Xibalba, the Maya underworld where death and suffering reign, is one of the most important places referenced in the Popol Wuj. Even today, modern K'iche' communities "use the word to describe an underground hell inhabited by demons who cause sickness" (Christenson 2008: p. 114, note 231). The name, which can be translated into K'iche' as "Place of Fear," is composed of the root Xib’ in modern K’iche’ means “fear,” while the instrumental suffix -b’al would here indicate “place.” The final -b’a may be a repetition of the instrumental element (Sattler, personal communication) or, as Stross (1987) argues, it may be a corruption of b’e’ “road.” Stross (1987) asserts that the form Xib’alb’e is not uncommon, and interprets the hieroglyphic inscription on Tikal altar 8 this way. In this (speculative) analysis, the name means “road of the place of fear."
El historiador Adrián Recinos (1952: nota 6, segunda parte, p. 169) apunta una importante conexión histórica con respeto a la etimología del término. Escribe: “Antiguamente, dice el P. Coto, Xibalbay significaba el demonio, o los difuntos o visiones que se aparecían a los indios. En Yucatán tenía los mismos significados. Xibalbá era el diablo y xibil es desaparecerse como visión o fantasma, según el Diccionario de Motul. Los mayas practicaban un baile que llamaban Xibalbá ocot, o baile del demonio. Para los quichés Xibalbá era la región subterránea habitada por enemigos del hombre.”
Some scholars stress the geographical-astrological meanings of Xibalba. For example, Stross (1987) associates the underworld of the Popol Wuj with a name used for the Milky Way in winter. He quotes Coe: “there are two words for the Milky Way, one (Sac Bey [Saqib’e’]) for summer, and one (Xibal bey [Xib’alb’e’]) for the winter, when it is bifurcated; the bifurcation is identified with the Underworld, and it is quite possible that the Maya, like many other American Indians, thought of the Milky Way as the road of the souls journeying to that region.” It may be relevant to this interpretation that One Junajpu and Seven Junajpu are defeated by the lords of Xib’alb’a when they arrive at a crossroads and take the black road. On the term “Road of Xibalba” (ri b’e xib’alb’a), Tedlock (p. 354) notes: “As a celestial road it is the Great Rift in the Milky Way; as a terrestrial road it descends into Xibalba from somewhere near Great Hollow with Fish in the Ashes.”
Other scholars affirm that Xibalba was a real historical place. Anthropoloist Rudd van Akkeren (2018: 28-29) writes that Xibalba "was always there in the text of the Popol Wuj, but never really recognized by its translators." Van Akkeren ties Xibalba to the Kaweq lineage, explaining in a passage worth quoting at length that "Kaweq authors locate Xibalba in Nim Xol-Karchaj. Karchaj is a reference to San Pedro Carcha and Nim Xol is a barrio of Cobán, called Santo Tomás Nim Xol. Yet Cobán and Carcha are colonial towns, the result of the Spanish policy of reducción. An historical analysis of the origin of the people who ended up in the various barrios of these towns, reveals they are a mix of Q'eqchi' and Ch'ol-speaking Maya from northern Alta Verapaz, a region riddled with caves like those of La Candelaria, second largest cavern system in the Maya area. This is the historical Xibalba. The Xibalba area is also the cradle of the Kaweq lineage. Their titular deity, Xmukane, is an ophidian Earth Goddess whose open jaws represent the entrance to Xibalba. That's why they were able to create this intricate myth on the Maya underworld that has no equal in Mesoamerica." Van Akkeren (2018: 29) goes on to note that the Kanek' lineage, an extended family network of salt traders, "originated in the same area," in and around Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, and that "Kaweq and Kanek' ... may even be the same lineage," given iconographic evidence that connects the Kanek' to Xmukane.
For as much as van Akkeren finds evidence of a historical Xibalba, he argues that the narrative enactment of the otherworldly region, and especially the powerful scenes of its destruction, represent the Kaweq lineage's "literary answer to the collapse of the Classic Lowland Maya" (2018: 30). Following their interactions with other powerful lineages, such as the Cancuen and Machaquila, the Kaweq negotiated powerful political and ecological disruptions by aligning themselves with the Poq'om lineages of the Guatemalan highands, as evidenced by "a text like the Memrial de Sololá" (2018: 31). At this point, the Kaweq lineage seems to have "crossed over to the K'iche'" (2018: 31).