Mayan Symbols and Their Meanings: Unraveling the Codices

Symbols offer fascinating insight into the cultures that created them. And Mayan symbols are not different.The Mayan culture flourished for centuries in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Belize. It comes as no surprise, then, that the ancient Mayan civilization left behind a ton of beautiful and awe inspiring works of art, architecture, and writing. These incredible works have shed great light on the world of Mayan symbols and their complex meanings. 

The Most Important Mayan Symbols

In order to understand ancient Mayan civilization, we must understand the symbols they left behind. While Maya numerals and the Mayan writing system (also known as Mayan hieroglyphics) continue to fascinate history lovers, we’ll be focusing on the symbols that can shed light on Maya culture and the everyday life of the Maya. By understanding these Mayan symbols, we’ll gain a better understanding of Mayan culture, how they understood the world around them, and how they perceived of their place in it.

The Mayan Calendars

Modern recreation of a Mayan calendar

Contrary to popular belief, the Maya had more than one calendar; in fact, they had four! Each one played an important role in the religious and agricultural life of the Maya, no matter which kingdom or city-state they lived in.

The Haab

Image via https://www.mayan-calendar.com/ancient_haab.html
Symbols of the Haab Calendar via mayan-calendar.com

The Haab calendar is perhaps the most relatable of the Mayan calendars for modern readers. It was (and still is) used by the Maya to track the earth’s yearly trip around the sun, much like our modern calendar. 

Also like our modern calendar, the Haab measured one year as 365 days. Unlike our current calendar, however, it measured 18 months that consisted of 20 day, plus an extra month that had five days. If you do the math (which the Maya loved to do), that adds up to 365 days in a year – and no need for stupid leap years.

This 365 day pattern was largely used to help keep track of the seasons and to when to plant and harvest crops.

The Haab calendar has had a long life. First created in 550 BC, many Maya in Guatemala and the Yucatan still use it to keep track of when to perform certain ceremonies and rituals.

The Tzolk’in

Tzolki’n calendar housed in the Smithsonian

Now, here’s where it gets confusing. The Tzolk’in was another Mayan calendar that charted a 260 day cycle. But, unlike the Haab, it did not measure time linearly. Instead, in the Tzolk’in, time moved in a circular manner.

Beyond that, I’m afraid to explain the complexities of the Tzolk’in any further, because it’s, well, pretty complicated. If you’re interested in the complexities of this spiral-like timekeeping system, see the expert sources at the end of this post. The Tzolk’in seems to have served a more supernatural purpose than the Haab.

The Maya used the Tzolk’in to name certain people, attempt to foresee the future, decide when to go into battle, and every day in this calendar had associated omens. In essence, the Tzolk’in operated as a seer, helping the Maya to predict the unpredictable. 

The Calendar Round

Modern depiction of how the calendar round worked

The Calendar round is a combination of the Haab’s 365-day cycle and Tzolk’in’s 260-day cycle. Thus, each day in the Calendar Round is made by combining a Haab day and Tzolk’in day. For example, the Haab day “Kumku” and the Tzolk’in day “Chuen” combined to make 10 Chuen, 4 Kumku. 

This combination of Haab and Tzloklin days created a 52 year cycle, in which none of the days were ever repeated. 

Because of the 52 year length of the Calendar Round, the Maya believed that when a person turned 52 they attained greeted wisdom.

The Long Count Calendar

The one we are all most likely familiar with is the Long Count calendar. This calendar was used to keep track of dates that held mythological and religious importance in the deep past and may have been used to foretell future events. 

According to the Long Calendar, the world began in 3114 BC and measures 1,872,00 days, or around 5,125 years. The Long Count calendar came to and end on December 21, 2012, causing some (insane) people to speculate that the world would, thus, also end that day. 

The most important role of this complex calendar was to associate Mayan rulers with different historical and mythological events. One way Mayan rulers used this was to perform actions associated with different gods on the day they occurred on the calendar.

The Cardinal Points

Similar to the Inca and Aztec civilizations, the cardinal points (or cardinal directions) acted as an important symbol in Mayan culture. 

According to Mayan cosmology, east and west were the two most important directions. This was because the sun rose and in the east and set in the west. As historians and anthropologists have noted: 

“‘East’ is the entire section of the horizon where the sun rises during the year, from solstice to solstice and back again. This quadrant is represented in site layout by the E-group complexes found at Uaxactun and elsewhere. ‘West’ is the corresponding quadrant where the sun is observed to set.”

North and south were thus derived from the importance of east and west. Unlike in the modern Western world, where we would normally think of north as “up” and south as “down,” the Maya would have conceived of north as the left-hand quadrant of the sky, and south as the right-hand quadrant.

Interestingly, the Maya also associated each cardinal direction with a color: 

  • Red was associated with east
  • Black was associated with west
  • White was associated with north
  • Yellow was associated with south


Mayan jaguar sculpture at the Popol Vuh Museum in Guatemala City

The largest predator in Central America, jaguars have inspired fear and awe in this region’s inhabitants for millenia. And the Maya were no different. 

The jaguar was one of the most important of all Mayan symbols. The animal’s combination of speed, stealth, and strength made it the perfect metaphor for kingship and martial ability. 

To exhibit courage and general badassery, some Mayan warriors dressed in uniforms designed to look like a jaguar. The meaning would not have been lost on their enemy: I’m bigger, faster, and stronger, and I’m going to kill you. 

Mayan kings also adopted the jaguar as a symbol of their power. While the way in which a Mayan ruler chose to express this connection with the great cat differed between time and place, many, nonetheless, seem to have made the connection. 

In the Classic Maya period (c. 250-950 AD), many rulers used the Mayan word for jaguar as part of their own name or as their kingly title. Additionally, these rulers used jaguar pelts (or clothing that resembled these pelts) as official royal clothing and throne adornments. 

Among the Postclassic Maya (c. 950-1539), kings used jaguar pelts as symbols of war. Some surviving accounts note that “spreading the jaguar skin” was akin to a declaration of war. 

The Mayan Symbols for Gods

Mayan mythology and religion contained many fascinating gods and goddesses. Each of these deities ruled over a different part of the world or human experience. The multitude of Mayan gods also led to the creation of many Mayan symbols that Maya priests, rulers, and artisans used to allude to important deities.While we cannot cover every god of the ancient Maya here, we’ll cover three of the most important figures in Mayan religion and the symbols the Maya used to represent them.

Hero Twins

Depiction of the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh

Within Mayan mythology, the hero twins were a pair of brothers who, through a series of heroic acts, became the sun and the moon. Their association with heroism, cunning, and other worthy attributes led many Mayan rulers to claim descent from the family of the diving brothers, thus giving these kings the right to rule.

Athletic young men who excelled at the Mayan ball game, called Poc-a-Toc, the brothers were the children of Xquic, a virgin goddess. Once they had grown up, they decided to rescue their father, Hun Hunahpu, from the underworld. 

As they made their way through the hellscape, they evaded the traps and solved the challenges set before them. Finding their father, they were able to bring him back to life, but, having died, he was not allowed to re-enter the human world. Hun Hunaphu then ascended the earthly world to become the god of Maize. 

Representations of the Hero Twins have been found throughout Mayan territories, leading many scholars to believe they held widespread appeal as a Mayan symbol. Though most of the stories of the twins have been destroyed or lost over the centuries, the Popol Vuh, one of the surviving Maya manuscripts from the K’iche’ people in Guatemala, contains an fully in-tact version of the Hero Twins story.

Kukulkan, the Feathered Serpent

Known by various names across Mesoamerica, the feathered serpent played an important part in Mayan religion as well. Perhaps more familiar to modern readers by his Aztec name , Quetzelcoatl, the feathered serpent was known as the god Kukulkan throughout most of the Mayan world. In fact, the name Kukulkan comes from the Yucatec Maya words for feathered (k’uk’ul) and serpent (kan). 

The supreme god in the Mayan pantheon, Kukulkan represented the link between the divine world and the human world. Indeed, in Mayan culture snakes’ mouths were often identified with caves, which the Maya believed could form a link between these two worlds. 

The importance of Kukulkan to the Maya can still be viewed today in the architecture they left behind. While the Spanish destroyed most of the Mayan codices that once existed, the figures of Kukulkan and other gods have survived thanks to the Mayas’ architectural accomplishments. 

The most well known site that features Kukuklan is Chichen Itza. Located in the Yucatan region of modern day Mexico, Chichen Itza is one of the best preserved Mayan sites. The pyramid of Chichen Itza, known as El Castillo, sports the heads of several enormous plummed serpents around its base.

Seen in the picture above, the serpents’ mouths are open, evoking a connection to the divine; feathers still cover the god’s head; and stylistic flourishes join the jaws of the great god.

Rain God Chaak

Another incredibly important god in Mayan religion, Chaak (also spelled Chac) was the god of rain. Though Chaak was most important in the Yucatec region, he enjoyed fairly universal importance in Maya culture, as all Mayan kingdoms and city states depended on rain for their crops. 

Often depicted with large fangs, round eyes, and trunk-like nose, Chaac was a fearsome looking character. This fearsome appearance could be tied to Chaac’s dual nature. As the rain god, Chaac had the ability to bring life. But, the god could also unleash deadly hurricanes and other storms. 

Interestingly, Chaac took on four personas, each associated with the cardinal directions: 

  • Chaak Xib Chaac, or “Red Chaac of the East”
  • Ex Xib Chaac, or the “Black Chaac of the West”
  • Sak Xib Chaac, or the “White Chaac of the North”
  • Kan Xib Chaac, or the “Yellow Chaac of the South”

Each of these lesser representations of the deity watched over their quadrant of the sky.

Sources on Mayan Symbols

  1. “The Mayan Calendar,” mayanpeninsula.com
  2. “Mayan Calendar,” britannica.com
  3. “The Calendar System,” maya.nmai.si.edu
  4. “The Calendar System,” maya.nmai.si.edu
  5. Nicholas A. Hopkins and J. Kathryn Josserand, “Directions and Partitions in Maya World View,” famsi.org
  6. Ibid
  7. “The Cardinal Directions,” ancientmayalife.blogspot.com
  8. “Mayan hieroglyphic writing,” britannica.com
  9. “Mayan Symbols: What Were They and What Did They Mean?” historyonthenet.com
  10. Nicholas Saunders, “The Jaguar in Mexico,” mexicolore.co.uk
  11. Ibid
  12. “Maya Hero Twins,” historyonthenet.com
  13. Joshua J. Mark, “The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya,” worldhistory.org
  14. Mark Cartwright, “Kukulcan,” worldhistory.org
  15. “Chaac and Tlaloc: Two Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican Gods of the Rain,” ancient-origins.net
  16. Ibid
  17. “Chaac Mayan God,” mayansandtikal.com

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