General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 27 Feb 2021/4 Dog
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Mexicolore contributor David Bolles

RESOURCE: Maya world directions and sacred colours

All round the world, the four cardinal directions have for millennia taken on sacred meaning, often associated with prime colours. The ancient Maya were no exception. We’re sincerely grateful to David Bolles, a longstanding Maya scholar of renown and specialist in the language of the Yucatec Maya, for allowing us to present here a much simplified and abbreviated extract from his very detailed Collection of Papers About the Relationships Between The World Directions, the Calendar, Prognostications And the Mayan Deities, available in full below...

Pic 1: The directions of the ancient Maya world with associated colours - Illustration by Luis Garay
Pic 1: The directions of the ancient Maya world with associated colours - Illustration by Luis Garay (Click on image to enlarge)

Ti Can Titzil Caan, Ti Can Titzil Luum
(To the four corners of the sky, to the four corners of the world.)
In common with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya combined the four world directions and the centre of the world with colours and various attributes which were believed to be associated with these world directions. This concept of designating colours and attributes to the world directions is not unique to the cultures of Mesoamerica, but extends to many cultures not only throughout the Americas but also into Asia.
Despite the commonality of this practice, it is interesting to note that the actual colours which are attributed to the world directions vary from culture to culture. The Maya used the following colour scheme:-

Pic 2: A sample of colour schemes from Mesoamerican and North American cultures
Pic 2: A sample of colour schemes from Mesoamerican and North American cultures (Click on image to enlarge)

East - Red
North - White
West - Black
South - Yellow
Centre - Green.
The Maya colour scheme starts with the East, and continues in a counterclockwise direction, leaving the centre of the world for last. (It appears generally that the people north of the Tropic of Cancer go in a clockwise direction while those south of the Tropic of Cancer go in a counterclockwise direction.)
Aside from colours being attributed to each world direction, the set of four key ‘year-bearer’ signs from the ritual calendar are also linked to the world directions and their associated colours: 20 named days make up the uinal or 20-day month. Due to the mathematics of the Maya calendar, only four of these named days fall on the first day of the year. These days are called ‘year bearers’.
Furthermore, the Maya linked sacred trees, including Ceiba and Cacao, and a set of deities with each of these year bearers.

Pic 3: Pages 75-76 of the Madrid Codex, showing the 260-day ritual/divinatory calendar
Pic 3: Pages 75-76 of the Madrid Codex, showing the 260-day ritual/divinatory calendar (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 3 shows a pre-Columbian visualisation of the Maya 260-day Xoc Kin ritual calendar (more commonly called by Mayanists the tzolk’in) with the world directions and gods associated with them. In this depiction East is placed at the bottom, North at the right, West at the top and South to the left. The dots represent days, and go counterclockwise.
Each day of the uinal (the 20-day cycle) was given a world direction. These days are sequenced as follows:-
To the East
Kan, Lamat, Eb, Cib, Ahau
To the North
Chic Chan, Muluc, Ben, Caban, Imix
To the West
Cimi, Oc, Hiix, Edznab, Ik
To the South
Man Ik, Chuen, Men, Cauac, Akbal.
The 20 days of the uinal are grouped in the border around the central scene on pages 75-76 of the Madrid Codex (see pic 3).
It is assumed, incidentally, since there are 18 of them, that the bold ‘L’ shaped ‘footprint’ items represent the 18 x 20-day months that, together with 5 ‘nameless’ days at the end, make up the 365-day haab’ solar calendar of the Maya.

Pic 4: Multi-coloured maize: detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City
Pic 4: Multi-coloured maize: detail from a mural by Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Editor’s Footnote
As David Bolles writes in his publication ‘It has been suggested that the colours used for the world directions are based on the colour of various varieties of corn, namely red, white, purple and yellow.’ Whilst this is quite possible, it may just be coincidental and there’s no firm evidence for the idea.
In his Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno provides this note, in reference to the - slightly different - set of world direction colours of the Mexica:-
’Black was attributed to the gods of the night. Red was given to youth, vegetation, pleasure, love, the Sun, and fire. Yellow was associated with the Sun, fire, and ripe maize. Blue and green were given to water, precious jade, and turquoise. White represented old age and the rays of light.’

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: illustration scanned from Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya retold by Victor Montejo, and (beautifully) illustrated by and © Luis Garay, Groundwood Books, Canada, 1999 (see our ‘Teaching Resources on the Ancient Maya’ - link below)
• Pix 2 & 3: images taken from David Bolles’s publication
• Pic 4: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 19th 2021

Learn more about Maya and Aztec creation cycles

‘TEACHING RESOURCES on the ancient Maya’

David Bolles’s full publication on the ‘Relationships Between The World Directions, the Calendar, Prognostications And the Mayan Deities’
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