Xibalbá, the Maya underworld

The word “underworld” makes people shudder, and we immediately imagine darkness and mystery. For the Maya it was a “hidden place,” the “Xibalbá”, which you could access through the cenotes and descend into its depths until you reach the great network of underground rivers that course beneath the Peninsula. They identified not one god of the underworld, but several! Keep reading to find out more.

If you visit a cenote, those underground freshwater sinkholes that are found all over the Peninsula, you’ll feel that you’ve entered a special place, both for their beauty and for the enigmatic atmosphere that surrounds them, especially in the closed and semi-open ones that you have to descend through a small space until you reach their refreshing waters. This sense of mystery is not imaginary, because for the Maya the cenotes were sacred portals to the underworld, doors that gave access to a world we don’t know much about.

Organization of the Maya underworld

According to the sacred book, the “Popol Vuh,” the underworld included a whole structure below the surface, because the gods were organized by hierarchies; there was a council and a civilization very similar to the one on earth. The Maya believed that several gods known as the Lords of Xibalba inhabited the underworld; these coexisted with the celestial gods and humans, each with their own territory and with their own rules: a mythological vision that we can also find in other civilizations.

The gods of the underworld were represented by skeletons, skulls, shadows, darkness, and colors such as black and yellow (which related to death, according to the Maya). They were worshipped and sacrifices were made in their honor, as they were believed to maintain the balance of life and death on earth. If they did not receive the corresponding sacrifices, their wrath and capacity for destruction were awakened, triggering disease, pain, and disasters, among other punishments for humans.

The gods of the Maya underworld

The main gods of the Xibalbá were Hun-Camé (One-Death) and Vucum-Camé (Seven-Death). The rest of the gods of the underworld had other functions; for example, Kisin personifies the devil and fear among the Maya. He is represented with necklaces and bracelets with the eyes of the dead in yellow and black. It was believed that the soul was stolen from men who acted badly in life, so to utter his name causes fear.

Sukukyum (elder brother of God, the father creator) is the guardian of Kisin and is charged with acting as judge to determine the punishment that corresponds to all souls or to send them to eternal rest. Yum Kimil is the god of death and his name literally means “Lord of the Dead.” He is represented with a rope and sometimes with an owl. He is related with death and, ironically, with germination.

The underworld, as the Maya conceived it, is a universe that you will surely want to know more about, so on your next visit to the cenotes, take along your spirit of adventure, and keep in mind that you are entering a sacred portal, a place where the Maya honored the gods of the underworld.

By Violeta H. Cantarell

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