The vision and duality of death among the Mayas

25/04/2021

For the Maya, the duality between life and death was a cycle in which matter disintegrated but the soul subsisted, and it took four or five years to reach the Xibalbá or underworld; after that time, the spirit was diluted and entered through the sigh in the mouth of a pregnant woman to revive in another being and thus reinitiate a new cycle.

The human body was the one that perished, but the soul of the individual remained and was required by the Mayan god of death, Ah Puch, who guided it inside the underworld. After a while, the soul or Píxan of the individual revived in another being and restarted the cycle.

The Maya believed that the cosmos was made up of three strata: the sky, which was composed of thirteen levels, the Earth, and the Underworld or Xibalba, of nine. The earth is located between the sky and the Xibalbá and is the place where the conflict of life and death takes place, where the clash and harmony of the opposites occur, a sacred place among the Maya, symbol of duality and origin of life and death that only the representatives of the gods on Earth could penetrate.

Death was associated with the underworld, chaos, darkness, and destruction, while life was linked to the sky, order, light, the sun, creation, and rationality. This ambivalence was represented through various elements, such as the Ceiba, which was the sacred tree of the Maya, whose upper part symbolized the sky, while the root was the entrance to the underworld.

Another representation found in their cosmogony are the animals considered to be bearers of death, such as the owl, which when it sang, people threw stones at it, because it was believed that its song foretold death. And the same happened with the vultures, which have been identified in diverse archaeological contexts, such as ceramics or mural paintings.

An idea that prevailed among the Maya was the existence of portals to the underworld, such as the zoomorphic style portals of various monuments, very common in Campeche, which had animal jaws represented and it was thought that by entering there, one entered the Xibalbá. Other portals are the caves or cenotes, where many skeletons have been found.

The characteristics of the mortuaries

The rulers ordered the construction of large mortuary buildings to be buried in them, such as those of the rulers Garra de Jaguar, in Calakmul, or Pakal, in Palenque, whose burial chambers stand out for their architecture and iconographic richness, as well as the presence of sumptuous goods, such as jade beads and ear flares, in addition to their clothing and some utensils.

Meanwhile, the burials of the rest of the inhabitants were simpler and were carried out inside the same habitational areas, usually in the corners of the structures, inside vessels or stone cists, accompanied by elements of their daily life. As part of this conception, the tradition of welcoming the souls of the dead remains among the Maya today, on October 31, November 1, and 2, by placing altars with the foods that the deceased liked. This millenary tradition is called Hanal Píxan (soul food).

By Mexicanist