In this article:
- The legends and lore behind Mayan Gods have not been as well preserved as that of other ancient religions.
- But what has survived the ravages of colonization and time gives us a glimpse into the truly god-tier drama that this pantheon was capable of.
- There’s the god of intoxication that you have to get drunk to meet and the god of mountains who keeps getting bullied by humans.
- Then, you’ve got melodramatic gods like the god of rain whose temper tantrums are the source of storms.
Like other polytheistic religions, Mayan gods were associated with certain natural phenomena and people would appeal to whichever one ruled over the area of life they were most concerned about. A pregnant woman would turn to the deity of birth for protection. A farmer would turn to an agricultural deity for a good harvest.
Because the Mayan religion was so widespread before Spanish colonization, the names, functions, and backstories of specific gods changed from place to place. Because the Spanish destroyed so many of the key religious texts during their colonial rule, the stories and rituals surrounding many of the Mayan gods have been lost to us.
These two forces combine to make hard work of figuring out who’s who among the Mayan gods.
The loss is a big one. With more than 250 deities in the pantheon and evidence that the backstories and lore about them were as rich and detailed as that of the Greek or Egyptian gods, we’re surely missing out on some ace stories of God-level drama and pettiness on par with what we get from better-preserved ancient pantheons.
In spite of this loss, modern-day Mayans and archaeologists have managed to preserve and restore some of the ancient gods and their stories. These are some of the drama queens and kings of the ancient Maya that survived colonization.
6 Legendary Mayan Gods
Acan is the Mayan god of intoxication, whose name literally means “burp.”
The boisterous party animal was most fond of Balche, a fermented honey and Balche bark drink. But he was no stranger to magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenic or intoxicating substances. In fact, his worshippers would get absolutely plastered in hopes of catching a glimpse of the god in their inebriated state.
Unfortunately, stories involving the god of a good time have not survived but maybe if you get drunk enough, you can ask him yourself.
The god of rain is a human-like figure with scaly reptilian skin and snake-like fangs. In one version of the rain god’s story, rain is said to be Chaac’s own tears.
After escaping a broken home in which he and his brother, Kinich Ahau, the sun god, were tormented by their distant mother and her lover, Chaac has a moment of weakness in which he has an affair with his brother’s wife, the moon.
Filled with remorse, he is sometimes so overcome by the guilt that he has a crying fit (don’t we all) and those pangs of remorse are where rainy days come from.
In another version, no such affair happened. Instead, storms are what happen when Chaac gets in a mood and decides to chase away his brother (the sun) and his brother’s wife (the moon) by brandishing his lightning axe at them.
The reasons for these sudden outbursts aren’t explained, but perhaps Chaac just has a lot of unresolved anger stemming from his unhappy childhood.
Whatever the reason, after he’s chased his relatives away, he then uses the same axe to crack open clouds and let the rain pour out. The thunder you hear in a storm is Chaac splitting open a cloud like a coconut.
Part old woman and part jaguar, Ixchel is the goddess of midwifery and medicine. While sometimes equated with the moon goddess since the moon’s association with fertility was thought to overlap with Ixchel’s specialization in midwifery, many scholars believe the two aren’t actually interchangeable.
For one, the fertile moon goddess is almost always portrayed as young, and often pregnant. Ixchel, on the other hand, is an elderly midwife most often seen assisting in childbirth or acting as a physician.
Scholars also point out that assisting in childbirth and getting pregnant are two different activities. A midwife or doctor would have little need for a goddess whose specialty was easily getting pregnant. They’d need one with medical knowledge.
But Ixchel also seems to also have had a talent for getting pregnant easily. Depending on sources, back in her prime, Ixchel gave birth to a whopping thirteen sons, all of which played some role in the creation of the world.
She may also be the distant, adoptive mother who made Chaac and his brother’s childhood so unpleasant.
The patron god/goddess of homosexuality, Chin (sometimes Chen) is a Mayan deity that appears in both male and female form and is credited with introducing same-sex relationships to the Mayan people. Chin may also be the god/goddess of magic and an advisor to kings.
While described as a “demon” in the Spanish accounts of Mayan beliefs which form a good chunk of the surviving records we have, too little is known about Chin to know how the ancient Maya viewed the god/goddess.
What we do know is that in the Naj Tunich caves — an important ritual site and pilgrimage destination for the ancient Maya — there are tons of paintings and petroglyphs of erotic rituals, including many all-male sex scenes.
These are portrayed alongside depictions of gods and creation stories, suggesting that homosexuality may not have been regarded as taboo before the puritanical Catholics showed up.
A trickster type and a bit unruly, Maximon’s relationship with humanity is admittedly a little rocky.
Sometimes in opposition and sometimes coming to their rescue, this very human-like (sometimes wooden) god is best defined as chaotic neutral. He reveres no one and pays absolutely no heed to established order or hierarchies.
Stories of his origins vary, making it difficult to link him definitively with any of the pre-colonial Mayan gods. That they sometimes call him Mam, however, suggests that he is, indeed, one of the old gods, and possibly one of the four Bacabs who hold up the sky.
If so, he would be older than creation itself, which may explain Maximon’s unruly and unreliable character. He’s nostalgic for the chaotic world of yore, back when all that existed was a vast, dark primordial sea and an empty sky brimming with possibility.
However, the name Maximon means “one who is bound” which recalls an alternate legend in which Maximon was made by shamans.
In that version, he’s not an old god at all but a wooden figure carved by a group of shamans to protect their villages from some troublesome witches who were so frightening that villagers who crossed paths with them would lose control of their bowels from fear.
After days of fear-induced diarrhea and vomiting, the afflicted would die. The condition sounds suspiciously like cholera, one of the dozens of new diseases brought by European colonizers.
Having debated their options for a while, they decided what their villages needed was a Mam (a grandfather god or ancient god) and set out to carve one out of wood.
First, however, they had to ask the trees for permission to use them to make this Mam. After meeting with a few disagreeable trees, they finally found one willing to take the job. The shamans cut it down, carved it into the shape of a man, and dressed it.
When they finished their work, they were immediately approached by a beautiful woman bearing food and drinks for the work-weary shamans.
After eating and drinking, however, they realized she’d actually given them horse urine and horse feces — and that she wasn’t a beautiful woman at all but the wooden Mam they’d just finished carving.
They took the prank in good stride but added rings to his elbows so that they could tie him up.
When they were ready to release him, they told him what they needed (death to all the witches). Using similar trickery, he was able to terrify all the witches so much that they literally shat themselves to death.
The villagers were grateful at first, but when he started disguising himself in order to sleep with their wives and using the same scare tactics on the locals that he’d used on the witches, the shamans decided to break his legs and twist his head back so that he’d be easier to control.
According to another legend, he is the reincarnation of a Mam, who had long been dormant but reemerged during the Spanish Conquest to foment rebellion and uprisings among the indigenous people, helping them fight off the invaders.
In this legend, he’s not a wooden god but a spirit who returns periodically, in the form of a living person, to help native people fight colonizers and get their land back.
In both versions, he still commands a sizable group of devout worshippers.
A wooden effigy of Maximon, dressed to the nines in a fine suit and dapper hat is passed from one family home to another each year in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. His worshippers hold daily vigil with the effigy, drinking and smoking to keep him company and bringing him offerings from the pilgrims who come seeking his favor.
God of mountains and brother to earthquakes, Zipacna is an alligator-like god with a bad reputation for arrogance and violence.
He is the son of Vocub Caquix, a death god who pretended to be the sun, and his wife, the fierce warrior giant, Chimalmat (about whom little is known today except that she is likely represented by the constellation that we know as the little dipper, which is interpreted as a shield in Mayan astronomy).
Although he seems to have been considered an evil and dangerous force, the two stories of Zipacna that survive show him being deceived and attacked while minding his own business.
Perhaps lost stories or missing details would provide the context needed to see Zipacna as the bad guy but without that context, it really seems like the poor alligator-like giant was just the victim of bullying.
In the earliest story, 400 drunken boys come to party on the beach where Zipacna liked to bask quietly in the sun. While the boys attempted to construct a hut using a large tree they’d cut down, Zipacna offers to help move the heavy trunk for them — he is a giant with godly strength, after all.
The boys accept the giant lizard man’s help but, while he’s digging the post hole that the trunk will be set into, they plot to push the trunk in and crush him.
Zipacna, realizing their plans, quickly burrows a secret tunnel while in the hole. In the nick of time, he curls up inside the secret tunnel just as the boys heave the trunk down into the hole.
To throw the boys off his track, Zipacna feigns cries of pain and gives a very dramatic performance of dying before convincing the resident ants to carry up bits of hair and nail trimmings as proof that the lizard god was dead and his body was slowly being consumed by ants.
The boys are duly convinced and return to their drinking and revelry.
Soon, they finish building their beach hut and all 400 of them pass out drunk inside. Zipacna emerges from his hideaway, sneaks past the whole snoring lot, and topples their hut, crushing all 400 boys to death.
Their souls ascend to the sky and become the constellation that the Ancient Greeks called the Pleiades.
In the second story, Zipacna is once again on the beach, minding his own business and trying to find some lunch. A connoisseur of the finer things, his favorite food is crab so he’s scouring the tides in search of washed-up crabs.
A set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, had just finished tricking Zipacna’s father into giving up his gemstone teeth and jeweled eyes, after which the father dies destitute and ashamed.
Now, those same twins (who are apparently the heroes we should be rooting for) set their sights on Zipacna. They built a large fake crab and left it at the bottom of a great canyon. Finding a hungry Zipacna on the beach, the twins tell him that they spotted a juicy crab over in a canyon back yonder.
Too hungry to look a gift horse in the mouth, the lizard god follows the twins to the trap they’d laid for him.
Once inside the canyon, the twins (by means not specified in the surviving records of the story) cut down a mountain and bring it crumbling on top of Zipacna, who, again depending on the version, either dies or is transformed into the stone of the mountain itself.
Some scholars believe the whole crab trap scene is actually a bawdy parody. In the Popol Vuh, a 16th-century postcolonial account of Mayan beliefs, the description does read like a double entendre.
The fake crab is identified as female and a drooling Zipacna “wishes she were already in his mouth.”
Moreover, because the twins had hidden the fake crab inside a crevice in the canyon, he is seen struggling to enter the crevice while the crab (which the twins are able to move and manipulate like a puppet) straddles and bounces on top of him.
Finally, Zipacna gets out and decides to slide in on his back. This time, “he entered all the way, only his kneecaps were showing now! He gave a last sigh and was calm.” The likelihood that this was all a big bawdy metaphor for sex is reinforced by the fact that present-day Maya use “Yux,” the word for crab, as a slang term for the vulva.
In which case, if you have to go out, dying by “turning to stone” with a hot crab sex doll might not be the worst way to go.