Itzamna, Classic period

In Yucatec Maya mythology, Itzamna (Mayan pronunciation: ) 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.


  • Name 1
  • Early-colonial reports 2
  • Pre-colonial era 3
    • High priest and ruler 3.1
    • Crust of the Earth: Caiman 3.2
    • Father of Bacab 3.3
    • Aged tonsured maize god 3.4
    • Principal Bird Deity 3.5
    • Human representatives 3.6
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5


A Classic Period glyph with a representation of Itzamna with the body of a bird, found in the Plaza of the Dead Sun in Toniná and now in the site museum.[1]

J. Eric S. Thompson originally interpreted the name Itzamna as "lizard house", itzam being a Yucatecan term for an iguana and naaj meaning "house".[2] However, Thompson's translation has gradually been abandoned. While there is no consensus on the exact meaning of the name Itzamna, it may be significant that itz is a root denoting all sorts of secretions (such as dew, sap, and semen) and also sorcery. The otherwise unattested, agentive form itzam could thus mean "asperser" or "sorcerer".[3] Although one finds God D's Classic name glyph commonly rendered as "Itzamnaaj", this reading still awaits confirmation.

Early-colonial reports

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, Diego de 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 Yucatán and assigned names to all of its features. More generally, Itzamna was the creator of humankind, 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 humankind (Las Casas).

Pre-colonial era

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. It is thus likely that in the Post-Classic codices, the aged god D represents Itzamna. The codical god D is very similar to the much earlier god D of Classic iconography.[4] By comparison with the early-colonial data above, however, Classic 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.

High priest and ruler

God D 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.

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).

Father of Bacab

Both god D and his avian manifestation sometimes show features of the Bacab (god N),[5] who, as mentioned above, appears to have been considered a son of Itzamna at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Aged tonsured maize god

Iconographically, god D can be considered an aged form of the tonsured maize god. Both deities are often shown together.

Principal Bird Deity

Principal Bird Deity and worshipper, Classic period, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY

From the Late Postclassic Hero Twins myth; but strong arguments plead against the Principal Bird Deity's equation with Vucub Caquix, a bird demon shot by the Popol Vuh Twins.

Human representatives

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.


  1. ^ Espinosa Díaz 2001, p.16.
  2. ^ Thompson 1970: 209-233
  3. ^ Freidel, Schele, Parker 1993: 411-413
  4. ^ Taube 1992: 31-41
  5. ^ Bassie-Sweet 2008: 137-139
  6. ^ Bassie-Sweet 2008: 141-143


  • Ferdinand Anders, Das Pantheon der Maya.
  • Lawrence Bardawil, The Principal Bird Deity in Maya Art: An Iconographical Study of Form and Meaning (1976).
  • Karen Bassie-Sweet, Maya Sacred Geography and the Creator Deities. Norman 2008.
  • Espinosa Díaz, Margarita (2001). "Creación y Destrucción en Toniná".  
  • Freidel, Schele, Parker, Maya Cosmos.
  • 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. 1992.
  • Karl Taube, A Representation of the Principal Bird Deity in the Paris Codex.
  • Eric Thompson, Maya History and Religion. Norman 1970.
  • Alfred Tozzer, Landa's Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan.