Like the Aztecs, the ancient Mayan civilization was one of the most socially and culturally advanced. Societies in Central America have borrowed a great deal from the great ancient Maya people to this day. For example, Mayan designs heavily influence tattoo ideas and even general writing in the region.
Archeologists discovered the oldest Mayan writings painted on cave walls around 250 BC However, it’s believed that the Mayan community was already writing at an extremely high and complex level long before that time.
Even during these early days, the Mayan society was already gazing at the stars and trying to figure out how the solar system worked. This advanced knowledge helped them develop complex farming and irrigation systems. That’s not to mention what it did to the arts and crafts culture of the Mayan indigenous community.
Thanks to a highly complex hieroglyphic language and set of symbols, Mayan writing and art were and still are among the most unique on the planet. Mayan designs have been adapted across the globe because of how good and complex they look. Even people who don’t have any Mayan connection can appreciate Mayan symbols thanks to the distinctive elements in the art.
With that in mind, here are some of the most popular Mayan designs and what they symbolize.
Kukulkan was a Mayan deity, the feathered serpent. The feathered serpent was a common symbol in most Mesoamerican societies, including the Aztecs and the Olmecs, and was worshiped as a god under various names.
This god is heavily mentioned in the K’iche Maya sacred book, Popol Vuh. Also known as the “Serpent god” or the “Vision Serpent,” the feathered serpent was capable of flying to heaven thanks to his feathers and traveling the earth thanks to the serpent part.
Kukulkan temples can be found in Mayapan, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal. The Mayans who worshiped in these temples emphasized good communication and peaceful trade between cultures.
The Kukulkan symbol represents rebirth or renewal. This was attributed to the fact that a snake shades its skin to become new or to grow.
The jaguar, another common Mesoamerican symbol, was one of the most revered creatures by both the Aztecs and the Mayans. To them, the jaguar symbolized strength, valor, and ferocity, traits possessed by the actual animal. Since the jaguar has excellent eyesight at night, it also symbolizes foresight and perception.
To the Mayans, the jaguar was a god of the underworld who ruled over the celestial forces during the night and day. As such, this symbol represented confidence, control, and leadership.
The jaguar was held in high esteem within the Mayan society, second to only Kukulkan. Mayan warriors preferred to battle in jaguar skins to demonstrate courage and honor.
Hunab Ku comes from the Yucatec Mayan language, meaning “the only god” or “one god,” depending on the context. This term can be found in the texts of the Book of Chilam Balam from the 16th century, written after the conquistadors had ravaged and conquered the Mayans.
The story of Hunab Ku is rather complex. Closely associated with the Mayan creator god, Itzama, Hunab Ku was made popular by Hunbatz Men, who was a modern Maya day keeper.
It’s believed that the idea of a supreme god in Mayan culture was borrowed from the Spanish, as there were no known references to Hunab Ku before the Spanish arrived. The notion of a supreme god, therefore, is believed to have been used by the conquistadors to convert the polytheistic Mayans towards Christianity.
Nevertheless, Hunab Ku is a symbol that the New Age Mayans have adopted. They believe it symbolizes universal consciousness. This powerful Mayan symbol is closely linked to the number zero and the Milky Way, and as a tribal pattern, it’s popular with tattoos.
Eb is a symbol that has many different meanings. The very first and most significant is that it was the symbol of the twin brothers, Hun-Alhpu. It also symbolized the road of life that all Mayan women and men had to take to reach the pyramids of Heaven and Earth.
Finally, it also symbolizes the human skull. The human skull connection isn’t very clear, but it’s most likely there to represent humanity.
Ik is the symbol representing the spirit of the wind. According to Mayan mythology, the wind was associated with human sickness and livelihood. It was believed that Ik could enter the human body and cause diseases.
On the other hand, the same force infused life into the planet by creating wind and rain, directly connecting it to life on earth.
Kan symbolizes harvest and is closely associated with abundance and fertility. Kan, representing the fourth day on the Mayan calendar, is also a symbol for the lizard, which represents gaining strength and slow growth.
The Etznab is the flint symbol, an extremely important aspect of the Mayan lifestyle. Since the Mayans had no metals, they used obsidian rocks or flint for almost everything, including weapons, tools, and building materials. Etznab, as a result, represented strength, courage, grace, and healing.
Aside from the jaguar, the eagle was the most revered and valued animal in Mayan culture. Men were one of the most iconic symbols representing the unity between the moon and the sun, as well as a few gods, including Hunahpu Ahau, Kukulkan, and the moon goddess considered the deity of wisdom.
The Mayans had a myriad of other symbols and Mayan designs, including Lamat, which was the sign of the rabbit and symbolized wealth, fertility, and abundance, and Kimi, which was darker, symbolizing death yet still associated with wisdom, rebirth, and reincarnation. Like most ancient cultures, most things were connected to the Mayan culture.