Maya and Mexica underworld during pre-Hispanic times


Experts reveal differences and similarities between the Maya and Mexica underworld during pre-Hispanic times

Beyond Mictlán and Xibalbá, researchers Eduardo Matos Moctezuma and Arturo Gómez Martínez explore the regions of the Mexican and Mayan underworld to reveal the construction of the pre-Hispanic imaginary around the afterlife.

“I would like to start with the aspect of duality and death, since these peoples observed how throughout the year there was a dry season, in which the trees lost their greenness and did not bear fruit, and another of rains, the which fertilized the earth and gave fruit. Thus they observed a season of death and another of life, “archaeologist and anthropologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma tells Excelsior.

Viajeros entre Mictlán y Xibalbá

This duality is fundamental in pre-Hispanic Mexico, he explains, because it led the Mexica to establish the different places to which they would go after death, while Catholicism raised an idea of ​​glory, purgatory, and hell for those who committed a series of bad acts or sins.

“But among the Mexica, the fate of the dead was found according to the way in which they died. For example, if someone lost their life in combat or was captured in war to be sacrificed, their destiny was to accompany the Sun, from birth. in the east until noon ”.

And from noon on, the Sun was destined for women who died in their first childbirth, because childbirth was considered a combat or a war. “This is how warriors and women who lost their lives were destined for that region of the underworld called Tonátiuh Ilhuícac or Tonatiuhixco.

“According to ancient chronicles, these warriors were the only ones who were guaranteed their transformation into beautifully plumaged birds, such as hummingbirds or butterflies, that is, they were guaranteed their continuity in that way,” he explains.

But there were other regions or areas of the underworld. For example, the Tlalocan or Paradise of the god Tláloc, where men and women went who died from causes associated with water, that is, floods, drowning, and lightning. “Sahagún mentions that this was a place of greenery and constant summer in which plants flourished.”

A third place was the Chichihuacuauhco, “destined for children who had died at an early age and whose essences would go to that place where there was a nurse tree, with leaves that flowed milk, it continued feeding them until the gods decided that they would return to another womb to be delivered ”.

And a fourth place was the Mictlán, to which those who died in any other way, such as diseases or accidents. And to reach it, eight dangers or threats had to be overcome (the chignahuapan, the obsidian mountain, the icy wind, the mountains that collide, where there is an arrow, site of beasts that devour hearts, place of stones and site of flags), in a four-year journey to reach Mictlán, where the lords of the underworld lay, that is, Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacíhuatl.

“There is something that has been given to confusion and that is that, when a tlatoani died, the maximum ruler also went to Mictlán. But let us remember that the tlatoani was the great captain of the Mexica army and, therefore, he had to go with the Sun as a great warrior”.

Wasn’t there a Mictlán? “The chroniclers made it clear in their writings that, as far as was known, there was no generalized Mictlán.”

Finally, he talks about the fate of the bodies: “The warrior was cremated and if he had died in a battle far from Tenochtitlan, the relatives made wooden effigies and burned them.

“On the other hand, those who went to Mictlán made a mortuary bundle, they squatted, were wrapped in cloth and water was poured to represent the amniotic fluid of the birth,” adds Matos Moctezuma.

And it would be necessary to speak of the 13 celestial levels, but it would be the subject of another text.

cenote maya Samula


In the Mayan culture, Xibalbá was the underworld, but it was not understood under the well-known Judeo-Christian idea, asserts Arturo Gómez Martínez, head of Ethnography at the National Museum of Anthropology, “rather it was a stratum of the universe and the cosmos made up of heaven, earth and underworld.

“Xibalbá was interconnected by a sacred ceiba tree and its roots went towards the underworld, while the trunk was between heaven and earth, and its crown was oriented to the celestial side, where the deities lived.”

In a similar way to the Mexica world, the destiny of souls depended on the trades and the type of death of each person.

The warriors also went with the Sun, that is, to the house of Kinich Ahau, while those who died due to water, drowned, struck down by lightning or diseases associated with water, such as flu or grain epidemics, traveled with the god Chac.

There was also the region of Ah Puch, the god of death who was present as guardian of the deceased, who was a guide to the underworld. While the artists were received by Ixchel, the goddess of weaving, who lived in a layer of the sky very close to the Sun.

And for the others there was a general death that led them to Xibalbá, “a cool place, dark in principle, where the roots of the ceiba tree were and there was a lot of water, a space associated with cenotes, caves and where the stalactites serve as drip ”, adds Gómez Martínez.

In that place, also called Metnal, the travelers traveled for four years in the ceiba tree and visited some houses (the dark, the cold, the jaguars, the bats, the knives and the heat), and then climb to a kind of sky where they were turned into other animals, vegetables or dragonflies.

In this territory, the deer was the one that opened the way to the dead and the turkey, who reported on the routes to take, had an important intellectual capacity on the roads until they reached the base of the ceiba or paradise full of greenery, where there are fruits and plants with which they could feed.

Finally, talk about the fate of the bodies.

“In the Mayan area, almost everyone was buried, except for those who were sacrificed. But, in general, any dead were wrapped in mats or blankets, tied up, never lying down, almost always in decubitus or in a fetal position.

“In addition to this, there were no cemeteries, so these bodies were deposited in cornfields or in houses, depending on their jobs and their age,” he concludes.


The fate of souls always depended on the way they died.


Place for those who died due to diseases, accidents or other unspecified.


An area where men and women went who lost their lives due to causes associated with water.


Space destined for those children who had died at a very young age.


Region destined to warriors and women who died during their first childbirth.


The office and the type of death were the key to the destiny of souls.


Cool place that welcomes those who died from undetermined causes or diseases.

Chac region:

For drowned, struck down by lightning or diseases associated with water.


The artists were received by this goddess, who lived in a layer of the sky very close to the Sun.

Kinich Ahau:

Space intended for warriors or those who died in battle.


Mexico Daily Post