This section of the Maya archaeology web site introduces the gods and goddesses of the ancient Maya using their actual portraits by Maya artists of the 4th-9th centuries A.D.
Jaguar God of the Underworld, the Night Sun, one of the major characters of the Maya pantheon. For more information on this deity, and the rest of the pantheon, we recommend looking among the 727 illustrations of deities and cosmological locations in Nicholas Hellmuth's colorful book, Monster and Men in Maya Art, bi-lingual (German-English), ADEVA, Graz, Austria. There are also helpful books on Mayan deities by Karl Taube, Mary Miller, and others.
There are many jaguar characters in the mythology of the Classic Maya, and still today. But when you see a spotted animal in Maya art, remember that there are actually five felines:
- Two with no spots (jaguarundi and puma)
- Three with spots (jaguar, margay, and ocelot).
In rare instances you can find a black jaguar at a zoo. Some are almost pure black; others are black but you can still see even darker spots in between. The black felines do appear in Maya art of the Classic period, but are as rare in the art as the actual animals are rare in the forests and fields.
Maya Religion and Cosmology
Most information that is known about Maya religion comes from the innumerable and meticulous investigations done on murals, decorated vases, stone monuments, prehispanic documents, colonial documents, and valuable ethnographic sources, where you can observe that the contemporary Maya still carry out several religious practices that their ancestors practiced long time ago.
Mayas believed that several deities created the world in diverse occasions. The sacred book of the Mayas, the Popol Vuh, narrates the creation of the world and men, even to the point where it is considered the most complete of the Maya creation. The murals of San Bartolo, represents one of the earliest versions, to this day, about the myth of creation, dated for the Preclassic period, were you can appreciate the participation of several characters that are represented in diverse scenes of centuries later Codex Style vessels from the Classic period.
In the Maya cosmogony there is the concept of duality between life and death. The death was considered a complement of life and was represented in Xibalba, the underworld. In several vessels of the Classic period, they had diverse elements that had been identified as part of the underworld. Water is an element associated with the underworld and several times its been represented in diverse ways. Dr. Hellmuth has made a wide study of the iconographic elements of the underworld; this can be seen in “Monsters and Men in Maya Art” (1987).
The Maya believed that the earth was divided in three spheres, heaven or celestial world (stars, planets, sun, moon, etc), the terrestrial world and the underworld. Most scholars write that they believe the Maya represented the earth by the back of a big reptile (sometimes by a turtle or by a crocodilian). In the center of the world or axis mundi, there was a big sacred tree, a big Ceiba which communicated between the three levels of the universe. Each level of the universe has its own deities. This is the most popular conception.
Aspects of the Maya cosmos has been represented in the codices and by the arrangement of structures at major Maya cities: Twin Pyramid Groups, “Group E” solstice and equinox groups, and other alignments of buildings.
In the Maya there were practically two types or system of worship. There was the “official religion”, managed by a hierarchy with political purposes; and there is the “popular religion”, which was practiced by the major part of the population, since it was related with everyday beliefs and needs, and also they perform several simple ceremonies for their crops in far away town (Valdes; 1994).
Some religious concepts expressed in the Maya culture are of Olmec origin and continue in use thousands of years later by the Maya, examples of these are the double headed serpent, jester god, Jaguar god, the concept of a Cave-related Underworld, and the celestial bird.
Nowadays, its interesting to see how many Maya groups continue their tradition and still undertake rituals that their ancestors used to do. Even though, one can appreciate that since time has passed, since the Spanish invasion, there has emerged a strong syncretism between the Maya religion and the catholic religion, creating this way an interesting mixture that is almost unique in several countries of America. This syncretism can be observed in the respect that is given to holly saints that keep certain relation with some old Mesoamerican deities; and the celebration of festivities for the patron saints, where the dates of the festivities are related with some important activities that where taken place in the past; etc.
There are hundreds of articles on the deities of the Mayan people of the last two thousand years. Many of these references are in the bibliographies of the three monographs listed below. Not all scholars agree on the best name for each deity, and some deities have different appearances depending on the myth in which you see them in the stelae, mural, or vase painting. Some gods have popular names on the various signs and guidebooks at Maya sites that are not documented in university and museum research. It took me eight years to do the research for my treatise on Maya deities in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and still today I find mistaken names in popular publications and web sites.
- "Monsters and Men in Maya Art/ Monster und Menschen in der Maya-Kunst". Akademische Druck und Verlagsanstalt.
- An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. Thames & Hudson. 216 pages.
- The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan. Dumbarton Oaks. 160 pages.
- "Algunas relflexiones sobre la religion de los Mayas Preclasicos". IV Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueological en Guatemala; 1990. Editado por Juan Pedro Laporte, Hector Escobedo y S. Brady. Pp: 223-235. Museo Nacional de Arqueologia y Etnologia, Guatemala.