Xibalba: The mysterious Mayan underworld where the dead travelled

Xibala

A vast majority of the major cultures of the ancient world believed in a murky world plunged into darkness, much like the Christian hell, where humans travelled and encountered strange and terrifying creatures that filled them with horror. The Mayans, who settled in southeastern Mexico and a good part of Central America, were no exception: they called this hell the Xibalba.

Xbalba
Mayan vase with the image of Xibalbá.
© Wikimedia Commons

The Mayans believed that the entrance to this dark and infernal passage was through the hundreds of cenotes that are scattered throughout the Mexican southeast and that lead to a labyrinthine network of colossal depths flooded in turquoise waters that today are heritage native of Mexico.

These sites for the Mayans were evidently sacred, access to a place full of mysterious gods (known as the Lords of Xibalba) and terrifying creatures; In the present, the cenotes continue to display a mystical aura that makes them mandatory sites to discover the past of Mexico and the wonders of nature that fascinated the ancient inhabitants of that area.

Xibalba
Lords of Death (Lords of Xibalba) © fandom

The Lords of Xibalba were ordered in the Mayan underworld by hierarchies and councils that coexisted with a kind of civilization in the bowels of the earth. Their appearance was almost always cadaverous, dark, and they represented the opposite pole of life: for this reason, they acted as the balance between the world of the living and that of the dead. Hun-Camé (One-Death) and Vucum-Camé (Seven-Death) were the main gods of Xibalba, but the main figure was, without a doubt, Ah Puch, also called Kisin or Yum Kimil, the Lord of Death. The Mayans worshipped them and made human sacrifices in their honour.

Xibalba
Hero Twins the collective name for Xbalanque and Hunahpu, who are summed to the underworld, Xibalba, and play ballgames against the Death Lords in Mayan myths © Wikimedia Commons

Before the creation of the world as we know it, according to the sacred book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh, two brothers named Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué descended to the Underworld when they were challenged by the gods to play a ball game. During the descent into this strange and dark world, they had to overcome various tests such as walking up steep stairs, crossing rivers of blood and water, and passing through dark chambers with wild animals or thorns.

The Popol Vuh describes in this way the different levels existing in the Xibalba:

  • Dark house, completely surrounded by darkness.
  • Cold house, where an icy wind filled every corner of its interior.
  • House of the jaguars, full of wild jaguars that ran from one extreme to another.
  • House of bats, crowded with bats that filled the house with screeches.
  • House of knives, where there was nothing but sharp and dangerous knives.
  • The existence of a sixth house called the House of Heat is mentioned, where there were only embers, fire, flames and suffering.

The Mayans believed that every man and woman who died travelled to Xibalba, for this reason in their funeral rites they gave water and food to the dead so that his soul would not lack provisions on his imminent journey to the terrible Underworld.

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