The Maya are a native Mesoamerican people who developed one of the most sophisticated cultures in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of the Spanish.
Mayan religion was characterized by the worship of nature gods (especially the gods of sun, rain and corn), a priestly class, the importance of astronomy and astrology, rituals of human sacrifice, and the building of elaborate pyramidical temples.
Some aspects of Mayan religion survive today among the Mayan Indians of Mexico and Central America, who practice a combination of traditional religion and Roman Catholicism.
- Date founded:
- c.250 AD (rise of the Maya civilization)
- Place founded:
- Mesoamerica (Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize)
- At one time up to 2 million. Today, several million Maya practice a Roman Catholicism that retains many elements of traditional Mayan religion.
- Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices; Books of Chilam Balam; Popol Vuh; The Ritual of the Bacabs
- Main gods:
- Itzamná; Kukulcán (Quetzalcóatl); Bolon Tzacab; Chac
- Astronomy, divination, human sacrifice, elaborate burial for royalty, worship in stone pyramid-temples
The Mayan civilization arose in Mesoamerica around 250 AD, influenced by the culture and religion of the Olmecs. The Mayan urban culture especially flourished until about 900 AD, but continued to thrive in various places until the Spanish conquest.
During this first 650 years, which scholars call the Classic Period, the Mayan civilization consisted of more than 40 sizeable cities spread across modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize.
At its peak, the total population may have reached 2 million people, the majority of whom lived in modern-day Guatemala. The cities seem to have been mainly ceremonial centers, with the majority of the Maya living a rural, agricultural life around the cities.
Sometime after 900 AD, the Mayan culture declined dramatically and most of the cities were abandoned. Latest scholarship attributes this decline to the loss of trade routes due to war.
The great southern cities became depopulated, but the cities of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán) continued to thrive in the early part of the "Post-Classic Period" (900–1519). By the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, however, most of the Maya were village-dwelling farmers.
The remaining Maya were conquered by the Spanish and converted (at least nominally) to Roman Catholicism. The present-day Mayan peoples are spread mainly across southern Mexico, with small numbers in Guatemala and Belize. They practice a religion that combines Roman Catholicism with Mayan cosmology, deities, and domestic rituals.
The Maya had a highly sophisticated culture, and this included a written hieroglyphic language. Mayan hieroglyphics were carved into stone monuments or pieces of bone, painted on pottery, and written on books (codices) of bark paper.
Mayan texts describe religious rituals, astronomy, and divination, and are the most valuable source of information on the ancient civilization. Many of them were destroyed by the Spanish because of their pagan religious content, but three main codices have survived. Named for the cities in which they are now kept, these are the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices. The Dresden Codex contains very precise tables of Venus and the moon and describes a method of predicting solar eclipses.
Other important texts are those written by learned Indians who transcribed or summarized Mayan hieroglyphic records into Latin script. One of these is the Books of Chilam Balam, written in Yucatec Maya and consisting of historical chronicles mixed with myth, divination, and prophecy. Another text, The Ritual of the Bacabs, covers religious symbolism, medical incantations, and similar matters.
Perhaps the most famous of these texts is the Popol Vuh (1554-1558), which was written in Quiché, a highland Maya language, and translated into Spanish by a priest. This tells of the mythology and cosmology of the Postclassic Guatemalan Maya, and shows central Mexican influences. It chronicles the creation of man, the actions of the gods, the origin and history of the Quiché people, and the chronology of their kings down to 1550.
These Mayan texts were not regarded as sacred or authoritative in themselves (they are not revelations from the divine like the Bible or Quran), but rather as important records of religious rituals and knowledge.
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The Maya worshipped a pantheon of nature gods, each of which had both a benevolent side and a malevolent side. The most important deity was the supreme god Itzamná, the creator god, the god of the fire and god of the hearth.
Another important Mayan god was Kukulcán, the Feathered Serpent, who appears on many temples and was later adopted by the Toltecs and Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl. Also important was Chac, a hooked-nose god of rain and lightning.
A third god that frequently appears in Mayan art is Bolon Tzacab, who is depicted with a branching nose and is often held like a sceptre in rulers' hands. He is thought to have functioned as a god of royal descent.
Mayan rulers were seen as intermediaries between the gods and the people, and as semi-divine themselves. They were buried in elaborate tombs filled with valuable offerings.
The Mayan view of the afterlife consisted primarily of a dangerous voyage of the soul through the underworld, which was populated by sinister gods and represented by the jaguar, symbol of night. The majority of Maya, including the rulers, went to this underworld. Heaven was reserved for those who had been sacrificed or died in childbirth.
To the Maya, science and religion were one and the same. The Maya developed an impressive system of mathematics and astronomy, which was initimately related to religious rituals. Their mathematical achievements included positional notation and the use of zero; in astronomy, they accurately calculated a solar year, compiled precise tables of positions for the Moon and Venus, and were able to predict solar eclipses.
The Maya were obsessed with time; to understand and predict various cycles of time allowed them to adapt to and best make use of their natural world. Mayan cosmology had it that the world had been created five times and destroyed four times. On a more temporal scale, the various days of the year were considered appropriate to specific activities, while some were entirely unlucky.
The Maya practiced a form of divination that centered on their elaborate calendar system and extensive knowledge of astronomy. It was the job of the priests to discern lucky days from unlucky ones, and advising the rulers on the best days to plant, harvest, wage war, etc. They were especially interested in the movements of the planet Venus — the Maya rulers scheduled wars to coordinate with its rise in the heavens.
The Mayan calendar was very advanced, and consisted of a solar year of 365 days. It was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, followed by a five-day period that was highly unlucky. There was also a 260-day sacred year (tzolkin), divided into days named by the combination of 13 numbers and 20 names.
For longer periods, the Maya identified an elaborate system of periods and cycles of various lengths. In ascending order, these were: kin (day); uinal (20 days); tun (18 uinals/360 days); katun (20 tuns/7,200 days); baktunbaktun (20 katuns/144,000 days), and so on, with the highest cycle being the alautun (23,040,000,000 days).
These units were used in the Maya Long Count, which calculated the time elapsed from a zero date set at 3114 BC. In the Postclassical Period, the method of notation was somewhat simplified, and the Long Count katuns end with the name Ahau (Lord), combined with one of 13 numerals; and their names form a Katun Round of 13 katuns.
This change makes it difficult to correlate the Mayan count with the Christian calendar, but scholars are fairly confident that the katun 13 Ahau, which seems to have had great significance for the Mayan, ended on November 14, 1539. It has been calculated that the next katun, which the Popul Vuh describes as the catastrophic end of the world, will end on December 21, 2012. Naturally, this has inspired quite a bit of speculation as to what might happen on this date.
Until the mid-20th century, scholars believed the Maya to be a peaceful, stargazing people, fully absorbed in their religion and astronomy and not violent like their neighboring civilizations to the north. This was based on the Maya's impressive culture and scientific discoveries and a very limited translation of their written texts.
But since then, nearly all of the Mayan hieroglyphic writings have been deciphered, and a much different picture has emerged. The texts record that the Mayan rulers waged war on rival Mayan cities, took their rulers captive, then tortured them and ritually sacrificed them to the gods.
In fact, human sacrifice seems to have been a central Mayan religious practice. It was believed to encourage fertility, demonstrate piety, and propitiate the gods. The Mayan gods were thought to be nourished by human blood, and ritual bloodletting was seen as the only means of making contact with them. The Maya believed that if they neglected these rituals, cosmic disorder and chaos would result.
At important ceremonies, the sacrificial victim was held down at the top of a pyramid or raised platform while a priest made an incision below the rib cage and ripped out the heart with his hands. The heart was then burned in order to nourish the gods.
It was not only the captives who suffered for the sake of the gods: the Mayan aristocracy themselves, as mediators between the gods and their people, underwent ritual bloodletting and self-torture. The higher one's position, the more blood was expected. Blood was drawn by jabbing spines through the ear or penis, or by drawing a thorn-studded cord through the tongue; it was then spattered on paper or otherwise collected as an offering to the gods.
Other Mayan religious rituals included dancing, competition, ball games, dramatic performances, and prayer to the gods.
- "Maya." Encyclopędia Britannica (Encyclopędia Britannica Online, November 2006).
- "pre-Columbian civilizations." Encyclopędia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, November 2006).
- The Mayas - Richard Hooker's World Civilizations