Key Figures in Ancient Mayan Culture

Mayans dedicated the pyramid at Chichen Itza to the
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Because the Maya were the only Mesoamerican civilization to develop an advanced form of writing, codices like the Popol Vuh, which relates the cosmogony in Mayan tradition, are difficult to translate. However, when combined with Mayan oral and artistic histories, the Popol Vuh indicates the roles the primary gods in the Maya pantheon played in the creation and cultivation of earth, life and Mayan culture.

1 Itzamna: The Sky God

Mayan scribes generally depicted the god Itzamna, also known as "Heart of the Sky," as an elderly figure, with square, squinty eyes. In addition to ruling the celestial realm and serving as the chief god within the Mayan pantheon, Itzamna was credited with inventing the Mayan system of writing. Perhaps more significantly, Itzamna is one of the six creator-gods who collaborated on designing the sky, the earth and all living organisms, including the present version of human beings.

2 Kukulcan: The Plumed Serpent

Kukulcan -- known today by his Nahuatl name, Quetzalcoatl -- is credited in Maya mythology with creating humankind. He may have originally been a ruler of the Toltec city Tula who was driven out by a rival, but while artists occasionally depicted him in human form, he was better known as the "Plumed Serpent." This form represented the duality of nature, with feathers signifying the sky and the serpent signifying the earth. As one of gentler gods in Maya culture, Kukulcan preferred the sacrifice of butterflies, birds and snakes to that of human beings.

3 Hunahpu and Xbalanque: The Hero Twins

The Popol Vuh states that the Hero Twins collaborated with other creator-gods to form modern humans out of maize, an origin story that emphasizes the importance of that crop to the Maya people. Hunahpu and Xbalanque were also instrumental in allowing early humans to propagate the staple crop. They defeated the Death Lords of the Underworld at pitz, a ballgame of grave importance to Mayan religion and politics. After winning the game, the Hero Twins became the sun and the moon to delineate day and night and assist the growing cycle for maize and other crops.

4 Chaak: The Rain God

Like Kukulcan, Chaak often took the form of a serpent, though Maya artists tended to depict the rain god as a frightening, fanged figure. Rather than eschewing human sacrifice, Chaak would only supply adequate rainfall if the Maya spilled blood regularly. Chaak was said to reside in caves and naturally occurring wells called cenotes, so Maya citizens would sometimes place offerings in these areas to supplement human sacrifice and assure a successful agricultural season.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.