The Maya Religious Beliefs and Practices History

TheMaya Religious Beliefs and Practices


Inthe Mesoamerica, the Mayan civilization was among the most importantcultures. Due to their innovation, they were able to control most ofthe land stretching from the Central America to Southern Mexico.Their civilization was believed to have begun in the 250 AD anddeclined during the 1500’s, which some researchers believe was dueto the Spanish incursion. Even after its collapse a thousand yearslater, the Mayan domination and civilization pre-Colombian era, hasfascinated the world’s attention (Van Cott, 2005). They have had alasting impression on the world due to their numerous achievements inastronomy, math, religion, trade, and architecture. The Olmecsinfluenced the religion and culture of the Mayans. During the ClassicPeriod which was the first 650 years, their civilization was made upof over 40 cities spread across modern-day northern Belize,Guatemala, and Mexico.

Itis believed that at the peak of the Mayan civilization, thepopulation would have been at an estimated 2 million people with amajority habiting the modern day Guatemala. According toarcheologists they believed the cities were ceremonial centers asmost Mayans lived in a rural setting and practiced agriculture aroundthe towns(Coon, 2009). A while later after the 900 AD, there was adramatic decline in the Mayan culture, and most cities were deserted.Scholars attributed this decline to the loss of trade routes as aresult of the war. Depopulation was very high in the southern towns,but cities in the Yucatan peninsula such as Mayapan, Uxmal, Itza, andChichen continued to thrive. With the arrival of the Spanish in the“Post Classic Period,” the remaining Maya were conquered andconverted to Roman Catholicism (Fash, 2002).


TheMaya culture was highly sophisticated with a written hieroglyphiclanguage. Hieroglyphic texts were inscribed on books, stone monumentsor pieces of bone, and ceramics to recount ceremonies (Kennett &ampBeach, 2013). These documents described divination, astronomy, andreligion rituals and were imperative in learning the religiouspractice of this Mesoamerican culture. Most of the texts weredestroyed during the Spanish invasion because of their polytheistcontent of worship to many gods, but three central codices survived.The codices are named after the cities in which they are kept Paris,Madrid, and Dresden codices. The codex in Dresden it has an actualtable of the moon and Venus unfolding a technique of predicting thesolar eclipse. Other texts in existence are those written byknowledgeable Indians who summarized or transcribed Mayanhieroglyphics records in Latin script.

Abook written by Yucatec Maya, the Chilam Balam chronicled a mixedhistory of the Maya prophecy, divination, and myth. A different text,The Ritual of the Bacabs, illustrates medical incantations, religioussymbolism, and similar matters. Popol Vuh (1554-1558) is perhaps oneof the most famous Maya texts (Van Cott, 2005). It was written inQuiche a language native to the highland Maya and decoded intoSpanish by a priest. It tells of cosmology and mythology of the postclassic Guatemalan Maya and displays central Mexican influences. Itrecords the timeline of their rulers down to 1550, the Quiche peoplehistory and origin, their gods’ actions, and the formation of man.The Mayan texts were not viewed as authoritative or sacred inthemselves as compared to other modern religious texts, but rather asessential records of knowledge and religious rituals.


TheMayan religious beliefs were deeply entrenched in their society. Theybelieved that each year, month, and day was a load on the back of aparticular god. This determined the outcome of each day a day wouldeither be unfortunate or fortunate (Fash, 2002). With a harbinger ofeach year, month, or day a different god took on the burden. This waskept on track by the holy calendar that assigned each day to thegods. Human and animal sacrifices were a tradition ritual that wasfervently participated by the Mayans for the fortunes of good cropsand fertility. Sacrifices were also offered after a victory in thebattle to mark a celebration. Their sacrifices were very bloodyself-sacrifice was a familiar ritual of bloodletting that symbolizedcontact with their ancestor and gods (Van Cott, 2005).

Despitetheir rites illustrating some violence, they preferred a system thatwas orderly and controlled. The Mayans worshiped nature Chac wastheir god of rain he oversaw agriculture and fertility. Yumil Kaxobwas the god of maize he managed the drought and rain whichcontrolled the harvest. The Mayans believed in the afterlife that ifone died their soul moved on to the place of fright, Xibalba. Thecreation of the ancient Maya was made up of the earth, referred to asthe Kab this was the evident sphere to the Mayan. The sky above wasthe Kan, an ideal residence for the gods. A jaguar was the symbolicsign of Xibalba a realm with nine stages watched over by evil gods.Anyone who died during childbirth or offered as a sacrifice hadaccess to heaven. The caves were the only doorways to the Xibalbaaccessible from the living world.

Someof the Mayan traditions left a permanent impression on the modernworld with their religion. Sacrificial victims were offered to theMaya gods during important ceremonies the victim was held down on araised platform, and an incision made below the rib cage by a priest.The heart was ripped out from the victim and burned to serve asnourishment to the gods. It was their belief that if these ritualswere neglected chaos and cosmic disorder would result. Those offeredas a sacrifice to the gods were mainly the captives taken asprisoners from neighboring communities during wars fought. Throughhistorical texts, prisoners from neighboring villages were torturedand ritually sacrificed.


TheMaya practiced a custom of foretelling that concentrated on theirbroad knowledge of astronomy and intricate calendar systems. Thepriest was tasked with the responsibility of discerning the unluckydays from the lucky ones and advice on the same on waging wars,harvesting, and planting. The movement of the planet Venus was ofinterest as it was from its position among the celestial bodies theycould schedule for wars. From their trade, religion, andarchitecture, the Mayans seem to have grasped the concept ofMathematics. In their designs of buildings and trading, it wasapparent that they were knowledgeable in calculating numbers. Forsome figures, they had sacred meanings and others like 13 and 20 theywere associated with patron gods. They used their math to advancecyclical tables on the travels of stars and planets. They also didforetell celestial events far beyond and told of mythic events farback. It is through their mathematical system they created theircalendar and kept track on observation of the stars (Coon, 2009).

Inthe Mesoamerican culture, the greatest Mayan achievement would beclassified in the field of astronomy. With their naked eye, they wereable to manipulate astronomy. In an age when telescopes were noneexistent, they could predict the rise of the Pleiades, solstices, andequinoxes. The Mayans had two calendars through their knowledge andexploit of astrology, a solar and holy calendar. The purpose of thereligious calendar was to inform the Mayans of harvest times andreligious dates. It would provide them with a timeline on differentcyclical festivities for propitiating the gods of cacao, maize,fishing, or hunting (Fash, 2002). The calendar had authority over thelife of every Mayan from the high to the low in society determiningwhich god was to be worshiped and in charge of what day. The Mayanaristocracy who acted as mediators between the people and their godspracticed self-torture. More bloodletting was expected fromindividuals high up in the society. The blood was drawn through thepenis or ears, a jab on the spine, or through a thorn-studded corddrawn on the tongue.

Theblood was collected or spat on paper and offered to the gods. OtherMayan religious rites included prayer, dramatic performances, ballgames, competition, and dancing (Fedick &amp Demarest, 2007). In theMaya culture, marriage was a cause for celebration and religiousritual. Families in the same social class arranged marriages betweentheir children. The age for marriage varied but experts speculate thepractice was directly related to population decline and growth.During a population decline, the youths married at a younger age andat times were even matched while infants. The priest performed themarriage ceremony at the bridal home by burning incense. This was tobring a fortuitous marriage which was later followed by acelebration. If the couples deemed the marriage as not successful byeither party could divorce. It is fascinating that divorce was anacceptable action, but there is no known ritual on the same (Kennett&amp Beach, 2013).


Fash,W. (2002). Religion and Human Action in Ancient Maya History: Talesfrom the Hieroglyphic Stairway. CambridgeArchaeological Journal,12(1),5-19.

VanCott, D. (2005). Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Pioneersof Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. HispanicAmerican Historical Review,85(1),164-165.

Fedick,S. &amp Demarest, A. (2007). Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of aRainforest Society. LatinAmerican Antiquity,18(2),223.

Coon,J. (2009). Comments on Austronesian Nominalism: A Mayan perspective.TheoreticalLinguistics,35(1).

Kennett,D. &amp Beach, T. (2013). Archeological and environmental lessonsfor the Anthropocene from the Classic Maya collapse. Anthropocene,4,88-100.