Mayan Tree of Life

The tree of life is a motif that is commonly shared among most ancient mythologies. This is true of the Mayan mythology as well in which the Tree of Life, called Yaxche, was a vital part of the Mayan cosmic view. Mayans believed that the tree of life was a representation of the shape of the Mayan cosmos and that this tree connected the three major realms of the cosmos, namely the heavenly realm, the earthly realm and the underworld of the Mayans called Xibalba.

Mentions in Mayan Mythology

The motif of a life-giving tree can be found in the ancient Mayan saga of Hero Twins. In the saga, when the father of the twins was killed by the lords of the underworld, his head was placed in the branches of the dead tree. The tree sprang to life and bore a fruit which looked like the head of their dead father.

The lords of the underworld became afraid of the tree’s power and forbade anyone from approaching it. In time, a daughter of one of Xibalba lords approached the tree and was impregnated by the fruit from it. She then ascended from the underworld to the world and there gave birth to the Hero Twins.

Mayan Tree of Life Depictions in Palenque

Among the extant art found in the Mayan city of Palenque are depictions of the sacred tree of life. According to these depictions, the Mayans offered sacrificial victims and their blood to the sacred tree of life. The depictions also show the past rulers of the Mayan city, bestowing tributes and paying homage to the tree of life. A notable example of such a depiction is found in the tomb of a Palenque ruler dating back to the 7th century.

Mayan Cardinal Directions

The four cardinal directions were an important motif in the Mayan mythology. They were also directly tied to the Mayan tree of life. Mayans believed that the sacred tree of life grew in all the four directions. Consequently, Mayans had varying beliefs regarding all the four directions.

According to them, the four directions were manned by four manifestations of the rain god, of the four Chacs. These Chacs upheld the heavenly realm above the earth in all the four corners of the world. Similarly, the tree of life was believed to grow its branches in all the four directions and spread life.

Connecting the Three Realms

Mayans believed that the sacred tree of life originated in the underworld, as depicted in the story of Hero Twins and other Mayan mythological tales. According to them, the tree first became the beginning of life which began in the underworld and reached the worldly realm. The sacred tree shaped the time and space in the worldly realm according to the Mayan beliefs.

They also believed that the tree rose further in its height, finally reaching the heavenly realm where it set the heavenly bodies in motion and helped shaped the Mayan cosmos. In this way, Mayans believed that the sacred tree of life pervaded and directly affected all the three realms of the Mayan cosmos.

Representation as Ceiba tree

Mayans considered the Ceiba tree as a real-world manifestation and example of the sacred tree of life. Consequently, the Ceiba tree was usually planted in all Mayan settlements and cities. A typical Ceiba has a long, straight trunk and interestingly shelters bats in its roots. The straight and long trunk was considered by the Mayans as a representation of the horizontal axis connecting different realms.

Finally, the Ceiba tree is topped with a canopy of leafage with branches spreading out in all the four directions. This, the Mayans believed, represented the four cardinal directions. To this day, the tree is grown in the centre of Mayan villages and is considered a site of important religious rituals.

Roots of a Ceiba Tree

The roots of a ceiba tree are huge and hollow enough to be as spacious as a large cave. These roots typically host bats, which further reinforced the symbol of Ceiba tree as a manifestation of the tree of life. That is because bats are typically associated with the underworld in the Mayan mythology.

In the tale of the Hero Twins, the duo were decapitated by one of the bats gods during their adventures in the underworld. For this reason, the presence of bats in the roots of the Ceiba tree makes it unusually similar to the mythological conception of the Mayan tree of life.

Mayan Tree of Life and Christian Cross

Some researchers argue that after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Christian cross was a significantly symbol for the Mayans since it was linked to the Mayan mythological belief of the sacred tree of life. The arms of the cross represent the branches of the sacred tree of life while the vertical axis of the tree are the link between the three realms. It is possible that such a symbolic interpretation of the cross made it more acceptable for the Mayans although the theory is not substantiated.

Mayan Tree of Life Summary

The tree of life is a very important motif in the Mayan mythology, specifically concerned with the Mayan view of the cosmos. According to Mayan mythology, the sacred tree of life originated in the underworld, grew through the earthly realm and then rose into the heavenly realm. During its ascent, it gave birth to life on earth and later set the stars and heavenly bodies in motion.

In this way, the Mayans held the tree of life to be a vertical axis connecting all the three cosmic realms. Mayans believed that the ceiba tree was a real-world manifestation of the sacred tree of life. It was for this reason that ceiba trees were popularly grown in Mayan cities and are still grown at the centre of Mayan villages.

It has been theorised that the Christian cross, due to its resemblance to a tree, was more acceptable as a religious symbol for the Mayans following the Spanish conquest. While this theory is plausible, it is not substantiated.