in caves and on some interior walls of buildings. Another source, albeit with shorter examples of text, are inscribed artefacts made from jade, greenstone, shell, and bone. Finally, there are written books. These screen-fold volumes written on bark paper had always been in use and, from the 9th century CE, they became the preferred medium for Mayan writers as inscriptions on monuments all but disappeared. Unfortunately for posterity, only three examples have survived the ravages of a tropical climate and zealous spanish priests, and these all date from the late Postclassic period. The three surviving codices - interestingly, written using only black and red ink - are currently housed in museums in Paris, Madrid and Dresden. A few pages from a fourth Mayan text also survive and are housed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The System

The meaning of a given text has to be interpreted from a triple combination of images which literally represent real objects or actions (pictographs); symbols (glyphs) which symbolically refer to objects or actions (and which can also indicate adjectives, prepositions, plurals, and numbers); and phonetic glyphs which represent sounds (for example a vowel or a consonant and a vowel together), correct pronunciation, pre-fixes, suffixes, pronouns and tense. The Mayan script is, therefore, a combination of signs representing syllables (syllabograms) and words (logograms). Sometimes, concepts could be represented in alternative ways, for example, a jaguar could be indicated by a picture of a jaguar head or by the phonetic glyphs ba-la-ma or by a combination of a jaguar head and the glyph ma.
Although there are around 1,000 different symbols in the Maya script, scribes of any one period used a range of between 300 to 500 signs. Despite the fact that there are only five vowels and nineteen consonants in the Maya language, there are actually 200 syllabic signs. This is because combinations of vowels and consonants could be indicated and a single sound could also be represented by several different signs. In addition, the language evolved over time to produce symbols more aesthetically pleasing for certain inscriptions and innovations could combine, or reduce by simplification, older symbols which made the signs more and more abstract. However, symbols representing whole words always remained more common than syllable symbols, a fact perhaps explained by the Mayan reverence for tradition, the sacred nature of language, and the desire to make the text as accessible as possible to all readers.
Maya text is read by starting from the top left & reading horizontally across two blocks & then moving down to the row below.
Signs and symbols were arranged in blocks which were placed in double columns. The text is read by starting from the top left and reading horizontally across two blocks and then moving down to the row below. In very short texts the glyph blocks are placed in a single line and are read from top to bottom in vertical texts or left to right in horizontal texts. Sentences follow the structure verb-object-subject and when necessary adverbs are placed before the verb.

Maya Literacy

It is probable that only a small elite of the Maya population could read, possibly only the nobility and priests. Interestingly, women of such status were not barred from learning to read and write. This restriction on just who acquired literacy fitted with the belief that writing was sacred. Indeed, the Maya believed that writing was invented by the god Itzamna and in the sacred text the Popol Vuh, the Monkey Scribes - the gods Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, brothers of the Hero Twins - are the patrons of writing and the arts in general. These two gods are often depicted on Maya pottery sat together with pen or brush in hand writing in a codex. Although literacy was, then, almost certainly limited, it may be that the general populace could recognise common symbols such as those representing dates and rulers.
The actual production of texts was probably limited to priestly scribes assigned to the workshops of royal palaces. The high frequency of artists' signatures on stelae, pottery and sculptures and their notable absence in written texts suggests that scribes did not enjoy the status of other artisans. Indeed, it may be that scribes were not regarded as authors but, rather, as recorders of the declarations of the gods and divine rulers. This is also indicated by the very formulaic nature of Maya writing where formalised phrases are often repeated and the fact that the most common subjects of Maya texts are histories of both the real world and mythology, texts which declare ownership of particular objects, and texts dedicating buildings and monuments to specific gods.

Legacy

The Maya system of writing would go on to influence that other great Mesoamerican civilization the Aztecs who would build upon the progress made by the Maya by incorporating even more phonetic elements into their writing. The Maya writing system continued to be used up to the Spanish Conquest but then this 'pagan' text was prohibited. Despite the deliberate destruction of Maya texts and the prohibition of the language the Maya did, though, continue to use it in secret well into the 18th century CE.
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[ 2 ]

How to Read a Maya Glyph

Ancient origins
by Lily Ball

For over three centuries, the ancient Maya flourished in Mesoamerica. They built giant stone pyramids surrounded by dense jungle, used a calendrical system that made many believe that 2012 would be the end of the world, and created a writing system that is as beautiful as it is complex. Its decipherment is ongoing, even today. In fact, it is so aesthetically rich and difficult to master, one needed to be an accomplished artist in order to write it properly. Fittingly, ancient Maya scribes and artists were all known by the same title: t’zib.

Deciphering Ancient Maya: Syllables & Concepts

The Maya writing system is logosyllabic, meaning its symbols can represent sounds in the form of syllables (like “ma” or “tot”), or they might represent whole concepts (like “river” or “house”). This made the language very difficult to decode, and in fact, scholars initially thought the entire writing system was phonetic due to the unfounded assumptions of a missionary named Diego de Landa. Originally from Spain, de Landa’s first language was naturally Spanish. Therefore, when he attempted to decipher the Maya language, he broke it down into individual sounds (vowels and consonants) rather than syllables, the product of which is an inaccurate record of the Maya written and spoken language and a misleading guide for scholars. It wasn’t until 1952 CE that it was suggested that the language might be syllabic rather than phonetic. This was a major breakthrough in the decipherment of the ancient Maya written language.
Even with all these hurdles, scholars have managed to decipher much of the ancient Maya written language, which covered topics from astronomical mathematics to their royal lineage.
The distinction between a phonetic and a syllabic language is small but essential. A phonetic language uses individual sounds to build spoken words. English, German, and modern Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish are phonetic languages, to name a few. When written, each symbol (letter) represents a single sound (a vowel or consonant) like “o” or “b”. Syllabic languages, however, are made up of consonant-vowel (CV) or consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) combinations, like “ta” or “bot.” Japanese, for example, uses the CV model for the majority of two of its alphabets: katakana and hiragana.
The Maya glyphs are further complicated by their use of conflation, wherein two or more glyphs are combined, and some elements of the glyphs are eliminated or simplified, diminishing their individual complexity in order to create a legible, aesthetically pleasing glyph that fits within the space provided, whether that be on a small decorated cup, or a giant stone stela.

Reading Ancient Maya

Even with all these hurdles, scholars have managed to decipher much of this ancient written language, which covered topics from the Maya’s vast understanding of astronomical mathematics, to their vivid storytelling, to their royal lineage. The basic structure of this writing system consists of one or more main glyphs with additional glyphs attached to it. For example, this complex glyph represents the ancient Maya city of Copan. The main glyph is the head of a bat, complete with upturned nose, a flaring ear, and grinning mouth. With a glyph like this, it’s easy to see the complex artistry necessary to become an accomplished t’zib.
Arguably one of the most famous glyphs of the Maya written language is the glyph for chocolate. This glyph has been painted or inscribed onto many vessels, some of which have been found to contain traces of chocolate, leading scholars to believe that in these cases, the Maya labeled vessels with their intended use. Luckily, the glyph for chocolate is entirely syllabic, making it easy for us to read.
There are three elements we need to recognize in order to read this glyph:
1. the main glyph, which resembles a fish (we’ll call this part of the glyph element “A”);
2. the oval and hook shapes on the right, which resemble a fish’s tail but are actually a separate glyph (let’s call this element “B”);
3. the two dots that resemble a colon near the fish’s mouth (element “C”).
The main glyph, A, represents the syllable sound “ka”. Element B, near the fish’s tail, represents the syllable sound “ua” (also written “wa”). So far, the glyph is pronounced “ka-ua” since the Maya read their glyphs left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Next, we need to take into account element C near the fish’s mouth. Anyone who reads music will recognize element C as a repeat sign, which can be placed at the end of a bar of music to indicate that a portion of the piece should be repeated. Surprisingly, that’s exactly the function it serves here, too. It tells the reader to repeat the sound of the symbol next to it. Here, that’s element A, “ka”. So, when each element is read in the correct order, left-to-right and top-to-bottom, the glyph reads “ka-ka-ua.”
Just one further insight is needed to pronounce this glyph properly: the Maya were known to drop the last vowel of a spoken word. Therefore, this glyph should be read without the final “a” sound at the end. Without that last “a,” the glyph reads “ka-ka-u,” or as we currently spell it, cacao, the main ingredient for chocolate.
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[ 3 ]

Maya Food & Agriculture

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

For the Maya, reliable food production was so important to their well-being that they closely linked the agricultural cycle to astronomy and religion. Important rituals and ceremonies were held in honour of specialised workers; from beekeepers to fishermen, and maize, the all-important Mesoamerican staple, even had its own god. An agricultural society, 90% of the Maya population were involved in farming. Management of land and natural resources brought a more dependable harvest and varied diet, enabling economic growth. This allowed for the flourishing of Maya culture but eventual over-exploitation, an ever-increasing population, and protracted periods of drought may have been factors in the ultimate collapse of the Maya civilization.

The Maize God

One of the most important Maya deities, perhaps even the most important, was the 'Young Maize God'. Typically portrayed with a head in the form of an ear of maize, he could appear in Maya mythology as the creator god. Descending to the underworld, he reappeared with the world tree which holds the centre of the earth and fixes the four cardinal directions. The world tree was, indeed, sometimes visualised as a maize plant. One of the names of the Maya maize god was Yum Caax ('Master of the Fields in Harvest') but another, as at Palenque, was Hun-Nale-Ye ('One Revealed Sprouting'). If any further proof were needed of the Maya reverence for maize, one need only consult the Popol Vuh religious text, where the ancestors of humanity are described as being made of maize. Other important foodstuffs besides maize had their own gods, for example, Ek Chuah (aka God M) was considered the god of cacao and so vital was water to crops that the Maya rain god Chac gained special prominence, especially in times of drought.
To maximise productivity crops were planted together such as beans and squash in fields of maize.

Maya Agricultural Methods

The quality and quantity of agricultural land around Maya cities varied depending on their location. In the lowlands of the Peten and Puuk regions, for example, the soil was relatively fertile but restricted to small patches. A technique to increase soil fertility was the use of raised fields, especially near water courses and flood plains. At these locations stone-wall terraces were sometimes built to collect fertile silt deposits. Forests were cleared to make way for agriculture but such land quickly declined in fertility and necessitated slash-and-burn techniques to rejuvenate the land after two years of crops, which then requires on average a further 5-7 years to be ready for re-planting. A similar necessity to leave fields to rejuvenate was common in the highland sites, where plots had to be left empty for up to 15 years. To maximise productivity, crops were planted together such as beans and squash in fields of maize so that the beans could climb the maize stalks and the squash could help reduce soil erosion.
Those cities without access to large areas of land suitable for agriculture could trade with more productive cities. For example, slaves, salt, honey and precious goods such as metals, feathers, and shells were often traded for plant products. Just how larger plots of land were distributed, in what manner farmland passed on between generations, and the level of state management in agricultural production remain unclear. It is known, however, that many Maya private homes would have cultivated food in small gardens, especially vegetables and fruit. Once harvested, foodstuffs were stored in wooden cradles above ground and in subterranean sites.
Water management was another necessity, especially in certain Maya cities during the dry winters and hot summers. Water was collected in sinkholes created by collapsed caves and known as a tz'onot (corrupted to cenote in Spanish) and sometimes brought to fields using canals. Cisterns (chultunob) were also excavated, typically bottle-shaped and built using wide plastered aprons around their entrances to maximise the collection of rainwater.

Maya Crops & Food

Maize (milpa) was one of the most important crops but so too were root crops such as sweet manioc, beans, squash, amaranth, and chile peppers. Maize was typically boiled in water and lime, and eaten as a gruel mixed with chile pepper (saka') for breakfast or made into a dough for baking on a flat-stone (metate) as tortillas or flat cakes (pekwah) and as tamales - stuffed and baked in leaves.
Animals which were hunted include deer, peccary, turkeys, quails, ducks, curassow, guan, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, the tapir, and armadillo. Dogs were also fattened up on maize and eaten. Fish were caught using nets, traps, and lines, and, as in certain Asian cultures, trained cormorants were used to help catch fish: The cormorants' necks were tied so that they could not swallow the bigger fish, which they would then bring back to the fisherman. Meat and fish were typically cooked in stews along with various vegetables and peppers. Fish was either salted and dried or roasted over an open fire.
Fruits eaten included guava, papaya, avocado, custard apple, and sweetsop. A frothy chocolate drink and honey were also popular desserts. Another very popular drink was pulque beer, known to the Maya as chih and made from fermented agave juice.
Important trees used by the Maya for their wood were the sapodilla and breadnut. The bottle gourd was cultivated to make containers from its hard but light-weight fruit shell. The copal was valued for its resin which was burned as incense and used for rubber. Finally, cotton was also cultivated, especially in the Yucatan province, famous for its fine textiles.
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[ 4 ]

The Maya Calendar and the End of the World: Why the one does not substantiate

Ancient origins
by Joshua J. Mark

The Popol Vuh recounts the story of twins who journeyed to Xibalba. For the Maya, their round of adventures serves as a metaphor for timeless, repeating cycles and for the regeneration of earth and all living things. – Gene S. Stuart, Mayanist
In recent years, there have been many books, and even more websites, concerning the calendar of the ancient Maya and the end of the world in December 2012 CE. There is no need to list and further popularize such works as they can be found easily enough. They are prominently displayed in sections devoted entirely to the subject in popular book stores and even a cursory search of the internet will reveal a multitude of them. While each separate work and author has its own particular bias and agenda to promote, and so offers a different interpretation of the Maya Calendar, the underlying reasoning for a belief in the end of the world in 2012, at least as associated with the Maya Calendar, runs thusly: The present cycle of the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar begins 11 August 3114 BCE and concludes on 21 December 2012 CE and, because of this, the end of the world is a certainty.
In order for the Maya Calendar to be able to accurately predict an end to the world in any way, it would need to begin at the beginning of the world. It is clear from the archaeological, geological, and historical record that the world is much older than the beginning of the Maya Calendar in 3114 BCE. The great cities of Mesopotamia such as Akkad and Eridu had already risen to their height by the time the calendar is dated as beginning. The dynasties of Egypt were already old and the Chinese and Indian civilizations in full flourish. The Maya calculated the date of 3114 BCE as the beginning of the world based upon an earlier calendar by the Mixe-Zoque people. Their forward astronomical predictions were based upon careful observations of the skies but were understood according to the belief system which governed their understanding of how the universe worked and that understanding was that time was cyclical, not linear. Vastly different from the theological and cosmological understanding espoused by the three `great’ monotheistic religions, time was, itself, a deity, and, as such, had no end. There is, therefore, nothing in the cosmology of the Maya which suggests an end to anything, much less an end to the world.
Maya legends routinely concern themselves with regeneration & transformation.
Maya legends routinely concern themselves with regeneration and transformation. The myth of The Xtabay recounts the lives of Xkeban, the sinner, and Utz-Colel, the virtuous, who transform in death. Xkeban, though considered a sinner for having sex outside of marriage, was more virtuous than the self-righteous and cold Utz-Colel and, when she died, filled the village with sweet perfume and exotic wildflowers known as Xtabentun grew on her grave. Nothing grew on the grave of Utz-Colel but she was transformed into the cactus without scent, the Tzacam, and the flower known as the Xtabay (who also appears as a kind of succubus who waylays unsuspecting traveling men, seduces them, and destroys them). The legend of The Maquech tells the story of the princess Cuzan who falls in love with a man her father does not approve of. A shaman turns Cuzan’s lover into an insect which she then keeps with her always. The tale of Nicte Ha follows along the same lines in which the lovers are transformed into a beautiful red bird and a divine lotus which live eternally by the banks of a sacred cenote. The famous Popol Vuh, of course, also follows this same theme. There is nothing in the literature, religion or in the archaeological evidence to suggest that the concept of `endings’, as understood in the western, Judeo-Christian tradition, existed in the world of the Maya and there is nothing in the Maya Calendar which supports an interpretation involving the end of the world. As the above epigraph by the Mayanist Gene S. Stuart attests, the Maya believed in “repeating cycles” and their calendar reflects that belief.
To the Maya, time did not travel in a linear movement from the past into the future but was cyclical, as were the lives of their gods (this belief is remarkably similar to that of ancient Mesopotamian culture and other pagan civilizations which followed). In the same way that the gods of the Maya were born, developed and sustained themselves and human life, and then died to be re-born, so the years followed the same course. The Maya Calendar contains two separately working calendars which function simultaneously: the Haab, or civil calendar of 365 days in an 18 month period of 20 days each, and the Tzolkin, or sacred calendar, of 260 days divided into three groups of months of 20 days. The Haab and the Tzolkin work together, like gears interlocking in a machine, to create what is known as the Calendar Round but cannot account for dates farther in the future than 52 days. For longer calculations, the Maya devised what is known as the Long Count Calendar and it is this which has attracted so much international attention in recent years regarding the end of the world on 21 December 2012. The Long Count calendar begins 11 August 3114 and goes into its next cycle (known as a Baktun) on 21 December 2012. This is simply a change in the cycle of the calendar – in the same way that people in the modern age observe the end of a year or the end of a century - and there is nothing in the extant writings of the Maya to suggest that any kind of cataclysm accompanies this transition.
On 10 May 2012 CE it was reported that Boston University archaeologist William Saturno and Boston University student Maxwell Chamberlain, excavating at the Maya site of Xultun in Guatemala, discovered a 6x6 foot room dating to 800 CE which seems conclusively to have been a calendar workshop for Mayan scribes. The paintings and inscriptions on the walls of the room show the Mayan calendar extending well beyond the year 2012 CE and that future Baktuns were understood to already be underway in the great cyclic dance of time. According to David Stuart, an expert on Maya hieroglyphs at the University of Texas at Austin, "Baktun 14 was going to be coming, and Baktun 15 and Baktun 16. ... The Maya calendar is going to keep going, and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future." The months of the years of the Mayan calendars were governed over each by a specific god and, as these gods were eternally recurring, they assured the continuance of the energy of their particular month and, by extension, the years.
The Bacabs reflect the cyclical vision of the Maya & the improbability that this particular culture could devise a calendar system which aimed at any certain end of the world.
There were four deities in particular, known as The Bearers of the Years (the Bacab) who held the four cardinal points of the sky and imbued a particular year with certain energy. Muluc was the Bacab of the east and his years were always positive in energy. He was associated with the color red. Kan was the Bacab of the south, associated with yellow, and also brought good fortune. Ix, the Bacab of the north was linked with the color white while Cauac, The Bacab of the west’s color was black and both of them brought negative energy and bad fortune to the year. The Bearers of the Years changed each year as the dominant deity of that particular cycle of months and stones were very carefully rearranged on the statues in the villages and cities to denote the change. The Bacabs further reflect the cyclical vision of the Maya and the improbability that this particular culture could devise a calendar system which aimed at any certain end of the world.
Western interpretations of the Maya Calendar are just that: western. In such an interpretation time is viewed as linear, not cyclical, and, whether a particular writer adheres to Judaism or Christianity or Islam, they are still prone to view time as it has been understood in the scriptures of those religions. In monotheistic western religions God is intimately involved in the affairs of human beings in a straight chronological line from the creation of the world to the present. In Maya polytheism, the gods created the world and then acted more as guides (and sometimes not very pleasant ones) who performed certain functions in accordance with their particular brand of energy and the energy which ran through a given day or month. `Goodness' was thought to be conserved much in the same way that, in Physics, energy is and the gods granted their goodness to mortals based upon the amount of goodness given to them by human beings. This did not mean, and does not, mean that the gods waited to unleash some final wrath on the world but, rather, that one got what one gave, whether individually or as a community. The relationship between gods and humans was a transfer of energy. The gods were personifications of the planets and of the influences those planets exerted on individuals. Eternity, then, was not a concept involving some future life beyond the earth but was a reality of everyday life for the Maya and they were, and still continue to be, convinced of its continuance on the planet earth.
Interviews conducted by this writer with Maya daykeepers (shamans) at the sites of Chichen Itza and Uxmal revealed that the Maya calendar does not, in any way, predict an `end to the world’ but, rather, a new age, a new cycle, in precisely the same way that people in the modern age hope for change and renewal in the new year and make new year’s resolutions. If the energy humans send forth toward the gods is good, the energy which returns will be likewise. The end of the Maya Calendar is not an event to be feared but, like any new beginning, is something to be embraced and celebrated as an opportunity to move forward.
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[ 5 ]

The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya

Ancient origins
by Joshua J. Mark

The pantheon of the Maya is a vast collection of deities who were worshipped throughout the region which, today, comprises Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. Not all of the gods were venerated in all of the city-states of the Maya (at least, not by the same name) but the type of god, and what that god symbolized to the people, seems to have been universally recognized.
An example of this can be seen in the different names given to the underworld by the Yucatec Maya of the north and the Quiche Maya of the south. The Quiche called their underworld `Metnal’ while the Yucatec referred to the same place as `Xibalba’. Though the names were different, the characteristics of the dark `land of fright’, through which a soul had to travel after death, were the same. Another instance of this can be seen in the creation myths where, for the Quiche, thirteen gods were involved in creating human beings from maize while, to the Yucatec, it was only two. Still, the message of the myths is the same: the gods struggled to create human beings just as humans struggle with their own attempts at creation and survival and, also, that life comes from the earth (here, in the form of corn, the staple of the Mayan diet) and so the earth must be honored and respected.
The gods were involved in every aspect of the life of the Maya. They controlled the weather, the harvest, they dictated one’s mate, presided over every birth, and were present at one’s death. As the gods were depicted as cross-eyed, mothers would dangle a bead from the forehead of their children so that their eyes would become crossed. Similarly, children’s heads were bound, especially males, in order to elongate the forehead in emulation of the gods, especially the very popular Maize God figure. The clothing worn by the nobility, and especially the ruler of a city, mimicked the dress of the gods. The way in which a city was planned and the precision with which the central temples were constructed all followed from an understanding of the way of the gods. The great Temple of Kukulcan at Chichen Itza is an embodiment of the secular calendar (the Haab) of 365 days but is also very specifically designed to make the god known as the Plumed Serpent back to earth twice a year. At the two equinoxes, each year, people still gather for this event. The steps of the Temple of Kukulcan (also known as El Castillo) run steeply down from the temple at the summit of the pyramid to stone serpent heads at the base of the stairs. On the twin equinoxes each year, the sun casts the shadow of a serpent which moves slowly down the stairs from the temple to the stone heads and creates the image of a serpent descending to the earth. Kukulcan (also known as Gucamatz and, more famously, Quetzalcoatl) was the most popular god among the Maya and it is not surprising that, even today, many of the Maya, and non-Mayan people, congregate at the temple twice a year to receive the blessings of his visit to the earth.
There were over 250 deities in the pantheon of the Maya.
There were over 250 deities in the pantheon of the Maya and, owing to the mass burning of their books by Bishop Diego de Landa in 1562, much information about the gods (and Maya culture) was irretrievably lost. The Quiche Mayan religious text, the Popol Vuh, gives one set of names for the gods which the Yucatec Maya knew by other names. Some gods remain unidentified while others’ provenance is unclear or has become conflated with still other deities or with Christian concepts. Scholars are hardly in agreement over the age and prestige of the `king’ of the gods, Hunab Ku, for example, whom some claim an ancient lineage for while others maintain a post-conquest status. Some scholars adamantly defend their definition of a certain god while other scholars maintain an opposing one and there is strong evidence for the truth of both sides. The following list, then, is by no means comprehensive as far as defining every god the ancient Maya worshipped in every region, village, or city but attempts to be comprehensive in detailing as much as is presently known about the gods and hopes to do so concisely.
`A'
A Maya god of death whose name is not yet known. He is depicted ruling a part of the underworld surrounded by the bones of his subjects. His symbols are a skull and obsidian knife, both related to the practice of human sacrifice.
Acan
The god of intoxication, wine, and the art of brewing Balche (a kind of strong mead). His name means either `belch' or `groan' and he is associated with the Lacandon Maya god of drunkenness Bohr (also known as Bol).
Acat
The god of the art of tattooing and patron of tattoo artists, Acat is also associated with the growth and development of fetuses. He is further designated by the names Acat-Cib and Ah - Kat.
Ah-Bolom-Tzacab
The leaf-nosed god of agriculture (also known as Ah-Bolon-Dz'acab).
Ah-Cancum
A god of hunting.
Ah-Chun-Caan
A tutelary deity, he provided protection at sunrise and sunset.
Ah-Chuy-Kat
A minor god of war whose name means Fire Destroyer.
Ah-Ciliz
The god of solar eclipses.
Ah-Cun-Can
A war god known as the Serpent Charmer.
Ah-Cuxtal
The god of birth. His name means `Come to Life' and he was responsible for the safe delivery of babies into the earthly realm, both physically and spiritually. After a birth he would wash his hands and then move on to the next one.
Ahau-Chamahez
One of two great gods of medicine and healing (with Cit-Bolon-Tun) known as the Lord of the Magic Tooth.
Ahluic
The god of merchants and material wealth often depicted as a member of a triad, with the deities Chac and Hobnil.
Ahmucen-Cab
A creator god who, according to the Chilam Balam creation story, covered the faces of the thirteen gods of the day and let them be captured by the nine gods of the night. During this captivity, he spread seeds and set boulders across the land which grew out of the darkness. This act of creation was later un-done and re-worked by the Becabs.
Ah-Hulneb
A minor god of water.
Ah-Kin
A deity who is an aspect of the sun god (Kinich Ahau) and controls drought and disease (also known as Ah-Kinchil).
Ah-Kumix-Unicob
These were minor water gods who attended to Cenotes and pools.
Ah-Mun
A god of fertility and protection who was also a personification of Maize.
Ah-Muzencab
The deities who presided over and cared for bees. They are also associated with air elemental spirits.
Ah-Patnar-Unicob
These deities were elemental gods of water. They were the lords of the Eight Day Rain Ceremony during which they were celebrated.
Ah-Pekku
A god of thunder.
Ah-Puch
A god of death, darkness, and disaster but also of regeneration, child birth, and beginnings. According to the Quiche Maya, he ruled over Metnal (Xibalba) while according to the Yucatec Maya he was one of many of the Lords of Xibalba. He is associated with Cizen, Yom Cimil/Yum Cimil (though Cizen seems to consistently be imagined more darkly).
Ah-Tabai
The god of the hunt and protector of animals.
Ah-Uaynih
The goddess of sleep. She was especially helpful in putting men to sleep.
Ah-Uncir-Dz'acab
The god of natural healing.
Ah-Uuc-Ticab
A Chthonic deity.
Ah-Wink-Ir-Masa
A nature goddess who protected wild animals, she is associated with deer.
Ah-Xoc-Xin
The god of poetry and music, he was an aspect of the sun god Kinich Ahau.
Ahau-Chamahez
A god of medicine and healing.
Ahau-Kin
An aspect of the sun god also known as Jaguar Lord and Lord of the Underworld.
Ahmakiq
A god of agriculture and cultivated crops.
Ahulane
A war god associated with archery and known as The Archer.
Ajbit
One of the thirteen gods who assisted in the creation of human beings from Maize following two previous failed attempts.
Ajtzak
One of the thirteen gods involved in the attempts to create human beings.
Akhushtal
The goddess of childbirth.
Akna
A title applied to Akhushtal, among other goddesses, which means `Our Mother', and was closely associated with those deities concerned with fertility and childbirth.
Alaghom-Naom-Tzentel
The goddess of thought and intellect. She was also known as Ixtat-Ix.
Alom
One of the thirteen gods who participated in the creation of human beings. After the successful third attempt, he became known as Hunahpu-Guch.
Bacabs
The four gods of the winds and the directions who hold up the four corners of the world. In Yucatec Maya they are known as Muluc (of the east) Kan (of the south) Ix (of the north) and Cauac (of the west). Muluc and Kan generated positive energies while Ix and Cauac brought negative forces. This confluence of negative and positive energy enabled the early gods to create human beings and the physical and non-physical worlds. They are associated with the deities Acat, Akna, Backlum Chamm, and Chin.
Backlum Chaam
One of the Bacabs or an aspect of the Bacabs, he is the god of male sexuality.
B'alam
The Jaguar deities who protect individual communities against external threat. They also guard and protect people in daily life.
The B'alams
In the Quiche Maya tradition the Balams were the four gods who made possible the creation of man after two previous failed attempts. They were known as B'alam Agab (Night Jaguar) B'alam Quitze (Smiling Jaguar) Iqi B'alam (Dark Jaguar) and Mahucatah (Not Right Now). According to one myth, their fellow gods grew jealous of their abilities and so clouded their sight, rendering them mortal.
Bitol
One of the thirteen gods who participated in the creation of human beings. After the successful third attempt, he became known as Ixmacane.
Bolon-D'zacab
The lightning god and patron of the harvest.
Bolontiku
A group of nine chthonic beings of the underworld, they were associated with regeneration.
Buluc-Chabtan
Also known as `God F', this deity is the god of war, violence and death to whom human beings were sacrificed regularly. In the Dresden Codices he is depicted as being eaten by maggots. He is further depicted setting homes on fire, killing people, and roasting them on skewers over a fire.
Cabaguil
One of the thirteen gods who assisted in the creation of human beings. His name means `Heart of the Sky'.
Cabrakan
Also known as Caprakan, he was the god of earthquakes and mountains. He was the son of the gods Vucub Caquix and Chimalmat and plays a significant role early in the Popol Vuh where he is defeated by the Hero Twins as is his brother Zipacna.
Cacoch
A creator god who presides over creativity and communication (especially relating to divine communications).
Cakulha
A lesser god of lightning bolts who, with his brother Coyopa, assist the supreme god of lightning, Yaluk, in creating the storms sent by the rain god Chac.
Camalotz
The servant of Alom who, after the second attempt at creation, beheaded most of the people in the world in order that the gods could begin again. His name means `Sudden Blood-letter'.
Camazotz
The bat god of Xibalba who feeds on blood. In the Popol Vuh he tears off the head of one of the Hero Twins, Hun Hunahpu, who is then revived by his brother. Camazotz was then defeated and cast out of creation.
Camaxtli
The Maya god of fate who was known to the Aztecs as Mixcoatl or Mixcoatl-Camaxtli. He was associated with war, hunting, and creation and was credited with bringing fire to earth.
Caprakan
See Cabrakan
Cauac
One of the four Bacabs, Cauac controls the westerly direction and the west wind. Also known as Zac-Cimi.
Chac
The supreme god of storms and rain and associated with agriculture and fertility. He was known as the Lord of the Rains and Winds and maintained important water sources such as cenotes, wells, streams, and springs. He was widely popular and prayers and sacrifices were frequently offered to court his favor and that of the four, lesser, chacs. A lord of the sky, he was the sworn enemy of Camazotz of Xibalba and was thought of as a caring, if unpredictable, deity.
Chacs
These were four weather spirits, located at each of the corners of the world, who were under the command of the great god Chac and did his bidding.
Chac-Uayab-Xoc
The protector of fish and patron of fisherman.
Chamer
One of the gods of death and regeneration of Xibalba.
Chen
Also known as Chin, she was the goddess of maize, magic, and a councilor to the kings. She was also closely associated with homo-erotic relationships and homosexuality. According to the priest Las Cassas, she introduced homosexuality to the Maya nobles who encouraged their children to enter into homosexual marriages. She is associated with the moon and, sometimes, is depicted as a male deity.
Chicchan
These were four rain gods, from the four corners of the world, who were associated with the Bacabs.
Chin
Widely known as the Maya goddess of homosexuality. See Chen.
Chirakan-Ixmucane
A creator goddess who was formed out of four earlier creators and listed among the thirteen divinities who first engaged in the creation of human beings.
Cit-Bolon-Tum
One of two great healer gods (with Ahau-Chamahez).
Cizin
Also known as, or associated with, the names Kisen, Yom Cimil, Yum Cimil, and Ah Puch, he was a god of death who lived in Xibalba (Metnal to the Quiche Maya) and is often pictured as a dancing human skeleton smoking a cigarette. He is further identified by his `death collar' of human eyes dangling from nerve endings. Cizin came upon one suddenly and without warning but was accompanied by a foul smell and so was called `The Stinking One'. Unlike the other death god aspects with whom he is associated, Cizin is not associated with regeneration or re-birth. He keeps the souls of evil people in the underworld where they are subjected to his torments and trickery. Post-conquest, he became closely identified with the Christian devil.
Colel Cab
An earth goddess who cares especially for the bees. She is still invoked by modern-day Maya Daykeepers in chants to ward off attacks on nests, remedy nest problems, and aid hive keepers with their bees.
Colop-U-Uichikin
God of the sky and particularly of eclipses.
Cotzbalam
A servant of Alom who followed after Camalotz after the failed second attempt at creation and devoured the bodies of the people who were beheaded. His name means`Crunching Jaguar'.
Coyopa
A lesser god of sound and of thunder who works with his brother Cakulha under the guidance of the supreme god lightning, Yaluk, to create the storms sent by the rain god Chac.
Cuchumaquic
A lord of Xibalba whose name means `Blood Gatherer'. He is the father of Xquic, the mother of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Cum Hau
A god of death and regeneration who lived in Xibalba.
`E'
An agricultural god whose name is not yet known.
Ekchuah
A god also known as Ek Ahau and, earlier, as only `God M'. He presides over and protects travelers, merchants, and warriors and is depicted as a dark-skinned male carrying a bag over his shoulder. He is also recognized as the patron and protector of cacao and cacao products.
El Gran Dios
`The Great God’ who was the god of the Christians and dwelled in the seventh level above the earth. In some stories he is associated with Hunab Ku. This figure is a late, post-conquest, addition to the Maya pantheon
`F'
A god of war associated with human sacrifice and repeated victories over Ekchuah. He is also known as Buluc-Chabtan. See Buluc-Chabtan.
Four Hundred Boys
Considered to be patron deities of alcohol and, later, the Pleiades. In the Popol Vuh, the Four Hundred Boys were youths who wished to build a hut on the beach but could not lift the massive tree they had cut down to use as the main support column. They asked the giant Zipacna, who was reclining nearby, for help. Zipacna agreed to use his great strength to move the tree but mocked the boys for their weakness and their inability to do so themselves. The boys agreed together that Zipacna should be killed but he overheard their plan, tricked them into thinking he was dead, and killed them. They ascended into the heavens and may be seen today as the star cluster known as the Pleiades. Zipacna was later killed by the Hero Twins.
Gucumatz
This god is one of the most important, if not the most important, in the pantheon of the Maya. The name Gucumatz (also Gukumatz) is the Quiche Maya designation for the god known to the Yucatec Maya as Kukulcan and most famously, in the Nahuatl language, as Quetzalcoatl (`the plumed serpent' or `the quetzal-featherd serpent’) who was worshipped as early as the first century BCE at the great city of Teotihuacan. Gucumatz is identified as one of thirteen deities who shaped the world and created human beings. From Gucumatz, humans learned the rules of law, agriculture, literacy, the arts, medicine, architecture, construction, hunting, fishing, and all other aspects of civilization. He is said to have come from the sea, conveyed to the people his gifts and ruled wisely over them, and then returned to the sea, promising to come back one day. The god of all four elements, he was also the representation of the co-mingling of good and evil, light and darkness, and so became a central figure in many of the myths of the Maya and popularly depicted, in various forms, in virtually every city-state. As Kukulcan, he is the great plumed serpent who glides down the steps of El Castillo at Chichen Itza on the spring and autumn equinoxes and is thought to bring positive energy to the earth and to those present at his descent.
Gucup Cakix
This deity, also known as Vucub-Caquix (which means `Seven Macaw') is depicted in the Popol Vuh as an arrogant bird demon who pretended to be both the sun and the moon and thus threw life out of balance until he was defeated by Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the Hero Twins. He was the father of Cabrakan and Zipacna who were also overthrown by the famous twins.
Hacha'kyum
An astral god who created the stars by scattering sand into the sky. He was the patron deity of the Lacandon Maya.
Hapikern
An adversarial deity, Hapikern is the world-girdling serpent who is perpetually at war with his brother, Nohochacyum, the great god of creation and protection, and is fated to be destroyed by that god in a final battle. His other brothers are Usukun, Uyitzin, and Yantho, all three of whom are haters of humanity, and also the brother of Xamaniqinqu, the god of merchants and travelers.
Hero Twins
Hunahpu and Xbalanque (also given as Ixbalanque) are the two great mythical heroes of the Maya whose story is preserved in the Quiche Maya work `The Popol Vuh'. They were born of the virgin goddess Xquic after the severed head of their father, Hun Hunahpu, spit into her hand from a calabash tree in the underworld of Xibalba. Raised by their mother and grandmother the twins became great ball players, excelling at `the game of the gods', Poc-a-Toc. Once attaining manhood, they avenged themselves on the Lords of Xibalba, who had murdered their father and uncle, by accepting their invitation to the underworld where a series of traps and tests awaited them. They escaped the traps and snares set for them and defeated the forces of chaos and darkness. They then attempted to bring Hun Hunahpu back to life and, though they succeeded in putting his body back together and reanimating him, he could not return to the earth above. The twins promised him, however, that humans would pray to him for hope and comfort and he would be remembered and honored. The promise was kept as Hun Hunahpu became the Maize god, a dying-and-reviving god figure, who appears on earth as corn. Ascending from Xibalba, they meant to stop in the middle world of the earth but continued climbing up the World Tree and into paradise where, even then, they desired to climb higher and so became the sun and the moon (in another version the gods reward them for their victory by turning them into the sun and the moon). The Hero Twins have been thought to represent the legitimacy of the Maya ruling class, though this theory has been disputed. There is no doubt that their story was very popular among the Maya as the twins are depicted in art work throughout the region, often playing their famous game. Based upon these paintings, it seems clear there were many tales concerning the hero twins which have been lost and the Popol Vuh is the only surviving text of their story.
Hobnil
A god of agriculture and prosperity and a member of a triad with the deities Ahluic and Chac.
Hozanek
A god of the south, associated with the Bacab Cauac and the color yellow. He is a son of the
great couple Itzamna and Ixchel.
Hun-Batz
One of the two stepbrothers of the Hero Twins (the other being Hun-Chowen) also known as `One Howler Monkey' and depicted as a howler monkey. Along with his brother, he is the patron god of artists and writers.
Hun-Came
Also known as Hun-Cane, he is a lord of the underworld who, along with Gucup Cakix, kill Hun Hunahpu, the father of the Hero Twins. He is later killed by them.
Hun-Chowen
One of the two stepbrothers of the Hero Twins (the other being Hun-Batz) he is depicted as a howler monkey. Along with his brother, he is the patron god of artists and writers.
Hunab-Ku
While Gucumatz was the most popular god, Hunab-Ku is considered the supreme deity of the pantheon of the Maya, known as `Sole God'. While some scholars have asserted his antiquity, he seems most likely a concept which arose following the Christianization of the Maya during the Spanish Conquest and closely resembles the Christian god. He is invisible and without form but can be apprehended through his aspect in the god Itzamna, referred to as his son. Hunab-Ku is the husband of Ixazalvoh, the divine mother, associated with water, life, and weaving. Some inscriptions refer to him as `The Eyes and Ears of the Sun' in substantiating the claim that, like the Christian god, he is ubiquitous and knows all.
Hun-Hunahpu
Also known as The Maize God, Huh Hunahpu died but was regenerated by his sons, and returns to life as maize (corn) and so is identified as a dying-and-reviving god figure. The father of the great Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Hun-Hunahpu and his twin brother, Vucub Hunahpu, were demi-gods who, after the creation of the world, became proficient in the `ball game of the gods’, Poc-a-Toc. The lords of Xibalba, beneath the earth, became enraged by the noise of the twins and so devised a plan to get rid of them. They invited the young men to the underworld to play a game of Poc-a Toc. Before the game could begin, however, the twins were tricked by the Xibalbans and killed. Hun-Hunahpu's head was placed in the axis of a calabash tree which grew heavy with strange fruit. The young virgin Xquiq came upon the tree and, reaching for the fruit, was asked by the head to open her palm. Hun Hunahpu's head spat into the maiden's hand and she became pregnant with Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The head then sent the girl to live with his mother, Xumucane.
Hunahpu
One of the great Hero Twins who feature prominently in the myths of the Maya and in the text of the Quiche work, the Popol Vuh. Son of Hun Hunahpu amd Xquiq, Hunahpu is the god of the evening who restores the stars to the sky and, with his brother, Xbalanque, defeated the lords of Xibalba and created order on the earth. He is associated with the sun and, in some myths, is the sun himself.
Hunahpu-Gutch
The name which the god Alom took after the successful third attempt at creating human beings.
Hunahpu-Utiu
A deity among the original thirteen who assisted in the creation of human beings.
Hun-Nal-Ye
A god of salt water and the sea who was the patron of sharks.
Huracan
Also known as `Heart of the Sky' and `One-Leg', Huracan is a storm god. In the Popol Vuh he is the supreme creator of earth who thinks existence into being, participates in the creation of human beings, and sends the great flood to destroy his inferior creations. He is further referred to as Lord of the Whirlwind and credited as one of the gods (sometimes the sole god) to give fire to humans.
`I'
An early goddess of water presiding over the sea, springs, and wells whose name is unknown but is thought possibly to be `Ixik'.
Itzamna
Considered the founder of the Maya culture, patron and protector of priests and scribes, Itzamna is an extremely important and popular god. Like Gucumatz, he taught the people the arts of literacy, medicine, science, art, sculpture, and agriculture. He created and ordered the calendar and instructed humans in the proper cultivation of maize and cacao. He is a creator and healer who can resurrect the dead. In later, post-Colombian writings, he is referred to as the son of Hunab-Ku and takes on many of the characteristics associated with the Christ figure. He is associated with the prophet Zamna, who brought the sacred writings to the city of Izamal on the command of the great goddess and also with Kinich Ahau, the sun god. In one myth he is the father of the Bacabs.
Itzam-Ye
Also known as Itzam-Yeh, The Serpent Bird, The Celestial Bird, and The Way of Itzamna, Itzam-Ye was a deity in bird form which nested in the axis of the great Ceiba tree, the World Tree, which connected the underworld with the middle world (earth) and upper world. From its perch, Itzam-Ye could see all of creation and knew all the secrets of all three planes of existence. Images of the bird god in the sacred tree have been found throughout many Maya sites and, usually, engraved on temples and shrines where the Daykeepers would chant and cast the spells which protected the world from chaos and maintained order. Itzam-Ye was considered a master of the spiritual world and well versed in what, today, would be considered sorcery and magical arts.
Ixazaluoh
A goddess associated with water and weaving.
Ixazalvoh
The Divine mother and consort of Hunab-Ku, Ixazalvoh is the goddess of water, life, and weaving. She also presides over female sexuality and childbirth and is known for her powers in healing. Her oracles were considered important conduits for divine messages for the people.
Ixbalanque
One of the great Hero Twins whose adventures are told in the Popol Vuh. See Xbalanque.
Ixchel
Known popularly today as `the rainbow goddess' because her name could be translated as `Lady Rainbow', Ixchel is associated with many different aspects of life and cosmology. Although images of her in modern times almost universally depict her as an attractive young woman with long, dark hair seated on, or near, a rainbow, ancient Maya images consistently portray her as an old, plump woman with sharp features and jaguar ears, often wearing a headpiece with a live serpent springing forth and carrying a water jug. Ixchel has been associated with the so-called `goddess O' of the Dresden Codex, obviously a rain deity, and so is thought to be a goddess of the rain, perhaps a consort of Chac. She is, however, also associated with war as she is sometimes depicted in ancient images with claws and surrounded by or adorned with bones. Diego de Landa reported that she was the "goddess of making children" and also of medicine. Evidence suggests that Daykeepers and physicians consulted with Ixchel in their arts but, at the same time, she is associated through other evidence with the moon and mutability and, further, with weaving and the arts. According to a Verapaz myth, she was the consort of Itzamna and bore him thirteen sons. Whatever her main provenance was, it is certain that she was greatly venerated by women and, especially, those who were pregnant or wished to become so. Her shrine on the island of Cozumel was extremely popular and became one of the most important pilgrimage sites for the ancient Maya. The island which Cortez named the Isla Mujeres (Island of women) was so designated because of the number of goddess statues found there, Ixchel among them. Shrines to Ixchel may still be seen throughout the Yucatan today, especially on Cozumel, where her image has become conflated with that of the Virgin Mary and the two now share the veneration and prayers of the women who continue to make the pilgrimage to the island.
Ixcuiname
The goddess of the four ages of womankind (though whether this means four time periods in which women have existed or the four stages in a woman's life of child, maiden, mother, crone is unclear). Her name is interpreted as `Four Sisters' or `Four Faces'. She has been associated with the four creator gods Alom, Bitol, Qaholom, and Tzacol and, through this relationship, became known as Chirakan-Ixmucane, one of the thirteen deities who created human beings.
Ixmacane
One of the thirteen gods who participated in the creation of human beings, his name is the final form of the deity originally called Bitol (although the same name has been applied to other gods in their `final form' following creation).
Ixmucane
One of the thirteen gods who participated in the creation of human beings according to one version of the myth. Also a version of the name Xumucane, the grandmother of the famous hero twins, who, with her husband, Xpiayoc, created humans from maize and are considered the oldest and wisest deities in the Maya pantheon.
Ixpiyacoc
The name of the creator god Tzacol who, after the successful third attempt at creating human beings split into two separate entities and became both Tzacol and Ixpiyacoc. Also a variant spelling of Xpiayoc, the husband of Xumucane, who helped in creating humans from maize.
Ixtab
Also known as `Rope Woman', Ixtab was the goddess of suicides and, particularly, those who died by hanging. She is depicted as the rotting corpse of a woman hanging from a noose in the heavens which appears in the Dresden Codex. As suicide was considered an honorable alternative to living among the Maya, self-inflicted death guaranteed one an instant passage to paradise, by-passing the dark and dangerous underworld of Xibalba. Ixtab would escort the souls of suicides to paradise where they would enjoy eternal pleasure surrounded by other blessed souls such as those who died in battle, in childbirth, as sacrificial victims, or on the ball court playing Poc-a-Toc.
Ix-Tub-Tun
A serpent deity who spits precious stones and is associated with rain.
`K’
The name by which the god K’awi (or K’awiil) was formerly known. K’awai is the patron god of royalty, kingship, and the nobility.
Kan
One of the principal Becabs, Kan known as the Upholder of the South.
Kan-U-Uayeyab
A patron god of cities, guardian of urban communities.
Kan-Xib-Yui
One of the creator gods, sometimes mentioned as one of the original thirteen who created human beings.
Kianto
Also known as Kiant, he is the god of unwelcome influences which were designated primarily as disease and foreigners.
Kichigonai
In the Quiche Maya tradition, Kichigonai is the creator of day and the god of light.
Kinich Ahau
The sun god known as `Face of the Sun’ and sometimes referred to as Kinich Ajaw. He was a god of healing and medicine. The later god, Hunab Ku is thought to be a conflation of Kinich Ahau and the Christian God. In some early myths, Kinich Ahau is the consort of the goddess Ixazalvoh whereas post-conquest stories place the divine mother with Hunab Ku.
Kinich Kakmo
The patron god of the city of Izamal, a solar deity who was represented by a macaw.
Kisin
Another name for Cisin, the most commonly depicted god of death, but also the name of an earthquake god associated with the ongoing enmity between Nohochacyum and Hapikern and the Yantho Triad.
Kukulcan
See Gucamatz
`L’
A god of the evening, of darkness and night whose name is not yet known.
Maize God
A dying-and-reviving god figure in the form of Hun Hunahpu who was killed by the Lords of Xibalba, brought back to life by his sons, the Hero Twins, and emerges from the underworld as corn. The “Tonsured” Maize god or “Foliated” Maize god are common images found throughout the region. He is always pictured as eternally young and handsome with an elongated head like a corncob, long, flowing hair like corn silk, and ornamented with jade to symbolize the corn stalk.
Mam
A title of respect meaning `Grandfather’ and applied to a number of different Maya deities including earth spirits, mountain spirits, and the four Bacabs. The god known as Mam Maximon is a post-conquest god of travelers, merchants, witchcraft, and bad luck that was conflated with the Christian figure of Judas and in modern times is part of the celebrations surrounding Holy Week.
Manik
The god of sacrifice, of sacrificial victims, and of purifying suffering.
Mitnal
Also known as `Metnal’ , this is the Quiche Maya word for the Underworld and corresponds with the Yucatec Maya vision known as Xibalba. According to the Popl Vuh, Mitnal was a dark land flowing with rivers of blood and pus and populated by deities with names such as Bloody Teeth, Bloody Claws, and Flying Scab, among others.
Mulac
One of the four Bacabs and known as `Upholder of the East’.
Naum
The god who created the human mind and consciousness.
Nacon
The god of war.
Nohochacyum
A creator-destroyer deity, the brother of the death god Kisin (or possibly another earthquake god also known as Kisin). He is the sworn enemy of the world serpent Hapikern and it is said that, in the end of days, he will destroy Hapikern by wrapping him around himself to smother him. In some versions of this story, life on earth is destroyed in the process. He is related, in some stories, to Usukan, Uyitzin, Yantho and Hapikern, all of whom wish human beings ill. Also the brother of Xamaniqinqu, the patron god of travelers and merchants.
Och-Kan
Also known as Ochan and Ahacan, he is the great Vision Serpent of the Maya. A Daykeeper (shaman) would have to experience the Vision Serpent first hand in order to understand the realm in which he was dealing and finalize his initiation into the mysteries. Och-Kan’s presence was announced by a herald god named Uc-Zip in the underworld of Xibalba.
Paddler Gods
Two deities who paddle the divine canoe through the underworld and up into the sky. They row on opposite sides of the vessel with Old Jaguar Paddler in the front and Old Stingray Paddler in the back. They participated in the building of the Cosmic Hearth for the gods at the beginning of creation and are thought to symbolize night and day, light and darkness, and the eternal dance of opposites. They are also seen as representations of the Milky Way.
Pawahtuun
A calendar deity associated with the four Bacabs and the end of the year. He positions himself at the four corners of the sky and thus holds up the world.
Poxlom
The god of diseases.
Qaholom
One of the gods who participated in the creation of human beings along with Alom, Bitol, and Tzacol.
Q’uq’umatz
See Gucamatz
Tecumbalam
The great bird sent to break the bones and rend the muscles of the human beings who displeased the gods and were destroyed in the great flood sent by Hurakan.
Tepeu
One of the creator gods who participated, sometimes with Gucumatz and Huracan, in creating human beings.
Tlacolotl
The god of evil, of those who practice evil, and of the dark places where evil plans are made. The Maya also attributed earthquakes to him.
Tohil
The god of fire who was the patron deity of the Quiche Maya city of Q’umarka.
Tzacol
One of the thirteen gods who participated in the creation of human beings. After the successful third attempt, he split into two separate deities, Tzacol and Ixpiyacoc.
Tzultacaj
Also known as Tzuultaq’ah, he was the god of mountains and valleys.
Uc-Zip
A herald god to the Lords of Xibalba who announced the coming of the great Vision Serpent Och-Kan.
Usukan
A fearsome god who hates human beings and has the earthquake as his servant in his attempt to destroy human life. His brother is Hapikern, the world-girdling serpent, who is also hostile to humanity. He is almost always listed along with Uyitzin and Yantho in what is known as the `Yantho Triad’ of supernatural `villains’. Xamaniqinqu, the god of travelers and merchants, is another brother.
Uyitzin
One of the fraternal triad with Usukan and Yantho, three brothers who hate humanity and are the enemies of the god Nohochacyum, who is also sometimes depicted as their brother as is Xamaniqinqu.
Vision Serpent
A mystical snake-god who was of great importance to the Maya as he knew the secrets of the universe and could impart these secrets to a Daykeeper (shaman). See Och-Kan.
Voltan
A chthonic deity who was lord of drums. He is not to be confused with Votan which is a god often invoked in the modern day `New Age’ movement but has no basis in fact in the ancient Maya pantheon. Voltan seems to have been a mortal who was deified for his great deeds and was married to the goddess Ixchel.
Vukub-Cakix
A giant bird god with emerald teeth who did battle with, and was ultimately defeated by, Hun Hunahpu and Vukub Hunahpu, the father and uncle of the Hero Twins. Also known as Vucub-Caquix.
Vukubcane
A Lord of the underworld Metnal (Xibalba) in the Quiche Maya work The Popol Vuh.
Ways
In the Maya belief, every day has its own energy and this energy will either aid or hinder one in one’s path on a given day. The Ways (Wayobs) are any one of a class of protector spirits whose energy aids and directs one through the course of a day and, so, in life. Every person has a Way who tends to that individual spiritually. A Way may manifest itself physically as an animal to help guide someone and, in this aspect, they would be recognized as Totems or Totemic Guides. The Ways may also communicate through dreams in which a dreamer is brought to the Wayib (the Dreaming Place) where the individual soul may commune directly with their Way. Even the gods of the Maya have a Way attached to them which guides and directs the energy of the deity if that god is open to such guidance.
World Tree
The great Ceiba Tree of Life (also known as Yaxche) which has its roots in the underworld, grows up through the middle world (earth) and has its branches in paradise. The World tree grows up through the nine levels of Xibalba, passes through the earth, and continues on up through the thirteen levels to Tamoanchan (paradise). The base of the world tree grows from the cracked shell of the Cosmic Turtle and the limbs can be seen as the Milky Way in a north-south orientation. In the axis of the World Tree sits the bird-god Itzam-Ye who knows all the secrets of the three planes of existence.
Witzob
The Maya believed the gods lived on mountains and Witzob means `mountain’ and signifies the holy mountain of the gods in Tamoanchan. The mountain was not considered simply as a mass of inert rock, however, but as a living thing imbued with the same spiritual energy that coursed through a human being and through all living things. Mountains, owing to their height, became manifestations of spiritual power and influence. The famous temples of the Maya, all throughout the region from Chichen Itza down to Altun Ha, are artificial mountains built specifically to make the patron god of that particular city, and his or her friends and attendants, feel at home.
Xamaniqinqu
The patron god of merchants and travelers, god of the north and the northern energies, and brother to Nohochacyum, Yantho, Usukun, and Uyitzin. He is also known as Xaman Ek.
Xbalanque
One of the great Hero Twins who feature prominently in the myths of the Maya and in the text of the Quiche Maya work, the Popol Vuh. The son of Hun Hunahpu and Xquiq, Xbalanque is considered the warrior twin who leads the way through the underworld and, with his brother Hunahpu, defeats the lords of Xibalba to create order on the earth. He is associated with the moon and, in some stories, is the moon.
Xecotcovach
A bird servant of the god Alom. His name means `Face Gouger’ and he participated in the destruction of the inferior human beings of the second creation attempt by tearing out their eyes.
Xibalba
The Yucatec Maya term for the underworld which corresponds to the Quiche Maya word `Metnal’. The name means `Place of Fright’ and was thought to be populated by the Xibalbans who were dark, secretive, dangerous and hostile to human beings. At death, the soul of the individual had to pass through Xibalba before reaching paradise and, if that soul were particularly unfit, would remain in Xibalba at the mercy of various deities like Cizen for an eternity. At the same time, however, it should be noted that a number of the Lords of Xibalba are associated with regeneration and re-birth and in no way should Xibalba be equated with the Christian concept of hell.
Xumucane and Xpiayoc
The parents of Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, grandparents of the Hero Twins, most ancient of the gods of the Maya pantheon, and the divine couple and first Daykeepers who helped to create human beings. According to the Quiche Maya, after the thirteen creator gods failed in their attempt to make human beings, they consulted with the much older gods, Xumucane and Xpiayoc to find out what they were doing wrong. They asked the ancient couple if wood could be a proper medium for the fashioning of humans. The two Daykeepers consulted the sacred calendar and said that wood seemed a workable material but, when the wooden humans were made, they were unacceptable. They could walk and talk but had no respect for the gods and could not consult the calendar; so the gods destroyed them in a great flood. Xumucane then ground white and yellow corn (maize) and washed her hands, saving the water to brew a sacred broth which gave life to the humans who were created from the maize, thus beginning human life on the earth. Xumucane is the great grandmother and Xpiayoc the great grandfather of all human beings. She is known as the divine mid-wife responsible for all births and he is the divine matchmaker in charge of arranging all marriages. As the first two Daykeepers they are closely associated with the sacred calendar.
Xquiq
Also known as Xquic, Blood Moon Goddess, and Blood Maiden, she is the daughter of Cuchumaquic, one of the Lords of Xibalba, and the virgin mother of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. After the Lords of Xibalba murdered Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, they placed Hun Hunahpu’s severed head in the axis of a calabash tree in the underworld as a warning sign to others that they were not to be trifled with. Xquiq was drawn by the strange fruit of the tree and, on approaching, was addressed by the head of Hun Hunahpu who then spit in her open palm. She became pregnant with the hero twins and, following Hun Hunahpu’s command, left Xibalba and presented herself to his mother, Xumucane. After she passed a test to authenticate her identity, she gave birth to the twins who then were mainly raised by their grandmother. She is identified with the waning moon as Xumucane is with the waxing moon, is also identified with Venus, and depicted as a goddess of fertility and motherhood.
Yaluk
The supreme lightning god who creates the storms sent by the rain god Chac. He is assisted by the two fraternal deities, Coyopa and Cakulha.
Yantho
A deity hostile to humanity and linked to his brothers, Usukun and Uyitzin, in a triad, usually mentioned together, who despise human beings and take joy in human distress. They are associated with earthquakes and destruction and are brothers to the benevolent Nohochacyum, the god of merchants and travelers, Xamaniqinqu, and the world-girdling serpent, Hapikern.
Yaxche
The World Tree also known as The Tree of Life. See World Tree.
Yumbalamob
Protecting spirits who inhabit the first level just above the earth and are the guardians and protectors of Christians. In the daylight they are invisible but, at night, they position themselves by the crosses which the faithful have erected outside of their homes and stand guard. Wielding obsidian knives, they cut through the winds which would harm a Christian village and, also with these knives, fend off the dangers of the surrounding jungle and send messages to each other.
Yum Caax
The god of the woods, of nature, of cacao, plants, and of the hunt. Also known as Yom Caax, Yum Kaax, Yum Ka’ax, he was regularly invoked by farmers before clearing the land for cultivation. He is regarded as a benevolent god who protects the plants and animals for human use and sustenance. He is able to either guide a hunter’s arrow to a great kill or turn the arrow back on the hunter if proper obeisance and respect has not been given.
Yum Cimil
One of the Lords of Xibalba and closely associated with Ah Puch and Cizin. Like Cizin, he wears a collar of dangling eyes and is depicted as skeletal with bones adorning his meager clothing.
Yumchakob
Also known as Nukuchyumchakob, these are white-haired, elderly deities in charge of dispensing rain. The Yumchakob are kindly disposed toward human beings and love to smoke cigars. They are associated with Kukulkan and, according to some scholars, the great god was once one of their number before descending to earth. In post-conquest Yucatan they were depicted as dwelling in the sixth level above the earth just below El Gran Dios, the Christian god.
Zac-Cimi
One of the four Bacabs. See Cauac.
Zipacna
An arrogant giant whose story is told in the Popol Vuh. He was the son of Vucub Caquix and Chimalmat and the brother of Cabrakan and, like the rest of his family, was known for his arrogance. He is famous for two events: the tale of the Four Hundred Boys and his death at the hands of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, which they accomplished by dropping a mountain on him. See Four Hundred Boys.
Zotz
The god of bats, caves, and patron of the Tzotzil tribe. Also known as Zotzilaha and Sotz.
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[ 6 ]

Early Explorers of the Maya Civilization: John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick

Ancient origins
by Joshua J. Mark

The names of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood are forever linked to the Maya and Mayan studies as the two great explorers who documented the ruins from Copan in the south to Chichen Itza in the north. The stories told by Stephens in his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843) complemented by Catherwood's illustrations, focused international attention on the Maya civilization. Catherwood's publication of his book of lithographs Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1844) furthered the world-wide interest and lifted the Maya civilization out of obscurity and into world consciousness.
As noted elsewhere, Stephens and Catherwood were not the first explorers of the ancient Mayan sites (though they are routinely designated so). They were, however, the first to visit so many sites and, more importantly, to document what they found there with precision and accuracy.
John Lloyd Stephens was born 28 November 1805 in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, graduated Columbia with a law degree, and practiced law in New York until he was diagnosed with a throat infection. Following the advice of his doctor, Stephens left New York for a change in climate and traveled extensively through Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia Minor, Palestine, and Egypt. These travels would result in the publication of his first two books, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (1837) and Incident of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838) both of which were immensely popular and earned Stephens the nickname `the American Traveler'.
Frederick Catherwood was born 27 February 1799 in north London and, by his twenties, was already well known as an architect, artist and traveler. He had already published his drawings of structures in Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece and, in 1833, was the first westerner to survey and draw the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The two men met in London in 1836 where Catherwood's panorama `The Ruins of Jerusalem' was on display. Both men were interested in exploring the region so vividly depicted in the published accounts of Mesoamerica by earlier explorers like Antonio del Rio and Juan Galindo and the drawings of Mayan sites by Jean-Frederic Maximilien, Comte de Waldek (Drew, 54-56).They agreed to travel together to the region at the first opportunity.
Many of the now-famous Maya sites were unknown even to the indigenous people of the region.
Stephens was famous enough as a world traveler and writer to have President Van Buren appoint him Ambassador to Central America from the United States and he and Catherwood left New York for British Honduras (modern day Belize) on 3 October 1839 (Drew, 37). Though conscious of his diplomatic duties, Stephens was primarily interested in exploring the ancient ruin of Copan and then moving on to Palenque. At this time, many of the now-famous Maya sites were unknown even to the indigenous people of the region. The centuries had slowly covered the great temples and pyramids and turned them into mounds of green hills. Only a few cities of the Maya were known to exist at this time, among them Copan, Palenque, Topoxte/Tayasal (called `Islapag' by Galindo) and the mysterious unnamed city deep in the jungle (which came to be known as Tikal). There were no accurate maps of the region and the two men often discovered sites through word of mouth in conversation (one example of this being Catherwood's discovery of Quirigua). They traveled without any of the extensive entourage which usually accompanied 19th century explorations. They had only a guide, some men to carry equipment, and a crudely drawn map which they had already been told was inaccurate. Even so, this did not stop them from exploring the jungles of Mesoamerica in search of the ancient sites which they had heard of and read about. In his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Stephens writes of his first impressions of Copan:
Diverging from the base, and working our way through the thick woods, we came upon a square stone column, about 14 feet high and three feet on each side, sculptured in very bold relief, and all four sides, from the base to the top. The front was the figure of a man curiously and richly dressed, and the face, evidently a portrait, solemn, stern, and well fitted to excite terror. The back was of a different design, unlike anything we had ever seen before, and the sides were covered with hieroglyphics. This our guide called an `Idol' and before it, at a distance of three feet, was a large block of stone, also sculptured with figures and emblematical devices, which he called an altar.
The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.
Stephens paid fifty dollars for the city of Copan and, as he says, was thought a fool by the owner for buying such useless land. He hoped to move the city en masse to a museum in New York but found no means of doing so. He became convinced, after only a short time in the region, that the theories regarding Hebrew or Egyptian or Atlantean origins for the Maya ruins and glyphs were wrong and that the structures and language were both autochthonous. Having mapped and recorded the site of Copan, they moved on through the jungle, mapping and recording sites such as nearby Quirigua and Zaculeu on their way to Palenque.
Stephens and Catherwood explored each site together and then set themselves to their respective tasks of writing and drawing the area. Catherwood used a device called the camera lucida which would project the image from the lens onto paper so that the artist could draw it more accurately. It is because of the use of this device that Catherwood's depictions of the Mayan sites are so precise right down to the intricate scroll work and inscriptions on the buildings (Danien, Sharer, 15). Although some have criticized his work as `overly romantic', his lithographs have been used by Mayanists in the modern day in helping to restore the buildings and temples depicted in his work. Catherwood does sometimes seem to take license in placing items, objects, or figures in a composition for artistic purposes but the depictions of the buildings themselves are regarded as completely accurate. At Palenque, Catherwood contracted malaria but continued to work in spite of his illness. Stephens describes him as refusing to rest and continuing to draw wearing gloves and netting to keep the mosquitoes away. Stephens' narrative is very descriptive in detailing the problems encountered with ticks, mosquitoes, stinging flies, bats, and mice not to mention having to hack through thick jungle and clearing the sites enough to see what lay beneath the overgrowth.
In New York, Stephens had met a man named Simon Peon who owned a large tract of land in the northern Yucatan called Hacienda Uxmal and had provided Stephens with a rough map to find the ruins he said were there. Leaving Palenque, and stopping at any site they came across or heard about, they made their way up to Uxmal. Among the sites they discovered or documented on this trip were Copan, Kabah, Merida, Palenque, Quirigua, Q'umarkaj (Utatlan), Sayil, Tonina, Topoxte, and Uxmal. Although they did not visit Tikal, Stephens mentions the white towers of the city and notes their approximate location. They remained at Uxmal, documenting that site extensively, until 31 July 1840. By this time, Stephens had also contracted Malaria and they left the Yucatan for the United States. The book which was published from these travels fascinated the world and prompted another trip to the Yucatan (this time along with Dr. Samuel Cabot) in 1841-1842 which resulted in the publication of Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan and, later, Catherwood's book of lithographs, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. On this second trip they documented sites such as Ake, Chichen Itza, Dzibilnocac, Itzamal, Labna, Mayapan, Tulum, and re-visited Uxmal. They mapped, surveyed, drew and wrote about 44 distinct Maya sites all of which have become national treasures and, some, world famous attractions.
After the second trip both men decided to retire from travel. John Lloyd Stephens directed his energies to running the Ocean Steam Navigation Company and, after that, the Panama Railroad Company. He personally went to Panama to oversee the laying of the track and clearing of the land. Either in Panama or Bogota he is said to have suffered an accident and this, along with the toll taken by his travels, is thought to have caused his death on 13 October 1852 at his home in New York at the age of 46. Frederick Catherwood went west after their adventures and opened up a supply store in San Francisco, California to capitalize on the miners flocking there after the Gold Rush of 1849. His reputation endured as an artist, however, and his works were displayed in Manhattan salons and galleries. Returning from a trip to London aboard the S.S. Arctic in 1854, Catherwood was among the over 350 passengers who died when the ship entered a thick fog bank and was rammed by the steam ship Vesta on 27 September. He was 55 years old.
The work they did lay the foundation for all future study of the Maya civilization. They meticulously documented the sites they visited, carefully charted the courses they took, and logged the time in travel between one site and the next. In reading Stephen's narrative, and following the maps drawn by Catherwood, other explorers were able to expand upon their work to bring the Maya Civilization to light. In 1857 Desire de Charnay arrived in the region and used their work to help chart his own exploration to more Mayan sites. Teobert Mahler also made use of their books in his photographic journey of the sites in 1876. In 1891 Sir Alfred Percival Maudslay came to the region and dramatically changed the scope and depth of all further excavations. Maudslay is understood as the first explorer to employ a strict scientific method in excavating and examining the sites of the ancient Maya. He helped to preserve and protect many notable sites and set the standard for future expeditions and excavations. Following Maudslay, many very notable explorers made further great advances in clearing, documenting, and photographing the Maya sites. William Holmes began work at Palenque in 1895, the same year Teobert Maler documented Tikal, and was followed by Alfred Tozzer. In 1914, Sylvanus Griswold Morley first came to the region, best known for leading the team which excavated Chichen Itza in 1923. In 1925 Franz Bloom so extensively documented Palenque that his work, like Morley's, remains important reference material for Mayanists in the field today. In less than one hundred years since Stephens and Catherwood began their first journey, the Maya Civilization had become recognized as one of the greatest produced by the ancient world.
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[ 7 ]

Early Explorers of the Maya Civilization: From Aguilar to Waldek

Ancient origins
by Joshua J. Mark

Although John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood are consistently credited with the `discovery' of the Maya Civilization, there were many who preceded them who sparked their interest in making their famous travels through Mesoamerica. The first non-Maya to explore the sites were Catholic priests who, many years after the Spanish Conquest of the region in the 16th century, visited the empty cities and told others about them. In 1695 the Friar Andres de Avendano y Loyola wrote extensively about the Maya and his missionary efforts in converting them to Christianity. In doing so, he gave early accounts of their culture, book making, religious beliefs and daily life. He also makes mention of certain sites, though not by recognizable names, which suggests that not every city was abandoned c. 950 CE but that some were re-inhabited. Even so, Avendano's accounts are biased in that he saw the Maya as deceptive heathens in need of salvation (Houston,et.al., 42). In 1773 the Father Ramon Ordonez de Aguilar wrote of the Maya of Palenque but so conflated stories he had heard with other accounts given by the Bishop Nunez de la Vega that his work is more mythology than fact. It is from Aguilar's efforts that the modern day belief in a non-existent Mayan god named `Votan' spring but, more significantly, the idea that the builders of the great cities of Mesoamerica came from the Middle East. According to Aguilar, Votan was the founder of Palenque and a great hero who traveled regularly to unspecified lands in the `old world' around Egypt and Palestine. Other works, or fragments of works, by priests and missionaries who had contact with the Maya display the same sort of fanciful interpretation of the people and their abandoned cities.
Aguilar's treatise motivated the Lieutenant Esteban Gutierrez to mount an expedition to Palenque in 1773 which inspired others to then do the same. These expeditions interested the Administrator Jose de Estacheria who sent Lieutenant Jose Antonio Calderon to Palenque in 1784. After receiving his report, Estacheria dispatched the Italian architect Bernasconi, under the auspices of the Spanish government, to the site. Bernasconi arrived in Palenque in 1785 to document and report on the city. In response to his report, the King of Spain sent Antonio del Rio to excavate Palenque in 1787 in the company of the artist Ricardo Armendariz and this is considered the first methodologically sound expedition to a Mayan site (Drew, 37-45). Armendariz's drawing of the ruins were the first glimpse the world had of the Maya Civilization.
Armendariz's drawing of the ruins were the first glimpse the world had of the Maya Civilization.
Following del Rio's report, interest in the region grew and a number of other expeditions to `New Spain' were launched; among them that of Dupaix and Castaneda who were the first to produce a work of text accompanied by illustrations of a Mayan site (Palenque). Their work was not published in full until 1834 (in the folio Antiquities Mexicaines) but parts of it were released in 1822 which engaged the interest of many and, among them, the polymath Constantine Samuel Rafinesque who was then teaching and doing field work in Kentucky. Rafinesque's writings on language and the emerging world of the Maya would become an important inspiration for later explorers in deciphering the glyphs of the Maya and conducting a serious study of their culture (Danien, Sharer, 12). Following Dupaix and Castaneda, among others, was Juan Galindo, among whose contributions was confirming that the glyphs found at Palenque and those at Copan were the same writing system and a wholly different one from any of the known ancient or European languages.
As word of the ruins of places like Palenque and Copan grew, no one was willing to entertain the possibility that the natives of the region were the descendents of the architects and builders of the great cities and immense stela. The early suggestion by Aguilar that Palenque was founded by someone from the Middle East gave rise to persistent theories that the people who built the mysterious cities of Mesoamerica were the lost tribes of Israel or Egyptians or survivors from the lost continent of Atlantis or Chinese refugees fleeing Kubla Khan. Explorers after Galindo did little to dispel this erroneous belief and, especially, Edward King the Viscount Kingsborough, Charles Etienne Basseur de Bourbourg, a French writer, and Jean -Frederic Maximilien, Comte de Waldek, whose illustrations of Mayan sites accompanied Bourbourg's text.
Edward King, Viscount Kingsborough believed that the Maya were the lost tribes of Israel to such an extent that he had the artist Augustino Aglio illustrate the 1830 work Antiquities of Mexico in such a way as to prove his hypothesis. According to Stuart, he also had the artist "search out, copy, and later color any `Mexican' manuscripts that could be found in the libraries of Europe" (Danien, Sharer, 11). His two volume set amounted to a massive tome of propaganda for his personal belief regarding the Maya and propagated the understanding that the cities of Mesoamerica were created by those classical civilizations already known and admired by Europe. His vision was expanded upon dramatically by Charles Etienne Basseur de Bourbourg in a way Kingsborough could not have imagined.
Bourbourg was ordained a priest in 1845 and sent on missionary work to Central America. From his youth he had shown a very active imagination and his early published material was criticized as largely plagiarism and conflation of other people's work (most notably Chateaubriand's). This tendency to ignore the facts and embellish upon other's work characterizes all of Bourbourg's writing. Taking a cue from Kingsborough, Bourbourg also maintained that the cities of the Maya could not have been constructed by the ancestors of the people living in the region. Looking for support for his theory, he inadvertently provided future Mayanists with much valuable information and helped bring the Maya to the attention of the world at large. He translated the Popol Vuh into French in 1861 and an abridged version of Diego de Landa's seminal work in 1862 (Catholic Encyclopedia). Holding fast to a belief that the lost continent of Atlantis was historical truth, and not just Plato's fable, he interpreted the ruins of the Maya as positive proof that the builders of the cities were Atlanteans. His writings after 1862 concern themselves with trying to show how closely the Mayan architecture (and civilization as inferred from the empty cities) mirrored that of Plato's description of Atlantis. In 1866 he published his Monuments Ancien du Mexique with accompanying illustrations by Count Waldek.
Waldek was an explorer and adventurer whose life is difficult to separate from the myths he himself spun around it.
Waldek was an explorer and adventurer whose life is difficult to separate from the myths he himself spun around it. He had allegedly traveled the world before the age of twenty, served with Napoleon, studied under Jacques Louis-David, and was friends with Lord Byron and Marie Antoinette (Drew, 48). He was convinced that the Mayan cities were in some way linked to the Middle East and, most likely, to the Egyptians. He lived in the ruins of Palenque in 1832 and claimed to have stayed there for three years (though some sources claim it was only three months) with an exotic Maya mistress. His drawings of the various sites he visited, though fine pieces of artwork, were not accurate and rendered the ruins in a highly romantic style which was influenced by his belief that ancient Egyptians had constructed the cities he depicted. One of his drawings clearly shows a Mayan figure with a headdress adorned by an elephant in an effort to link the builders of the cities with the known civilizations of the ancient world, in this case, India (Drew, 50). Waldek had allegedly visited the Yucatan in 1819 and it is thought that the stories of his adventures may have sparked or encouraged Rafinesque's interest in the Maya. However the two men met, Waldek wrote letters to Rafinesque during his time in Mesoamerica on the importance of deciphering the Mayan glyphs; an urgency which Rafinesque impressed upon John Lloyd Stephens (Stuart in Danien, Sharer, 13-16). Waldek's influence over the interpretation of the origin of the Mayan ruins was considerable as he was a very accomplished artist and this concept of a euro-centric origin for the `mysterious' cities continued.
John Lloyd Stephens was the first of those who undertook a study of the Mayan culture to assert firmly that the ruins found across Mesoamerica were produced by the indigenous population. Stuart writes, "Unlike his predecessors, John Lloyd Stephens correctly believed that the Maya themselves were responsible for the cities he had seen, and speculated with instinctive logic that the hieroglyphs carved on the stones dealt with the history of their kings" (Stuart & Stuart, 30). In 1839, accompanied by the accomplished artist and architect Frederick Catherwood, Stephens would embark on his first journey to Mesoamerica and, in doing so, would bring the Maya civilization to the attention of the world. The popularity of his books, complemented by Catherwood's lithographs, completely changed the understanding of the Maya and lay the foundation for future scholarly study not only of the Maya civilization, but of all Mesoamerican cultures.
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