In Yucatec Maya mythology, Itzamna was the name of an upper god and creator deity thought to be residing in the sky. Little is known about him, but scattered references are present in early-colonial Spanish reports (relaciones) and dictionaries. Twentieth-century Lacandon lore includes tales about a creator god (Nohochakyum or Hachakyum) who may be a late successor to Itzamna. In the pre-Spanish period, Itzamna, represented by the aged god D, was frequently depicted in books and in ceramic scenes derived from such books.
At Spanish invasions
The early colonial sources variously connect, and sometimes identify, Itzamna with Hunab Ku
(an invisible high god), Kinich Ahau (the sun deity), and Yaxcocahmut (a bird of omen).
The most reliable source on Itzamna, Landa, mentions him several times in the framework of his description of the ritual year. In the month of Uo, a ritual aspersion of the books took place under invocation of Kinich Ahau Itzamna, "the first priest". In the month of Zip, Itzamna was invoked as one of the gods of medicine, and in the month of Mac, he was venerated by the very old on a par with the Chaacs, the rain deities. In the cycle of four years, one year was under the patronage of Itzamna.
Itzamna was an active creator god, as is shown by the following. Confirming Landa's description of the book ritual above, (Hun-)Itzamna is stated by Diego López de Cogolludo to have invented the priestly art of writing. According to this same author, Itzamna (now written Zamna) had been a sort of priest who divided the land of Yucatan and assigned names to all of its features. More generally, Itzamna was the creator of mankind, and also the father of Bacab (Francisco Hernández), a fourfold deity of the interior of the earth. In an alternative tradition, Itzamna begot thirteen sons with Ixchel, two of whom created the earth and mankind (Las Casas).
The meaning of the deity's name is unclear, but could conceivably refer to a large lizard or caiman (itzam) or to a liquid such as dew (itz). Aspects of the god were sometimes designated by an epitheton, e.g., Itzamna Kauil, the upper god nourishing mankind. The Aztec deity corresponding to Itzamna is Tonacatecuhtli.
High Priest and Ruler
In the Post-Classic codices, Itzamna is represented by the aged god D. In the New Year pages of the Dresden Codex
, god D is given a role similar to that of Itzamna in Landa's description of these rituals. He is sometimes dressed as a high priest, and hieroglyphically identified as the god of rulership. Speaking generally, Classic iconography confirms god D's identity as an upper god, seated on his celestial throne while governing, among other things, the affairs of agriculture and the hunt. By comparison with the early-colonial data above, however, Classical scenes are more suggestive of narrative traditions, at times subjecting god D to the actions of others. He can, for example, be shown clinging to the back of a peccary
or a deer; held ready for sacrifice; or be shot at in his bird avatar. God D's Classic name is still uncertain, although his name glyph is now commonly rendered as "Itzamnaaj".
Crust of the Earth: Caiman
On two of the Dresden Codex's very first pages, god D is shown within the maw of a caiman
representing the earth; a case has been made for identifying the caiman as the deity's transformation (Thompson, Taube).
Aged Tonsured Maize God
Iconographically, god D (especially in his Kauil
aspect) can be considered an aged form of the Tonsured Maize God
. Both deities are often shown together. If we were to conceive the Tonsured Maize God as the son of the upper god, then some of the works of Itzamna on earth may actually have been carried out by this juvenile "Itzamna".
Principal Bird Deity
From the late Post-Classic Paris Codex down to the Pre-Classic San Bartolo
murals, god D has the Principal Bird Deity
(perhaps the Yaxcocahmut mentioned above) for a transformative shape. This fact is hard to reconcile with the current interpretation of the Principal Bird Deity as the evil demon bird of the Popol Vuh
("Seven-Macaw"). The head of the Principal Bird Deity sometimes resembles that of a rain deity, and is once combined with that of a heron-like bird; at other times, it is more like that of a hawk or a falcon. The bird often holds a bicephalous snake in its beak. The wings are sometimes inscribed with the signs for 'daylight' and 'night', suggesting that the bird's flight could represent the unfolding of time. The San Bartolo murals have a Principal Bird Deity seated on top of each of four world trees, recalling the four world trees (together with a fifth, central tree) which, according to some of the early-colonial Chilam Balam
books, were re-erected after the collapse of the sky. These world trees were associated with specific birds. Four world trees also appear in the Mexican Borgia Codex.
God D and his avian transformation could be represented by human beings. Various kings of Yaxchilan
, Dos Pilas
, and Naranjo
had Itzamnaaj as part of their names or titles. On Palenque
's Temple XIX platform, a dignitary presenting the king with his royal headband wears the Principal Bird Deity
's headdress, while being referred to as Itzamnaaj. In his bird avatar, god D here appears as the creator god bestowing rulership on a king.
- Ferdinand Anders, Das Pantheon der Maya.
- Nicholas Hellmuth, Monsters and Men in Maya Art.
- Houston, Stuart, Taube, The Memory of Bones.
- Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens.
- David Stuart, The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque.
- Karl Taube, The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan.
- Karl Taube, A Representation of the Principal Bird Deity in the Paris Codex.
- Eric Thompson, Maya History and Religion.
- Alfred Tozzer, Landa's Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan.