During my senior year in high school I researched the religion and philosophy of the ancient Mayan civilizations. The study was quite intriquing and worthy of more development than the nature of the assignment allowed. Because of a busy weekend I did not have time to finish my planned post, so I searched the archives and came across this paper. Unfortunately I cannot locate the bibliography. I really don’t expect everybody to read every word, but blessed be those who read and woe unto those who have succumbed to the age of sound-bytes and captions. Sorry about the guilt trip. Here goes.
Many different factors contribute to building and holding together a culture. Some cultures are formed by geography. Others might have a certain animal or pattern in nature that caused their formation. Few factors, however, form and bond a culture or people group the way philosophy and religion do. Religion allows the people in a culture to feel a sense of unity, which results in a tight knit bond. Religion also influences a culture’s social structure, economics, government, and the individual person’s daily life. This effect of religion is especially evident in ancient civilizations where religion permeated every part of the society. The Maya culture, originating in various parts of Central America, provides an excellent example of how religion shaped a culture and how even today, thousands of years later, the culture exists due to the tight bonding of religion. By studying Maya ideology, their gods, their rituals, and the Spanish conquest of the Maya one can see that because of a strong religion cohesively holding the culture together the Maya culture continues to function to this day in spite of all the foreign influences and opposition it faced over the years.
Time and order form the basis of Maya ideology. In fact they hold the credit for being one of the first civilizations with an accurate lunar calendar. Throughout their history the Maya saw the world as an ordered place. In many ways they also viewed the cosmos in cycles, and humans were just a part of those cycles. In the meantime the rest of the world keeps going and functioning. Robert Sharer states, “Order, the foundation of the Maya world, stemmed from the predictable movements of the ‘sky wanderers’, the sun, moon, planets, and stars that marked the passage of time” (qtd. in Callahan 1). Even when cataclysmic events occurred they still believed the universe function in a logical order. They could explain these omens of change through studying the stars. Through these astronomical studies they could not only say what was happening and why, but they could see how the order could be restored (Callahan 1).
Since humans are just a part of the ever-changing cosmos the Mayan religion is based on accommodating its people to the universe’s cycles (Hooker 1). According to Hooker the “Mayan religion grew primarily out of the milpas agriculture which required accurate predictions of time and accommodation to the cycles of life in the rain-forest” (1). The Maya also applied this belief in an ordered cosmos to their society. Callahan states that the Mayan religion’s “ideological function was to comfort individuals, unify the society, and justify wars and the authority of the ruling elites” (2). By explaining how everything and everybody had its place in the world the Mayan religion held its society and civilizations together in a tight-knit bond that was never broken even to today.
According to the Maya the gods made the earth from a watery void. The gods first created man from mud but they went back to mud. Next came wooden figures that the gods then destroyed. These were then replaced by men with flesh but these men were so wicked that the gods sent a flood to destroy them. After all this came true men, who were created from maize dough (Coe 35).
The Maya Popol Vuh creation myth claims that the world had several birth cycles and then was destroyed by a flood (Callahan 1). The Maya believed the earth was flat and thought of the earth as the back of a huge crocodile resting in a pool of water among water lilies. The sky, the earth’s partner, was viewed as a double-headed serpent. According to them the four huge gods called Bacabs hold up the earth at the four corners while four trees, each of a different color and species distinction, support the sky at the four corners while the green ceiba, a silk-cotton tree, supports the sky at the center (Civilization 1).
Heaven is viewed in terms of thirteen layers, and each layer has its own god. The god at the top of the heavenly layers is the maun bird, a screech-owl type bird. The Underworld has nine layers with a Lord of the Night governing each layer (Civilization 1). David Roberts, in an article for National Geographic says, “In the Maya cosmos, Xibalba is a complex realm, the dwelling place of monstrous supernatural beings but also the source of life-giving rain and corn, and the home of the beloved dead” (40). Caves and other holes in the earth allow entrance into this Underworld or Xibalba (Roberts 40).
Many myths and legends surround the Mayan religion. One of the most prominent Mayan myths is that of the Hero Twins. In fact Robert Sharer states, “the myth of the Hero Twins was one of the central axioms of ancient Maya life and ritual” (qtd. in Callahan 1). This myth highlights several core beliefs and commonly held philosophies of the Maya. The legend of the Hero Twins tells the story of two sons of a goddess who were very skilled at the traditional Maya ball game. The gods of the Underworld challenged them to a contest in Xibalba. There the twins were defeated, their bones ground up, and thrown into a river. They were first reborn as fish and then as performers traveling from place to place. They soon went back to Xibalba where they impressed the gods with their many skills. The gods were particularly pleased when the one twin cut off a god’s head and made him whole again. All the gods wanted to be dismembered and sacrificed in this way. The twins did dismember them but refused to restore them. Now that good had defeated evil the earth was prepared for humans. The legend also holds that the twins came back triumphantly from Xibalba as the sun and the moon. The Maya believe now that the sun reenacts this journey of the twins through Xibalba by passing “underneath” the earth every night and then rising triumphantly again in the morning (Roberts 46). To capture the importance of this story Robert Sharer says the myth “demonstrated how extraordinary humans could enter Xibalba, outwit the gods of death, and return, and thus was a metaphor for the greatest life force in the cosmos, the sun which emerges from Xibalba every morning” (qtd. in Callahan 1). This myth also reveals the strong dualistic theme of good versus evil that the Maya saw in the cosmos (Callahan 1).
The Maya Pantheon
Robert Sharer says this about the Mayan gods, “All things whether animate or inanimate were imbued with an unseen power” (qtd. in Callahan 1). Due to this view of everything as at least part god and their complex views of these gods the Maya pantheon is extremely complicated. The ancient Maya had at least one hundred-sixteen named deities and with a confusing conglomeration of others (Civilization 2). Mayan gods generally took the form of reptiles (Hooker 2). All of these gods had different aspects. Each god was made up of four individuals with different color distinctions (Coe 151). These gods manifested the strong dualistic theme of the Maya by having both their good sides and their bad sides (Hooker 2). They also showed by having a “counterpart of the opposite sex as consort, a reflection of the Mesoamerican philosophy of dualism, the unity of opposite principles” (Coe 151). Each of the astronomical gods, such as the stars and the planets, had an underworld variation as he died. This underworld variation just adds to the confusion of the different deities (Coe 151).
Even though the Maya had all these gods, evidence suggests that they believed in a supreme god above all others. There is some debate as to what god holds this position. In answer to this Michael Coe says, “While some Maya sources speak of a one-and-only god (Hunab Ku) who was incorporeal and omnipotent, the supreme deity was surely Itzamna (‘Lizard House’), pictured as an aged man with Roman nose in his codices, the inventor of writhing and patron of learning and the sciences” (152). The son of the aforementioned Hunab Ku, however, holds a very important position in the Mayan religion. This son Kukulcan ruled the western sky and was often associated with Venus because of his white purity. In their religion Kukulcan held the same position as Jesus would for Christians, Muhammad for the Muslims, and Buddha for the Buddhists. Not only did the Mayas worship Kukulcan, but they also believed that they needed to personally transform their lives to become or attain the likeness of him (Gilbert and Cotterell 207).
The Maya put heavy emphasis on nature being divine or having divine powers. This shows itself when one looks at their various gods. This is especially seen in the celestial realm. The Mayas believed that the celestial bodies were all deities. They further believed that their destinies were hinged upon these heavenly bodies (Callahan 1). Due to the importance of the sun, Ah Kincil, the Maya Sun God, may have been an aspect of the aforementioned Itzamna (Coe 152). As Ah Kincil disappeared into what the Maya believe to be the Underworld every evening, he became the Jaguar God (Coe.152). The consort of the Sun God was the Moon Goddess (Coe 152). The four Rain Gods, the Chacs, reside at the four corners of the world. These Chacs are manifested as thunder and lightning (Coe 152). The Mayas believe Death itself to be a god, one of the many gods of the Underworld. He is given various names such as Cumhan, Ah Puch, and Cizin (Coe 152).
Gods existed for almost every Maya occupation or part of Maya life. They had gods of the ruling the different classes and profession. Besides gods of the ruling class, soldiers and merchants “there were also patron deities of hunters, fishers, beekeepers, tattoo artists, comedians, singer and poets, dancers, lover, and even suicides” (Coe 153). This shows that the Maya not only believed in these gods, but it also shows that these gods were a huge part of everyday Maya life.
Not only did the Maya believe in all these gods, but they also practiced their beliefs through the many rituals they performed. These rituals showed their sincerity in their beliefs and their devotion to appeasing their many gods. These rituals held the Mayan religion together in such a cohesive bond by permeating every part of their lives that to this day that bond has not been broken. After studying various Mayan documents Michael Coe says, “From all of these documents it can readily be seen that Maya life was deeply imbued with religious feeling, and that ritual behavior gave meaning and a sense of security to all strata of Maya society” (149). In fact the famous Maya calendar came out of the need to know what rituals to perform at the right time (Hooker 1). Because the Maya have a god for almost every different occupation or part of life, they also have rituals for almost every part of their lives. Activities such as baptism, courtship, marriage, house building, illness, farming, and fiestas each have different rituals associated with them. These rituals are so much a part of Maya life that they believe the rituals hold the universe in balance (Stuart 175).
A large part of ancient Maya ritual was blood. Ronald Wright says it like this, “In Mesoamerican religion, human blood is the essence of life, the substance that informs the living realm and distinguishes from fleshless underworld and ethereal sky” (97). This blood sacrifice was also believed to hold the universe in balance (Callahan 1). Bloodletting was a major part of any sacred event. The Mayas believed that, in order to keep themselves and the gods alive, they had to give blood. In return for blood the gods gave divine power (Civilization 2). Social status played in heavily in the issue of bloodletting. The higher a person was socially, the more blood was required (Hooker 2). Due to their importance in the Maya religion priests were largely responsible for bloodletting. These priests and their wives collected blood by piercing various body parts with obsidian knives or stingray spines and collecting the blood to be offered (Hooker 2). Some ceremonies went so far as to demand the heart of someone to be cut out and burned in order to appease the gods with enough blood. According to Coe “human sacrifice was perpetrated on prisoners, slaves, and above all on children (bastards or orphans bought for the occasion)” (154). In these human sacrifices four old men call Chacs would hold the arms and the legs of the victim while another person called Nacom opened the breast and extracted the heart (Coe 153). Even though these bloodletting rituals were horribly grotesque, “they did at least keep alive the idea of personal sacrifice in the suffering they inflicted on themselves in the name of religion” (Gilbert and Cotterell 207).
Although human sacrifice and other bloodthirsty rituals hardly exist in modern Maya religion, many other rituals still do. For example the hetzmek assures an infants future. Another example is the Chachaac ceremony in which a priest leads a group of followers in prayer beseeching the rain god Chaac for rain (Stuart 147). These continuing rituals show that, despite thousands of years and much foreign influence, the Maya religion and its rituals have never been completely lost.
The Catholic Influence
The one event in history that threatened Maya religion and culture the most was the Spanish Conquest during the 1500’s. This conquest shook the very roots of the Maya religion and left an impact that drastically changed their religion forever. It did not, however, destroy the religion and ideology imbedded in them for these thousands of years.
Most of the Maya did not want to accept the Catholic religion but the Spanish missionaries were determined to Christianize them. The Maya were attracted to the ethical value they say in the Christian God’s teachings, but they were outraged at the wickedness and hypocrisy that they saw in the Catholic missionaries. They associated the “True God” with oppression because of the way the Spanish enslaved them (Wright 360). Tecun a Maya chief once expressed his outrage at the Spanish by saying, “For I do not wish to turn Christian, nor to be baptized, and I would rather die than renounce my faith. Tell all this to Don Pedro Alvarado…Oh! Wake, my country, wake, and from your volcanoes hurl fire, burn and destroy the conqueror who comes to put us in chains…. (Wright 154).
Despite this outrage at Spanish injustice many Maya eventually converted to Catholicism, or at least a form of Catholicism, due to continuing oppression and influence. Ronald Wright states that after the Spanish thought they had totally converted a group of Maya they awhile later to find that “candles were still being burned in caves, stone idols were being worshipped on hilltops, prayers were being offered to mountains, and the most important Maya god was not Jehovah or Jesus, but a figure enigmatically called Tioux Mundo or Santo Mundo, “World God”, or “Holy Earth” (178). Even though they claimed to be converts, many Maya merely integrated Catholic beliefs and practices into their established religion instead of rejecting their old beliefs for Catholicism like the missionaries would have wanted to see.
Roberts says, “After the Spanish conquest many Christian and Maya symbols were linked, creating a unique form of Catholicism” (42). This is true even today. In talking about this acceptance of Catholicism, Stuart states, “Prayers invoke the Holy Trinity – and deities known to the Maya before Spanish Conquest” (187). In a hetzmek ritual for Stuart’s son the person performing the ceremony prays that “the nine Lords would protect him – with the help of the Christian church” (Stuart 145). In the previously mentioned Chachaac ceremony the priest used a crucifix and frequently prayed to the Mother Mary (Stuart 173).
The Maya also equate important ritual days on their calendar with dates that Christians hold to be sacred (Stuart 187). These days include Good Friday and Easter (Stuart 173). In addition to accepting and integrating some sacred Christian days into their religion, the Maya also mix the Catholic God and important people into their modern pantheon. For example, the Maya’s Black Christ is a combination of Jesus and an ancient Maya god (Roberts 41).
As a direct result of the Mayan devotion to their gods, beliefs, and rituals their culture has stuck together from their days of glorious civilization, through the severe change the foreign invaders brought, to the modern culture seen today throughout Central America. Even though this invasion of the Spanish severely scarred Maya culture and religion, even now, hundreds of years after the conquest, the Maya culture continues to function. The thorough imbuing of religion gave a sense of unity to the society that was never broken. Religion was even involved sporting activities. For example, their traditional ball court was seen as a conflict ground between Xibalba and the world (Callahan 1). Their view of the world affected the ways they acted and lived. Their gods gave them something higher than themselves to live for and believe in. These beliefs were then lived out in their many rituals. Then, even when cataclysmic events such as the conquest occurred and changed most of their society, they could still bond together through religion.
Personal News Bulletin: I spent yesterday at an extended family reunion in Sugarcreek, OH due to a cancelled youth canoe trip. I had fun even though the overall showing was rather weak compared to the amounts back in the glory days of the event. Times change.
Joe Mullet, a preacher from Ohio, gave a series of lectures/messages on Jewish history and culture at our church part of this week. I’m personally quite interested in the subject and tremendously enjoyed the sessions. Someday I just might produce a post about the topic. Maybe.
To my father and all you fathers out there I wish God’s blessing and a belated Happy Father’s Day!
Coming Next Week: Canine Chronicles