Gods and Goddesses of the Maya

The gods and goddesses of the ancient Maya people of Mesoamerica actively influenced all aspects of everyday life. They were vital, impersonal forces of nature, who incorporated the powerful intercession of people's ancestors.

Reading Maya Gods

Compared to the Aztec pantheon, we don't know very much of the deities of the pre-Columbian Yucatan peninsula and parts of Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and what we do know is confusing. Many of the gods have multiple names and many changed over time and space. In addition, unlike for the Aztec gods, there are few Colonial-period accounts for the Maya deities. What exists are the "Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán," written by the Spanish Jesuit priest Fray Diego de Landa, and the Quichean "Popul Vuh." Much of what we have learned beyond that comes from their own words, written and painted and carved into monuments, and inscribed in the four surviving books of the Maya. Those weren't fully translated until the 1980s.

The epigrapher credited with the first assembly of the iconography of the Maya gods is Paul Schellhas, whose monograph on deities of the Maya manuscripts was published in 1910, designating a letter for each separate god. Later scholars important to understanding the Maya pantheon include J. Eric Thompson, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, LInda Schele, Peter Matthews, and David Stuart.

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God A and A': Ah Puch, God of the Dead

An actor portraying Ah Puch
An actor portraying Ah Puch at Xcaret, an archaeological park located in Riviera Maya. Cosmo Condina / Getty Images

There are two version of God A. God A is the god most often associated with death and one who rules over the newly dead. In addition to Ah Puch, two of his epithets are "Cimi," or "Death" in the Quechua, or "Cizin", "the flatulent one." His image is a fleshless grinning skull, with a skeletal body with protruding ribs and rickety limbs. He often has large black spots and a grossly distended belly; during the classic period, his belly was replaced with pouring swirls of blood. He has a hairlike ruff fringing his head and collar, that has globular elements which might be eyes, bells, or rattles.

The God A' version is less explicitly suggestive of rotting flesh, but he is the god of violent sacrifice and a demon of the underworld, with a black band across his eyes.

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God B: Chac, God of Rain and Lightning

God Chac, relief on Nuns house, Puuc style, Chichen Itza (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1988), Yucatan, Mexico, Mayan civilization, 9th-10th century
Chac. De Agostini / W. Buss / Getty Images

Chac (God B) also spelled 'Chaak, is the god of rain and lightning, also called Chac Xib Chac and Yaxha Chac. He has a long, pendulous and curling nose, and often wields an ​axe or serpents, which are widespread symbols of lightning. He is one of the oldest gods, found in the Classic period and closely identified with war and human sacrifice. 

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God G: Kinich Ahau, God of the Sun

Sacred mask of Kinich Ahau
The sacred mask of Kinich Ahau, in the main pyramid at Kohunlich. By Aguilardo (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

God G is the Maya sun god, Ahau Kin or Kinich Ahau, who has a "Roman nose," and a  large square eye. He is also illustrated as wearing a beard, which might be a representation of the rays of the sun. He is usually depicted as middle-aged in the Dresden Codex but as an old man in the Madrid Codex. He is associated with jaguars, decapitation, fire, and rulership. 

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Goddess I: Ix Chel, Moon Goddess

Ix Chel (left) and Itzamná (right) on the Holy Mountain before the creation of the world
Ix Chel (left) and Itzamná (right) on the Holy Mountain before the creation of the world. Museo Amparo, Puebla. By Salvador alc (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Goddess I is (probably) Ix Chel, the Moon goddess, who appears in both young and old versions. She is the goddess of childbirth, fertility, pregnancy, and weaving, and often is illustrated with a lunar crescent, a rabbit and a beak-like nose. There are said to be shrines to her dedicated on Cozumel island. 

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Goddess O: Chac Chel

Ixchel, Earth and Moon Goddess in Mayan Religion, Mythology
Ixchel, Earth and Moon Goddess in Mayan Religion, Mythology. Image Source: Nova Development

Chac Chel ("Rainbow) is Goddess O, an old and powerful woman who wears spotted jaguar ears and paws. Like IxChel, she is associated with birth and creation, but also with death and world destruction. She wears a twisted-serpent headdress, and she is often confused with Goddess I, perhaps because we don't completely understand the hieroglyphs. She might well be an avatar of Goddess I. 

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God K: K'awil, the Maize God

 God K (K'awil) has a long, serpent nose (the god with the ornamented nose), belly scutes, and a burning serpentine foot. He is associated with kings and is a complex figure, with a broad range of iconographic and epigraphic associations. He sometimes carries an ax, a burning torch, or a cigar, and sometimes a mirror is embedded in his forehead. In addition to fertile maize, God K is associated with lightning and rain.

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God L: Moan Chan, the Merchant God

God L with the Hero Twins
God L with the Hero Twins. Francis Robicsek: The Maya Book of the Dead. The Ceramic Codex, University of Virginia Art Museum (1981)

God L is the aged merchant called Moan Chan or "Misty Sky," who is most often portrayed with a walking stick and a merchant's bundle. On one vase he is portrayed with a broad-brimmed hat trimmed with feathers, and a raptor sits on the crown. His cloak is commonly a black-and-white design of stepped chevrons and rectangles or one made from a jaguar pelt. He is stooped with age, has a prominent, beaked nose and a sunken, toothless mouth, and sometimes is illustrated smoking a cigar. He is associated with tobacco, jaguars, and caves.

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God D: Itzamna, the Creator God

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

God D is the old, wizened creator god, Itzamna, and in ancient texts, he is called Ah Dzib or "Scribe," and an "idzat," a "learned person." He has a snaggle-tooth or chapfallen mouth to indicate his age. He sometimes is portrayed as a priest, as an earth-caiman, but sometimes as a personified tree, and sometimes as a bird deity. He is closely identified with creation and sustenance but also writing, divination and other esoteric lore. 

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Sources and Further Reading

Tower Dedicated to Ix Chel, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Riviera Maya, Mexico
Tower Dedicated to Ix Chel, Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve in Riviera Maya, Mexico. Yvette Cardozo / Getty Images