The Sacred Colors of the Maya

The ancient Maya believed that certain colors were sacred and had significant spiritual meaning behind them.

They believed that these specific sacred colors represented the “Four Cardinal Directions” (North, East, South and West) as well as representative to the various gods within their complex religious belief system.

Each direction had various items within their respective color that were associated with it as well. These items were often included with sacrifices to represent their color, the associated gods, and sacred direction.

According to the Book of Chilam Balam;

  • The color red represented the East and the gods “Ix Noh Uc, Ox Tocoy-moo, Ox Pauah Ek and Ah Miz.” All things which were the color red represented the East and its associated gods.

    East was the most important direction since it’s where the Sun’s born. The Maya concept of direction, East not North, would always be at the top of maps. East was the primary sacred direction.

  • The color white represented the North and the gods “Batun, Ah Puch, Balam-na and Ake.” The people in the North had sacred items that were all white.

    The North was referred as being the ‘side of heaven’ because it was direction from where the cooling rains of winter originated. Additionally, this is the direction of the north star which the sky pivoted around.

  • Black was the color that represented the sacred direction West and the gods “Iban, Ah Chab, and Ah Tucuch.” The people in the West presented sacred items which were black in color

    The West was considered the dying place of the Sun when it left us and ended the day.

  • The color yellow represented the South and the gods “Ah Yamas, Ah Puc, Cauich, and Ah Couoh.” The People in the South had sacred items which were yellow.

    The South was considered to be the right-hand or the great side of the Sun. 

Yax Che - The Mayan Tree of Life and the Cardinal Directions.
Yax Che – The Mayan Tree of Life and the Cardinal Directions.

The fifth color that was associated with the Maya concept of heaven, earth, and the underworld was the color blue-green.

This color was found in the center of the four cardinal directions, running vertically from the underworld to the heavens. This direction also had its respective sacred ceiba tree, bird, bean, and corn and united the four cardinal directions with the layers of heaven and the underworld. 

Mural of Maya Royalty at Bonampak, an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
Mural of Maya Royalty at Bonampak, an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

In the paintings and murals that cover the walls of the ancient pyramids, many of these sacred colors have been found in the Yucatan in ancient Maya cities. The sacred colors have also been seen in the fragments of clothing that have been found among the buried dead. Additionally on the various glazed pots and jugs which were found buried with these people as well.

sacred colors

The most sacred color to the ancient Maya is a color that is named “Maya Blue.”

This color was first identified in the year 1931 AD and is a light blue pigment that has puzzled archaeologists, chemists, and various material scientists for years. This color pigment used by the ancient Maya has an unusual chemical stability and composition, It is also a very persistent color which is able to maintain in one of the world’s harshest climates.

However, anthropologists have recently discovered how the ancient Maya produced this unusual and widely studied blue pigment.

The Maya city site of the pyramid in Chichén Itzá is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  It is an extremely important pre-Columbian archaeological site which had been built by the Maya who were living on what is now the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.  

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the Sacred Cenote Well at Chichén Itzá was dredged, the presence of a 14-foot layer of blue precipitate was discovered at the bottom of the sacred well.

Blue was the color of sacrifice for the ancient Maya.

Priests wore this color and they painted human beings blue before thrusting them backwards on an altar and cut their beating hearts from their bodies. The victims of human sacrifice were also painted blue before they were thrown into the Sacred Cenote located at Chichén Itzá.

Additionally, this shade of blue was used on painted murals, pottery, and other items that were thrown into the well to appease the gods.

Mural depicting ancient Maya heart extraction at Chichén Itzá.

The renowned sacrificial color to the Maya was paint color “Maya Blue.”

This color, which was only known to the ancient Maya, was an important and vivid color which was a virtually indestructible pigment. The color pigment is resistant to age and weather fading, various acids, and even modern chemical solvents which deteriorate any other color pigment.

The color pigment ‘Maya Blue’ is hailed as being one of the great technological and artistic achievements to come out of MesoAmerica.

Researchers have long known that the remarkably stable Maya Blue pigment is a result from a unique chemical bond with indigo and an unusual clay minerals which has long interior channels called palygorskite.

Several experiemtns have discovered that Maya Blue can be created by heating a mixture of the clay mineral palygorskite with a small amount of indigo. However researchers haven’t been able to figure out how the ancient Maya actually produced the color pigment themselves.

New research has revealed that at the site at Chichén Itzá, the creation of “Maya Blue” was resultant as part of the of the rituals that were performed alongside the Sacred Cenote well. The Maya were known to use indigo, copal incense, and the clay palygorskite for medicinal purposes. These three healing items were combined and heated with fire during the ritual the was performed at the edge of the Sacred Cenote.

The end result of this ritual produced the pigment of “Maya Blue.”

Sacrifices were then painted with paint made from this pigment of blue and then were thrown into the Sacred Cenote Well with the intention of pleasing the rain god “Chaak.”

Rain was critical to the ancient Maya people who lived in the northern Yucatan. It hardly rained during the dry season which usually ran from the month of January to mid-May. Offerings of these three healing elements of indigo, copal, and palygorskite was believed to feed the rain god Chaak and bring him into the ritual in hopes that he’d bring rainfall and allow the corn to grow again.

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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