An Introduction to the Major Gods of the Maya Pantheon

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A section of the Madrid Codex depicts Yum Kaax and Chaacs wielding battle axes and pouring water below, all enveloped in divine serpents. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The pantheon of the ancient Maya comprised countless deities and supernatural beings believed to govern the universe and the fates of mortals.

Like other polytheistic religions, the relationship between these supernatural beings was complex and changed over time. As a result, piecing together a complete list of gods, their roles, and relationships is virtually impossible.  

There is also the fact that primary sources describing the roles of these deities are somewhat limited, so a good deal of inference and guesswork is unavoidable. 

Aside from codexes, hieroglyphics, and oral traditions, architecture can often offer important insights into the mythology of the ancient Maya. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Still, there is quite a bit we do know, especially regarding the most prominent members of the Maya pantheon, so without any further caveats, let’s explore the fascinating Maya pantheon.

Itzamná

He was also referred to as Zamná, usually considered the most important god of the Maya pantheon, as he was associated with creation and the realm of the sky. Under his role as “first priest,” Izamná was also invoked as a god of medicine and was thought to have a close association with the solar deity Kinich Ahau.

Lord Itzamná is depicted in his role as ruler of the sky in the Dresden Codex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Since the early colonial period, it has been speculated that Zmaná may be the son of the mysterious deity Hunab Ku, whose image is unknown and has been speculated to be the creator of the universe. However, given the context of this speculation and the desire of Europeans of the time to associate ancient beliefs with those of Christianity, this father/son relationship has been called into question. Another popular theory is that Hunab Ku and Zamná are facets of the same deity, a practice found in many cultures worldwide. 

Chaac

There is perhaps no other deity more recognizable in the Maya pantheon than Chaac. This, in part, has to do with the plethora of stone masks of this rain god found throughout the Maya world, especially in the Puuc region. Chaac, like other Mayan deities, embodies a paradox. He is a singular entity, yet he also takes on multiple forms associated with the four cardinal points and the center of the universe. 

The facade of the Codz Poop in Kabah is entirely covered in rain god masks and is quite the sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Chaac masks take on a similar look, dominated by a hooked nose, but always include slight differences from city to city.

A nearly complete Chaac rain god mask in Uxmal, Yucatán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

According to Yucatec-Maya tradition, Chac Xib Chaac (the rain deity of the east) was the title of a king of Chichén Itzá and resided within the Grand Cenote, where sacrifices were offered. 

Kukulcán

The Aztec deity Quetzalcoatl is considered a direct analog of Kukulcán in central Mexico. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Kukulcán, also spelled Kukulkán, is the feathered serpent god of Maya mythology. He is a complex and multifaceted deity associated with a wide range of concepts, including rain, wind, warfare, wisdom, and culture. Kukulkán is most closely associated with the Maya city of Chichén Itzá, where he is the central figure of many of the city’s most important temples and monuments. 

Representation of Kukulcán flying through the sky on the facade of a temple inside Uxmal’s Nunnery. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The most famous is the Templo de Kukulcán, also known as El Castillo, a nine-tiered pyramid with a staircase on each side. On the spring and fall equinoxes, the sun casts shadows on the staircase that create the illusion of a giant serpent slithering down the pyramid.

The Pyramid of Kukulkan is framed by a depiction of his head in Chichén Itzá. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Ixchel

Ixchel is known mainly as the goddess of childbirth and the most fierce of the goddesses of the Maya pantheon, often represented as an old woman with a coiled snake atop her head and jaguar ears. Ixchel sometimes appears with jaguar-like claws when taking up her role as a goddess of war and combat. 

The goddess Ixchel is as she appears in the Dresden Codex. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though some argue that Ixchel was also the goddess of the moon, when she is depicted in this way, she appears much younger, leading scholars to believe that this is an entirely different goddess known as Uh or a different aspect or manifestation of the same deity. 

The remains of a temple atop a cliff dedicated to Ixchel in Isla Mujeres, the main pilgrimage site of this powerful goddess. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Ixchel also used to be closely associated with suicide, though the dominant school of thought is that that goddess is an entirely different being known as Ixtab.

Kinich Ahau

Kinich Ahau is the chief solar deity in the Maya pantheon and is most often depicted in codexes as a crossed-eyed middle-aged man. However, the most common depictions of Kinich Ahau are found in the form of large-scale stone or stucco masks adorning classic-era temples and pyramids. 

Some of the best-preserved Kinich Ahau stucco masks can be found in the ancient city of Kohunlich. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Besides the jaguar, Kinich Ahau is also associated with eagles and deer, animals that symbolize power and royalty. Hieroglyphically, the sun god is the patron of the day unit (kʼin), which makes sense as every day was considered to officially begin with the rising of the sun. 

Ah Puch

Ah Puch is the Maya deity responsible for the underworld, a real metaphysically separate from the earth known as Xibalba. While in the Preclassic, Ah Puch tended to be depicted as a relatively normal-looking old man, during the Classic age, his abdomen is often shown open with an out-pouring of blood and guts. 

In the Dresden Codex, Ah Puch (right) appears to serve an important role in the ordering of the cosmos and celestial events like eclipses. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Under this form, he is often referred to as “the decrepit or stinky one” and takes on a much more active role in death itself. 

Ah Puch is shown with the severed heads of kings in a large stucco relief in the city of Tonina. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

During different periods, Ah Puch has also been known by other names, including Yum Kimil, Hun Ahau, and Kisin. In both the Yucatán and Lacandon regions, Kisin continues to play an important role in folklore, even being associated with Satan at times. 

Yum Kaax

Yum Kaax, known as the lord of the woods and nature, was believed to be the main guardian of all plant and animal life. However, given the centrality of maize in the Maya diet, he is most closely associated with being the deity of this crop — though strictly speaking, this is not the case. 

Modern sculpture of Yum Kaax in the village of Yaxuná where he is seen holding a vessel full of crops. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Yum Kaax was also closely associated with the hunt, especially of deer. To this day, in rural areas of the Yucatán Peninsula, hunters and farmers will often create a small altar with offerings to Yum Kaax to secure a plentiful harvest or hunting season. In some communities, there is also a belief that Yum Kaax is the lord of a race of mythical creatures known as the Alux, who will sabotage the crops of farmers who have not performed the proper rites before plowing the land. 

Subsistence farming continues to be common in rural Yucatán, where the powers and influence of Yum Kaax and the Alux are not forgotten. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Dozens of other interesting deities in the Maya Pantheon deserve acknowledgment. Next week, we will cover even more deities and supernatural beings of Maya mythology. 

Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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