Ancient Mayan Architecture

Ancient Mayan Architecture July 13, 2018
The Southern Milky Way over La Silla
The Southern Milky Way over La Silla –

Imagine standing on a mountain top overlooking the great Lake Atitlan after having climbed for a long time. Spread out before you, from your height of nearly 10,000 feet, is all the majesty of the Mayan world. If you have perched yourself on a high enough peak and you have very good eyesight, you can see the Peten rainforest to the northeast. If you have fantastically good eyesight, you can see the coastal lowlands beyond that. Beautiful, rolling variations in green. Looking upward you can see the beautiful canopy of sky, also stretching as far as the eye can see. If you could just reach a little higher, maybe you could just touch that sky. Touch the very gods themselves.

With the above images in mind, it’s not hard to begin grasping the Mayan worldview. The gods themselves shared the Upperworld with the sun, stars, and sky. Ancestors and other spirits also resided here. And they often made their homes, or places of power, on the mountain tops which rose a majestic and impressive 10,000 feet into the air. The mountains were considered living entities, with their own personalities. These witz, or monster-mountains, were depicted in carvings as creatures with eyes, muzzles, and ear and mouth ornaments. These same creatures would be reflected in much of the artwork found on pyramid temples, further connecting the artificial mountains to the real thing.

Mayan mythology believed that a cosmic mountain was where life-sustaining maize originated. The gods then took this maize, mixed with blood, to form a dough used to fashion man. This dough was then placed into a cave-womb, from which man later emerged. This creation story helped make caves sacred sites associated with  fertility. They were places to access the hollow interiors of the revered mountains.  However, caves were also connectors to the Underworld, where man went upon death. Caves were unique in Mayan mythology in that you entered them from the Middleworld, where man resided, and were then able to access either the sacred interior of the mountains and the Upperworld or the dreary existence of the Underworld. Perhaps the only other avenue to the Underworld from the Middleworld is via cenotes, or deep underground wells that were often carved out by underground rivers.

Stone stairway descending into a watery cave
Cenote del Parque de Cholul, Yucatan – By Inri [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons
Their World Tree was often represented by the mighty ceiba tree, whose straight trunk stretched all the way up to the very top of the forest canopy. It was easy to see, from the perspective of a rain forest dweller, how the ceiba tied together the Underworld, Middleword, and Upperworld.

The Upperworld and Underworld were then further divided into levels. The Upperworld consisted of perhaps thirteen levels, with each level having its own unique function. This was the final destination of warriors dying in battle, women who died in childbirth, suicides, and sacrificial victims. Some Maya also believed that this was where the nobles traveled to upon their deaths. The Underworld, sometimes known as Xibalba, was composed of nine levels and was a very watery place, reached through rivers and caves. This was where most Mayan went upon death, to be tested and tormented by the gods of the Underworld.

The Middleworld was divided into a quincunx, where there were four quadrants centered on the cardinal points and a central axis, denoted by the world tree. Each quadrant had a tree, bird, and color associated with it. These quadrant associations varied from region to region, probably based upon what was available in that region. The Mayan world covered a large area, incorporating many climate extremes from the low-lying tropics to the snow-covered mountain peaks.

Cieba tree in a clearing
300 year old Cieba tree –

East was their primary direction, from whence came the rising Sun which was so important in their cosmology. The color associated with this direction was red, a color connected to the sun and fire.

Next came North, the direction of the ancestors and death. Its color was white.

West follows North appropriately enough, as the direction of the Underworld. It was also the direction of the setting sun and was represented by the color black.

We then come to the South, the right hand of the sun, whose color was yellow.

Each quadrant was held up by a special deity assigned to it. Who these deities were depends on where you do your research. Some archaeologists say that chacs, or rain deities support the quarters of the Middleworld. Others believe these entities to be aspects of Pawahtun, who was the old god presiding over the days at the end of the year. And yet another referenced sacred jaguars. At the center of it all was the world tree, whose color was green. The celestial bird, Itzam-Ye or Principal Bird Deity lived within its branches.

This same celestial structure was again reflected in Mayan architecture. Simple peasant structures were often one room affairs with four poles at the corners and a central pole or pillar adding additional support. The woods used would mirror those of the sacred trees for each quadrant and they would be aligned with the cardinal directions. The hearth, in the center of each home, would be composed of three stones placed in the shape of a triangle, much like the cosmic hearth which was composed of three stars demarcating the Orion nebula.

The Maya continued this cosmic construct even in their agriculture, erecting sacred wooden poles at the corners of their maize fields. These poles were bent down along the edges of the field, enclosing the green space within, reflecting the quincunx structure of the world in the sacred corn fields.

Nearly every culture has some concept of sacred geography and architecture. Even today many peoples take comfort in these ideas by using them to understand their place within the world. The Mayan concept of the world’s structure, like so many other areas of their civilization, was highly refined. Everything about the Mayan culture reflected their religious and spiritual beliefs; their need to understand and categorize the world around them. They believed in a world tree, like the Norse. Mountains and caves were also considered sacred structures so important that even if they didn’t exist in their natural state substitutes were built.*

*Originally published in the 2006 Llewellyn’s Magical Almanac. If you’re interested in the Mayan calendar system, drop me a note in the comments below, as there’s also an article on those. The Historic Mayan were an advanced and truly fascinating culture, and then came the Spanish….

Brightest of Blessings,


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