Theosophical Encyclopedia

Mayan Religion

Richard Williams Brooks – USA

[From the Theosophical Encyclopedia Website; here slightly revised in content and adapted to Theosophy Forward style]

TE 8 Mayan Religion

Mayan civilization, which began in the lowlands of Guatamala at least 1000 BCE, flourished from the mid-third to tenth centuries CE in the Yucatán (which included its principal city, Chichén Itzá), Campeche, Quintana Roo, and parts of Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as all of Belize, most of Guatamala, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. The principal sources of our knowledge of Mayan religion are from their scripture, the Popol Vuh, (literally “Council Book”), the several Books of Chilam Balam of Chumayel (as well as that of Mani), a few surviving manuscripts, and their iconography. Much can also be inferred from their elaborate pyramidal temple complexes, some of which include sweathouses (see J. Eric S. Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Mayan Civilization, 2nd edition, 1966, pp. 73-74), reminiscent of the sweat lodges of natives of North America. Dark, underground rooms have also been uncovered in these temple complexes (see Thompson, p. 74); their use is open only to speculation, but they could possibly have been used for secret initiatory ceremonies. The Books of Chilam Balam, which date from around 1000 CE and after and are named after an order of priests, contain quite a bit of religious mythology as well as information about Mayan society and history; they were apparently based on earlier hieroglyphic codices now lost. Unfortunately, most of the surviving hieroglyphic writing on religious matters is presently undecipherable (see Thompson, p. 196).

The major source of our knowledge of Mayan religion is the Popol Vuh. The text we now have is an alphabetic rendering (written sometime between 1554 and 1558) of an earlier hieroglyphic text, only fragments of which exist in carvings on temples, etc. This is evident from the following statement near the beginning of the text: “There is the original book and ancient writing, but the one who reads and assesses it has a hidden identity” (Dennis Tedlock, Popol Vuh: the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life, rev. ed., 1996, p. 63). This suggests either that the author of our present text wished to conceal his identity from the sixteenth century Spanish conquerors of the area — which is plausible, since the alphabetic text states that it is being written “amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now” (idem) — or else that the book has an inner, esoteric meaning, as suggested by one of its alternate names, “The Light that Came from Beside (or: the Other Side of) the Sea,” perhaps referring to its Euro-African, or even Atlantean, origin. Blavatsky claims (Isis Unveiled 1:548) the Popol Vuh was written by Ixtlilxóchitl (pronounced “Isht-lil-sho-chitl”), whom we know from the Obras Históricas by Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxóchitl (1952) acceded to leadership of the Mayans in 1409 and was killed in a war with the Tepanecs in 1418, i.e., long before the Spanish conquest (see Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: a History, 1974, pp. 54-58). That means either Ixtlilxóchitl wrote the hieroglyphic version upon which our present alphabetic text is based, or there was a much earlier author of the hieroglyphic text also named Ixtlilxóchitl, as is more likely, or else that Blavatsky is mistaken on this point.

Raphael Girard (Esoterismo delPopol Vuh, 1948; translated by by Blair A. Moffett as Esotericism of thePopol Vuh, Theosophical University Press, 1979, pp. 23 and 26) believes that the Popol Vuh has basically two parts, the first dealing with the creation of the world and the history of the Mayas up to their separation from the Quichés, the second dealing exclusively with the Quichés. The Books of Chilam Balam, then, are solely Mayan texts. Girard, therefore, often refers to “the Quiché-Maya people.” He points out, however, that the Popol Vuh was originally a single, undivided work, intended to convey the idea that history is continuous. As he puts it: “Hence the Quiché-Maya peoples live in continuity with their past, which for them has no mystery inasmuch as the myths are the foundations of their cultural consciousness” (p. 5). A division of the mythic part into seven chapters was made by J. Antonio Villacorta (Memorial de Tecpán-Atitlán, 1936) whose translation of the Chichicastenango manuscript Girard utilizes, along with translations done by Flavio Rodas, Adrián Recinos, and Raynaud. But the version of the text we now have is divided into five sections, the first three being what Tedlock calls “myth,” and the last two being what he identifies as “history.” Since these two were not thought to be in conflict, the Mayans considered, in Tedlock’s words, “the mythic and historical parts of their narratives as belonging to a single, balanced whole” (op. cit., p. 59). This kind of complementarity between the divine and human worlds is called in Quiché kajulew or “sky-earth,” and by Tedlock “mythistory.” Because the Mayans thought of history as cyclic, they used the book not only for devotional and ceremonial purposes, but also for purposes of divining the future (much as the Chinese use the I Ching), i.e., as a “council book,” especially when the Mayan lords sat in council. Many of the personages in the book have names which also stand for dates in the Mayan calendar, especially those related to the appearance of Venus as the morning and evening star (see Tedlock, pp. 205-209).

The mythistory of the Popol Vuh consists of four periods, three of which have ended and the fourth of which is the present. This could possible refer to the theosophical idea of Four Rounds, the fourth of which is said to be our present Round. Or it could refer to four Root Races of the present Round, which would indicate that the Quiché-Mayas (and their Mesoamerican predecessors) claim to be descendants of the Fourth Race Atlanteans. Blavatsky, who quotes from her English translation of Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg’s 1861 French translation of the text, seems to incline toward the latter view, considering the stories about human heroes in the early sections of the Popol Vuh to refer to the early races of man, specifically “the Second and early Third Races” (Secret Doctrine 2:160), since they “could act and live with equal ease under ground and water” (idem) as well as “fly and see objects, however distant” (Secret Doctrine 2:55 fn), the latter “showing the divine knowledge of Gods, not mortals” (Secret Doctrine 2:96). She further claims that the Tzité tree from which the Third Race was created is the same as the Askr tree of Norse mythology and the Ash tree of Hesiod (Secret Doctrine 2:97), but adds that the Mayan creation story also involved “the marrow of the reed called zibak” which she says means “egg” in the Mysteries (Isis Unveiled 1:151 fn), possibly referring to the “auric egg” or principle of human individuation, called in Hindu philosophy karana-śarira or

causal body.” And she claims that septenary references in Popol Vuh (see the name in Part Four “Seven Caves, Seven Canyons” for the Quiché citadel town Tulan Zuyua where the rulers received their patron deities) refer to “seven centers, or zones, upon which the seven primitive groups of the first Root-Race were born” (Secret Doctrine 2:35fn). However, she also cites uncritically a claim that “the Hindu elephant-headed god of wisdom (or magical learning), Ganesha, may be found among the stucco figures of the Mexican ruins” (Isis Unveiled 1:572-573), apparently basing her claim on very inaccurate drawings of Mayan sculptures from Palenque by a nineteenth century archaeologist, Jean Frédéric Waldeck (see Thompson, pp. 32-33). There are no elephant figures in any Mexican iconography. So one must be cautious about accepting her interpretations uncritically.

Although relatively short and frequently quite poetic, the Popul Vuh contains a very complex theology. It begins in a world of darkness inhabited only by gods. Charles Gallenkamp (Maya: the Riddle and Rediscovery of a Lost Civilization, 1976, pp. 101-102) and Michael D. Coe (The Maya, 1966, p. 152) suggest, on the basis of stories and iconography, that the Mayan pantheon had at its head Hunab Ku, a supreme creator of the universe, considered in an abstract rather than anthropomorphic way. Chilam Balam states that this uncreated Creator formed, in order, heaven, earth, minerals, plants, animals, and finally humans, a sequence which accords not only with theosophical teachings but with modern science as well. Identified with him (or it) was Itzamná, sometimes considered his son, whose name means “iguana house” and who is usually depicted as an anthropomorphized lizard, snake, crocodile, or dragonlike being. With Itzamná, duality, a pervasive feature of Mesoamerican religion, arises, since he is said to have a wife or consort named Ix Chél (“rainbow lady”), associated with the moon, childbearing, weaving, medicine, etc. All other gods, apparently, were the offspring of Itzamná and Ix Chél. The first of these is the sun god Ah Kinchil whose consort seems to have been the moon goddess Ix Ch’up (“the woman”). One manuscript lists 150 gods (Robert J. Sharer, “Maya,” World Book Online Americas Edition), each day of the Mayan calendar being dedicated to some god or other. Among the most important were the Chacs or Rain Gods; an entire line of friezes of these gods covers the wall of a temple in Kabah, Yucatan (see National Geographic, April 2002, pp. 56-57). They were attended by little frogs (uo) whose croaking announces the coming of rain. Underground caves, called balankanché (literally “hidden seat”), were used to collect water drippings, which were considered pure, for use in ceremonies. Mayan cities had tall pyramids with temples on top where religious rites relating to various gods, involving mineral, plant, animal, and human sacrifices, were performed.

There is, however, no mention of most of these gods in the Popol Vuh which begins with creation by a Being (or perhaps a hierarchy of Beings) called “Maker (Tz’aqol), Modeler (B’itol),” and also “Bearer (Alom), Begetter (K’ajolom),” names chosen at least partly for their poetic value. But the four names also convey an idea, developed later in the text, of a quaternary in heaven which is reflected on earth, thus “inferring the squaring of the universe,” as Girard puts it (op. cit., p. 29), a model that the Mayas applied to the laying out of practically everything in their culture: their territory, villages, fields, plazas, houses, and altars in their temples. Girard claims, perhaps based on a different manuscript than that used by Tedlock, that the cosmic deity was called Cabahuil (“Heart of Heaven”) and had “hypostases” or “extrusions” called, in his system of transliteration, “Tzakol, Bitol, Tepeü, Gucumatz, Alom, and Cajolom,” and that these are “the formative aggregate of the Creator god or god-Seven” (p. 31) suggesting not a “squaring” but a septenary nature of the universe, as found in Theosophical literature. In the Chilam Balam of Maní the cosmic deity is identified as Itzamná-kauil (the Mayan equivalent of the Quiché “Heart of Heaven”). The Chilam Balam of Chumayel declares, according to Girard’s translation, that from “the one that is the Divinity and the Power” was born “Seven sacred stones, Seven warriors suspended in the spirit of the wind, Seven elected flames” all of which are “the Descendant of seven Generations” (p. 31). This sounds reminiscent of the Stanzas of Dzyan (see 1.6, 2.5, 3.4, 3.7, 4.4, 5.1, etc.) upon which Blavatsky’s TheSecret Doctrine is based.

Among the creative intelligences mentioned in the Popol Vuh is the Sovereign Plumed Serpent (Tepew q’ukumatz or Gucumatz; Kukulcán, in Quiché, literally “quetzal feathered serpent”), which has obvious analogy with the Toltec god Quetzalcoatl, showing the interrelation between their religious ideas. He is said to be able to manifest his spirit, as well as transform himself into different animals. Another name given for the first creative principle is Heart of Lake (Uk’ux cho), Heart of Sea (Uk’ux ulew), suggestive of creation out of a fluidic substance, identified as “Water” in many creation myths (seeRig Veda, 10, 129, 1; Genesis, 1.1-2; etc.). This is poetically stated as follows:

Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky. . . . There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky. . . . It is at rest; not a single thing stirs. (Tedlock’s trans., op. cit., p. 64)

The lower creative counterparts of Heart of Lake, Heart of Sea are Heart of Sky (Uk’ux kaj), Heart of Earth (Uk’ux palo). Their creative activity, as already suggested, involves a quaternary. This is indicated in the next passage:

the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,

measuring, fourfold staking,

halving the cord, stretching the cord,

in the sky, on the earth,

the four sides, the four corners, as it is said,

by the Maker, Modeler,

mother-father of life, of humankind,

giver of breath, giver of heart,

bearer, upbringer in the light that lasts

of those born in the light, begotten in the light;

worrier, knower of everything, whatever there is:

sky-earth, lake-sea. (Tedlock trans., pp. 63-64)

The fourfold aspect of material creation is depicted in Mayan iconography by four squat gods (bacabs) holding up the plane of the earth; these were associated respectively with four sacred colors — red for the east, white for the north, black for the west, and yellow for the south — and four sacred ceiba (wild cottonwood) trees depicted in iconography with birds perched in their limbs. Note also the suggestion that humans are “begotten in the light,” that this is a “light that lasts,” and that this light is a “knower of everything” — all metaphors which could easily be interpreted as relating to an inner, divine nature, called in Hinduism and modern Theosophy atman. It is also tempting to interpret stone images of a man emerging from the mouth of a stylized serpent (see Thompson, plate opposite p. 145) to represent a person attaining to spiritual wisdom or self-realization, although archeologists obviously do not see them in that light. It seems possible that the frequent use of “heart” in the Popol Vuh was originally intended as a metaphor to refer to this inner spiritual nature, although it was interpreted literally by Mayan priests who sacrificed people, often captured warriors, to the gods, so they thought, by cutting out and holding up their heart, as had also been done by the Olmecs and was carried to an extreme by the Aztecs. This literal interpretation is especially noticeable near the end of Part Three (see Tedlock’s translation, p. 136) and the middle of Part Four of the Popol Vuh (see ibid., pp. 156, 163-165). But the fact that the number three was sacred to women and four was sacred to men (see Thompson, p. 257) again suggests an esoteric septenary background to Mayan theology, i.e., the upper triad and lower quaternary. This, too, was later interpreted materialistically as referring to the three stones in a woman’s fireplace and the four sides of a man’s cornfield.

Chilam Balam supplements the creation story in the Popol Vuh as follows:

They moved among the four lights, among the layers of stars. The world was not lighted. There was no day, there was no night, there was no moon. Then they perceived that the dawn was coming; then it came. (Thompson’s translation, p. 201)

And further:

The twenty-day period was created; the day, as it was called, was created; heaven and earth were created; the stairway of water, the earth, rocks and trees, the things of the sea and the things of the land were created. . . . Thus he was there in his divinity, in the clouds, alone and by his own effort, when he created the entire world, when he moved in the heavens in his divinity. (Ralph L. Roys’ translation in his The Indian Background of Colonial Yucatán [1943], quoted in Thompson, p. 202, punctuation slightly changed)

The latter passage alludes to the Mayan method of counting by means of a vigesimal or 20-based (rather than decimal or 10-based) system. The basic group of 20 was call tún; then multiples of it were the katún (20 túns = 400), baktún (20 katúns = 8000), piktún (20 bakúns = 160,000), kalatún (20 piktúns = 3,200,000), and kinchiltún (20 kalatúns = 64,000,000). In other words, the Mayan concept of time was vastly greater than that in Europe at the time of the Spanish conquest and much closer to that of the Hindus. Their calculation system also was grouped according to 7 and 13, hence the ritual calendar is the tún x 13 = 260 days; there was also identification of a cycle of 260 years. Another cycle was 52, which is 13 x 4 (i.e., the cardinal directions), the time required for a named day to return to its same calendrical position. Since calendar days were named according to deities, all this had a religious significance, with certain days being considered auspicious and others being considered inauspicious and inappropriate for certain activities.

The principal figure of the First Age is called Vukup Cakix, of the Second Camé, of the Third Ixmucané, and of the Fourth (the present) Hunapú. Each of these has a feminine (or in the case of Ixmucané a masculine) counterpart and the people in each age are considered part of the families of those heroes. Thus, as Girard points out, “In reality this past has not disappeared but rather has become transformed so as to incorporate itself into the common cultural property of today. Thus, for example the giants of the First Age were transformed into cosmic bearers [bacabs]; the gods of the Second Age into the demons of today, and the virtues of the prehistoric period into the vices of the Fourth Age” (pp. 6-7). This sounds very much like the theosophical idea of involution and evolution.

Vukup Cakix (whose name means “Seven Macaw” or “Seven Feathers of Fire”) pretends to be the sun at a time when the world was still enveloped in darkness, so he is, in effect, a false solar deity. He and his wife, Chimalmat, and their two sons, Zipacná and Caprakán, are defeated by the Fourth Age hero Hunapú and his twin sister Ixbalamqué, whereupon they are transformed, as Girard puts it, into the four cosmic bearers (bacabs). Hun Camé (“One Death”), the God of Death and Ruler of the underworld (Xibalbá), initially defeats the Seven Ahpú in a sacred ball game and beheads them (or it, since they are considered a septenary unity). Then Hun Camé (and his septenary nature, Vukup Camé, “Seven Death”) are, in turn, defeated by the twins Hunapú and Ixbalamqué, who are descendants of Seven Ahpú. Again, this sounds like a metaphorical way of referring to the process of involution, since with the hero of the Third Age one sees the beginning of the process of spiritual evolution. This is indicated by the fact that Ixpiyococ (whom Girard identifies as the “equivalent of Hunab ku, the Supreme Being of Maya tradition,” op. cit., p. 338) and his consort Ixmucané (“the mother of the gods”) are considered the grandparents of the Mayan people and, indeed, of all humanity. But the main protagonists of the Popol Vuh are Hunapú and Ixbalamqué whose myth Girard discusses at length (chs. 5-11).

The story of Hunapú and Ixbalamqué is too complex to relate in detail. Suffice it to say, as Girard puts it, “Hunahpú — the civilizing hero of Quiché-Maya culture — is a redemptor-god, son of the Supreme Being. He is born immaculately like all the great religious founders and sacrifices himself for humanity, many centuries before the towering figure of Jesus the Christ becomes outlined in the panorama of human history. Hunapú proclaims the tenet of the soul’s immortality before Plato taught his doctrines. . .” (p. 20). Thus, “Hunahpú exemplifies the kind of ethical action which characterizes the ideal human type” (p. 21). One sees in the overall structure of the Popol Vuh, that “men are mortal gods and gods immortal men, with the difference that among the latter, man, on dying, was transformed into an immortal being provided that he had complied with the precepts of religious ethics. The corollary to this idea is the conception of a harmonious world system and a relation between man and Deity and cosmos so close that perhaps no other religion equals it in this respect” (p. 21). It is for this reason that Girard extols the book and claims it to be “the oldest document that we know of concerning human history, earlier than the Rig Veda and the Zend-Avesta, until now held to be the most ancient collections of sacred texts” (p. 17).

After relating the marvelous, heroic story of Hunahpú and Ixbalamqué, the Popol Vuh continues, in Part Four (according to Tedlock’s division of the text) with what sounds like history. It identifies four ancestors of the human race (called “mother-fathers”): B’alam k’itze (“Jaguar Quitze”), B’alam aq’ab (“Jaguar Night”), Majukutaj (“Not Right Now”), and Ik’ib’alam (“Dark Jaguar”). Blavatsky suggests these may “typify in their esoteric sense the four successive progenitors of men” (Isis Unveiled 1:558), although they are identified more plausibly in the text as progenitors of three noble Mayan families, the Cauecs, Nijayib (nine “Greathouses”), and Lord Quichés. (Dark Jaguar had no children.) It also indicates that these four men worshiped a trinity of gods — Tohil, Auilix, and Hacauitz — whose “familiar spirits” they were able to consult. Whether these gods represent something akin to Trinities found in other religions (see Annie Besant, Ancient Wisdom, intro.) is not at all clear.

Part Five opens with the eldest sons of Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, and Not Right Now journeying “to the east, where our fathers came from” (Tedlock’s translation, p. 179) to receive emblems of Lordship from Nacxit (lit. “Four Legs”). It would be tempting to interpret this as meaning they received Initiation somewhere in Egypt or India, but the name Nacxit is a Nahua, not Quiché, word, so the inference seems to be that they traveled to the Yucatán. There is, in theosophical literature, a claim that there is (or was) an occult Brotherhood living in the Yucatán (see Josephine Ransom, A Short History of the Theosophical Society, 1938, p. 22), so the idea of an occult significance of that journey is not implausible, though there is no specific reference to it in Blavatsky’s writings. In any event, the Fifth Part of the Popol Vuh consists mainly of lists of names, and then concludes rather lamentably, “This is enough about the being of Quiché, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiché [lit. “many trees”], which is now named Santa Cruz” (Tedlock’s translation, p. 198).

Nevertheless, some of the religious traditions are continued to this day by priests, called “daykeepers” (ajq’ij), who also act as diviners and matchmakers. They go to remote mountain shrines, which they cense with copal, to pray to their ancient gods, though also making the sign of the cross and beginning and ending their services with “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” (Tedlock, pp. 57-58). Girard (op. cit., ch. 16) has a detailed account of a festival called “The Dance of the Giants” based on the Popol Vuh and still performed by the Chortís, descendants of the Quiché-Mayas.

In the Yucatán, the Rain Gods (Chacs) are renamed archangels and the Moon Goddess (Ix Chél) is merged with the Virgin Mary (Thompson, p. 269). And the Lacandón people, until recently, visited Mayan temples for their pagan worship, which involved ritual dancing (Thompson, p. 70; see photograph of a Lacandón man, opposite p. 64). The descendants of the Mayans also apologize to the spirit of animals they kill, like their North American counterparts, and say a prayer to the earth gods before preparing the land for planting. Thompson (p. 157) translates the latter prayer as follows:

O God, my mother, my father, Lord of Hills and Valleys, Spirit of the Forests, be patient with me for I am about to do as I have always done. Now I make my offering to you that you may know that I am troubling your good will, but suffer it, I pray. I am going to dirty you [i.e. destroy your natural beauty] . . . that I may live.

This prayer ends with the word otzilen meaning “I am poor,” in other words, “I have need of doing this to sustain myself.” There is an indication in the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel that this practice is just a continuance of actions done by the ancient Mayas. And prior to plantings, as well as religious festivals, the Mayas undertook periods of fasting and continence, generally lasting a “week” of thirteen days, though for important festivals it could even be for several “months” of twenty days each. The effectiveness of the rituals, as Thompson points out, “depended on the physical purity of all participants,” but at the conclusion of this period of purification, a feast was celebrated, which included drinking a fermented honey-based drink called balche, which was thought to drive any residual evil from the body” (Thompson, p. 290). Thompson continues, “Every feature of Maya life had its religious aspect, and no important move, whether by the community or by the individual, could be made without consulting the portents” (p. 296). A special shamanistic priest called the chilam received prophetic messages in a trance.

It is obvious from even this brief synopsis of Mayan religious ideas that there is much of theosophical interest in them. For further exploration of these ideas, one might consult Girard, Tedlock, or Thompson. There is also a brief excerpt from the Popol Vuh translated in Donna Rosenberg, World Mythology (National Textbook Company, 2nd ed. 1996), pp. 480-483.

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