The Maya Cosmovision: Yesterday and Today
Excellent astronomers and mathematicians, the ancient Maya charted the course of the planets and stars and even accurately predicted the appearance of comets, eclipses, and other celestial events. Their religion was a complex one ruled by major and minor deities. These gods---lords of the sky, sun, spring, war, death, and childbearing to name just a few---were both respected and feared. The gods were placated with blood from human sacrificial victims and by blood-letting. Priests, royals, and other important people ritually cut their earlobes, tongue, arms, and genitals to appease the gods of rain and of the sun, without which crops would fail.
According to the traditional Maya cosmovision, the world consisted of three interconnected domains: the supramundo (above-world, heavens, or sky), the middle world (earth), and the inframundo, or underworld. The underworld alone had nine layers, each ruled by a separate god. Perhaps a mirror image of the earthly plane, this unhappy place was where most humans ended up after death.
The earthly plane was considered to be flat and square; the four major compass points were associated with certain colors and characteristics. Each also had its own god, tree, and bird. Depicted by the color red, the east was the most important quadrant as it was the home of the rising sun. Associated with the setting sun and death, the west was associated with the color black. White represented the north and yellow with the south.
The place where east met west (and south and north) was inhabited by humans. Its color was blue-green or turquoise, the color of choice for Maya crosses seen today in towns like San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán. These crosses---which predated the Christian cross by many centuries---are associated with the giant kapok tree which is in turn associated with the intersection of cosmic and human forces. With its roots in the underworld and branches in the sky, the great ceiba was believed by the ancient Maya to be a link between man and the other worlds. The kapok tree appears in Maya carvings, including the lid of the ruler Pakal's tomb, at Palenque, and is still much revered today.
Many of the old beliefs were superimposed on Catholic ritual introduced by the Spaniards, and today's Maya practice a synergistic form of Christianity, especially in the countryside. For example, folks use candles of different colors to pray for different things, lighting a green candle to ask for a good crop; yellow, for money; red for health; black to get rid of envy; and orange to negate bad vibes. Before planting a field, farmers pray to Catholic saints but also perform rituals whose roots go back thousands of years. Round-faced babies throughout Chiapas, the Yucatan and Central America wear bracelets or necklaces of ojo de venado ("deer's eye seeds") or other amulets to protect them from the evil eye. Dressed in indigenous garb woven by local women, statues of saints in San Juan Chamula's pretty church sport mirrors to reflect and repel evil. And while most colonial churches are faced in natural stone, check out San Cristóbal de las Casas' lovely cathedral. It's no surprise that its delightful facade of ochre yellow, rust red, black, and white represent the four compass points of the Maya cosmos.