In Maya Mythology Xibalba is the name of the underworld, ruled by Mayan deities of disease and death . The name roughly translates as "Place of Fear" or "Place of Phantoms". In the 16th-century Verapaz, the entrance to Xibalba was traditionally held to be a cave in the vicinity of Coban, Guatemala. To some of the Quiche descendants of the Maya people living in the vicinity, the area is still associated with death. They perceive the Road to Xibalba as the dark rift which is visible in the Milky Way.
Xibalba is described in the Popol Vuh as a court below the surface of the Earth. It is unclear if the inhabitants of Xibalba (popularly referred to as 'Xibalbans'), are the souls of the deceased or a separate race of people worshipping death, but they are often depicted as being human-like in form. The place Xibalba was associated with death and was ruled by twelve gods or powerful rulers known as the Lords of Xibalba. The first among the Lords of Xibalba were One Death and Seven Death. The remaining ten Lords are often referred to as demons and are given commission and domain over various forms of human suffering: to cause sickness, starvation, fear, destitution, pain, and ultimately death. The remaining residents of Xibalba are thought to have fallen under the dominion of one of these Lords, going about the face of the Earth to carry out their listed duties.
Xibalba was a large place and a number of individual structures or locations within Xibalba are described or mentioned in the Popol Vuh. Chief among these was the council place of the Lords, the five or six houses that served as the first tests of Xibalba, and the Xibalban ball court. Also mentioned are the homes of the Lords, gardens, and other structures indicating that Xibalba was at least a great city.
Xibalba seemed to be rife with tests, trials and traps for anyone who came into the city. Even the Road to Xibalba was filled with obstacles: first a river filled with scorpions, a river filled with blood, and then a river filled with pus. Beyond these was a crossroads where travellers had to choose from between four roads that spoke in an attempt to confuse and beguile. Upon passing these obstacles one would come upon the Xibalban council place, where it was expected visitors would greet the seated Lords. Realistic mannequins were seated near the Lords to confuse and humiliate people who greeted them, and the confused would then be invited to sit upon a bench, which was actually a hot cooking surface. The Lords of Xibalba would entertain themselves by humiliating people in this fashion before sending them into one of Xibalba's deadly tests.
The city was home to at least six deadly houses filled with trials for visitors. The first was Dark House, a house that was completely dark inside. The second was Rattling House or Cold House, full of bone-chilling cold and rattling hail. The third was Jaguar House, filled with hungry jaguars. The fourth was Bat House, filled with dangerous shrieking bats, and the fifth was Razor House, filled with blades and razors that moved about of their own accord. In another part of the Popol Vuh, a sixth test, Hot House, filled with fires and heat, is identified. The purpose of these tests was to either kill or humiliate people placed into them if they could not outwit the test.
Sport was important among ancient Mesoamerican cultures, and the foul Lords of Xibalba were no exception to the rule. Xibalba was home of a famous ball court in which the heroes of the Popol Vuh either succumbed to the trickery of the Xibalbans in the form of a deadly, bladed ball, as well as the site in which the Maya Hero Twins outwitted the Xibalbans and brought about their downfall.
According to the Popol Vuh, the Xibalbans at one point enjoyed the worship of the people on the surface of the Earth, who offered human sacrifice to the gods of death. Over the span of time covered in the Popol Vuh, the Xibalbans are tricked into accepting counterfeit sacrifices, and then finally humiliated into accepting lesser offerings from above. Anthropologist (and trained Mayan diviner) Dennis Tedlock has speculated that this version of history may be a Quichean slander on earlier Mayan forms of worship.
The role of Xibalba and the Xibalbans after their great defeat at the hands of the hero twins is unclear, although it seems to have continued its existence as a dark place of the underworld long after.