The Sacred World Tree (Ceiba)

This is a young ceiba. The thorns protect the tree from animals, especially the peccary who like the bark. The spikes disappear when the tree matures.

The ceiba is the largest tree in the Mesoamerican tropical forest, so it’s not surprising that the Maya would use it as a model for the cosmos. The stature of the actual tree with roots deep in the underworld, the tall trunk and branches that touched the sky, makes it an ideal representation of the three realms inhabited by gods and demons. The ideological version, an imagined replica, was known as Ya’ache’, the “World Tree.”


The perceptions of the ancients varied from place to place, but there is remarkable consistency over time in how they perceived the universe — as represented in the inscriptions.  The Middle World was viewe as resting on the back of a gigantic, monstrous crocodile — turtle in some places — who floats on an enormous pond full of waterlilies. From the monster’s body there grew the great tree. The Underworld is shaped like an inverse pyramid with nine layers that correspond to nine “Lords of the Night,”

The Upperworld or celestial realm had thirteen layers, each with its own deity. At the highest, there was a vainglorious mythological bird who fancied himself brighter than the sun when he landed on the great tree. Itzam-Yeh, the “Serpent Bird” that scholars refer to as the Principal Bird Deity (PBD) nested in the arms of the World Tree. From there he dispensed the life force through entwined cords.

The Tree

(I’m 6’6″)

This ceiba is over 900 years old.
  • Usually between seven and ten years pass before a ceiba bears its first season of fruit, and in future years, it may produce only every other year yielding 600-4,000 fruits a crop. 
  • As the trees narrow, green leaves fall from January to March, and the branches of the upper world begin to bloom with bouquets of whitish pink flowers. 
  • The blossoms open after the sundown and stand out against the sky like bright stars. 
  • At night, bats come to drink flower nectar and eat the pollen while during the first morning hours, birds such as blackbirds, tanagers, orioles, brown jays, hummingbirds, oropendolas, and many others flock, sometimes in the hundreds to the branches and blooms. Come morning, the open flowers send their petals spinning to the ground. The fertilized blooms begin to swell, and long pear-shaped pods appear in clusters among the branches. 

Ceiba arms are filled with kapok
  • The husks appear gray and tough, but on the inside they are lined with a bed of lustrous fibers known as kapok silk. The slippery fibers were used as stuffing for pillows and other objects. 
  • They grow quickly and require lots of sun. The lightweight wood decays easily, but the long straight trunks were sometimes hollowed out to make canoes.

The fluff falls from the tree every three years.
  • Kapok is a silky cotton-like fiber located within the fruits. The fruit pods are called pochote by the Maya who use the fiber for clothing and stuffing for pillows.
  • Itzam Yeh can be seen in full figure in:
      • Tikal Temple IV wood panel
      • Palenque Temple of Cross
      • Palenque Temple of Foliated Cross
      • Palenque: Pacal’s Sarcophagus 
      • Quirigua Zoomorph B (Full figure glyph)
      • Piedras Negras Stela 5

The Dance of Itzam Yeh

Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (p. 363)

JADE MOCKINGBIRD CAME FROM BEHIND THE PYRAMID wearing white kilts, a white headband and white body paint with black spots—the markings of One Lord. Red Paw entered behind him, similarly dressed, but with the markings of First Jaguar, his twin brother—orange body paint with tufts of jaguar pelt covering his ears, jaws, torso and limbs. Besides being a great hunter like his brother, First Jaguar was a trickster and a skilled player of the ball game. Another apprentice dressed as Lord Itzam Yeh, the vain and menacing bird who dispensed life and magnified himself above the other gods, danced around them swirling and swooping, waving his feathered arms through the smoke coming from censers in front of the steps.

To the beating of three drums and continuous rattling by the sentries, Itzam Yeh ascended the eastern stairway, took a stance, pointed to the eastern Pauahtun and made the “offering” gesture with open arms. He stopped and made the same offering to the north, west and south. Having completed his round of ordering and offering, he stuck out his feathered chest and strutted back and forth along the platform. At the eastern stairway he stopped, took a stance and began his famous proclamation—

“I am mighty. My place is higher than the human.            

 I am their Sun. I am their light. So be it—my light is mighty.   

 I am the walkway. I am the foothold of the people…”

By the light of the sentries’ torches we watched the Hero Twins circle the sacred mountain with their blowguns. 

“My teeth glitter with jewels,” the holy bird said.

“They stand out blue with the moon.

My nest shines—it lights up the face of the earth…” 

One Lord went up the northern stairway. First Jaguar approached from the south. At the top they crept toward the ranting bird who paced with outstretched wings. The drumming stopped but the rattling continued. At once the brothers raised their blowguns and, on two hard drumbeats, shot the bird. He spun around, fell to his knees and then fell on the platform. We knew it meant that vanity was defeated and order was restored in the sky. But it wasn’t over.

At the bottom of the steps the twins encountered three lords of death—Mockingbird’s apprentices wearing bulbous skull helmets and painted white bones over their black body paint. As the story goes, they’d come to avenge the death of Itzam Yeh. 

Boldly, dancing as if the twin lords knew something the underworld lords did not know, they allowed themselves to be put down. Axed. After covering the bodies with a black cloth, the lords danced the grinding of their bones complete with pouring white powder into a large calabash, and then by hand scattering it into a river. 

The tallest of the dancers, wearing a black cape and hood, went up the western steps and turned. Flanked by plastered jaguar and serpent heads, he told how the twins emerged from the river that flowed in front of us. Suddenly, One Lord and First Jaguar came around the sides of the pyramid dressed as beggars. “They went from village to village,” one of the assistants said. “They performed wonders.” When he said they burned a house without destroying it, Red Paw danced the burning. When he said they sacrificed a dog and brought it to life again, Jade Mockingbird danced its death and resurrection. “Seeing these wonders,” the teller called out, “the Lords of Death were curious. The magic fascinated them so, they wanted to be sacrificed and revived as well.” 

To the beating of drums and the rattling of rattles, the god twins obliged them, putting down the dark lords with their own axes and then cleverly rolling their bloody heads into the onlookers. “The twins played a trick,” the teller said. “They did not revive them. And so it happened. At Three Sky Place, through cleverness and trickery, One Lord and First Jaguar defeated death.” As he told how the twins ascended and took their places in the sky as Sun and Moon, the sentries rattled their rattles and the drummers beat their drums. Fast and hard. 

Whether Itzam Yeh is a Macaw or a Laughing Falcon

Excerpt from Jaguar Sun (p. 239)

I asked, “Does it not matter to you that Itzam Yeh is said by some Itz’aat tellers to be a macaw while others say he is a laughing falcon?”

“Itzam Yeh? I believe he is a macaw, so I tell the story of Seven Macaw. I do not believe he is a falcon. Does it matter the kind of body he wears? Gods can change form, you know. In truth, it matters not that he reveals himself as a bird. What matters is the spirit he is and what he does. How the sculptor carves him or how a teller describes him are just ways to put flesh on his spirit. They have their truth and I respect it, even if it is different from mine. What matters is that there is a likeness—or a story—that gives the spirit flesh. That way we can feel their presence better, know and respect them better.”

“So the truth of a story is what you want to believe it is?” 

The old man nodded and leaned to me. “To confuse you further, my friend, what we want to believe changes as we grow older. Even so, I tell the stories as I learned them, true to our rule.” His words were filling my head with kapok. Then he said, “Knowing may be a comfort, but believing and trusting keeps us moving from one path to another.”

One path to another? “Are you saying we can have more than one path?”

The people who were gathering to hear Lord Crocodile were becoming impatient. Many of them were looking our way. Even with both hands on his staff he needed help getting up. Once up he faced me. “My friend, did you ever wander a jungle trail by yourself?”

“Often as a sprout. I still do when I visit new places.”


For a brief description of The Path Of The Jaguar novels: Go to the Home Page—Novels

Links To for paperback books and Kindle Editions

Jaguar Rising: A novel of the Preclassic Maya 

Jaguar Wind And Waves: A novel of the Early Classic Maya

Jaguar Sun: The Journey of an Ancient Maya Storyteller

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