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.

Unlike classical Western gods, the Maya gods have multiple associations or regions of control: for example, Kinich Ahau, the Maya sun god, is also associated with jaguars and fire: he was not the god of jaguars or fire. Other gods are seen in the company of jaguars, such as Moan Chan, the Merchant God. The illustrations are clear that jaguars are somehow associated with both of these gods, but scholarly interpretations of that relationship are fuzzy.

Reading About Maya Gods

Compared to the Aztec pantheon, the deities of the pre-Columbian Maya are not especially clear-cut: many of the gods have multiple names and many changed over time and space. Unlike the Aztecs, the Maya were a group of loosely confederated communities, and each community was freely available to interpret the religion in the way it worked for them.

Also unlike for the Aztec gods, there are few Colonial-period accounts for the Maya deities. What exists is 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 scholars have learned beyond that comes from words of the Maya people themselves, 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 the German scholar Paul Schellhas, whose monograph on deities of the Maya manuscripts was published in 1910. Since the names of the gods were unknown when he wrote his monograph, Schellhas designated a letter for each separate god or goddess he recognized. Later scholars important to understanding the Maya pantheon include J. Eric Thompson, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, Linda Schele, Peter Matthews, and David Stuart.

01
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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 versions of God A: God A and God A' (pronounced "God A Prime"). God A is the Mayan 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 that of a fleshless grinning skull, with a skeletal body with protruding ribs and rickety limbs. The body of the god is often illustrated with 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.

02
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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
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. This god is illustrated with a long, pendulous and curling nose, and often wields an ​ax or serpents, which are widespread symbols of lightning. Chac is one of the oldest gods, found in the Classic period and closely identified with war and human sacrifice. 

03
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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 [ 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. God G is often illustrated with a beard, which might be a representation of the rays of the sun. In the Dresden Codex, God G is usually depicted as middle-aged; but in the Madrid Codex, he is a toothless old man.

Kinich Ahau is often illustrated in the company of jaguars, and in images of decapitation, fire, and various rulers. 

04
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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.

Salvador alc [ 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: scholars debate whether Goddess I and Goddess O are separate deities or different aspects of the same deity. The images may be a reflection of an ambiguity built into the Maya pantheon.

Goddess I is the goddess of childbirth, fertility, pregnancy, and weaving, and she is often illustrated wearing a lunar crescent, a rabbit and a beak-like nose. There are shrines dedicated to her on Cozumel island, and because of that, a modern goddess movement is practiced there.

05
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Goddess O: Chac Chel

Chac Chel ("Rainbow) is Goddess O, an old and powerful woman who wears spotted jaguar ears and paws—or perhaps she is an older version of IxChel. Like IxChel, Chac Chel is associated with birth and creation, but in addition, Chac Chel is illustrated with scenes of death and the destruction and rebirth of the world. She wears a twisted-serpent headdress.

06
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God K: K'awil, the Maize God

statue of Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil at Copan
This monument in the central plaza at Copan depicts the king Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil in the role of the Maize God as he danced at Creation.

 Dennis Jarvis/Flickr

God K (K'awil) has a long, serpentine nose (and he is often called "the god with the ornamented nose"). He is illustrated with belly scutes—horny plates like those seen on a turtle shell extending out from his belly—and a burning serpent-like foot. K'awil is sometimes carrying an ax, a burning torch, or a cigar: sometimes a circular mirror is embedded in his forehead.

God K is considered the god of fertile maize, but he is also associated with lightning and rain. He is illustrated with various kings, such as Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil, and is a complex figure, with a broad range of iconographic and epigraphic connections.

07
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God L: Moan Chan, the Merchant God

God L with the Hero Twins in the book of the dead
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 illustrated with a walking stick and a merchant's bundle. On one vase God L 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.

God L is most often illustrated as an ancient man, stooped with age, with a prominent, beaked nose and a sunken, toothless mouth. He sometimes is pictured smoking a cigar. God L is also associated with tobacco, jaguars, and caves.

08
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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."

God D is also illustrated with a snaggle-tooth or chapfallen mouth to indicate his age. But Itzamna can appear in many different guises: sometimes he is portrayed as a priest, or as earth-caiman (a type of crocodile), and sometimes as a personified tree, or a bird deity. He is closely identified with creation and sustenance but also writing, divination and other esoteric lore. 

09
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Sources and Further Reading

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