Itzamná - The Mayan Supreme Being and Father of the Universe

The Ancient Mayan God of Creation, Writing, and Divination

Carved Head of Itzamna in Izamel by Frederick Catherwood
Carved head of Itzamna in Izamal by Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), engraving is from Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens, 1841. 19th century. Frederick Catherwood / De Agostini Picture Library

Itzamná (pronounced Eetz-am-NAH and sometimes spelled Itzam Na), is one of the most important of the Mayan pantheon of gods, the creator of the world and supreme father of the universe who ruled based on his esoteric knowledge, rather than his strength.

Itzamná's Power

Itzamna was a fantastic mythological being that embodied the opposites of our world (earth-sky, life-death, male-female, light-dark).

According to Maya mythology, Itzamná was part of the supreme power couple, husband to the elder version of the goddess Ix Chel (Goddess O), and together they were parents of all the other gods.

In the Mayan language, Itzamná means caiman, lizard, or large fish. The "Itz" part of his name means a number of things, among them "dew" or "stuff of the clouds" in Quechua; "divination or witchcraft" in Colonial Yucatec; and "foretell or contemplate", in the Nahuatl version of the word. As the supreme being he has several names, Kukulcan (underwater serpent or feathered snake) or Itzam Cab Ain, the "Itzam Earth Caiman", but archaeologists refer to him prosaically as God D.

Aspects of God D

Itzamná is credited with inventing writing and the sciences and bringing them to the Maya people. Often he is portrayed as an aged man, with the written form of his name including the Ahau for leadership alongside his conventional glyph.

His name is sometimes prefixed by the Akbal sign, a symbol of blackness and night that at least to a degree associates Itzamná with the moon. He is considered a force with multiple aspects, combining the earth, heavens, and underworld. He is associated with birth and creation, and maize. In Yucatan, during the Postclassic period, Itzamná was also worshiped as the god of medicine.

Illnesses associated with Itzamná included chills, asthma, and respiratory ailments.

Itzamná was also connected with the sacred World Tree (ceiba), which for the Maya linked together the sky, earth, and Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. God D is described in ancient texts from sculpture and codices as a scribe (ah dzib) or learned person (idzat). He is the top god of the Mayan hierarchy of gods, and important representations of him appear at Copan (Altar D), Palenque (House E) and Piedras Negras (Stela 25).

Images of Itzamná

Drawings of Itzamná in sculptures, codexes, ​and wall paintings illustrate him in several ways. He is often illustrated as a very old man seated on a throne facing other, subsidiary deities such as God N or L. In his human form, Itzamná is portrayed as an old, wise priest with a hooked nose and large square eyes. He wears a tall cylindrical headdress with a beaded mirror, a hat that often resembles a flower with a long outpouring stream.

Itzamná is also often represented as a two-headed underwater serpent, a caiman, or a mix of human and caiman characteristics. The reptilian Itzamná, which archaeologists sometimes refer to as the Terrestrial, Bicephalic, and/or Celestial Monster, is thought to represent what the Maya considered the reptilian structure of the universe.

In drawings of Itzamna in the underworld, God D takes the form of the skeletal representation of crocodiles.

The Bird of Heaven

One of the important manifestations of Itzamná is the Bird of Heaven, Itzam Yeh, a bird often portrayed standing on top of the World Tree. This bird is usually identified with Vucub Caquix, the mythical monster killed by the hero twins Hunapuh and Xbalanque (One Hunter and Jaguar Deer) in the stories found in the Popol Vuh.

The Bird of Heaven is a more than an associate of Itzamná, it is his counterpart, both a separate entity living alongside Itzamná and sometimes Itzamná himself, transformed.

Sources

Updated by K. Kris Hirst

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Maya Civilization and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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Maestri, Nicoletta. "Itzamná - The Mayan Supreme Being and Father of the Universe." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2016, thoughtco.com/itzamna-mayan-god-of-the-universe-171591. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2016, October 7). Itzamná - The Mayan Supreme Being and Father of the Universe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/itzamna-mayan-god-of-the-universe-171591 Maestri, Nicoletta. "Itzamná - The Mayan Supreme Being and Father of the Universe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/itzamna-mayan-god-of-the-universe-171591 (accessed November 20, 2017).