Gods and Goddesses of the Maya

The pantheon of Maya gods and goddesses is an array of anthropomorphic, personified deities who were often associated with animistic spiritual forces. As a group, the loosely allied city-states known as Maya polities shared all of the gods, but certain deities were identified with specific Maya centers or the dynastic families of the rulers of those cities. 

Key Takeaways: Maya Gods and Goddesses

  • There are at least 200 gods in the Maya pantheon. 
  • Important ones include gods of death, fertility, rain and thunderstorms, and creation. 
  • Some gods are relatively new ones, first appearing during the Late Postclassic period, while others are much older.

Gods were powerful, but not universally admired. Many Maya myths, including those portrayed in the 16th-century sacred book called the Popol Vuh, showed how they could be ruthless and cruel, and tricked, injured, or even killed by clever humans or demigods like the Hero Twins.

According to colonial records, there was a hierarchy of the gods, with Itzamna at the top. Many of the gods have multiple names and a variety of aspects, which makes it difficult to pin down exactly how many gods the Maya had: At least 200 or so are likely. Among the most important are Itzamna the Creator, the rain god Chac, the goddess of fertility, Ix Chel, and the gods of death, Ah Puch and Akan.

Itzamna

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. Frederick Catherwood / De Agostini Picture Library

Itzamna is also known as Ah Dzib ("scribe") or idzat ("learned person") and to Mayanists scholars, God D. He is the old, wizened creator god, and perhaps the major god of both the Classic and Post-Classic periods. Closely identified with creation and sustenance, Itzamna is also associated with writing, divination, wisdom, and esoteric knowledge. Colonial period records say he was the supreme ruler of the Maya gods.  

Often illustrated with a snaggle-tooth or chapfallen mouth to indicate his age, Itzamna can appear in many different guises: as a priest, or as earth-caiman (a type of crocodile), and sometimes as a personified tree or a bird deity. In the Maya book known as the Madrid Codex, Itzamna wears a tall cylindrical headdress and an ornamented back cape. 

Ah Puch

Ah Puch in the Dresden Codex
The Maya God Ah Puch in the Dresden Codex (central figure).

Public Domain 

Ah Puch is the Maya god of the dead, most often associated with death, corporal decomposition, and the welfare of the newly dead. His epithets in the Quechua language include Cimi ("Death") and Cizin ("The Flatulent One"). Known to Maya scholars as "God A," Ah Puch is an old god, appearing in Late Classic period Maya steles, as well as the Madrid and Borgia codexes and Late Post-classic ceramic vessels. 

In both versions, Ah Puch is the epitome of decay, appearing in a skeletal form and frequently in execution scenes. Representations of Ah Puch often include large black spots on his body, probably representations of putrefaction, and a large, grossly bloated belly, a belly sometimes replaced with rotting matter or spilling blood. Classic period images sometimes include a hairlike ruff ("death ruff") with globular elements extending outward, which have been identified as bells, rattles, or extruded eyeballs. He often has a human bone in his hair. His images are often comical, with specific references to his anus and flatulence. 

Akan

Akan, known as God A' (pronounced "God A Prime") to scholars, is another god of death, but more specifically, the god of wine and drinking, disease and death. Akan often holds an enema syringe and/or is illustrated vomiting, both signs of his participation in drinking bouts, especially the alcoholic drink pulque ("chih").

The face of Akan is characterized by a division sign or percent sign on his cheek and a blackened region around his eye. There is often a sign for darkness or night (Ak'b'al or Akbal) above or around his eye, and there is often a human femur in his hair. Scholars say he is the deity of suicide, often illustrated as cutting off his own head.

Huracan

The Yaxchilan Lintels, 8th century.
Lady Wak Tuun holds bloodletting equipment and communes with an aspect of waterlily serpent, the nagual of the serpent-legged lightning deity K'awiil. Lintel 15 at Yaxilan. Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Huracan, also spelled Hurakan, is known as U K'ux Kaj ("Heart of the Sky") in the Popol Vuh; K'awiil in the classic period; the "god with the ornamented nose" and God K to scholars. He is the one-legged creator god and idol and the Maya lightning god. Illustrations of Huracan show him with a long, serpentine nose with belly scutes—horny plates like those seen on a turtle shell extending out from his abdomen—and a single, often burning serpent-like leg and foot. Sometimes he carries an ax, a burning torch, or a cigar, and he often has a circular mirror embedded in his forehead.

In the Popol Vuh, Huracan is described as three gods, beings who together initiated the moment of creation:

  • Ka Kulaha Huracan, translated as "Leg Lightning," "Thunderbolt Lightning," or "Lightning Bolt"
  • Ch'ipi Ka Kulaha, as "Dwarf Lightning," "New Born Lightning" or "Brilliant Flash"
  • Raxa Ka Kulaha, "Green Lightning," "Raw Lightning," or "Sudden Thunderbolt"

Huracan is considered the god of fertile maize, but he is also associated with lightning and rain. Some Maya kings, such as Waxaklahun-Ubah-K'awil at Tikal, took his name and dressed as K'awiil to express his own power.

Camazotz

The bat-god Camazotz, or Zotz, is featured in a story in the Popol Vuh, in which the Hero Twins Xbalanque and Hunahpu find themselves trapped in a cave full of bats, great beasts with "snouts like blades that they used as murderous weapons." The twins crawled inside their blowguns to sleep, so they would be protected, but when Hunahpu put his head out of the end of his blowgun to see if the long night is over, Camazotz swooped down and decapitated him.

The story of the Hero Twins trapped in a bat cave doesn't appear anywhere else, not in the Maya codexes or illustrated on vases or stelae. But bats are sometimes labeled Ka'kh' Uti' sutz' ("fire is the bat's speech"), and they do appear in Maya iconography in four roles: an emblem for some group; a messenger and paired with a bird; a fertility or pollination symbol, paired with a hummingbird; and as a "wahy being," a bestial form of a personified disease. 

Zipacna

Chac Fights Death for Baby Jaguar
The Maya rain god Chac poses mid-stride, engages with Earth Monster as he celebrates the birth of Jaguar baby.

The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1968

Zipacna (or Sipac) is a celestial crocodile warrior, considered a counterpart of the pan-Mesoamerican god Cipactli, the earth-monster, who had to be killed to create the earth. Known mainly from the 16th-century highland account of the Popol Vuh, Zipacna also appears in oral traditions of rural towns in highland Maya regions.

According to the Popol Vuh, Zipacna was the maker of mountains, who spent his days looking for crabs and fishes to eat, and his nights lifting up the mountains. One day he dragged an enormous pole to help out 400 boys who were building a new house. The boys conspired to kill him, but Zipacna saved himself. Thinking they'd killed him, the 400 boys got drunk, and Zipacna came out of his hiding places and pulled the house down on top of them, killing them all. 

In revenge for the death of 400 boys, the Hero Twins decided to kill Zipacna, by toppling a mountain onto his chest and turning him into stone.

Chac

Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
May God Chac on Facade at Chichen Itza. Travel Ink / Getty Images

Chac (alternately spelled 'Chaac, Chahk, or Chaak), one of the oldest known gods in the Maya pantheon, can be traced in the Maya region back to the preclassic period. Some scholars consider Chac the Maya version of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl

Chac is the Maya god of rain and lightning, and he goes by a number of names including Chac Xib Chac, Yaxha Chac, and, to scholars, God B. This god is illustrated with a long, pendulous and curling nose, and often holds axes or serpents in his fists, both of which are widespread symbols of lightning bolts. Chac is closely identified with war and human sacrifice. 

Xmucane and Xpiacoc

The primordial couple of Xmucane and Xpiacoc appear in the Popol Vuh as the grandparents of two sets of twins: the older set of 1 Monkey and 1 Howler, and the younger of Blowgunner and Jaguar Sun. The older pair suffered great losses in their lives and because of that learned to paint and carve, learning the peace of the fields. The younger pair were magicians and hunters, who knew how to hunt for food and understood the violence of the woods. 

The two sets of twins were jealous of how Xmucane treated the others and played endless tricks on one another. Eventually, the younger pair won out, turning the older pair into monkeys. In pity, Xmucane enabled the return of the pipers and singers, the painters and sculptors, so that they live and bring joy to everyone. 

Kinich Ahau

Kinich Ahau is the Maya sun god, known as Ahau Kin or God G, whose defining characteristics include a "Roman nose" and a large square eye. In frontal views, Kinich Ahau is cross-eyed and he is often illustrated with a beard, which might be a representation of the rays of the sun.

Other traits associated with Kinich Ahau are his filled incisors, and rope-like elements curling out of the sides of his mouth. Inscribed on his cheek, brow, or another part of his body is the quatrefoil symbol of the sun. His "Roman nose" has a pair of beads at the very tip. The identification of Kinich Ahau with decapitation and jaguars is common in Maya iconography from the Late Preclassic to Postclassic periods.

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)

Moan Chan is the aged merchant called Moan Chan or "Misty Sky" and God L, 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.

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

Chac Chel

Chac Chel ("Rainbow" or the "Great End") is known as Goddess O, an old and powerful woman who wears spotted jaguar ears and paws—or perhaps she is an older version of Ix Chel. Unlike modern western mythology which perceives rainbows as beautiful and positive omens, the Maya considered them the "flatulence of the deities," and were thought to arise out of dry wells and caves, sources of sickness. 

Frequently appearing clawed and fanged and wearing a skirt marked with death symbols, Chac Chel is associated with birth and creation, as well as death and the destruction and rebirth of the world. She wears a twisted-serpent headdress.

Ix Chel

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

Ix Chel, or Goddess I, is a frequently clawed goddess who wears a serpent as a headdress. Ix Chel is sometimes illustrated as a young woman and sometimes as an old one. Sometimes she is portrayed as a man, and at other times she has both male and female characteristics. Some scholars argue that Ix Chel is the same deity as Chac Chel; the two are simply different aspects of the same goddess. 

There is even some evidence that Ix Chel is not this goddess's name, but whatever her name was, Goddess I is the goddess of the moon, childbirth, fertility, pregnancy, and weaving, and she is often illustrated wearing a lunar crescent, a rabbit and a beak-like nose. According to colonial records, there were Maya shrines dedicated to her on Cozumel island.

Other Maya Deities

There are many other gods and goddesses in the Maya pantheon, avatars of others or versions of Pan-Mesoamerican deities, those who appear in some or all of the other Mesoamerican religions, such as Aztec, Toltec, Olmec, and Zapotec. Here are a few of the most prevalent deities not mentioned above.

Bicephalic Monster: A two-headed monster also known as the Celestial Monster or Cosmic Monster, with a front head with deer ears and capped with a Venus emblem, a skeletal, upsidedown rear head, and the body of a crocodile.

Diving God: A youthful figure that appears to be diving headfirst from the sky, often referred to as a bee god, although most scholars believe he represents the Maya Maize God or God E.

Ek Chuah (God M): The Maya form of the long-nosed merchant god of Aztecs, Yacatecuhtli, a black deity with a pendulous lower lip and a long Pinocchio-like nose; a later version of God L Moan Chan.

Fat God: A huge potbellied figure or simply a massive head, commonly illustrated in the Late Classic period as a bloated corpse with heavy swollen eyelids, refers to sidz, signifying gluttony or excessive desire.

God C: The personification of sacredness. 

God E: The Maya god of Maize. 

God H: A youthful male deity, perhaps a wind god. 

God CH: Xbalanque, one of the Hero Twins. 

Hun-Hunahpu: Father of the Hero Twins.

Jaguar Gods: Several deities associated with jaguars and the sun, sometimes illustrated as a person wearing the cloak of a jaguar; includes Jaguar God of the Underworld, associated with Tikal; Jaguar Baby; Water Lily Jaguar; Jaguar Paddler.

Jester God: A shark god, with a head ornament that resembles that used on a medieval European court jester. 

Long-nosed and long-lipped deities: Numerous gods have been called long nosed or long lipped; those with upward-turning snouts are associated with serpents, those with downward curving snouts are birds. 

Manikin Scepter: God K or GII of the Palenque Triad, a version of Kawil and Tohil, but a small representation that is held in the hand of a ruler.

Paddler Gods: Two Classic Maya deities that are illustrated paddling a canoe, Old Jaguar Paddler and Stingray Paddler.

Palenque Triad Gods: GI, GII, GIII, special patron gods of Palenque, who appear as single gods in other Maya city-states.  

Pauahtun: The Skybearer god, who corresponds to the four directions and appears in both single and quadripartite form (God N), and sometimes wears a turtle carapace. 

Quetzalcoatl: A central figure in all Mesoamerican religions, a miraculous synthesis of serpent and bird, Gukumatz or Q'uq'umatz in the Popol Vuh; Kukulkan as the Feathered Serpent at Chichen Itza. 

Scribal gods: Numerous avatars of gods are illustrated sitting cross-legged and writing: Itzamna appears as a scribe or a teacher of scribes, Chac is illustrated writing or painting or spewing out numbers strips of paper; and in the Popol Vuh are illustrated the monkey scribes and artists, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen. 

Sky Bearers: Pan-Mesoamerican gods who had the task of sustaining the sky, four deities known as bacabs, related to Pauahtun.

Tohil: Patron god of the Quiche at the time of the Spanish conquest, and the principal god named in the Popol Vuh, who demands blood sacrifice and might be another name for God K. 

Vision Serpent: A rearing serpent with a single head and prominent snake markings whose mouth belches out gods, ancestors, and other nobles. 

Vucub Caquix / Principal Bird Deity: A great monster bird, associated with the king vulture, and identified as Vucub Caquix in the Popol Vuh, in which he sets himself up as the false sun before the dawn of time, and the Hero Twins shoot him down with blowguns.

Water Lily Serpent: An undulating serpent with a head with a downward curving beak of a bird wearing a waterlily pad and flower as a hat; associated with the surface of still water. 

Sources and Further Reading