Like everywhere else, the ancient Maya thought a lot about death — a fact well documented through their art.
As far as we know, the Maya had no single belief system about what happens after death. However, several themes emerge across Mayan cultures that can help us piece together a grand narrative about what the Maya believed.
For the Maya, the land of the dead was known as Xibalbá, a realm full of trials and cold, but which, ultimately, could bring great peace and contentment.
In the Popl Vuh, the path to Xibalbá was described as a steep descent that took the dead to the edge of a river divided into four tributaries. These rivers were red, white, yellow, and black. This final path was the path to a sort of hall of judgment overseen by the lords of the underworld.
The dead had to go through five trials or houses to achieve respite. Each of these featured a theme or challenge to be overcome, such as darkness, cold, growling jaguars, fluttering bats, and finally, a house of knives, which in some versions were red-hot.
Bats are featured extensively throughout the myths of Mesoamerica, especially in the Maya and Zapotec regions.
Though these challenges are certainly presented as daunting, it would be overly simplistic to interpret them as some sort of hell or purgatory, as these concepts were foreign to the Maya. It is more likely that these “houses” were seen as places of purification souls must endure before gaining access to some sort of afterlife where they would join their ancestors.
The chief deity of the underworld in the Maya world was known as Ah Puch, also known as Kizin, “the smelly one.” He is often represented as a decayed human figure with the head of a jaguar or owl adorned with bells.
Ah Puch is also often portrayed as the antithesis of Itzamná, the sky lord — and in some sources, the husband of the goddess Ixtab.
But for the Maya, the realm of Xibalbá was not entirely disconnected from the realm of the living, as certain creatures, including bats, owls and special jaguars, were seen as capable of freely transiting between these worlds.
Of course, just as in life, the rules or way death worked were not the same for everyone across classes. For great rulers like Pakal the Great of Palenque, their burials involved great pomp, often in large temples and within exquisitely adorned sarcophagi.
While nonelite burial practices were not nearly as elaborate, it is still not uncommon to find pottery, jade, or obsidian artifacts within funerary enclosures.
For the Maya, there were also certain places, including caverns and dedicated temples, which served as literal or metaphorical gateways to Xibalbá.
In the case of caves, locations including Lol-Tún in the Puuc and Balancanché near Chichén Itzá, as well as many others, have been found to include petroglyphs referring to the path of souls to the land of the dead.
Though Monster of the Earth facades do not appear exclusively in Chenes sites, they are considered a hallmark of Chenes-style architecture.
The Maya also took cues from other Mesoamerican peoples, including the Toltec and Zapotec, which influenced their funerary practices and views on the great beyond.
The Zapotec are also known for sometimes elaborately decorating the skulls of notable leaders, as is the case of the famous tomb 7 of Monte Albán.
Some of the most well-known images representing death in Mesoamerica have to do with Tzompantli, a type of wooden rack used for the public display of human skulls, especially those of war captives or victims of sacrifice.