The Maya underworld and the god of death

Rollout vase photo courtesy of Justin Kerr

The Maya Underworld, called Xibalba (She-balba), “The Place of Fright,” was the realm beneath the surface of the Earth and under water, especially in caves. It was perceived to have nine descending levels arranged like an inverted pyramid, and was ruled by the Bolontik’u, “Nine Lords of Death” and was often depicted on vases as a giant conch or snail shell which enclosed a mysterious other reality interpreted by some to be an infinite, eternal and bloody ocean of bliss.

The Underworld was always pressing upward through portals—volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes—where the demons could emerge and work their dark magic. As entrances to the Underworld, caves were considered sacred and preferred locations for sacrificial offerings. There is no evidence to suggest that Xibalba was a kind of hell; the belief was that to die in one world was to be born into another.

The  Lords Of Xibalba

According to the Popol Vuh, the K’iche’ Maya mythical “Book of Counsel,” the Lords of Xibalba  possess three outstanding characteristics. In the first place, they were liars and tricksters. To trick the Hero Twins into playing a ball game, they said they admired their ability and the contest would be exciting. But it was just an enticement to kill them. 

Secondly, the lords were stupid. In a second attempt to create human beings who would praise them and offer them their blood and sweat, they made them out of wood. There was nothing in these human’s equivalent to hearts or minds, and they had no memory. It was a failed attempt. Lastly, in several instances, the Underworld lords demonstrated cruelty and hardheartedness. 

The Vase Shown Above

Above, center right, the Underworld Lord, known to scholars as “God A,” is shown dancing beside a witz “living mountain” throne, on top of which is an infant jaguar identified by its tail and paws. Art Historian Penny Janice Steinbach suggests that the infant with jaguar traits is being sacrificed as “part of a pre-accession ritual serving to endow royal heirs with the ability to conjure, which, in turn, was integral to assuming the throne.” To the right of God A is a dog, known to escort souls of the deceased across a river and into the Underworld.

Above him, is a fanciful firefly, perhaps there to illuminate the darkness of the watery world below. To the left of the spirit-spewing mountain, the rain god Chaak dances, holding aloft a hand-stone typical of those used in certain ball games and boxing matches. In his other hand, he wields an axe with which he creates lightning and thunder. Typical of Maya art, the image is filled with symbolism, glyphs and mythical references. Every element has meaning.

God A — Cizin “Farter.”

God A is a death god. He’s a skeleton figure with a distended abdomen, pronounced spinal column, truncated nose and grinning teeth. And he emits a stench, possibly that of dead bodies. He wears bell-bracelets on his hands and feet, a decapitation collar, and he has disembodied “death eyes” with the nerve stalks attached. His body is sometimes marked with “death spots,” which is a sign of decomposition. And he can be seen sitting on a throne of bones. Unlike the dance of rulers, his dance above is wild and undignified. His skeletal countenance is that of a trickster, typical for an Underworld deity.

Jaguar Rising — The Novel

The first initiation trial for One Maize to become a “man of the community” was to capture, not kill, a deer and bring it into his father’s pen alive. Here, the second of three trials is a drug-induced journey into the Underworld to see if he can hold his own with one of the Lords of Death. 

Journey Into The Underworld
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 121-123 )

Inside the temple, White Grandfather set the torch in a holder on the wall and tied back the doorway drape a little to remove the thin veil of ash that lingered in the air. Following his gesture I sat on an ocelot pelt with my back against a side wall. Painted black on the wall across from me was a medallion, a large circle with inset corners that framed the cross-eyed, shark-tooth face of Lord K’in. Taking fire from the torch with an ocoté stick, he lit some tinder in a censer. When it flamed, he added the stick and three others before setting it in front of me. He took a blue-painted calabash from under the medallion and nodded for me to take one of the many rolled-up leaves it contained. Inside the leaf was a cigar. “We wrap them with bits of copal bark,” he said, and scrapings from the backs of frogs.” It releases the ch’ulel to go through the portal.”

Sitting next to me, White Grandfather removed his headgear and re-tied the three-leaf headband so it fit snug on his forehead. After adding another stick and some copal nuggets to the censer, its sweet smoke replaced the acrid smell of burnt ash, and it wafted to a hole high in the back wall. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a round feather-standard leaning against the wall next to the doorway. Tied to crossed lances in front of it was a ceremonial shield with the face of a laughing falcon on it. Beside me, arranged on a reed-mat, were ceramic cups, an incense bag and an offering bowl containing strips of cotton and square leaf-packets that were tied with string and painted red. Next to my teacher was a bundle of ocoté sticks, an incense bag, a carapace drum, rattle, grinding stone and two gourds with stoppers. 

White Grandfather took one of the burning sticks from the censer and lit a cigar. “This is the holy portal,” he said, puffing to get it lit. He handed it to me and told me to take several strong puffs, each time breathing it in. I’d smoked cigars with Thunder Flute and my uncles before, even inhaled, but this was very different. It was thick and tasted like a combination of tree sap and burnt thatch. The smoke stung my nose and bit my tongue. White Grandfather set the drum, rattle and incense bag in front of him. “Keep breathing it in, grandson.” I did, but I kept coughing. “Blow some smoke to the medallion,” he said pointing. “That is the place of entry, the doorway.” I noticed that it was shaped like the bottom part of a turtle shell, rounded except for inset corners. And it seemed to have been painted blue. “Fix your eyes on it,” he said, tapping the little drum with a thin white bone. Tap, tap, tap. Pause. Tap, tap, tap. On and on, always three taps and a pause. “Breathe it in, grandson…” 

My teacher chanted in a whispery voice, words having to do with good sight, good happenings and good remembering. I passed him the cigar but he shook his head. “We remain behind—to guide you. Do what we ask, answer our questions as you journey along. All will become clear. There is nothing to fear.” He chanted again, louder, adding some rattle sounds in the pauses between taps on the drum. This went on so long, twice he bumped his knee against mine—hard, probably to keep me from dozing off. 


“Fix your gaze on the dark center, grandson. Relax and allow yourself to go through.” The tapping stopped and I felt a damp cloth, first on my brow and then on the back of my neck. “Close your eyes now.” As I did, he tied the cloth over my eyes. Amazingly, faintly, I could still see the quivering medallion, only now it was definitely blue turning purple with blackness growing in the center. “Keep puffing, grandson. Breathe in the smoke.” More and more of the medallion was becoming black. Suddenly, I felt something in my hand. Wood. “What do you see, grandson?”

Suddenly I saw my Little Owl. “My canoe, Grandfather!” The loudness of my voice startled me. After that, I whispered. “I see Little Owl—clearly as when I painted her feathers.” 

“Look around. Where are you?” 

White Grandfather’s voice seemed to be coming from inside me, the sound filling me like a hollow jar. “In the canoe, in Little Owl.” What I said is not right. I am not in the canoe, I feel like I am the canoe.

“What is happening?”

“Floating—smooth—on a black river. Waterlilies all around. Maybe sky wanderers.” 

Encountering Cizin Ku (The god of stench)
Excerpt From Jaguar Rising (pp. 137-138 )

Looking down from the steps and trying to clear the burning in my nose and eyes, I saw a crouched figure in the ring turning this way and that. As the smoke thinned and the water in my eyes cleared, I saw a tall, menacing skeleton with a bulbous head, crooked front teeth and a distended belly. “Cizin Ku!” I whispered. What my teacher hadn’t told me about this lord of the underworld was that the thunder farter’s presence alone was so powerful I had to tighten every muscle in my body to contain my fright. Turning his gourd-like head side-to-side, he listened and sniffed one way and another, looking for something. Or someone. Commoners on their knees backed close to the wall. In front of him, the animal companion spirits cowered and glanced up timidly. With a jerk the lord of death turned and farted a smaller thunderclap side to side, leaving them writhing in clouds of stench.

When Cizin Ku turned and looked up I stood back.

“Grandson, did you say Cizin Ku?”

His bony feet clanked on the steps and within a few terrifying heartbeats, I could smell him standing over me, his feet wreaking with sludge. Following his command, I turned to face him and backed up until I felt the cold obsidian wall of the pyramid at my back. Besides the huge and ominous eyes above his nose, he had two more eyes on the top of his head. As he turned I saw a string of them, all bloodshot and gazing at me, running down his back. He stared at me and then directed his gaze to my hand. I’d forgotten that I was holding the brush. Because it had touched the terrace, the floor was turning from black to red. His square and cavernous eye sockets had lightning cords in them, shining painfully bright.

“Go to your knees, Grandson. Bow to him. All he wants is your respect.”

I couldn’t reply, but I did what he said. The stench from the excrement on the lord’s bony feet made me gag. Bending down to face me, the mirror medallion around his neck clanked against his ribs and putrid steam issued from a slit in his bulbous, pouch-like belly. Following his command, I handed him the brush and he pressed it against his knee bone. When nothing happened, the lightning in his eyes went dark and more steam came from his belly. He drew the brush along a leg bone. Nothing. He tried again without success. A growl rumbled from within him. With the eyes on the top of his head holding my gaze and his other eyes dangling, looking around, he snapped the brush in two and hurled the pieces over his shoulder, down to the ring without turning to look.

White Grandfather kept asking me questions but I was too stunned to say anything. Also, if Cizin Ku could command me without speaking, he was probably hearing my thoughts as well. Frustrated by not making a color, he straightened to the height of two men. I saw it coming, so I covered my ears as he doubled over and expelled another deafening thunderclap. Again, it shook the chamber. High above the shiny pyramid, dust and chunks of rock broke from the ceiling and apparently fell onto the cauldron sending sparks and flakes of obsidian tinkling down the terraces and steps. Through the smoke came the sounds of agony and the odor of vomit. 

I couldn’t see him, so I whispered to White Grandfather that he broke my brush. “He is angry. What should I do?”

“Offer him another one, Grandson—in your headband.” 

Cizin Ku heard! As soon as I felt the cool handle slide against my scalp. He took it and pointed the bristles at my face. “Rise!” His voice bellowed inside me. I stood but kept my back to the cold wall. “Come!” He went up the steps and I followed. The lord on the fifth terrace backed away from his throne as Cizin Ku approached. The lord of death turned and said, “Make color.” I touched the brush to the seat of the throne. Red appeared and spread. He went over and pointed to the quetzal plumage streaming from the ruler’s headdress. I touched the brush to a single shaft and the blue-green color spread down and up until the entire spray became vibrant. 

On the sixth terrace, the brush made the ruler’s headband white and the macaw feathers yellow and blue. On the seventh, something changed. Cizin Ku pointed to the pavement beneath his feet. When I touched my brush to it, there came a red dot but it didn’t spread. I tried to paint a circle around it and still, the color didn’t spread. I was confused, but what happened next confused me even more. 

The skeleton lord stomped his foot on the dot and the color spread. The big eyes above his nose kept looking down at the color while the eyes on top of his head, worn like a headband, held my gaze. He stomped again and the color stopped spreading. Another stomp and the red spread faster than before. Much faster. Across the terrace, up and down the steps, across the other terraces. As the black pyramid was turning red the chamber fell quiet. 

“Grandson, repeat our words—I am returning to the sweat lodge…” I couldn’t. I dared not to even think of it as the bony lord came close. The lightning in his eyes dimmed again. With his face close to mine, he held my gaze and asked what I had to say about his turning the pyramid red. 

“With respect,” I whispered, “I must return to the sweat lodge. My teacher is calling for me.” 

Cizin Ku turned and stepped away, but the long strip of eyeballs down his spine stayed fixed on me. He stomped his foot again and the colors disappeared. The pyramid, the lords, what they wore and their thrones were all drab again. The onlookers whispered their disappointment. The lord’s eyes began to brighten and he stood tall again, apparently satisfied with his display of power. Dangling Eyes, the little blue dwarf, stomped his feet and rubbed his bony arms trying to make the red come back again, but it didn’t. Inside me, I heard, tap, tap, tap.

White Grandfather’s voice became urgent, insisting that I repeat his words. 


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

Links To Amazon.com 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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