Maya Blue: Mysterious color of the Mayan Rain God

The vivacious, durable pigment Azul Maya, used thousands of years ago offers not only beauty and insights into an amazing culture, but also provides hints to current-day pigment producers.

WEST PALM BEACH — Azul Maya, or Maya Blue, is a vibrant color that was created and used by the classic and post-classic Maya civilizations more than 1700 years ago, and which is still evident in Mayan ruins and archeological treasures.  

The pigment was used to decorate household items, murals, sculptures and, its best known use, for adorning human sacrifices, held important symbolic value for the ancient Maya. The amazing color was extremely important for ritual.  

For the Maya, blue was the color of the rain deities, particularly the god Chaahk, their rain god and the patron of agriculture.  

A Mayan mask with still vibrant blue tiles (

A Mayan mask with still vibrant blue tiles (

When the Maya made sacrifices to Chaahk, they painted the objects – or people – bright Mayan blue prior to the ritual “killing” of the person or animal to release its spirit.  After the ritual killing, the Mayan priest threw the object into water, often the Cenote Sagrado, or Sacred Cenote, at Chichen Itza, as an offering to Chaahk in hopes for rain and bountiful crops. 

According to numerous accounts, humans were not always killed before priests threw them into the Sacred Cenote.  Instead, they were painted the bright blue and thrown alive into the Cenote.  In the extremely unlikely chance that a victim survived the attempted “sacrifice,” the priests announced him as a messenger of the gods, and he was honored for the remainder of his life. 

American born archaeologist and diplomat Edward H. Thompson spent most of his life studying ancient Mayan culture and purchased the land that included Chichen Itza and Cenote Sagrado.  His excavation (1904-1910) of the well at Cenote Sagrado resulted in the recovery of artifacts of gold, jade and copper, as well as pre-columbian cloth, weapons and tools that had been encased in the thick clay at the bottom of the well.

Cenote Sagrado at Chitchen Itza

Cenote Sagrado at Chitchen Itza

Thompson also recovered human remains, mostly males that were sacrificed to Chaahk. 

While scientists and anthropologists have long understood the purpose of the amazing color, the mechanism for creating the long-lasting color has baffled experts.  The pigment, used on murals and pottery, remains vibrant after thousands of years, which is extremely rare for any color, especially ones made from natural ingredients.  

The Maya Blue color is so durable that even most forms of acid do not remove it.  In many cases, the only color remaining on artifacts and murals is the Maya Blue; the others having completely faded away. 

Mayan warrior on Azul Maya background

Mayan warrior on Azul Maya background

Recent studies show that the color contains the leaves of the indigo plant and a clay mineral called palygorskite; but scientist were perplexed over the method of mixing the two to create the amazing color.  They agreed it likely was heated with Copal incense, a tree resin, during the ritual, which somehow bound the ingredients to create the color. 

The process of using the heat to absorb the indigo into the clay is the secret that appears to make the color so stable.  Molecular x-rays show that the clay fibers contain channels filled with water molecules.  When the clay is heated, the water is exchanged for the indigo, which is sealed in place by what scientists call a “gatekeeper molecule” which prohibits the indigo from escaping.  

The indigo molecule becomes seared into the clay, creating an extremely stable chemical.  In essence, the indigo-clay combination becomes a new compound. 

For the Maya, the brilliant blue color was a spiritual representation of the rain god.  For people today, it is another example of the incredible, possibly unrealized, technology of this ancient people.

A present day warrior wearing Azul Maya pigment

A present day warrior wearing Azul Maya pigment

Central America | Maya 2012 is being written by Lisa Ruth, Jim Picht and Jacquie Kubin from the Communities at the Washington Times.

Check back frequently for more articles on Central America, Belize and Nicaragua including:

Kinche Art Festival, Belize by Jacquie Kubin

The foods of Belize - native flavors steeped in history by Jacquie Kubin

Riding the wilds of Nicaragua – horseback adventures with Rancho Chilamante’s Rural Nicaragua and Beach Tour and the fabulous Orquidea del Sur by Jacquie Kubin

Finding wellness in Central America: The Shamans of Belize and Hope Edelman’s adventure to find wholeness for her daughter Maya. (Read Hope’s book the Possibility of Everything) by Jacquie Kubin

Dancing in the waves of the Pacific and Ecolodge life at Morgan’s Rock and AquaNicaragua by Jacquie Kubin

The Barrier Reef of Belize - protecting the waters and reefs of the Caribbean by Jacquie Kubin

The cities of Nicaragua - touring Granada and the Contempo Hotel, San Juan del Sur and Pelican Eyes and Leon, the La Perla Hotel and Cerre Negro, a volcano to climb up, and ski down by Jacquie Kubin

Mayan astrology and ancient influences on today by Jim Picht

Belize Homestay Program by Jim Picht

Plus many more articles about the food, chocolate, eco-tourism, scuba-diving, politics, economic future and Maya 2012 - what will it mean? 

Read more by Lisa at Life with Lisa at The Washington Times Communities.

Lisa has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from George Mason University and a graduate degree in Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia.  She spent 11 years as an analyst with the federal government.  She is part owner of a research and analysis company, C2 Research, LLC, which specializes in complex research and analysis.  Lisa is also a freelance writer, contributing to Donne Tempo Magazine. 


-cl- 5/20/11

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Lisa M. Ruth

Lisa M. Ruth started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service and analysis.  After leaving the government, she joined a private intelligence firm in South Florida as President, where she oversaw all research, analysis and reporting.

Lisa joined CDN as a journalist in 2009 and writes extensively on intelligence, world affairs, and breaking news. She also provides investigative reporting and news analysis. Lisa continues to write both for her own columns and as a guest writer on a wide variety of subjects, and is now Executive Editor for CDN and edits the Global, Family and Health sections.  She is also a regular contributor to Newsmax and other publications.

Contact Lisa M. Ruth


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