Maya Symbols and Their Meanings
“Long ago, the people of the rainy, mountainous region of Verapaz were trembling from the cold because they did not have clothes. From the heavens, the goddess Itzam saw their suffering and came down to Earth. She visited a woman in her house and tried to teach her how to weave, but the woman simply did not understand. Just as the goddess was about to give up, she saw a spider weaving its web. The deity told the woman to watch how the spider worked, and thanks to this demonstration the woman captured the essence of weaving.”
Various versions of this myth exist throughout the western highlands of Guatemala, but its essential message remains the same: nature is a constant source of inspiration for weavers and the Maya people as a whole.
While some of the original meanings of the symbols used in Guatemalan weaving have been lost, many of them still hold significance for Maya communities - particularly those relating to good, evil, fertility and agriculture.
Bats are the guardians of the Underworld. They're considered suspicious creatures, rich in dualities. The bat is worshipped for its rule over the darkness, and is a powerful sign to mark against enemies. The Mayas drew a very faint line between our concepts of good and evil: they were seen in unison, rather than separation, and the bat is also revered for its representation of this unison.
The butterfly, with its wings spread, represents freedom. This freedom is sometimes compared with that of the weaver, with her ability to weave wild stories into her textiles. The white butterfly indicates good news and positivity, while the black represents negativity, pain and tragedy. If a black butterfly enters a Maya home, it is caught and burned to rid the house of the bad luck. Green butterflies are symbols of hope and are welcomed into homes as omens of good health if a family member is sick.
The cross has ties to both Maya and Christian religion. The four points represent the four directions of the winds, which give life to crops and mankind. The Maya cross is made from the four types of corn - white, yellow, red, and black - which represent the parts of the human body. The cross also signifies the dawn, the darkness, the water, and the air. This symbol demonstrates the importance of the energies that come from each extreme of the earth.
Corn is a particularly important symbol in in Guatemalan textiles. Maya mythology tells that for the creation of the human being, white corn was used for the bones, yellow corn for the muscles, black corn for the eyes and hair, and red corn for the blood. For this reason, corn is not just considered a source of food in rural areas: it's also part of the ancestral, ceremonial traditions.
The cup symbolizes the importance of sharing with others. In modern Guatemala, this symbol has become a fusion of Maya and Christian beliefs. It is sometimes understood as the cup Jesus shared with the disciples during the last supper.
The diamond is one of the most important symbols, and can be found in most of Trama's products. It symbolizes the arms of the weaver, with her body at the bottom, and her textiles at the top. If you feel drawn to this symbol, check out this intricate cushion cover.
Deer are considered a symbol of strong, stable, regal energy by the Maya. They represent all of the animal kingdom. Deer also encompass the four levels of being: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The energies of the deer also signify the binding forces between an individual and their family. If you feel drawn to this symbol, check out these earrings.
Dolls represent the connection between women, Mother Earth, and Ixchel, who is the goddess of medicine, midwifery, the moon, and weaving.
Doves are the Queens of the Heavens. These feminine birds provide nourishment for the Maya people and renew the fruits of life.
The ancient people understood the eagle’s calls as a warning that an earthquake or storm was on its way. In ancient Maya mythology, one face of the double headed eagle represents good and the other represents evil. The creature itself represents contemplative thought. When focused upon, this symbol assists in accessing inner wisdom and facilitates focus. Eagles have also traditionally been a symbol of community and cooperative unity within a diverse group. However, the meaning of the eagle changed during the Spanish conquest since it was featured on the coat of arms of Charles V, who was the ruler of the Spanish empire at the time. For the indigenous population, the eagle can therefore also represent a cruel, unforgiving, and unfamiliar being. If you feel drawn to this symbol, check out this colorful cushion cover. Available in black, red, blue or neutral.
The flower motifs used in weaving are usually the native flowers of Guatemala, like roses, lilies, violas, pansies, gladioli, and cactus flowers. All of these flowers bloom abundantly throughout the year. The Mayas view flowers as symbols of life and fertility.
The inup is the Tree of Life, which represents the life of man - birth, growth, reproduction and death. It also indicates love, as shown in the union between the two people who make up the two parts of the tree. The fruits represent their offspring. Many sacred rites are performed under the branches of these trees.
Maya Gods are frequently depicted with jaguar attributes. The jaguar is said to have the ability to cross between worlds, as represented by daytime and nighttime. The world of the living and the earth are associated with the day, while and the spirit world and the ancestors are associated with the night.
The lion is often woven by young women to demonstrate a desire to be courted. As the king of the jungle, the lion symbol is a keeper of goods, wealth, and good luck. Sometimes the lion is read as a representation of anger, and is therefore never used in huipils that are worn during happy events.
In Maya mythology, the owl is a symbol of death and destruction. These nocturnal birds of prey are the mysterious messengers of dark powers. For the Quiche people, the owl’s hoot is an omen of death.
The pitcher symbolises the head of a woman, from which her wonderful ideas for patterns and color combinations in textiles are poured.
The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and one of the most important textile symbols, often present in traditional clothing. In a number of modern Maya dialects, the name means ‘treasured’ or ‘sacred’. Legend has it that long ago, the Quetzal would sing beautifully, but has been silent since the Spanish conquest. The red chest is representative of the blood spilled while the Maya people tried to protect themselves and their land.
The rooster is associated with marriage (see also, the turkey). In some Maya communities, proposals are accompanied by the groom's family presenting the potential bride's family with between one and three roosters, depending on how they regard their prospective daughter-in-law. Those who receive three roosters can feel proud that the mother-in-law is pleased with the union.
The serpent appears frequently in Maya textiles as a representation of the god Gucumatz, the creator of the world. This zigzag design can also signify mountains, which provide clean air and protection from sickness.
The sun represents the radiant energy that contributes to the motion of the universe. It's also symbolic of the god of corn, to whom the Maya pray to ensure a good harvest.
Turkeys often tell the stories of weddings (see also, the rooster). The turkey represents a proposal. Once a Maya couple is engaged, the groom’s family will spend the next two years fattening up a turkey until the day of the wedding. The groom then presents the dead turkey to the parents of his soon-to-be bride. If the groom is rich enough, he will also give the bride’s family bread and money.
The colors used in Maya weaving also have their significance.
Red, black, white, and yellow also represent the four directions of the winds: red for east, black for west, white for north, and yellow for south.
These symbols and colors are often used in the work produced by the Trama weavers, so keep an eye out for them in our online shop and our tienda!