Yaxche: The Tree of Life

The Yaxche, as the Maya referred to it, was the representation of what is known in vast ancient civilizations as the tree of life. In the Maya civilization the Yaxche is represented by the Ceiba pentandra, known as the Kapok tree in English, that is native to the southern Mexico region. The Yaxche was a symbol that permeated into the Maya mythology, architecture, and societal ambience.

In Maya mythology the Yaxche hold a high importance because of its significance in the creation story of the Maya people. According to the Popol Vuh, an ancient Maya scripture, the Gods planted four Ceiba trees in each corner of the world, in the east a red Ceiba; in the west a black Ceiba; in the south a yellow Ceiba; and in the north a white Ceiba, so that they could hold up the heavens. The fifth Yaxche was planted in the center of the four trees so that its roots could reach Xibalba, the underworld, and its branches reached the heavens. The fifth tree was viewed as the sacred connector of the three realms; the Underworld, the Middle world, and the heavens. The World Tree, as it was called, was thought to provide a channel for the souls of humans to travel into the underworld or the heavens and was seen as sacred because it was the only way the Gods had of traveling into the Middle world.

The Ancient Maya civilizations followed, what is known as, Quadripartite order in their architecture due to the belief that the world was made of five Ceiba trees. Four of the Yaxche were thought to be located in the corners of the world, in so representing the four cardinal directions, as they upheld the world. Meanwhile the fifth Yaxche was perceived as the central axis of the universe or axis mundi, and was thought to be located in the middle of the square formed by the four previous trees. The importance of the Yaxche and their locations are portrayed throughout the architecture of the Maya civilizations. Prestigious temples were built and arranged in Quadripartite order in honor of the five Yaxche trees of creation. Throughout the establishments of great cities, the existence and importance of the Ceiba tree is portrayed through art work imbedded onto buildings and the overpowering need to plant and acquire the presence of such a sacred entity.

The ancient Maya portrayed the importance of the Yaxche into their everyday life. The tree was planted near areas of spiritual importance, or sacrificial rituals such as the Ball Game. It was a symbol that defied the structure of political hierarchy. The Yaxche was decicted on the sides of buildings, pottery, and even on the tombs of leaders like Pakal. The Maya saw comfort in the Yaxche during times of war and birthing complications. They depicted the travels of the souls, such as women who died at childbirth and the men who were slain during battle, through the Yaxche and their ascendance to the heavens. The Yaxche was the center of the universe and so the center of all characteristics of Maya life.