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Saturday Art and Archaeology: La Cieba, the Sacred Tree of the Maya


Fiber from pods on La Cieba

(Picture courtesy of Bert’sPhotos at


La Cieba

(Picture courtesy of Reinaldo Aguilar at

In the Mayan culture, a tree held sacred and often represented in artistic renderings throughout its structures, the Kapok, or Cieba Tree was part of ceremonies and life. The tree when young has a jade green trunk with many sharp thorns, and grows to be about 200 feet in maturity. Its umbrella shaped foliage produces seed pods that contain a fiber that was much used in Mayan clothing, and a flower that is often carved into stones in its temples. It is sometimes referred to as Arbor Mundi, tree of the world.

Ceiba trees’ have umbrella shape crowns and the branches extend in layers; the trees loose their leafs during dry season just after flowering. Ceiba or Kapok trees produce a silky cotton like fiber within their fruits, such fruit pods are called by the Maya people “pochote,” [top photo] a highly valuable fiber for clothing since pre-Hispanic times. The Ceiba’s seedpods are found within its fruits’ cotton-like fibers helping propagate and dispense seeds in the wind.


Even today, Maya people honor the Ya’axche or Ceiba Tree as an energy connection with the Cosmos, Earth, and the Underworld; ever present in ceremonies and as a medicine plant, this beautiful tree is were the Maya Gods abide, and so do may forest supernatural creatures and energies. Young Ceiba trees have exotic looking thorny green trunks.

The Ceiba Tree of Life plays an important central part at each Mayan Wedding Ceremony and in other Mayan holistic rituals as well as in many Mayan mythological legends still belief by the Mayan rural people to be part of supernatural dark energies in the form of demons and legendary beings, such as is the case of the Ix Tabay  or X’Tabay.

The ceiba tree was central to ancient Maya, and is still honored by their descendants. When the local Maya descendants are clearing a field for cultivation, they will leave any ceiba standing. Throughout the fields, the tall ceiba appear still, standing in honor of ancient tradition.

The legend of Ix Tabay is that of an enchantress, who leaves her victims at the foot of the sacred tree:

The Ix Tabay or X’Tabay Mayan Legend – (Pronounce as “sch-tabai“) is a fallen ancient Mayan goddess, before Christianity she was referred to as ”Ixtab” the goddess of suicide. The Ix Tabay legend remains in the Maya communities of today as an “existing and very real deadly spirit of the night. Such spirit takes the form of an extremely attractive woman, incredibly sensuous and beautiful, that appears to solitary males especially during full moon. She always awaits the male near a Ceiba tree trunk; where she seats and combs with sensuous delicate strokes her long dark beautiful hair, so long that it falls beyond her hips. This sensual being awaits and calls upon the poor male soul, whether he is drunk or not, old or young she has no preference; her voice is so inviting, her body so sensual, and her eyes so fascinating that the men have a hard time resisting her advances; most of them give in to her seduction, as she moves smiling and joyfully giggling into the dark forest.


Few males have encounter the X’tabay and have lived to tell their story; most of them are found dead next morning at the trunk or roots of the Ceiba tree, wrapped with thorny branches and terror showing in their distorted faces. The X’Tabay is the Queen Goddess of Suicide in the Pantheon of ancient Mayan gods, deities and the underworld demons. The Maya culture is unique in its inclusion of a goddess of suicide in its embracing deadly deities and gods.

The tree is a symbol of life, but legends give it more sinister roles in memories of worse times. The tree and its thorns were part of the jungle around them, and twined themselves into their stories and lives.

(Picture courtesy of Travis at

Sarcophagus of Bak, with a cross that represents the sacred ceiba tree at the center of the world, with its roots in the underworld.

At Copán, Stela B shows many tree images, the ‘T’ usually denoting a sacred tree.

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Ruth Calvo

Ruth Calvo

I've blogged at The Seminal for about two years, was at cabdrollery for around three. I live in N.TX., worked for Sen.Yarborough of TX after graduation from Wellesley, went on to receive award in playwriting, served on MD Arts Council after award, then managed a few campaigns in MD and served as assistant to a member of the MD House for several years, have worked in legal offices and written for magazines, now am retired but addicted to politics, and join gladly in promoting liberals and liberal policies.