For the ancient Maya, death was not the definitive end of existence, rather the soul of the deceased was transferred to the Underworld (called Xibalba by the Quichés and Metnal by the Yucatecans). In this sense, caves and water sources were considered symbolic steps between the earthly world and the underworld.

The Maya believed that the dead could come back from time to time, to the world of the living, and intervene in their affairs. The living, too, could make the reverse trip, and navigate—temporarily–in the territory of darkness; in many cases, in dreams or through the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Like many other cultures, the Maya made use of drugs and alcohol (such as balché, composed of water, honey and the bark of a tree) for the celebration of religious rites, which were conducive to altered states of consciousness. In these orgies, officiated in caves or in buildings with labyrinth structure, participants felt that the soul was leaving their bodies and coming into contact with the ancestors and gods, who they came to for advice.

The fantastic mythology of the Underworld and its association with caves as gateways to the world of the dead, was captured in that great universal work known as the Popol Vuh. The journey of the twin heroes Hun-Hunahpú and Vucub-Hunahpú through Xibalba, leads us to know the realms of night and darkness, inhabited by gods that give life and death to all beings.

Among the wide range of gods, particularly the sky god Itzam Na or Itzamná, the sun king Kinich Ahaw, the moon goddess Ixchel, or the god of rain, Chaac, stand apart, as well, another group of land gods, linked to the bowels of the earth and the Underworld, “the place of Fear.” Indeed, this aspect of Maya religion is one of the most exciting of this civilization: its striking interest and fascination with the Other World, which wove together the myriad rituals, beliefs and customs.

By: Yurina Fernández Noa

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