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Maya Religion


MAYA RELIGION , like many aspects of Maya civilization, is part of a widespread and long-lasting tradition of belief and culture shared by numerous ethnic groups in Mesoamerica. Neighboring cultures with whom the Maya interacted throughout their history, including the Mixe, Zapotec, and Mexica-Aztec, shared numerous aspects of this tradition, and indeed Maya religion, particularly in its present-day forms among traditional communities in southern Mexico and Guatemala, is difficult to distinguish as a separate tradition within the greater framework of Mesoamerican theology. These cultures shared a distinctive pantheistic model of belief and a specific calendar system defined by important numerological and ritual cycles. Maya religion is distinct, however, in that archaeological and textual data extend the direct evidence of its history and practice back some two thousand years, thus providing a time-depth unlike that available for any other Native American religious tradition. The vast majority of such ancient sources date from the so-called Classic period (250850 ce), when particularly expressive religious monuments and inscriptions were widespread. In the post-Conquest world, Maya religion has adapted and transformed, adopting elements of Christian ideology while at the same time adhering to many ancient concepts and ceremonies. Today, political empowerment and activism by Maya in Guatemala, in particular, has led to the revitalization of native cultural identity; religious expression, often based on appropriated ancient symbols and idea, occupies an important place in this modern movement.

Cosmology and Deep Time

Numerous spatial categories defined the basic elements of Maya cosmology: prominent among these are the earth's surface (kab ), the sky (chan ), the sun (k'in ) and moon (uh ) and their recurring paths, caves (ch'een ), and mountains (witz ). These and a few other terms were the vocabulary of space and the cyclical processes that inhabited them. In the Classic period, the word that most closely translates as "world" or "universe" was chan ch'een, "sky-and-cave," which comprised the two vertical extremes of existence, above and below the earthly realm of everyday human experience, where various gods dwelled.

Mountains, caves, and springs are of special importance in defining Maya sacred landscapes. Among many traditional communities, mountains are seen as animate beings, sometimes as manifestations of the earth lord. Other individual mountains are seen to be localized gods or "containers" for important ancestral figures. Communication with ancestors and earth lords took place through caves, which have from the earliest times been important settings for Maya ritual.

The earth and sky share a fundamental quadripartite organization corresponding more or less to the modern notion of the four cardinal directions. According to some conceptualizations, the four points of the sun's emergence and entrance on the horizon at summer and winter solstice marked the division of space into four quarters: east (elk'in ), north (xaman ), west (ochk'in ), and south (nohol). Each direction was associated with its own color (red, white, black, and yellow, respectively), which corresponded to the basic color variations of maize grown in Mesoamerica. Several deities had directional aspects or manifestations and were colored accordingly, including the storm gods called chaak. Many temples and ceremonial plazas were built to evoke this four-part structure of the world, and such layouts of built spaces have persisted to this day. Sacred mountains were considered to be distributed in the natural landscape according to this four-part directional model.

Maya communities both ancient and modern are spatially arranged to evoke and reproduce certain aspects of cosmic organization. In pre-Columbian times the most prominent architectural form was the terraced pyramid, which clearly often served as an artificial ritual mountain. Buildings and architectural groups are often oriented toward important astronomical phenomena (such as the winter solstice sunrise, for example), and roadways entering towns were sometimes radiated out toward the four cardinal directions. Town centers were nodes of ritual activity due to their importance as cosmological centers.

Agriculture and the cyclical growth of human sustenance, based largely on maize, have left indelible marks on cosmological beliefs and Maya religion in general. The four colors associated with the cardinal directions in Maya cosmology (red, white, black, and yellow) find replication in the four principal varieties of maize. Maize, being the basic staple of the Maya diet throughout history, was also equated with the human body and its substance. Robert Carlsen and Martin Prechtel note in "Flowering of the Dead" (1991) that cycles of growth and harvest were and are seen as a general metaphor for human and universal patterns of change and regeneration, or what the modern Tzutujil Maya call jaloj-k'exoj, perhaps best translated as "change and renewal."

The ancient Maya made ample use of a complex calendar system that was shared to some degree among all Mesoamerican cultures. The solar year, computed as 365 whole days, was subdivided into a set of eighteen twenty-day "months," plus a remaining five-day liminal period (the xmak'abak'inob or "days without name" among the Yukatek Maya) associated with renewal. The months bore names suggesting that they were originally tied to important agricultural periods, but they also served as a basic framework for the scheduling of ritual festivals throughout the solar year. Running concurrently with this was a separate reckoning of days based on a 260-day cycle, wherein a given day was expressed as one of a set of twenty named days accompanied by a numeral coefficient of 113. Today this same calendar remains in use among conservative "day-keepers" in the highlands of Guatemala, where it is used in rites of divination.

A separate calendar system widely known as the Long Count operated concurrently with the 260-day and 365-day rounds described above. The Long Count was different in its structure, presenting a more linear reckoning of days by means of a place-notation arrangement that expressed an accumulation of elapsed days from a set starting point in the distant past. The temporal scope of the Long Count was therefore much greater than the 260-day and 365-day components of the Calendar Round. The three systemsthe Long Count, the 260-day round, and the approximate solar-year cycletogether constituted a triumvirate of calendars used throughout Maya history.

The standard Long Count has five units, each standing for a set period of time. These are, in increasing order, the K'in (the single day), the Winal (each equaling twenty K'ins ), the Tun (eighteen Winals, or 360 days), the K'atun (twenty Tuns, or 7,200 days), and the Bak'tun (twenty K'atuns, or 144,000 days). In writing Long Count dates in hieroglyphic form, the periods assume the opposite order, beginning with the Bak'tun and descending to the K'in. It can be seen that the system reflects the basic vigesimal (base-twenty) structure of Maya numeration, with larger periods composed of twenty units of the next lower period. The exception to this vigesimal pattern is the Tun, which is made up of eighteen Winals (360 days), seemingly so as to approximate the solar year of 365 days. In the notation system, a numerical coefficient was assigned to each of these units to convey a certain amount of elapsed time from a specific starting date. A comparison to an automobile's odometer is perhaps apt, for the Long Count represented a perpetual accumulation of days.

In most circumstances, the standard Long Count of five periods provided an adequate mechanism for the tracking of time, yet it was structurally limited for recording and computing very large numbers of days. In certain ritual or mythical texts, however, scribes felt the need to compute greater time amountssometimes much greaterand in these records and calculations they employed time periods above the Bak'tun. The standard five-part Long Count is, in fact, a truncated version of a larger system composed of at least twenty-five periods that can be called the Grand Long Count. The standard Long Count represents the last five positions in this much larger cyclical arrangement. Textual evidence now points to the existence of twenty-one periods in the complete Grand Long Count, the highest period being equivalent to 2022 Tuns (that is, 2022 times 360 days). The conception of linear and cyclical time encompassed within this system is truly vast, and of course dwarfs the age of the universe as presently understood by Western science.

Ritual texts describe gods performing rituals millions of years in the past, but they also consistently refer to a "change" in the cosmic order on the day 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u, corresponding to August 13, 3114 bce. This day, cited in numerous texts all over the Maya area, can rightly be called the traditional creation date in the ancient sources.

Creations and the Popol Vuh

According to two related ancient sources, the creation of the present era on saw the "placing in order" of various gods in the dark underworld. Another text on Stele C from Quirigua relates that a group of gods placed a set of three stones in the sky, reproducing the form of a domestic hearth. In many texts this particular location is described as being at "the sky's edge, the new hearth place." The establishment of the new cosmic order thus replicated the placement and dedication of a house, an idea that is no doubt based on the widely shared belief among Mesoamerican peoples that the sky is the roof of a vast cosmic house, with support posts corresponding to the four cardinal points.

The most detailed ancient sources for creation mythology are the extensive inscriptions from Palenque, Mexico. Inscribed wall tablets in numerous temples record primordial myths from the time of the creation, the most important being the birth of three sibling gods known to Mayanists as the Palenque Triad, who later play important roles as supernatural patrons of the royal dynasty of Palenque. Chief among these gods was the first brother, known today as GI, who seems to have associations with the rising sun and perhaps also to Venus as the morning star. According to one important inscription, GI was a king in the pre- era who oversaw the ritual sacrifice of a cosmological crocodile, perhaps a symbol of the earth. This act of sacrifice set the stage for the creation of a new era that saw the rebirth and reestablishment of a new cosmic order, with the Triad occupying a central role, at least at Palenque. Significantly, no other Maya kingdoms cite the Palenque Triad as a significant assembly of gods, suggesting the many communities had differing narratives of creation and the supernatural beings that participated in it.

Of all the primary written sources now extant, the most important is the Popol Vuh, or "Community Book," written by a Kiche' scribe probably during the mid-sixteenth century from an earlier pre-Columbian pictorial document. The manuscript was discovered in the early eighteenth century by Friar Francisco Ximénez at his parish in San Tomas Chichicastenango, Guatemala. His meticulous copy of the lost original is preserved today and is the source for several published versions and translations. Other accounts of world creation exist from other regions in the Maya area, but these are relatively short fragments for the most part; the Popol Vuh is truly epic in its scope and narrative.

Portions of the Popol Vuh clearly tell old and elemental stories of Maya mythology. It opens with an account of the "sowing and the dawning" of the world and its inhabitants, partly by two creator beings named Tz'aqol and B'itol, best translated as "Builder" and "Shaper," respectively. They act in concert with one another and with another more prominent creator being named Uk'u'xkaj, "Heart of the Sky," and together they create earth and the animals that roam it. The gods demand veneration from "the deer and the birds," but the animals cannot speak their names and worship them properly. In a series of trials and failures, Builder, Shaper, and Heart of the Sky therefore attempt to create humans, first with mud, then with wood. Before "proper" worshipful people are made, however, the story of creation shifts focus to the so-called Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These brothers defeat a series of malevolent figures, including the proud primordial sun, Seven Macaw, and ultimately through cunning, trickery, and athleticism they defeat the lords of Xibalba, the realm of death. The twins are then resurrected as the sun and moon. Once this celestial and moral order is established, Builder and Shaper once more attempt the creation of humanity.

The ancient sources repeat certain elements of this story involving the Hero Twinsthey are depicted in many examples of Maya art from a very early datebut creation narratives from Classic times suggest that several different accounts coexisted among various kingdoms. Palenque's complex mythological narrative, for example, is not found elsewhere, and it may well be that different ancient communities had different stories of sacred origin and creation.

Gods, Souls, and Concepts of the Sacred

There is good reason to believe that the Maya religion saw the "sacred" as a pervasive and unifying feature of their natural and domestic world; the universe possessed this concept of deity (k'uh ), but it was manifested most clearly and powerfully in specific places, objects, and individuals. This notion reflects a wider pantheistic organization of religious ideas within Mesoamerican philosophy. It is difficult to distinguish this widespread notion of "divinity" from the related notion that the natural and cultural worlds possess a pervasive vital essence that lends Maya religion a certain "animistic" quality.

The souls of humans are also expressions of this vital force. Recent ethnographic work has shown that complex concepts surrounding the human soul operate to orient human experiences and life events in a cosmological framework. Terms for the soul vary considerably from community to community, but there is a basic consistency to many of the ideas, which are also reflected to some degree in ancient religious texts and artworks. The well-studied soul concepts among the Tzotzil Maya of Zinacantan, Chiapas, Mexico, offer a good illustration of these ideas and how they help to explain a Maya conception of the sacred. In Zinacantan, humans possess two basic types of souls called ch'ulel and chanul. The ch'ulel is the animating life spirit of the individual that inhabits the heart and blood of the person, and it consists of thirteen parts. A ch'ulel soul can also inhabit nonhuman things and materials, such as musical instruments, crosses, and even salt, perhaps because these create important sensations (sound, emotion, and taste). The chanul is a person's animal alter ego, sometimes perceived through dreams. In Zinacantan, the animal souls of the community are closely guarded by ancestors called "mothers-fathers," who corral them within one of the important sacred mountains near the town. Both ch'ulel and chanul souls are key to understanding complex social relationships within the community. Through the chanul the ancestors exert powerful social and moral controls. As Evon Vogt states, "the most important interaction in the universe is not between person, nor between persons and objects, as we would perceive them; it is, instead, between the ch'ulel souls possessed by these persons and objects" (1976, p. 141). In ancient times, Maya kings derived much of their authority through their possession of an especially powerful ch'ulel soul, through which they expressed their divine role in the community and the cosmos.

The word ch'ulel derives from the word for god (k'uh, or its variant form ch'uh ), and the term was applied to many sacred entities or objects. Ancient sources contains images and references to a great variety of deities that ranged from animate natural forces to localized patron figures and deified ancestors. Indeed, in the Classic inscriptions the collective term for the multitude of supernatural figures was hunpikk'uh, literally, "the eight thousand gods."

For the Classic Maya, demons and fantastic beasts called way were considered personifications of disease and illness, images of which often decorated ritual ceramic vessels. These curious entities remain poorly understood, but they seem to have been important in complex ideas of witchcraft and its association with royal power. Individual dynasties and kingdoms appear to have had their own "patron beasts" that were important to the expression of supernatural prowess within and among communities.

Among the major gods are several animated natural forces, most prominent among them being K'inich Ajaw, the sun god, who occupied a celestial throne and may have had the feminine moon as his wife. Another was the maize god, who embodied the principal staple of the human diet in Mesoamerica and thus served as the focus of numerous cosmological and agricultural rituals. Chaak, the rain or storm god, had four aspects, each associated with one of the cardinal points. A more complex figure was K'awil, who is described as a god of agricultural fertility and sustenance at the time of European contact, but who in the more ancient sources from the Classic period seems to have also served as the embodiment of dynastic power and royal ancestry.

The god Itzamnah was the most prominent of deities at the time of the Conquest, and is described as the patron of learning, esoteric knowledge, and the arts. Classic period sources suggest that he was also a ruler of the celestial sphere, and he may well have been an aspect of the sun god who existed in the primordial time before creation. One of his principal aspects or manifestations was the Principal Bird Deity, a large bejeweled avian creature that perched atop the cosmic tree and served as an important symbol of rulership in the pre-Classic and early Classic periods. This bird is probably a distant ancestor of the solar deity named Seven Macaw, who plays an important role in the Popol Vuh.

Human ancestors often are active and important members of Maya communities, and in ancient times certain illustrious figures became the focal points of important ancestral "cults" heavily invested with political and cosmological symbolism. Perhaps the best known royal ancestor from the Classic period is the venerated king K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' ("Great Sun Green Quetzal Macaw"), who was the dynastic founder at Copan, a major Maya kingdom in present-day Honduras. He reigned at Copan in the early fifth century, when he celebrated the turn of the Bak'tun cycle ( in 435 ce. Over the next four centuries, later Copan kings declared themselves successors of the illustrious founder, and temples to him were continually refurbished and rebuilt over his resting place in the main acropolis. Excavations of this sacred axis mundi at Copan have revealed a series of superimposed buildings, ornately modeled and painted with iconography evoking the deified ancestor and his origin in distant time. All kings became divine ancestors upon death, and those who were more historically significant, such as "founders," came to be especially venerated.

In the ideology of Classic Maya kingship, the category of historical ancestors easily melded with gods and mythological characters of the very distant past. At Palenque, for example, late Classic rulers traced their political and religious authority not only to dynastic founders but also to semi-mythical beings that were said to live thousands if not millions of years in the past. For example, the king K'inich Janab Pakal (603683 ce) linked his accession in 615 to a deity who had assumed the status of rulership more than twenty-five million years in the past. Such like-in-kind juxtapositions of primordial time and human history were consistently featured in Classic Maya political ideology.

Ritual and Religious Specialists

The traditional keepers of religious and divinatory knowledge were named ajk'in, "he/she of the day(s)" or "day-keeper." This was sometimes simply translated as "priest" in colonial era sources, but the term was probably more specifically reserved for ritual specialists who possessed esoteric knowledge of the days and their varied meanings and prognostications. Today among the Kiche' Maya of highland Guatemala, for example, ajq'ij refers to priest-shamans who oversee rites of curing, marriage, death, and burial, as well as more mundane divination ceremonies. Given the complex social hierarchies of Maya communities throughout history, there were no doubt different categories of priests and religious officials at various times and places.

In the Classic period the ruler, or k'uhul ajaw (literally, "holy lord"), occupied the most prominent and public position in the religious hierarchy. Ancient Maya kings oversaw the passage of important stations in the long count calendar, and were even symbolically equated with the time periods themselves (all period endings in the Long Count calendar fall on the day named Ajaw, which also means "lord" or "king"). On these and other occasions rulers were said to "conjure" (tzak ) the spirits of ancestors and fertility, known generically as k'awil. This process, evidently achieved through bloodletting, was among the principal royal duties, and was made possible through the kings' special ability to wield a force known as "creation and darkness" (ch'ab ak'ab ). This enigmatic term probably relates to the widespread notion that birth and creation derive from "darkness," which then came to be embodied through the procreative powers of rulers in a cosmological setting.

Other rituals recorded in ancient inscriptions seem to have been anchored to political events like accession to power and anniversaries. Important rites included ceremonial bloodletting, incense burning, and dance, and in many ways these activities overlapped and occurred in combination with one another. Formulaic prayers and orations are today key aspects of ritual performance, as they were no doubt in ancient times as well. The ancient texts are also replete with records of dedication rites for temples and other important religious monuments or spaces. The ritual activation of a temple or house was called och k'ahk,' or "fire-entering," and presumably involved the placement of censers and other ritual fires within shrines and on interior temple floors. Such rites seem to be an obvious antecedent to house dedication ceremonies found among many Maya communities in modern times.

Religious Art and Architecture

Arguably all public art produced by the ancient Maya can be considered religious or ritual art in some sense. The ubiquitous type of sculpture from Classic period was the stele, an upright stone slab or column that typically bore hieroglyphic inscriptions and a portrait of a ruler engaged in ritual activities. Stelae were usually erected in the open plazas before pyramids and platforms, and served to mark important stations in the Long Count calendar or significant events of political history.

Maya cities of the pre-Classic and Classic periods were dominated by large ritual structures, often in the form of imposing pyramids. The remains of the largest pyramids are also the earliest, found at ruins such as Nakbe and El Mirador in present-day northern Guatemala, and dating from about 200 bce to 200 ce. These manmade mountains are in fact some of the largest structures ever built in pre-Columbian America. Their terraces were typically decorated with massive plaster sculptures of deities and cosmological symbolism, clearly marking them as microcosmic spaces. Later Maya pyramids at centers such as Uaxactun and Tikal were likewise conceived as replicas of cosmological structures, though at smaller but still impressive scales. Structures were often dedicated to particular deities or to venerated ancestors who were buried in their centers. The temples atop pyramids were often adorned with interior paintings, sculpted stone panels, or plaster decorations. Some contained inner shrines that held effigy figures of clay or stone, and the burning of copal incense was pervasive in such sacred spaces.

Revivalism and Modern Change

The process of conquest and conversion by Europeans began in the early sixteenth century, and today, after several centuries, most Maya would consider themselves devout Christians. Yet elements of pre-Columbian belief and religion have persisted, often interwoven and tightly integrated with old traditions of "folk Catholicism." Today a core of basic beliefs still exerts a strong presence in Maya spirituality, and these vary widely among the communities of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. In recent years, indigenous political movements, in Guatemala in particular, have led to more open expressions of non-Christian ideas long hidden from view, as well as the appropriation of ancient ideas and symbols. Maya religion is increasingly being portrayed as a unified and unifying cosmovision and ideology, different in some ways from its Classic period expression, but with roots nonetheless in the deep pre-Columbian past.


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