At the heart of symbolism

Ceiba, the Mayan World tree

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The Mayan cosmology

For Mayas (and Aztecs as well), the World as a whole was composed of three worlds: celestial, terrestrial and underground or world below.

The terrestrial world

At the origin, Earth rested on the Primeval Waters. Shaped as a quadrilateral, it was divided into four colored sectors, oriented according to the compass points.

The four colours conferred a dynamic and cyclic character to anMayan Earth representation apparently static representation:

  • East (red), linked to birth;
  • South (yellow), associated with life;
  • West (black), proper to darkness and death;
  • North (white), sign of regeneration.

This cycle could equally concern the daily journey of the sun as life in general.

The four vertices of the quadrilateral were associated with sunrise and sunset at winter and summer solstice; besides, two axes divided the cycle:

  • The north-south axis distinguishing the ascension of the sun in the sky between winter and summer solstice and its descent between summer and winter solstice;
  • The east-west axis separating the two (dry and wet) seasons proper to the tropics.

The variable proportions of the quadrilateral dimensions depended on the latitude of the place of observation 1. In a number of Mayan cities, these proportions were often used for the delimitation of buildings, temples or agricultural areas. The human world had to constitute a microcosm, representative of the macrocosm, the cosmic World.

The celestial and underground worlds

Above Earth, the celestial world was shaped as a quadrangular pyramid containing 7 or 13 levels. Each of these levels corresponded to a divinity and the summit to the supreme god.

Below Earth was the underground world, also shaped as a quadrangular pyramid, but with 9 levels. This pyramid was reversed compared to the previous one in order to emphasize that the world below was only a reflection (in the Primeval Waters) of the celestial world. At the summit stood the god of the dead.

The levels of both pyramids accounted for the number of being's states to be achieved before reaching a or the unified state; they revealed the multiplicity of the manifestation gathered within the unity depicted by the pyramid summit.

An excellent illustration of these representations is offered by two monuments of the site of Palenque:

  • A 13 levels pyramid topped by a temple dedicated to god Itzamna;
  • A second 9 levels pyramid, the summit of which was devoted to Came.

View of PalenqueEven nowadays, visitors may not enter directly into this last pyramid called Temple of Inscriptions; they must first climb up to the summit before joining the building base by an internal stairway. The continued descent leads to the sarcophagus of Pacal, the king of the city, buried below the terrestrial world.

This track corresponded to the journey of the deceased or, more symbolically, of beings who wanted to die in the terrestrial world before undertaking the elevation towards the celestial world. In fact, the pyramid was reversed in the representation of the underground world and the deceased or the being stripped of the sluggishness of the lower states, found himself above and not below earth. Then, he was ready to rise to the celestial being's states.

By penetrating the terrestrial depths to ascend towards the celestial heights, the being followed the sun journey from the depths of the night to its rise and culmination in the sky. As the sun goes back to set and regain the night, the being could also go back to Earth and the darkness of ignorance in order to share his experience with others and show the path to them. This voyage from the depths of the night to the heart of light and vice-versa was perfectly inscribed in the Mayan World Tree.

The Mayan World Tree

The trees of the terrestrial world

In the middle of each side of the terrestrial quadrilateral, a tree served as a marker to the entrance of a cave giving access to the world below. We may find such an illustration in one of the very rare pre-columbian Codex of Aztec origin. As the Aztec and Mayan societies have a strong cultural community, it is justified to borrow from the first to enlighten the second when texts are lacking. The text in question is the first page of the Codex known under the names of its last owners, Fejervary-Mayer, and visible today at the World Museum of Liverpool.

The four trees, oriented according to the compass points, are drawn in the image of a Tau cross (Τ), a repeated pattern of the Mayan architecture 2. The trunk of each tree is divided into two lateral branches without pursuing its elevation towards the sky. It illustrates the horizontal deployment of the being's states in the terrestrial world, the world of duality. Only birds above the branches are evoking the elevation towards the higher being's states, the celestial states.

As red is usually associated with east and yellow with south, the birds fly while following the apparent path of the sun, that means, from east towards south, then west (blue) and north (green). In other words, the outline of the Codex suggests a representation of the compass points (see the first diagram below) where north and south are reversed compared to the usual wind rose (see the second diagram). In fact, the reverse pattern corresponds to the view of the terrestrial wind rose from “underneath”, i.e. as if it was seen from the underground world.

View from below
Wind rose from below

View from above
Wind rose from above

This interpretation is corroborated by the characters listed on the first page of the Codex. First of all, there are 9, the number of the underground world par excellence. Then, they represent the “Lords of the Night”, the nocturnal world, the underground world. Moreover, the central character is the “Lord of the four directions”.

The tree pointing towards south in the underground world and north in the terrestrial world is a ceiba. Easily recognizable by its thorns, it also presents a bulge of the trunk in the image of a pregnant woman. Now, in the cycle of the compass points mentioned above, north precisely corresponds to the period of regeneration followed by birth at east, life at south and death at west.

Just as the four compass directions radiate from a single point, the centre of the terrestrial world, the four trees are horizontal projections of a single vertical Tree also located at the centre. It is called the "Great Mother Ceiba" in reference to Mother Earth. This tree plunged into the terrestrial depths, rises to the heavenly heights and goes through all worlds.

The Tree of all worlds

The top of the sarcophagus of king Pacal in the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque offers a symbolic representation of the Mayan World Tree. Shaped as a cross, it is not only horizontally deployed, but also vertically in order to cover all being's states conversely to the trees of the Aztec Codex.

At the foot of the tree, the god of corn rests in a fetal posture. It symbolizes the germ that will come out of the ground, rise vertically and be the bearer of ears representative of superior being's states.

A snake, wrapped around the branches, has a head at each end (for more details, see the amphisbaena). It symbolizes the upward and downward paths along the tree or the daily path of the sun.

At the top of the tree, Itzamna stands enthroned in the form of the heavenly bird.

Above, the zenith that the sun reaches once or twice a year in the tropics (for more details, see the position of the sun on the celestial sphere).

More than in any other tradition, the Mayan World Tree symbolizes the World Axis, the vertical axis linking nadir to zenith. Moving up and down this axis, means plunging into the depths to rise towards the heights and reach the supreme state, the ultimate state, the state of God of Heaven and Earth before coming down to earth.


  • Raphaël Girard
  • “Esoterism of the Popol Vuh”. Theosophical University Press, 1979.
  • Internet access: Popol Vuh

1 back At the solstitial sunrise and sunset, the angle formed by the north-south axis and one of the diagonals of the quadrilateral can be determined from the following formula (see the position on the celestial sphere):

cos a = - sin(δ)/cos(φ)

Where φ represents the latitude of the place and δ the declination of the sun at the solstices (±23.5°).

In the case of the city of Palenque for example, φ = 17.5°, and

a = acos [sin(23.5°)/cos(17.5°)] = 65.3°

In other words, tg(65.3°) = 2.2 and the sides of the quadrilateral are in an approximate ratio of 2 to 1.

2 back The tower of the palace of Pacal in Palenque must also have been used as astronomical observatory. The sun rays could penetrate inside the building through openings shaped as a Tau cross (Τ) and then end in very precise locations at privileged moments of the year. The construction of such buildings was organized around these marks drawn on the ground before laying the first stone down.