Did you know?The ancient Mayans believed that a giant tree connected the three realms viz., the Earth, the Heaven, and the Underworld. The tree helped the gods and the souls of the deceased in their journey through the different worlds.
» Sources of Mayan Religion
» Sacred Landscape of Maya
» Religious Sacrifices
» The Mayan Priests
» The Mayan Pantheon
» Beliefs and Customs
» Sacred Spaces
The ancient Maya civilization was centered around the lands of eastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This ancient Mesoamerican civilization (the term Mesoamerica refers to the regions of Mexico and central America before the Spanish colonization of 16th century) has been roughly divided into three distinct phases viz., the Preclassic period (2000 B.C. to 250 A.D.), the Classic period (250 A.D. to 900 A.D.), and the Postclassic period (900 A.D. to the 16th century A.D.). The people of ancient Maya are best remembered for their highly developed artistic, architectural, astronomical, and mathematical systems. Their written language that we have in the form of numerous inscriptions and codices, has been deciphered to a large extent by now, and unfolds some of the greatest mysteries of an advanced rainforest civilization.
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One of the most interesting aspects of the Maya civilization was the religion that they practiced. The sources that tell us about the ancient Mayan religion are diverse and varied. They include the following:
• The three Maya codices that have managed to withstand the ravages of times. These are nothing but hieroglyphic texts, which were written by the Mayans themselves.
• Early colonial Mayan treatises such as Popol Vuh and the Ritual of the Bacabs, which provide us with historical accounts and mythological narratives, with respect to the various religious practices of the ancient Mayans.
• The large number of scattered archaeological remnants of the mighty civilization, which include, not only their magnificent edifices, but also their epigraphs, their sculptures, and small artifacts such as pottery and terracotta figurines.
All these sources, alongside some others, have proven to be of great help in decoding the religious practices and beliefs of the people of ancient Maya civilization. What we know from these sources is that the ancient Mayan religion was chiefly characterized by their belief in the concepts of astrology, divine prophecy/divination, and bloody rituals that involved animal as well as human sacrifices. We also know that the ancient Mayan people were worshipers of nature, and hence their gods, more often than not, stood for natural entities. This, so-called paganistic faith, was widespread within a number of indigenous kingdoms, before Christianity made its way into Mesoamerica. These indigenous kingdoms had their own set of local beliefs and customs, on which the Mayan religion came to be based. Hence, we also see certain variations in the faith as we travel further and further in Mesoamerica. Nevertheless, the basic foundation of the faith is the same throughout.
• In ancient Maya, the landscape that was given sacred connotations, played a crucial role. The entire topography of the earth was considered to be alive and animate. The topographic features, especially the caves, the mountains, and the water bodies were believed to be living entities participating in the day-to-day affairs of the human beings.
• The people of ancient Maya assigned the various topographical features of their landscape with specific functions.
• They regarded physical features such as mountains, valleys, caves, water bodies, etc. as divine entities and sometimes, also as their ancestors.
• There are numerous evidences of such landmarks in the Yucatán peninsula (modern-day southeastern Mexico), and also of numerous cenotes/wells of sacrifice across the region.
• One such sacred cenote is located at the Mayan pilgrimage site of Chichén Itzá, where solid evidences have been found of ritualistic human sacrifices in the form of skeletal remains.
• Owing to the Mayan concept of religious topography, there are also a large number of shrines built in caves, mountains, etc.
• Sacrifices, both animal and human, were central to the ancient Mayan religion. This does not mean that the religion was completely sacrificial in nature, but sacrifices seem to have been made in large numbers, in order to please the gods and to get a good harvest.
• Sacrifices, in the Mayan religion, were special rituals that were presided over by the Mayan priests. While the instances of animal sacrifices seem to have been more common than those of human sacrifices, there are clear evidences of the practice of ritualistic blood-letting by the humans. Blood meant life to the ancient Mayans and so, it was the most precious thing that they could offer to their gods.
• Generally, whenever the humans had to be sacrificed, it was the prisoners of war, children or devoted volunteers, who would be chosen. A recent study by the University of Yucatán shows that, contrary to popular belief, the sacrificed individuals were mostly young boys, and not virgin girls.
• Some ancient sources tell us about the entire process of the ritual of human sacrifice that was practiced by the ancient Mayans.
❝ First, a stone altar was prepared with a black polish applied to it. The person to be sacrificed, would be covered in blue paint and then, made to lie on his back on the altar. His ankles and wrists would be tightly clasped, so that he would not be able to move. In the sound of drums covered with deerskin, the high priest, dressed in a black robe, would strike the chest of the victim with a sharp, obsidian knife. The heart of the sacrificed individual, which would be still beating immediately after his death, would then be pulled out of his chest, and gifted to the gods.❞• Human sacrifices were performed in several other ways as well. According to some sources, individuals were taken to the top of the Mayan pyramids (which were their shrines), and then thrown down with force. This caused immediate death in most cases. Where the person did not die in the first attempt, he was again taken to the top and then thrown down for the second time. The process was repeated until the person eventually succumbed to death.
• In other instances, the Mayans also had their 'wells of sacrifice', as mentioned above. These were deep sinkholes, into which the victims were pushed and left to die in their watery graves.
• In ancient Maya, priesthood was a hierarchical institution. The entire setup comprised a community of professionally qualified individuals, who functioned as intermediaries between the common people and the gods.
• Complete knowledge of the art of reading and writing was the X factor of the priestly class, due to which they were held in high esteem, both by the common masses as well as by the royalty.
• They not only performed sacrifices and other sacred rituals, but they were also well-versed in the science of astrology, and made prophecies.
• Their main function was to keep and preserve detailed knowledge and records about the various gods and their cults. They were also required to be extremely well-acquainted with ancient historiography and lineages, especially of the ruling class.
• Mayan priests were usually male, except some rare instances of female priesthood, where the chief would be a princess from the royal bloodline.
• While the position of the high priest was governed strictly by heredity, the lower orders were not, and would be appointed by the high priest himself.
• We have ample evidences of priestly-looking Mayan statues. These are iconographically, ascetic figures that have been depicted reading and writing. However, in the absence of solid evidence, it is difficult to say if these are priests or royal scribes or whether the priests themselves functioned as royal scribes.
• The ancient Maya pantheon consisted of a plethora of gods and goddesses, each assigned with a defined role and function, which they needed to perform for welfare of the human race.
• The Mayan pantheon can be classified under six broad categories viz., the immortal deities, the ancestors, the mortal heroes, the animal persons, the malevolent spirits and spooks, and the lesser beings such as dwarfs and goblins.
• The immortal deities of the ancient Mayans were those natural entities on whom they most depended on. For instance, they worshiped Itzamna, the God of bountiful harvest. He was considered as the 'creator' in the Mayan mythology, and was associated with corn, their major crop. At the same time, the ancient Mayans also had personifications of sun, rain, moon, lightening, and so on.
• Ancestor worship was widely prevalent in ancient Maya. They believed in the eternal existence of ancestors, whose descendants they considered themselves to be. These ancestors were usually unknown individuals, having continuous residences in mountains and caves. Hence, not only the ancestors, but the topographic features were also venerated.
• The third in line were the mortal heroes. These were also ancestors, but their identities were known to the Mayans. They were venerated because of their heroic deeds. The best known of these heroes, are the twins named Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who have been regarded as the ancestors of the Mayan ruling families.
• The animal persons were the various 'sacred' animals, birds, and insects, who were represented with human attributes. They performed various humanly tasks. For instance, the Owl was the Messenger of the Lord of the Underworld, the Howler Monkey was a writer and a sculptor, the Jaguar was depicted as a high priest, etc.
• After the animal persons, were the various spooks, spirits, and demons, who were malevolent and extremely harmful in nature. They always landed humans into great trouble and hardship. However, the exact position of these beings in the Mayan pantheon is not very clear.
• At the bottom of the Mayan pantheon, lied the goblins and the dwarfs, who were often portrayed alongside the deities. These lesser beings, were both, benevolent as well as malevolent. However, in order to achieve their benevolence, they needed to be appeased.
• The people of ancient Maya believed in the concept of 'afterlife'. They considered it to be a dangerous journey of the soul through the Underworld, the most unpredictable place in the universe.
• It was believed that everybody who died, went to the Underworld, except the individuals who were sacrificed, and the women who died during childbirth.
• The Mayan rulers enjoyed a semi-divine status, and were considered to be venerable after the gods themselves. This seems to have been the very reason why they were buried under the colossal Mayan pyramids after their deaths, just like the gods had their shrines built on top of these edifices.
• For the Mayans, religion and science were one and the same. The famous Maya calendar, through which they attempted to predict the cycles of time, was based on this same belief. They also believed that the world was created five times, and destroyed four times.
• The principal reason behind their practice of ritual sacrifices was to bring fertility to the land. They believed that if the ritual was discontinued, the entire universe would in chaos.
• One of the important beliefs of the ancient Mayans pertains to the human soul. They believed that within every individual, there exists more than one soul. Moreover, when a person falls ill, one or more of his souls are lost.
• The sacred spaces of the ancient Mayans are characterized by three peculiar kinds of architecture. These include, ceremonial platforms, pyramids, and temples.
• The ceremonial platforms were specifically designed for public rituals. They were low, square-shaped platforms, constructed out of limestone. Often, they had altars on them, and were embellished with beautifully sculpted figures.
• The mighty Mayan pyramids are famous the world over. These are colossal, towering structures, some over 200 feet high. Some of them are tombs of the Mayan kings, while the others bear temples on top of them.
• Pilgrimage played a very important part in Mayan religion. Some of the major Mayan pilgrimage centers included Caracol (Belize), Tikal (Guatemala), Uxmal (Yucatán, Mexico), Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico), Chichén Itzá (Yucatán, Mexico), and Coba (Yucatán, Mexico).
• Mayan observatories also occupy a prominent place as far as the Mayan sacred spaces are concerned. Sometimes, circular shrines, dedicated to the Mayan deity, Kukulcan, are described as observatories. But again, there is no solid evidence to prove this. What we do know, however, is the fact that many features of the Mayan temples have been placed in such a way that they align with major celestial events. This also sheds light on their astronomical expertise.
• A ritual ballgame was played by the ancient Mayans during festivals and other religious events. Several ballcourts, where this game was played, have been found along the ancient Mayan landscape. These comprise narrow playing alleys located amidst two long, sloping walls, running parallelly. The usual custom was to sacrifice the individuals, who lost the game.
• Apart from the ones mentioned above, topographic features such as mountains, valleys, caves, wells, etc. also comprised Mayan sacred spaces.
In the recent past, attempts have been made to revive the ancient Mayan religion through a movement known as the Pan-Mayan movement, wherein they sought to reinvent the ancient Mayan traditions. Today, the mighty civilization that thrived in the rainforest of North America, still remains with us despite its downfall. Their awe-inspiring structures and other remnants continue to stand testimony for their unparalleled knowledge and prowess.