Jana loves unusual history. She strives to share the bizarre and funny cases of yore with kindred spirits.
Hmm. Following that cute monkey into the forest was not a good idea. You can no longer see your tour group or which way is the real left (or right) back to the road. You were on your way to see all the Maya ruins, dotting the landscape from Mexico to Honduras, and now you’re on your way to Lostville. Somewhere in South America. Which happens to be a pretty big place. Then you see a signpost but it dashes hope the moment the words become clear. It mumbles something about how the Maya believed in cycles and for lost tourists to be recycled back to their bus they must prove their worthiness to the gods.
The board has a button. You know, the kind at missile silos that people push to make trouble. Apparently, this will bring the Mayan gods to you for critical judgment - and possible doom that includes wandering South America forever. What the heck. You push the button.
Ek Chuaj - Mayan God Of Chocolate
Realms: Merchants, journeys, and cacao.
Fun fact: He’s sometimes shown as an elderly gentleman with one tooth (he probably enjoyed too much chocolate).
When the first one appears, it’s a bizarre moment. His face is distinctive for the two lines curving from his large lower lip to the right eye. The god’s body is also covered in zebra stripes and his name sounds like a sneeze. But Ek Chuaj isn’t there to demand proof of your worthiness. His task is to ease you into things because let’s face it, the Mayan pantheon has provoked fear for centuries. As the god of chocolate, he knows that a hot mug can soothe anyone - even a tourist facing their doom.
You’re basically drinking his wallet. No bank today will accept a deposit of chocolate bars but to the Maya, cacao was a valuable currency. Traders used the beans and because of this, Ek Chuaj is also a patron of merchants. To symbolize his involvement in their lives, he carries luggage on his back and a spear for protection.
Merchants were often attacked by bandits as they traveled between places. This violent tidbit is fascinating but becomes too real when he hands you the spear and pack of beans as “tools” for your journey. Yep, he’s also the god of journeys. All advice he has to offer is to pay the right Mayan gods and to fend off the rest.
Itzamná - Creator Of The Mayan Gods
Realms: God of creation, birth, opposites, medicine, maize, divination, and writing.
Family: Husband of Ix Chel, father of all the other Mayan gods.
Fun fact: This god was associated with asthma and other respiratory ailments.
You notice a treehouse not far from where the chocolate fellow had stood. Maybe the homeowner will be kind enough to call the cops and airlift you out of this mess. However, when you climb the ladder and enter, you’re faced with the first of the gods about to decide your fate. Drat. You’re not even sure how that will happen but when Itzamná talks about himself, you don’t have a choice but to listen.
Back in the day, Mayan artists depicted him as a crocodile skeleton - and that’s how you first encounter him. When he’s had his fun freaking you out as a bunch of talking bones, Itzamná turns into his human form. There is little improvement. He has big square eyes and a nose that would do the curve of a banana proud.
His looks won’t win prizes but as a god, he’s second to none. Itzamná not only invented the sciences and writing before giving these to the Maya but he’s also their supreme being. In Mayan mythology, Itzamná created everything - even the other gods. His fantastic power comes from the unusual way he handles his position. Most supreme deities use violence to get their way. Not this god. Instead of abusing his strength, Itzamná uses esoteric knowledge to rule.
He’s also closely associated with the World Tree, a sacred being that links the sky, earth, and underworld. You don’t need a Las Vegas sign to point out which tree you’re sitting in. As quaint as that is, you need to hurry this along and look at your “tools.” Itzamná brought education and life. It doesn’t seem right to stick a spear into the god. Good choice. When you offer him hot chocolate, he deems you a worthy person. Okay, that was easy.
Ix Chel - Mayan Goddess Of Creation
Realms: Creator goddess, fertility, death, curing, physical love, divination, spiders, water, childbirth, weaving, the Moon.
Family: Wife of Itzamná, mother of all the gods.
Fun fact: The Maya consulted a life-size statue of Ix Chel as an oracle when they sought advice on warfare and building.
His wife is not that easy. But Ix Chel isn’t being difficult on purpose, she’s just very mysterious. Even today, scholars aren’t sure that her attributes were originally what the Maya intended for her. But according to archaeological tradition - or the longest accepted view of Ix Chel - is that she’s the Mayan Moon goddess. There’s also growing evidence that her other realms, as determined by the earliest Western studies, might’ve been correct.
Ix Chel makes sure that you know she dwells in the sky and watery sinkholes - but not in her husband’s shadow. As the mother of the gods, she is also a creator deity in the Maya religion and one of the most revered goddesses. But the longer she talks, the more you feel motion sickness. She keeps changing between the two shapes she’s known for; a sensual girl and an old woman.
Once again, don’t underestimate the crone. This manifestation is anything but weak. She stands for death and a small matter called world destruction. Even her cute nickname, “Lady Rainbow,” refers to bad times because, in the Mayan religion, a rainbow was a dark omen. That’s it. You fend her off with the spear and run from the treehouse. Amused, Ix Chel lets you go. She can see you’ve forgotten all about using the ladder.
Ah Puch - Mayan God Of The Underworld
Realms: Darkness, disaster, childbirth, underworld, new beginnings, and death.
Fun fact: He’s the rival of the Mayan supreme god Itzamná.
As you fall, Lady Rainbow opens a sinkhole to the underworld. In Mayan mythology, this place is known as Xibaba or Metnal. You drop straight through and land at the feet of the next god. Considering the dreadful realm he rules over, Ah Puch isn’t the god of tulips. He’s involved in everything bad and painful, like childbirth and disease. He’s also friends with the gods who want war and sacrifices. Ah Puch cannot stand the fertility deities.
Most of all, Ah Puch was the god of death. Since the Maya thought dogs and owls represented the end of life, these critters are often seen in his presence. While you don’t mind the pooch and bird, the sight of this god challenges the stomach. Art shows him as an emaciated figure (sometimes puffing on a cigarette) or a bloated corpse. That last one earned him the name “The Smelly One.” The unflattering title must have something to do with Ah Puch’s idea of jewelry too. The most gruesome adornment is a necklace of eyeballs.
Ah Puch has a secret. He digs chocolate but he has a dark image to uphold. Groveling with the other gods to bring him the treat in the underworld will tarnish his street cred. He’ll let you pass if you hand over some of your cacao beans.
Yum Xaax - Mayan God of Vegetation
Realms: God of the forest and all the wild animals.
Fun fact: He’s often confused with God E (the Mayan maize god) but they are two separate deities.
After you leave the underworld, the “Lord of the forest” is waiting for you. Yum Kaax is next in line with the judgment stuff but he’s excited to meet you for another reason. He likes to squeeze humans for offerings. Word travels fast in these parts and a little bird told him you bribed your way out of the underworld. That makes you squeezable material. You offer him chocolate or a stab in the foot. He politely turns both down.
Nope. He misses the days when he was bribed in certain ways. You see, the Maya offered specific rituals and food to keep the god’s realms from interfering with their lives. Nobody could farm when wild vegetation took over the maize fields. Nor could families enjoy venison for dinner when deer couldn’t be found.
Farmers gave him a portion of the first harvest from new fields cut from the forest. The hunters got weird. One ritual required a man to stake his shirt to the ground (like a little tent) and then hide underneath it until a meal walked closer. A candle’s flame would also flicker in the direction of wild game. Some hunters dragged a deer’s head along the ground to mark off their private hunting grounds as sanctioned by Yum Kaax.
You have no desire to drag anything’s head. Your backpack has no candle and you’re definitely not taking your shirt off. Modesty and mosquito season demands it. The farmers’ way sounds better and you offer him the first portion of food from your lunch box. To complete the racket, you must quiver in fear and ask for protection from something. So you fake a shake and request that no dandelions invade your lawn this year, please. This satisfies Yum Kaax.
Ix Tab - Mayan Goddess Of The Gallows
Realms: Suicide by hanging, psychopomp.
Fun fact: If her “hangman” status was an invention, scholars feel that the original role of Ix Tab was that of a hunting goddess.
Ix Tab herself isn’t tragic - it’s what she represents. Historical records suggest that the Mayan religion wasn’t opposed to suicide by hanging. Those who took their own lives in this way went directly to heaven. In fact, they were personally escorted to paradise by Ix Tab. There’s a problem with that claim. There are no surviving records from Maya mythology that backs up the story. No carvings or paintings show Ix Tab giving suicide victims a ride to the clouds.
Her name only appears in writing in a 16th-century work by a Spanish inquisitor named Diego de Landa. He’s the one who claimed the Maya hung themselves to avoid the slightest illness or worry and fast-tracked themselves to a better existence. If this was honest reporting of something he experienced himself, that would place Ix Tab among the Mayan gods. Perhaps Diego de Landa heard the story second or third hand, but such versions tend to twist the original tale. Then again, Ix Tab could be a total Spanish fabrication because it makes for a good read.
Huracan - Mayan God Of Storms
Realms: Natural disasters, a creator god.
Fun fact: He once created a man with a rather odd name - Not Right Now.
Okay… You’re not sure why Huracan told you that story about Ix Tab but hand the guy a gold star for depressing you with it. As much as you want to tell him off for spouting what might not even be an authentic Mayan tale, you decide that silence is the prudent option. You don’t want to lose the challenge (end up as a pile of crushed bones) because you hurt a dangerous deity’s feelings.
First, Huracan is a major god in Mayan mythology and nobody wags a finger in the face of the upper pantheon. He also sprinkles natural disasters like a baker dusts a cake with edible glitter. This role left a mark on the English language. The ancients associated him with destructive winds and eventually, his name influenced the word for “hurricane.” But here’s the main reason not to tick Huracan off. He’s destroyed humanity several times. To be fair, he always brought them back bigger and better but eventually, he swiped them back into oblivion.
He steps towards you and it’s creepy as muck. His one leg is human but the other is a serpent, so he kinds of step-slithers when he walks. Huracan fixes you with a beady stare. He has a bone to pick with humans. He’s not happy that his powers were diminished in Mayan mythology once the people built and moved into cities. Sure, they were safer from natural disasters but why kick him to the curb? Realizing that he just gave away the fact that he’s no longer a major god, he tells you to go. If you don’t tell anyone about his demotion, he won’t judge you as an unworthy mortal. Deal?
It’s a deal, but… wow, these Mayan gods have issues.
Kinich Ahau - Mayan God Of The Sun
Realms: The Mayan Sun god.
Fun fact: He’s also known as God G to archaeologists.
You start to wonder why you were handed the cacao and spear. More and more, the gods are demanding things that don't involve wounds or a chocolate latte. Kinich Ahau is no different. He wants to play a game. Guess his correct appearance and purpose in Mayan mythology and he’ll put a positive remark on your report card.
You must guess his looks first. He shows you a spiral emerging from a crooked nose. Please don’t let that be the Mayan glyph for snosh. When he gazes at you, his eyes are cross-shaped. When he looks to the side they turn into squares. How about uneven teeth and a beard? Looking like a middle-aged gentleman? Are any of them real?
Kinich Ahau doesn’t look like the creative type. He must’ve mined his facts from a real source - other than his imagination - and you call him out. These are all his own features as described in mythology. You get a thumbs up.
Then Kinich Ahau claims he might be a Sun god that turns into a jaguar. As a big cat, he can travel safely through the underworld every night. If this solar legend is true, then he’s also the patron of jaguars, the day, and warriors - because leopard-crawling through Mayan hell takes some soldiering. Then again, he might also be a splinter of the supreme god Itzamná. The latter was said to have had different sides with their own roles in Mayan mythology.
He’s delighted when you tick both boxes. Happy that you think so grandly of him, Kinich Ahau hands you a bottle of wine and tells you to forget about the chocolate. When you meet Acan, hand over the drink and you’ll be fine.
Acan - Mayan God Of Wine
Realms: God of wine.
Fun fact: His name means “burp.”
Acan and his drinking buddy, Cacoch, are pleased with your gift. Cacoch, who is the god of creativity, leaves to find three glasses. The pair is often portrayed as party friends and they’re happy enough to include you in the festivities - oh bearer of alcoholic delights.
Speaking of delightful behaviour, Acan is the most fun god in the Mayan religion. Alright, he drank like a fish, clowned around, and painted the town red until dawn, but he had no harmful intentions toward humans. He required no blood nor did he reign by fear.
This could be why the Mayans tried to meet him in the flesh. Then again, maybe they just wanted the alcohol. Groups would drink themselves into oblivion to see Acan. Those who were particularly eager to encounter him also chewed mushrooms to get high. Drunk and high. The hangover undoubtedly kicked like a mule but nobody blamed Acan for their morning-after troubles.
You sip the wine but it doesn’t taste like anything you know. Acan’s explanation is a little slurred but here’s the gist. You’re tasting is a Mayan invention called balche. The intoxicating brew is made from tree bark and fermented honey. This makes Acan’s realm a bit of a misnomer. He’s called the god of wine but true wine did not arrive in South America until after the Spanish landed.
The Bacabs - Mayan Gods Of The Sky
Realms: Water deposits inside the Earth, rain, and agriculture.
Fun fact: During divination ceremonies, the deities were asked specific things but some of the most unusual inquiries involved the health of bees.
These four brothers are cranky. Called Hobnil, Cantzicnal, Saccimi, and Hosanek, their job is to hold up the four corners of the sky. This is a useless task. The sky holds itself in place but the ancients feared the heavens would fall. Indeed, they needed to believe in something that soothed their nerves. For this reason, in the Mayan religion, the four gods became the pillars that kept everyone safe from the big smash. Together, they are called the Bacabs.
Besides catering to this fear for centuries, the brothers are elderly. This isn’t how they wanted to spend their golden years. You must do something quickly before they take their frustration with humans out on you. Then you recall something the tour guide had said before you followed the monkey into the forest and got lost. She was talking about the Bacabs and not in a bad way. This might make the brothers feel better...
You point out that their lofty position saved them from the deluge that once destroyed everything in Mayan mythology. They were critical in divination ceremonies, especially when the mysteries surrounding rain and agriculture needed more clarity. The ancient Mayans even grouped them with important deities like the rain and wind gods.
The Bacabs calms down but you decide to play it safe. They clearly want cozier times in their advanced age. So you make mugs of hot chocolate and offer a spear pedicure. Filing their toenails does the trick. The brothers agree that you’re the best person they’ve ever met. You may pass.
Qʼuqʼumatz - Rain God And Creator Deity
Realms: Creator god, wind, rain, water, clouds, sky, and possibly an early Sun god.
Fun fact: There’s a chance that Qʼuqʼumatz is the poached version of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.
The Kʼicheʼ Mayans worshiped a god that shifted between a feathered serpent, an eagle, and a jaguar. But when you meet Qʼuqʼumatz there’s no sign of feathers or fur. He’s sloshing around as a pool of blood.
You might think the vein-juice shows his thirst for sacrifices. But Qʼuqʼumatz’s history isn’t littered with victims. Quite the opposite. The blood lapping at your flip-flops created humanity. But wait, there’s more. The pool’s surface plays a movie so you can see how great this god was in other areas. You watch how the Kʼicheʼ nobility honoured him as their ancestor. He was also the mediator between opposing forces in the Mayan world. Qʼuqʼumatz brought balance.
Forget balance. You’d be eternally grateful if he brought you new shoes. But then Qʼuqʼumatz’s first words make you forget all about that. He declares that you’re almost ready to go home! There are just two more Mayan gods between you and a microwave dinner at the hotel.
Yopaat - Mayan Patron God Of Storms
Realms: God of storms.
Fun fact: Kings of the Quiriguá dynasty often included his name in their own.
Hold on, you’ve seen this dude before. You’d know because meeting a man with a snake for a leg is hard to forget. But a closer look reveals that this is not Huracan. Despite the eerie similarity, Yopaat is a separate being in the Mayan religion.
Huracan is famous for his association with strong winds. Yopaat is also a storm god but one with a broader range. At the fluffy end, he was associated with weather like mist. He also brought buckets of rain and when he overdid it, the floods came. The most extreme Yopaat was responsible for violent electrical storms.
The ancient Mayans believed that thunderstorms triggered earthquakes. To fit this into their understanding of the world, they imagined that Yopaat had a lightning-shaped weapon. Presumably, he hurled this towards the earth or something. He also cracked open a turtle with his zigzag to resurrect the Mayan god of maize.
That explains why he’s chasing you with the thunderbolt, yelling that you look like a turtle and he needs to bring maize back. You have no desire to get cracked open, so you throw the last bag of cacao at his face. The god is blinded by the chocolate - a first for mythology - and you manage to get away. Not being able to take much more of this, you hope that the final deity is a benevolent one.
Zipacna - Mayan God Of Darkness (Maybe)
Family: Son of Vucub Caquix and Chimalmat.
Realms: Uncertain, but it’s among the darker realms as he and his brother, Cabrakan, were often viewed as demons.
Fun fact: Mayan mythology depicted this god as a large caiman.
The fina deity is not a benevolent one. Zipacna isn’t pleased with the spear in your hand. It touches a nerve. In the past, there were two notable attempts on his life. He survived the first and let’s give credit where it’s due. Four hundred boys tried to kill this god but after he got wind of their plan, he killed them instead. None of them used a spear but Zipacna is an arrogant, violent god and assumes the worst of you.
The second attempt was made by the Hero Twins of Mayan religion, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They ignored the fact that the boys tried to kill the god out of jealousy (they envied his physical strength). Instead, Hunahpu and Xbalanque decided to murder Zipacna to revenge their deaths. You know, because a plea of self-defense doesn’t count for mean gods.
They waited until he was starving and then said something along the lines of, “Hey, we saw a giant crab in that canyon over there. You can eat that.” He adored crab meat and fell for their trickery. As he entered the canyon, the twins brought a mountain down on him. Mythology is hazy with the story’s ending but the mountain either turned Zipacna into stone or fatally flattened him.
Luring somebody to their death with their favourite food is just… off. Indeed, you would also hold a grudge if somebody used your hunger to doom you with a cheeseburger. And all those kids. They weren’t even children. According to the legend, they were probably alcohol deities. Zipacna was helping them to build a house when they tried to kill him. After burying him inside a foundation hole, they partied on top of him, drunk as coots.
You feel his pain. For several minutes, the twins and the boys get the brunt of your temper that’s been building all day. Your Donald Duck rage attack impresses the god. He likes angry people. Especially those who see his point of view. He snaps his fingers to magically send you back to the tour bus - but it takes a few attempts because that mountain either crushed his fingers or turned them into rocks.
Come Hither, Cheeseburger
Ah, what luxury. A hotel room without gods. Then room service sent up the best burger and nobody dropped a mountain on you for taking a bite.
As glad as you are to leave the forest behind, it wasn’t all that bad. Most of the gods enjoyed your visit and sharing their tales. Now that your head is filled with fascinating facts about their religion, you’re happy to know that the Mayans ended differently than most ancient civilizations.
Sure, the majority of their old ways are gone. But the people themselves have survived - from Yucatan to Honduras, nearly six million Mayans still farm their ancestral lands.
© 2020 Jana Louise Smit