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What Are the Major Elements of Mayan Mythology?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The major elements of Mayan mythology revolve around maize. The Mayan creation myths hold that mankind came from a single grain of maize brought into the world from the underworld by the first father. Mayan mythology beyond this central concept is varied like many other polytheistic religions and includes a host of deities, supernatural creatures, rituals and festivals.

The Mayan civilization exploded across Mesoamerica in the 3rd century A.D. The Mayans mostly occupied the Yucatan Peninsula covering modern day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The Mayans are remembered for their steep pyramids used as temples and their development of agriculture in the region. The civilization declined in the 10th century, but tales of Mayan mythology have continued to be passed down from generation to generation as oral history.

The first major element of Mayan mythology is the creation myth. Creation is set out in the tale known as the ‘Popul Vuh’ and centers on the First Father, known as One Ahuapa. The First Father was first tricked into entering a cave by some gods. These gods then beheaded him and hung his head up as a trophy.

One day, a goddess passed the head and spoke to it. The First Father, instead of replying, spit in the goddess's hand and made her fall pregnant. She then gave birth to a pair of twins who grow up in exile and returned to gain revenge. They tricked the gods, killed them and then resurrected the First Father. The twins became the Sun and the Moon, while the First Father became the God of Maize.

Maize continued to be an important part of Mayan mythology. The Mayans believed that all humans were descended from the one ear of maize the First Father found in the cave. Like many other polytheistic religions, agriculture and the seasonal cycles are important to the Mayans’ beliefs and rituals. One of the theories for the decline of the Mayan civilization is the decline of the area’s agricultural land. If so, then a culture based on maize would suffer if maize declined.

As well as seasonal-based rituals, there were also rituals for each of the deities. This explains why many reliefs and pieces of Mayan art show the political elite dressed up as deities. The elite even took to wearing masks carved in their gods’ images. Purification, sexual abstinence and sacrifice were important elements of rituals. One short run ritual includes the veneration of a straw puppet called a ‘Mam.’

Mayan mythology has specific ideas about the human soul. The Mayans believed the human soul could not be destroyed, but they also believed in a duality of the soul. One element of the human soul is the human consciousness and the other element is the companion. The companion, in Mayan mythology, is a guardian animal.

The place to fear for Mayans would be Xibalba. This is the Mayan underworld, a place ruled by death gods and other creatures allied to them. Xibalba is the same cave where the First Father was tricked and beheaded. Ideas of a paradise or heaven are mixed and varied in Mayan mythology and few groups can agree on its composition.

Gods and supernatural beings are also a fundamental part of Mayan mythology. These beings form the basis of storytelling, rituals, folk tales and cautionary tales. Deities include Acan the God of wine, Camazotz the bat God and Xaman Ek the God of travelers. Supernatural creatures run from animal spirits to demons of Xibalba.

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