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Maya Animal Art Symbolism

Updated on November 30, 2014

Guide to animal iconography of the Maya

As in many cultures, art for the Maya served more than as a medium for creative expression. Art was also the means by which the Universe could be understood more fully.

The iconography used functions as decoration, an expression of life, and symbolizes cosmological beliefs.

Photo courtesy kyle simourd

Armadillo

armadillo photo
armadillo photo

photo courtesy LOLren

The Armadillo was hunted for meat and for its shell. Shells were used as bowls, cups, etc. In the Highlands, earth gods are often depicted sitting in an armadillo shell. The armadillo was also associated with music, and is shown as a drummer, possibly due to the fact that its shell can also be used as a musical instrument

Bat

bats photo
bats photo

Photo courtesy usfwsnortheast

Bats were symbols of the treacherous Underworld. They are most often depicted with their outstretched wings adorned with "death eyes". Bats are also shown with fangs and emitting red scrolls from their mouth, possibly representing foul breath or sacrificial blood.

In the Popol Vuh, the Hero Twins spend a night in the House of Bats. When looking out in the morning for the signs of dawn, they were decapitated by the killer bat, Camazotz.

Coati

Photo courtesy Harlequeen

This small mammal was closely associated with agriculture and ritual clowning. These connotations are perhaps due to its habits of foraging and a general jovial attitude.

Books About Maya Civilization - Learn more about Maya art, religion and cosmology

Deer

Deer photo
Deer photo

Photo courtesy of donjd2

The deer was seen as the lord of the forest and was often associated with ancestors who hunted. The deer was venerated as well as sacrificed among the ancient Maya. This animal was seen as a symbol of Rulership. On Maya ceramics deer are often depicted along with symbols of death.

In the Popol Vuh, one of the Hero Twins who play ball with the Lords of the Underworld is shown wearing a deer headdress.

Dog

Photo of Dog
Photo of Dog

Photo courtesy Boccaccio1

To the ancient Maya the dog was a companion of the dead. They escorted and guided the souls of the departed across a large body of water to the Underworld.

The dog seems an appropriate guide of the dead. They sniff the ground, dig in the earth and bury bones. They can see at night and are faithful companions to their masters in physical life. A dog is a likely candidate due to the fact that they are related to the earth, to things that are dead, to sights and smells no known to humans.

Jaguar

Photo of Jaguar
Photo of Jaguar

Photo courtesy HeyDanielle

The jaguar held a special place of distinction within Maya society. Not only were they sacrificed, but the Maya actually made sacrifices to jaguars.

The jaguar had strong connections with the sun, but the sun as it set and went on its journey through the Underworld. It was a symbol of religious, political and military power. Rulers sat on jaguar thrones and were adorned with jaguar pelts. Certain deities were associated with the jaguar and were often depicted as having jaguar characteristics such as ears and teeth.

Monkey

Monkey photo
Monkey photo

photo courtesy mape_s

The monkey is the scribe and artist of the Maya world. In the Popol Vuh the evil half-brothers of the Hero Twins, Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, were turned into monkeys by the Twins for their malevolent behavior.

In folklore the spider monkey and the howler monkey are artists and patrons of the arts. They are often depicted writing, painting, dancing and making music.

Rabbit

photo courtesy donjd2

The rabbit had strong associations with the moon and the Maya there was a rabbit in the moon rather than a man. In many depictions, this moon association is shown through the Moon Goddess holding a rabbit in her arms.

It also appears that the rabbit was at least somewhat associated with writing. It is shown with a glyphic element in the ear, writing on a tablet, a codex.

Tapir

photo courtesy ellenm1

Not much is known about the meaning of tapirs within Maya society, but it is believed that tapirs were associated with large sexual and culinary appetites. They were also associated with fertility and rain deities are known to ride tapirs.

Cormorant

photo courtesy Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes

In general, water birds were associated with the watery depths of the Undeworld. It is sometimes difficult to identify which species is being represented due to the use of general aquatic avian features, or a combination of features from several different species, such as cormorants, cranes, egrets, anhingas and herons.

The Cormorant is generally recognized by a slight bulge near the end of the beak. They also tend to swim and fly with their necks out in front of them and their heads angled upward.

Duck

photo courtesy ingridtaylar

As a bird associated with water, ducks were also seen as being connected to the Underworld for water was seen as an entrance into and an exit out of the lower world.

There is evidence to suggest that ducks were also associated with Shamans and transformation. Ducks are portrayed on Pre-Classic ceramics and are featured in jade pendants and figurines of a man wearing a duckbill mask.

Falcon

photo courtesy vastateparksstaff

Birds such as Hawks, Eagles and Falcons were considered messengers of the celestial gods. In the Popol Vuh the Falcon was a messenger. The Falcon had swallowed a snake that had swallowed a toad that had swallowed a louse that had swallowed a message from the Hero Twins' Grandmother. This message was to tell the boys that they had been summoned to the Underworld.

Mayan Art Gifts

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    • MayaIxchel profile image

      MayaIxchel 5 years ago

      Nice photos and lens! Being in 'the land of eternal spring' and surrounded by much of this symbolism in textiles, I find this very interesting!

    • meashman profile image
      Author

      meashman 5 years ago

      @MartieG: Thanks for visiting my lens! Would love to visit Mexico myself one day!

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Just got back from Mexico - love the mayan culture - very nice photos! :>)

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      learned a lot from your lens. i love this informative lens. especially the photos.

    • meashman profile image
      Author

      meashman 5 years ago

      @flicker lm: Thanks for stopping by. The Stag was also Lord of the Forest in Celtic societies.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      Nice photos and interesting lens. I found it fascinating that the deer, considered a prey species, was " seen as the lord of the forest." I have a special affinity with deer.

    • meashman profile image
      Author

      meashman 5 years ago

      @Fabio Sanna: I have more animals and photos to add to the lens. Thanks so much for your visit and comments!

    • Fabio Sanna profile image

      Fabio Sanna 5 years ago

      Very interesting! You should all the photos :) Peace!

    • meashman profile image
      Author

      meashman 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Thank you very much! I will be continually adding to this. The Mayans were very much in tune with the natural world around them.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Fascinating in every way, a wonderful and interesting presentation of Mayan animal art symbolism.