The Maya World Tree


A Ceiba Tree at Tikal in Petén Department, Guatemala. Photograph by Jean-Jacques M, September 2015.

In Mesoamerican theology the sacred World Tree stands in the centre of the world, crossing and connecting three horizontal levels, the heavens, the earth and the underworld. It has its roots embedded deep in the underworld, with its trunk straight and sturdy in the earthly realm and its branches high up in the heavens, diverging into the four cardinal directions. Each direction has a colour. East is Red, North is White, West is black and South is yellow. The World Tree itself is the Centre Point and has the colour Green. In Maya mythology everything on the earthly plane originally sprouted and emanated from the World Tree. It is the original source, the Tree of Life.

According to Maya mythology the World Tree allowed human souls to come to be and is symbolised by the White flowers of Ceiba trees, which are still found in Maya lands today. Following that, the human bodies which souls reside in allow them to pass through this experience of life on earth. All souls came from one of the four cardinal directions, defining not only characteristics and personality traits, but also general destiny.

After death, souls would journey along the roots of the World Tree to the underworld. Here they would be challenged and tested for some time, before they could reach a place of eternal rest in the afterlife (although some had to remain behind for an eternity). This process according to mythology could not be avoided. All souls would have to make this journey, except for children who died in infancy and adults who experienced unexpectedly sudden or violent deaths. Ancestors could use the same route back along the roots of the World Tree, being portals to the underworld, to visit the living on special occasions.

The Roots of a Ceiba Tree at Copán, Honduras, Central America. Photograph by Jean-Jacques Morin, September 2015.

The Roots of a Ceiba Tree at Copán, Honduras, Central America. Photograph by Jean-Jacques M, September 2015.

The underworld had nine different levels with the lowest one being the most “frightful”. Although, unlike the Western concept of hell, the underworld also has the symbolism of being a primordial source – this is where life sprung from in the first place (World Tree roots grow from the underworld). All three levels, the underworld, the earthly plane and the heavens remain connected to each other through the World Tree, which is a conduit of communication between them, the supernatural world and the human world.

In Maya cosmology there were originally only two realms, the heavens and the underworld, but at a certain date in time the creator gods, known as Heart of Sky and Heart of Earth, made a decision to raise the sky and create the physical earthly realm in-between, setting the ground for souls to be able to experience this intermediate world. At the foot of the World Tree a crocodile or water turtle is usually depicted, symbolising the surfacing of land out of the primordial waters. The World Tree is the central pillar holding up the sky. The four cardinal directions, into which the tree branches out, are considered to be additional pillars, and so there are five pillars supporting the world, with the World Tree in the centre.

The Long Count calendar of the Maya measures each world age as having a duration of more or less 5125 years. According to many modern day Maya timekeepers the world has so far completed four ages, the fourth one ending at the end of 2012. Each age has had a direction and an element, in accordance with the four cardinal directions, East, North, West and South (not necessarily in that order). The fifth age has the position of the centre, or middle, and it started at the end of 2012. As we know, the Maya World Tree symbolises the centre, where everything came from – and where everything returns to.

Tree in front of pyramid 216, East Acropolis at Yaxhá, North-East Petén, Guatemala. Photograph by Jean-Jacques M. September 2015.

Tree in front of pyramid 216 (which has 9 levels), East Acropolis at Yaxhá, North-East Petén, Guatemala. Photograph by Jean-Jacques M. September 2015.

In Maya mythology, the old world was destroyed each time at the end of an era before a new one was created. Another interpretation was that the sky of an old era would “fall” at its end (it was “raised” at its beginning) and for the new sky to be raised sacrifice had to be made. Outside Maya circles this has given rise to a huge amount of cataclysmic predictions (“the sky is falling!”) and prophecies related to the actual end of the world, but the above symbolism was never meant to be taken literally. Symbolically speaking there would be many societal and cultural changes each time there is a transition to a new age. History has in fact proven the Maya to be very accurate in forecasting some events, but these predictions usually refer to energetic changes affecting the human mind and consciousness, which then result in the societal and cultural changes.

Evolution expanded into a different cardinal direction each time during the four previous ages, each age representing the energetic characteristics of its direction. The elements of Water, Air, Earth and Fire have all been passed through (not necessarily in that order). The next cycle, which relatively speaking only just started, is meant to contain the element of Ether. During the fifth age the movement would be towards the centre, resulting in harmonisation and a balance of the previous expansions, reaching a blend of the four previous energies, plus a new one. What this means in practice will have to be experienced to know, but according to wise Maya elders, during this age we are meant to be co-creators in this harmonisation process – in line with our personal energetic traits and characteristics as defined by Maya cosmology.

We could interpret this further by suggesting that in order to be participants we need to get to know our selves much better to start with. During this new age we are inevitably returning to the centre of everything, including ourselves. This process is two-fold: First, the universe is facilitating this movement naturally by us having entered the fifth age, which means that this is increasingly the very nature of the times we currently live in and secondly, the expectation of us being co-creators means that we can meet the universe halfway during this process. We can actively engage in knowing ourselves better, through introspection and reflection, acknowledgement and correction – which then will lead us to act in accordance with our authentic higher selves. 

There will inevitably have to be some personal sacrifices to achieve this and the most difficult of these will be the hardest sacrifice of all for post-modern man and woman: sacrificing the vanity of the ego – and replacing it with humility. By doing so we will be working towards bringing a return to a part of consciousness we have lost, the consciousness of the sacred within everything, a consciousness which can ultimately lead us back to harmony within the universal centre and to the Source of everything.

Article and photographs by J.J. Montagnier

© 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Additional notes: The concept of the Maya underworld is compatible with the Jungian concept of the Collective Unconscious, which underlies all individual consciousness. In a Jungian sense, the underworld is the subconscious,  the earthly plane is every-day consciousness, and the heavens relate to having arrived at higher levels of awareness and consciousness.

Note: I have made use of information from various sources to write this piece. I have kept it as factual as possible, as far as that is possible, considering the subject matter, but have allowed intuition to guide me in how I have put it together and have used some creative license in reaching conclusions and formulating interpretations. Please contact me should the reader require any references or citations. – JJM.

Some background on the concept of moving from the 4th Age to the 5th age – by Kenneth Johnson:


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10 Responses to “The Maya World Tree”

  1. Jaguar Woman says:

    Thank you for this offering that brings greater understanding of the world tree and the dimensions relevant to the elementals. in lak’ech JW

  2. Josh says:

    Thank you for clarifying what this brand new age is supposed to be about. Interestingly, your description of moving back to the center and harmonizing previous expansions seems to be in line with what is starting to happen. Recent challenges are forcing us to become more aware of how our actions are affecting the planet and all those who live upon it. From my limited perspective, it seems like there are more people calling for coexistence; both with other people and other life forms. It will be interesting to see what sorts of changes are before us.

    • Jean-Jacques says:

      Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts – and I agree wholeheartedly. It is likely, I think that moving forward we will be faced with many challenges, especially in relation to resource depletion and climate change, while at the same time “the return to centre” will progressively guide us towards coexistence and harmonious living – as you so eloquently expressed. It is very positive indeed to find that more and more people are becoming concerned and aware of the times we live in.

  3. Wow–great article and photos, Jean-Jacque! Excellent info. I was very into Meso-American early civilizations a few years ago–fascinated with the Maya and the Yucatan penninsula. Never been there though. I envy your travel and your log of interesting sites and regional cultures. You do a great service to all of us by sharing your discoveries. Thank you my friend!

    • Jean-Jacques says:

      Thank you Rebecca – for reading and for your feedback! It’s really great to hear that people are enriched by my postings. Sharing is a community effort for me – one I do with pleasure! 🙂 As long as it can benefit other members (the “community” is undefined btw – anyone who benefits) – and it motivates further travels – especially the current selection of destinations. You should see if you can make it to Guatemala sometime – really worth it – I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it!

  4. Stephen says:

    I absolutely loved this article. The first few paragraphs, along with the “Additional Notes” reminded me strongly of a movie entitled “The Fountain”. I do believe now that the director called upon some of this mythology along with the Jungian concept of consciousness to create that film.

    The article inspires me to expand on certain pieces of fiction I’ve been working on for a long time as well.

    Yet all is not fiction. The deeper meaning of the article is clear — that we must return to our roots, our center. I think this is a necessary message for this “new age” that we are entering into.

    • Jean-Jacques says:

      Stephen, thank you for your comment! Sorry for the delayed reply. I´m currently in Peru, so I´m online sporadically. Yes, I remember The Fountain – great film. Another such film which connects with the New Age I think is the film Avatar. It´s very possible the directors of these films were also drawing on ancient wisdoms intuitively – and I think that is why it resonated so much with people and also ties in with not everything being fiction – as you said.

      Mythology, although seemingly fictional were actually used as highly advanced guidance systems in ancient civilisations. For example in the Maya culture´s most famous book of mythology, the Popol Vuh, there is a “Lord of Death” or “Demon” (I don´t remember the exact details) which used to pester people who didn’t sweep in front of their homes..! We can well imagine how fear of the “sweeping demon” motivated people to sweep very often! And of course it served that function – a subliminal system to motivate people to keep their lives tidy and organised (at least that is my interpretation of it..) – and mythology holds many other functions and more – such as ancient wisdoms and truths, which can be carried forward into the future, generation after generation.

      What I learned from the preface of Popol Vuh, for the Mayans words were sacred and they had to be expressed thoughtfully – and their effects or repercussions had to be considered.

      I had a discussion a while ago with someone who lives in France, who said to me that if (modern) children were brought up on mythology they would likely be much better prepared for the real world and they would probably be much wiser too.

      I very much appreciate your comment and that it inspires you to expand on some of your pieces is humbling and inspiring in return.

  5. Cr4zer says:

    A very explanatory information, Thanks a lot for posting

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