The Xibalba: mysteries of the Mayan underworld

Duality Between Life And Death

 

Beyond The Terrestrial World

 

According to the Mayan culture, the cosmos is composed of three main elements: heaven, earth and the underworld, which is symbolized by a sacred tree, called Ceiba. The roots of this tree lead to the dark lands of the lord Ah Puch, which is also known as Kisin or Yum Kimil, the lord of death and disease. The owl was his companion, and therefore these animals were thought to bring disease; so people threw rocks at them whenever they saw them around or heard them hooting, in order to scare them away.

 

Mayan glyph of Ah Puch also known as “The stinky one”. The long and strong branches of ceiba tree hold the sky while the roots touch the deepest corners of the underground.

Mayan glyph of Ah Puch also known as “The stinky one”. The long and strong branches of ceiba tree hold the sky while the roots touch the deepest corners of the underground. Photos by Maya4you and La Primera Plana

 

The sacred book Popol Vuh says that before the creation of mankind two twins had to visit the Xibalba to play against the gods of the underworld in a ball game they called Pitz. To go down there, it was necessary to overcome a series of obstacles, like walking down on steep stairs, crossing rivers of blood and going through gloomy chambers full of wild animals or thorny plants.

 

grave offers

In the Mayan offerings you can find pots and cocoa seeds which the deceased were supposed to exchange on their way to the underworld.

 

According to the Mayan beliefs, the sacred and divine emerge from the ground, and not from heaven. To die means leaving the material world only, that is why Mayans do offerings in order to help the deceased in their spooky journey to the Xibalba. Inhabitants were usually buried in their houses or yards, in comparison to the big temples and majestic graves built in honor of the aristocracy where even women or servants were sacrificed to help the deceased in their journey.

 

The grave of King Pakal is one of the most important temples built for this use and is the only one made like a sarcophagus. Pakal was one of the most powerful leaders of Palenque. Photo by Canal44

The grave of King Pakal is one of the most important temples built for this use and is the only one made like a sarcophagus. Pakal was one of the most powerful leaders of Palenque. Photo by Canal44

 

In Mayan cities you can find important mortuary temples, as well as some constructions shaped as animals jaws, which were gates to the be in touch with the Xibalba. Though caves and sinkholes (or cenotes) were the main access to the world of darkness.

 

Gate to the underworld blocked by big stones in Homun, Yucatan. Photo by National Geographic.

Gate to the underworld blocked by big stones in Homun, Yucatan. Photo by National Geographic.

 

This theory was proved with the founding of a gate at the caves of Homun, Yucatan, where some kind of gate blocked with carved stones, seemed to be the entrance to a complicated network of caves. Inside the cave there were found sculptures, pieces of pottery and human bones. There are proofs of modifications in caves and cenotes to built temples in honor of Xibalba. Another famous gate is the one located at Candelaria cave in Guatemala.

 

Entrance to the mythic Xibalba at the Candelaria cave. Photo by The Fairytale Traveller.

Entrance to the mythic Xibalba at the Candelaria cave. Photo by The Fairytale Traveller.

 

There was no such thing as hell according to the Mayans and many pre-Hispanic cultures. They used to consider illness and death as another stage of the human existence. Therefore it wasn’t any kind of punishment, it was just a cycle between the earthly and the spiritual life. That is way they worship the Xibalba.

Discover more about Mayan traditions: What did the Mayans use to eat?

Have you ever seen to an underworld gate in Yucatan Peninsula? Share with us your journey to the cenotes or caves.

David De la Garza
Marketing designer who loves skateboarding and playing soccer, always looking for good music to listen