The vast majority of the ancient world’s main countries believed in a murky region of darkness, similar to the Christian hell, where people travelled and encountered strange and frightening monsters that terrified them. The Mayans, who occupied southern Mexico and most of Central America, were no exception, naming this hell the Xibalba.
The Mayans thought that the entry to this dark and hellish tunnel was through the hundreds of cenotes dispersed throughout Mexico’s southeast, which led to a labyrinthine network of gigantic depths bathed in blue waters that are now heritage native of Mexico.
These sites were obviously sacred to the Mayans, providing access to a place full of mysterious gods (known as the Lords of Xibalba) and terrifying creatures; in the present, the cenotes retain a mystical aura that makes them mandatory sites to discover Mexico’s past and the natural wonders that fascinated the ancient inhabitants of that area.
In the Mayan underworld, the Lords of Xibalba were organised by hierarchies and councils that coexisted with a type of civilisation. Their appearance was usually invariably cadaverous and dark, and they symbolised the opposite pole of life: as a result, they served as a balance between the worlds of the living and the worlds of the dead.
The primary gods of Xibalba were Hun-Camé (One-Death) and Vucum-Camé (Seven-Death), but the greatest figure was without a doubt Ah Puch, also known as Kisin or Yum Kimil, the Lord of Death. They were worshipped by the Mayans, who committed human sacrifices in their honour.
According to the Maya holy book, the Popol Vuh, two brothers named Hunahp and Ixbalanqué fell to the Underworld before the formation of the world as we know it after being challenged by the gods to play a ball game. They had to endure many challenges throughout their journey into this weird and terrible realm, such as trekking up steep steps, traversing rivers of blood and water, and passing through dark rooms with wild creatures or thorns.
The Popol Vuh depicts the many levels of the Xibalba in this way:
- 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.
Because the Mayans thought that every man and woman who died went to Xibalba, they offered water and food to the dead during their burial ceremonies so that their spirit would not go hungry on their impending journey to the dreadful Underworld.