Why do the Maya believe Christ is the sun?

In my ebook Jesus as the Sun throughout History, I provide evidence that the New Testament figure of “Jesus Christ” has been perceived as the “sun of righteousness” (Mal 4:2) since the formation of Christianity, appearing in numerous solar roles, possessing an abundance of solar attributes, and perceived by a variety of cultures as a sun god. Among these cultures who easily saw in Christ the face of their own solar deities are the peoples of Central America, including the Aztecs and Maya.

In Jesus as the Sun, I include a section entitled “Christ as the Sun in Native Traditions” in which I quote prominent scholars and anthropologists of the Americas concerning the native perception of the Christian messiah. For example, the Canadian natives the Montagnais/Innu were related in 1627 as believing Jesus to be the sun. In this same regard, the Christianized Mexican natives the Nahua “combine the sun and Christ into a composite personality who is the masculine creative force in the Nahuat universe.”

“The Mexicans ‘combine the sun and Christ into a composite personality who is the masculine creative force in the Nahuat universe.'”

One of the authorities I cite in my article is Dr. James M. Taggart, a professor of mine at Franklin and Marshall College, who discusses Mesoamerican celebrations in his book Nahuat Myth and Social Structure (57-68):

The annual movement of the sun toward the north from its lowest point on the horizon at the winter solstice is concordant with the annual festival cycle. The major winter solstice ceremony celebrates the birth of Christ and the annual re-birth of the sun as it begins to move north bringing more heat and light with gradually longer and warmer days. The annual movement of the sun along the horizon is analogous to the movement of the sun during the 24-hour period, so that the winter solstice is to the summer solstice as midnight is to noon. The climactic moment of the Christmas celebration—a procession carrying the Christ child from the house of the mayordomo (ritual sponsor) to the church—occurs at the time of the day (midnight) analogous to the corresponding time of the year (winter solstice). Other major festivals fall on or near other major events in the solar year. The Easter celebration occurs near the vernal equinox; the festival in honor of San Juan [St. John] occurs just after the summer solstice; and All Saints’ Day in honor of the dead is near the autumnal equinox.

“The major winter solstice ceremony celebrates the birth of Christ and the annual re-birth of the sun as it begins to move north bringing more heat and light with gradually longer and warmer days.”

It is obvious that the native peoples, so in tune with their environment, recognized in Christ a solar deity whose attributes, we have seen elsewhere, represent mythical motifs of pre-Christian gods and goddesses from around the Mediterranean and beyond. Because the Mesoamericans developed their culture, religion and mythology in isolation, they retained the nature-worshipping and astrotheological meaning and symbolism behind the anthropomorphized myths and readily saw that Christ was more of the same such elemental-spiritual configuration.

The Maya and Christianity

When the Mesoamerican peoples called the Maya were conquered by the Spanish beginning in the 16th century and subjugated under the Catholic Church, they did not simply remove their vast and ancient knowledge of the world and cosmos to replace it with the biblical and Christian worldview. Instead, like the Indians, the Mesoamericans simply absorbed Christian doctrine and myths into their own perspective, as part of the cosmic play of the time. Like the Spaniards, who were astonished at the parallels between the Catholic and Mesoamerican religion, the Maya recognized the similarities between their gods and the biblical God the Father, Jesus, Virgin Mary and various saints. Thus, rather than forgetting their enormous body of knowledge dating back thousands of years in favor of a supposedly superior spiritual tradition which in reality pales by comparison, the Mesoamericans merely merged this relatively minor perception into their vaster cosmic comprehension.

“Like the Spaniards, who were astonished at the parallels between the Catholic and Mesoamerican religion, the Maya recognized the similarities between their gods and the biblical God the Father, Jesus, Virgin Mary and various saints.”

In this syncretism of religious ideas and deities, which exemplifies behavior found globally for thousands of years, including in pre-Columbian America itself, the Maya added the new Spanish god called “Dios” to their pantheon, along with his son, the Sun-Christ. The figure named Jesus merits two gods, younger and older brothers, in the Mesoamerican pantheon. In this way, although the god Halal Dios is equivalent to “God Almighty” – likewise equated by the Maya with the sun – he represents merely another aspect of divinity, brought by the Spaniards into the equation, as part of a much more universal concept significantly revolving around the World Tree or Milky Way, from which we emanate and to which we return. In this regard, the Maya were accurate in their perception that we are all “star stuff” and that the Milky Way is the center of a galaxy in which our Earth is located.

Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan, the Maize God and Christ

The Mesoamericans such as the Maya and Aztecs recognized in the figure of Jesus Christ brought to them by the Spaniards an echo of their various gods, including and especially Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl, who was syncretized with the ancient Maize God, depicted as entering the underworld, dying and being resurrected, as is appropriate for a seed being planted and grain bursting forth. The Maize God was central to the Maya religion, which acknowledged the plant’s massive importance to the Maya civilization. Hence, he was essentially the savior of the peoples, and important myths were constructed around him (or her, as maize was depicted also as a goddess, likewise appropriate). The maize god is a dying and rising savior whose head, when he is killed, is hung on a tree. This common archetype or pattern, with a different expression based on locale and era, can be found in numerous places globally, based on observation of natural phenomena.

“The maize god is a dying and rising savior whose head, when he is killed, is hung on a tree.”

The maize god is also solar, as is the figure of Quetzalcoatl or Kukulkan, and this story of death and resurrection or rebirth can be associated also with the cycles of the sun. In this regard, the cross as a solar symbol can be found around the globe dating back many thousands of years, representing the four directions or cardinal points, ruled by the sun.

The Solar Cross

The cross was a central feature to Maya religion, as a solar symbol as well as the World Tree or Milky Way, the origin of all life. Hence, the sacred cross was depicted widely and is, indeed, the Maya glyph for “sun.” As the foliated tree, the cross could be found carved on stelae and tombs. Thus, when the Spaniards arrived under the sign of the cross, the Maya believed they were part of the “cosmic play,” so to speak.

“The cross as a solar symbol can be found around the globe dating back many thousands of years, representing the four directions or cardinal points, ruled by the sun.”

In their subjugation, the Maya syncretized Christ to their solar and maize god, recognizing Jesus’s dying and rising essentially as the same theme, albeit it the Christian myths had lost their more cosmic meaning, since they had fallaciously been historicized and depicted as revolving around a human of a particular ethnicity. This latter type of anthropomorphization was quite common to Maya myth as well, obviously, since the sun and corn, along with many other natural and celestial elements and bodies, likewise were changed into “real people” about whom fabulous tales were told. Thus, the Mesoamericans were not surprised by the stories, and they saw them as quite similar to their own – as do comparative mythologists to this day.

Yahweh as One of the Many

Providing an example of how the Maya did not simply forget all their cosmic knowledge – which included close scientific observations of numerous planets, stars and constellations – but merely added the Catholic divinities to their pantheon, Mayanist Dr. Eric Thompson describes a Maya ritual that continues to be practiced, and remarks:

All-night vigils are part of the many Maya ceremonies of aboriginal origin, and except for the fact that the God of the Christians is added to the old list of pagan deities invoked, there is no evidence of the ceremony being of post-Columbian origin.

“The God of the Christians is added to the old list of pagan deities.”

The Sun-Christ

In this way, we discover the Maya carrying in procession an image of what is called the “Sun-Christ.” As Mayan Dr. Linda Schele recounts:

For three days, Duncan and I watched the Pasiones and the Flowers run the flowered banners that are the Sun-Christ around the square of Chamula. (Freidel, Schele and Parker, Maya Cosmos, 117)

Describing figures of monkeys who are “creatures from a previous Creation,” Schele remarks: “They are pre-cultural beings who tear down the order of the world in order to prepare for its recreation when the Sun-Christ is brought out of the underworld.” (Freidel, 118) It should be noted that in Christian myth, Jesus is depicted as spending three days in the underworld, called the “Harrowing of Hell,” a mythical motif found in Egypt, the Levant and elsewhere. In this dying-and-rising motif, the Maya recognized the same natural symbolism of the solar rays, rain and other elements reaching into the underworld/ground to sprout the seed and bring forth the life-giving foliage. This same tale is used also to describe various celestial landmarks and events, as the Maya truly believed that “as above, so below.”

“In the highest levels of heaven dwells Almighty God the Sun who traverses his flowery path across the sky once a day.”

As another example of post-Conquest Maya syncretism of Christian ideas, Schele relates:

In the highest levels of heaven dwells Almighty God the Sun who traverses his flowery path across the sky once a day. The rising of the sun is the daily affirmation of the dynamic and participatory presence of beneficial spiritual forces in the lives of the people. This general concept is universal among the Maya. The sun is so central in the mythology of the Tzotzil Maya that they believe north and south, the “sides of heaven,” were first defined when the sun made its original journey across the cosmos. To these contemporary Maya all the directions have sacred properties. West is the entryway into the earth where the Sun-Christ had to go before he could rise in triumph. South is nadir, the darkness where the Sun-Christ first traveled before arising from death in the east. Ascending to the zenith in the north, Christ slew his mythological enemies with his curative heat. (Freidel, 128)

“West is the entryway into the earth where the Sun-Christ had to go before he could rise in triumph.”

There is much more to this fascinating story, including numerous important correspondences between Old World/Egyptian/biblical religion and mythology and that of Mesoamerica.

Chamula Maya Model of the Cosmos with Sun/Christ - click to enlarge (Image: Freidel, 129)

Further Reading

Jesus as the Sun throughout History
2012: A New Beginning
Our Lord and Savior Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan and Christ
Maya watchtowers discovered to align with solstices and equinoxes
December 21, 2012 is coming – are we all going to die?
The Mayans and the Milky Way (radio program)
Astronomers catalogue 84 million stars from a new image of our Milky Way galaxy
The 2013 Astrotheology Calendar: The Wonders of the Milky Way

 

13 Comments

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  1. Fascinating!
    It ought to be obvious that the same sort of syncretism created Christianity in the first place. Keep up the good work!

    1. Beloved Bob!

      Thank you for the kind regards. Yes, this development is highly suggestive of some very interesting notions…

  2. Maya Sun Christ
    Hi Acharya, thanks for sharing this interesting informative article, it is so helpful to put the solstice celebration into historical and scholarly context. The Mayans are correct to join Jesus up with the sun. It is a shame that supposedly ‘advanced’ western societies are alienated from this deep natural insight.

    The amazing ceremony we attended at the Mayan village the day before the solstice showed what you said – “they retained the nature-worshipping and astrotheological meaning and symbolism behind the anthropomorphized myths and readily saw that Christ was more of the same such elemental-spiritual configuration.” In the ceremony held around the ceiba tree of life at the middle of the village, it was obvious they were celebrating their natural connection to the cosmos. Similarly, you mention the description of the ceremony of running the flowered banners that are the Sun-Christ around the square. This was part of the ceremony we saw, both in the weaving of the maypoles and the carrying of coloured banners.

    It is wonderful to see the Mayan people retain their pride in their own indigenous heritage with its celebration of natural cycles and relationships. To think the bloodthirsty arrogant Spanish saw themselves as superior to this great ancient Mayan civilization!

    Best Regards
    Robert

    1. I’m sorry I missed that ceremony, as I was doing a private tour of Chichen Itza at that time. Others who attended were disturbed by the “Spanishization” of the event, but I can see your point as well.

      In defense of the “bloodthirsty arrogant Spanish,” one of the important things Christianity has done is to provide a “once-for-all” sacrifice. As we know, the Maya were engaged in mass human sacrifice, particularly in the centuries before the Conquest.

      This grotesque behavior was even more pronounced, I think, because of the influence of the Mexicans on the Maya and the degradation of the environment at the time.

      In this regard, one can see how the creators of Christianity had it in mind to end the widespread and ancient practice of human sacrifice. One can also see how they would perceive the natives practicing human sacrifice as “savages” who needed either to be converted or wiped out. This perception would be especially true in Mexico City/Tenochitlan, where the Aztecs were slaughtering countless thousands in their depraved religious ceremonies. One could, therefore, see why “God” – as the Spanish believed – brought curses and plagues upon the native population, destroying much of it through disease.

      All that being said, if we can get to the nature-worshipping and astrotheological roots of these native religions, without this bloody psychopathy, the world would be much better off. The Maya religion in that regard, with the pre-Maya Olmec influence, appeared to be much more peaceful, with a focus on the turtle, for example, rather than only on the jaguar or the later eagle, with the “Toltec” or Teohuacano focus on devouring hearts, etc.

  3. Barnett Goodstein

    I was always taught that the sun stood still and the earth does the moving? Is that wrong?

    1. Some would say that as the sun rises the earth is revealed. But I would say that as the earth falls the sun is revealed. What is the reality?

  4. Erik Heinrich Schiedt

    Exactly at my 60th birthday I realized that humans made a large error not accepting the Holy Spirit between the Sun the Earth and the Moon as our universal J..H. According to Martin Luther god should not have a name because there is simply no name for such a power.
    According to asian astrology 60 years mean that you have gone through all elements and you are kind of reborn thereafter.
    Forget hedonisms as christianity and islam!

  5. I completely agree with your central thesis but wish to add what I think will be friendly amendments. There is a large scholarly literature regarding Mayan attitudes toward the sun, and the Maya have often been called a “Sun Kingdom.” From studies of classical Mayan hieroglyphs, the role of the sun has been clarified and is quite different from what was projected by mostly-Christian Euro-Americans. That is, the characterization of Mayan “sun worship” has itself been Christianized.

    It may come as a shock to say that the sun was NOT seen as a god, nor was it deified in any Old World sense. That would have been impossible since no pre-Columbian Native American language, including the Mayan languages, had a word for god or concept of deity, and that has been established by a long line of scholarship. The figures venerated in Mayan cosmology represented historical personages, ancestors, or totemic animate spirits considered the founders of ancestral lines — NOT gods. The sun was seen as an animate spirit, as were all the stars, but this was not seen as a deity in any European sense. It was more an aspect of language since most Native American languages distinguish animate and inanimate genders. We could say simply that the sun was seen as a living thing, rather than like a rock.

    Yes many Anglo and Spanish scholars refer to Mayan gods and deities, but this is the result of sloppiness, arising from the fact that European languages have no words for the categories of things as seen by the classical Mayans, such as celestial animate beings.

    The reason that Jesus was associated with the sun by both Algonquians and Mayans was very simple — the sun was the afterlife destination of chiefs and other privileged people (great warriors, etc.) whereas other people went to other celestial destinations. Thus, in the Mayan world view, given that Jesus was as important a guy as he was described, he had to be a “sun being” — a person who had gone to the sun when he died and was resurrected, just like Pakal the Great, the ruler of Palenque.

    It’s really as simple as that — all important people were “sun beings” upon their resurrection. The sun itself was just a destination, a place, a direction, more like we would see it in modern space travel, rather than a “god” — a concept for which they didn’t even have a word.

  6. U should not worship any thing in heaven and earth and what is in between. Sun of adam a.s is righteous. Do not worship sun. Worship only ishwar not naswar like sun. Ishwer is only one. And sun is naswer.

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