Maya Religion

Maya Religion

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Maya religious beliefs are formed on the notion that virtually everything in the world contains k'uh, or sacredness. K'uh and k'uhul, similar terms which are used to explain the spirituality of all inanimate and animate things, describe the most divine life force of existence. Maya belief establishes the creation and sanctity of human beings, the earth, and all things sacred. This divine sanctity can be translated into Maya creation myths as well.

The Maya Creation Myth

Before explaining the Maya creation myths, it is important to understand the difference between the two sources that the Maya creation stories have been found in. These sources include the Popol Vuh and the Books of Chilam Balam. The Popol Vuh is associated with the highland Maya of what is today Guatemala. It contains text about human creation, prophecies, and traditional myths and histories. The Books of Chilam Balam are normally associated with the lowland Maya of the Yucatán area of Mexico. There are several books of Chilam Balam which are named for the area in which they were written. The most famous and influential books include the books of Chumayel, Tizimin, Mani, Kaua, Ixil, Tusik, and Codex Pérez. The books are written by a Jaguar priest, a literal translation for Chilam Balam. These books date to colonial Spanish times, circa 1500s CE, and there is a clear influence of Spanish colonialism on the creation stories of the Chilam Balam.

For the Maya the creation of the earth is said to have been a deed of Huracán, the wind and sky god. The sky and earth connected, which left no space for any beings or vegetation to grow. In order to make space, a Ceiba tree was planted. The tree grew roots in all the levels of the underworld and its branches grew into the upper world. The tree trunk grew to leave space on earth for animals, plants, and humans. According to Maya belief, animals and plants were extant before humans. The gods were not satisfied with only the animals because they could not speak to honor them. From there, humans were made in order to honor the gods.

The Many Epochs of the Maya

According to Maya texts, thus far, there have been three creations. Two of these creations have ended or, in other words, the creatures have been destroyed. There are many variations of the three creations. Some have been influenced by Christianity, however, the basic events of the creations are detailed in the following explanation from the Popol Vuh of the highland Maya.

Built from Mud

The first creation saw the people who were made of mud. The mud people were not the most productive as many were not able to think in the capacity that modern-day humans do and, according to Maya sacred texts, these men “spoke but had no mind.” They could not move because they were made of mud and they also were not technically mortal. The gods were not happy with their first creation, so they destroyed the mud people with water.

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Built from Wood

For the second creation, the deities made men from wood and women from reeds. These people could function as humans do, but had no souls and did not honor the gods. They were also immortal. When they died, they only remained dead for three days and would rise from the dead. The destruction of the tree men and reed women was caused by an inundation of boiling hot water. The few who may have survived this apocalypse are thought to have become the monkeys that exist today.

Built from Maize

The third creation saw the birth of modern-day humans. These humans are made of white and yellow maize dough and the blood of the gods. The first humans were four men and four women. These men and women were deemed too wise by the gods. The Maya deities believed these intelligent humans were a threat to their authority and almost destroyed them as well. However, Heart of Heaven (also known as Huracán, but in the creation story he is the Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth, or Heart of Sky) clouded their minds and eyes so that they would become less wise.

The most important concept to understand about Maya religious belief is that time and the creation of humans are thought to be cyclical.

The different Maya groups believe in a variety of creation myths. The most important concept to understand about Maya religious belief is that time and the creation of humans are thought to be cyclical. This means that some Maya believe that contemporary humans will be destroyed and another creation is imminent. However, this does not necessarily equate to the popularized notions that the Maya believed in an “end of the world” event. Belief in the end of humanity isn't the end of the world, it is the end of an era and, perhaps, the beginning of a new epoch of the gods.

The gods destroyed the different versions of “humans” because they either could not or would not worship their creators. This is a crucial consideration for the gods. They could not afford to have creations which were unworthy and incapable of providing sustenance to the gods.

Major Maya Gods & Goddesses

Typically, Maya gods are fluid and have diverse personalities. This sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish one god from another. However, it may be simpler to keep in mind that although the Maya deities are numerous, the most consequential gods sometimes morph with the less notable gods and share characteristics of both deities. The incorporation of connectivity in Maya culture, not surprisingly, applies to Maya deities as well. Some deities even have conflicting personality traits.

The multiplicity of the deities' personalities are furthered by their appearance. Many gods are an amalgamation of a human and particular animal. They are also associated with different cardinal directions and an individual god's importance can vary depending on historical context. This fluidity is precisely why scholars refer to some Maya deities with the letters of the Latin alphabet.

Itzam Ná & Ix Chebel Yax

Itzam Ná is the god attributed to creation. Not much is known about him and the same can be said of his counterpart, Ix Chebel Yax. Itzam Ná is often depicted as a squinty-eyed, long-nosed old man or sometimes even an iguana. Ix Chebel Yax was the wife of Itzam Ná and is also depicted as an iguana. Both she and Itzam Ná are considered to be high in the hierarchy of gods. The spelling of their names can vary, as can the spellings of many Maya names can.


Huracán, another significant Maya god, is often referred to as the Heart of Heaven, Heart of Sky, or Heart of Earth. While there is not much direct evidence about Huracán being the supreme creator god, the Popol Vuh does imply in one of its prayers that Huracán is a “giver of life.” The same prayer also refers to Huracán as the Heart of Heaven and Earth, which also suggests his importance as a creator. Due to the fluidity of Maya gods, it's not vital to make an absolutely clear distinction between the creator gods. Having said that, however, Huracán is typically associated with the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. The Quiché believe that Huracán formed the earth and created it for humans. He, too, formed people by making them out of maize dough and is lord of fire, storms, and wind.

K'inich Ajaw

K'inich Ajaw (pronounced Ah-how), sometimes known as God G or Kinich Ahau, is the “Sun-faced Lord.” K'inich Ajaw is typically portrayed as rising or being born in the East and aging as the sun sets. This fierce sun deity would then turn into a jaguar and become a war advisor in the underworld. The sun deities are both worshipped and feared because, while they offer the life-giving properties of the sun, they can sometimes provide too much sun and cause a drought.

Hun H'unahpu

The maize god, Hun H'unahpu, is perhaps the most important of the celestial beings as well. Also referred to as God E, Hun H'unahpu is considered to be the creator of modern humans by the lowland Yucatec Maya. This is because his maize and blood are what made humanity possible. He is a symbol of life and fertility and is portrayed as a young, long-haired man.


Chak, the seeming counterpart of K'inich Ajaw, is the rain god or God B. Chak is both part human and part reptile and he is usually shown with a lightning bolt, a serpent, or an axe. This fearsome god sometimes is shown painted in blue and with snake-like whiskers protruding from his face. The Maya believe that Chak lived in caves where he would make lightning, thunder, and clouds. Chak, too, was both feared and worshipped. He brought the needed rains for the people, but also produced floods, threatening lightning, and behaved much like a wild storm. He also demanded blood sacrifices in payment for the rains that he provided.


God K, or K'awil, is the keeper of the scepter. He is predominantly the protector of the royal line and is known for being linked to lightning as well. He is usually pictured with a piercing of a smoking torch or a grisly axe blade. In addition to his frightful piercings, he also has a snake as one foot and an upturned snout for the other. K'awil is credited with discovering cocoa and maize after striking a mountain with one of his lightning bolts.


Kisim, or God A, is known as the “flatulent one.” Don't let the humorous name fool you, though. This deity is a terrifying god of death and decay. Kisim has been portrayed as a veritable decomposing skeleton or zombie. Sometimes, Kisim was accompanied by an owl. In Maya belief, owls are messengers of the underworld.

Ix Chel

God O, or Ix Chel, is the goddess of rainbows. While rainbows may symbolize goodwill in western culture, Ix Chel should not be confused as a god of goodwill. The Maya actually believe that rainbows are the “flatulence of demons,” and bring bad luck and disease. Ix Chel also represents these things because of her association with rainbows. In her typical form, Ix Chel is a fanged, clawed, and dilapidated crone. However, in conjunction with the duplicity of Maya beings, Ix Chel also has a more benevolent form. She occasionally represents fertility and childbirth and, in these contexts, she is pictured as youthful and beautiful.

The Hero Twins

Finally, the legend of the Hero Twins entails the adventures of two brothers, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, through the underworld. The legend, chronicled in the Popol Vuh, begins with the conception of the brother-gods. The Twins' father was the god Hun H'unahpu. Hun H'unahpu and his brother were lured to the underworld to be sacrificed through decapitation. However, because Hun H'unahpu was immortal, his decapitated head survived and turned into a fruit on a tree. Hun H'unahpu's fruit head spit into the hand of the goddess Xquic, who ultimately gave birth to Xbalanque and Hunahpu, the Hero Twins.

The twins faced many challenges, but the most epic story is of their journey through Xibalba (pronounced Shee-bahl-bah), the Maya underworld.

The twins were summoned to the underworld after playing a raucous and loud ballgame above the heads of the lords of Xibalba. The lords challenged the twins many times, but through wit and cunning, the twins were able to best the lords of Xibalba. Xbalanque and Hunahpu grew tired of the endless challenges and devised a way to escape the underworld. They disguised themselves as travelers and entertained the underworld gods with tricks and games. The lords were so impressed with their trick of bringing a person back to life after they were sacrificed that they asked the twins to sacrifice them and bring them back to life. However, instead of bringing the gods back to life, the twins left them dead and made the underworld a place for the wretched. The Hero Twins and the lords of Xibalba now reside in the night sky as stars. Kings were thought to follow the trials of the Hero Twins after their death and make their journey to the heavens or upper world.

There are many more celestial beings, but the aforementioned are those which occur most frequently. They can come in many forms and their multiplicity is a pillar of the connective ideals of Maya religion.

Heaven, Hell, & The Cardinal Directions

Contrary to contemporary western ideas of heaven and hell, the Maya believed in different levels of these realms. There are three main areas to distinguish from one another, however. The Maya understand supernatural levels not as heaven and hell, but as the upper world, middle world, and underworld.

The upper world consists of thirteen levels, the middle world is one level, and the underworld is nine levels. The Ceiba tree is believed to grow through all of the realms, from the highest level of the upper world to the lowest level of the underworld. The Ceiba tree is vital to understanding the importance of the cardinal directions in the Maya world.

Maya deities, in particular, are linked to the cardinal directions. While we are familiar with the four cardinal directions, the Maya understood that there were five elements to the cardinal directions, the four directions and the center. Arguably, the most meaningful cardinal direction to the Maya is the east. The east is where the sun rises and it is associated with birth because of the Maya belief that the sun is born daily from the east.

These principles were also part of Maya daily life. Homes were designed to reflect the cardinal directions and the Ceiba tree. The Maya even built hearths at the center of their homes in order to represent the Ceiba-tree center of the cardinal directions.

Maya Rituals

The Maya participated in various religious rituals. Not all of these were related to human sacrifice, although sacrifice was a common practice in religious ceremonies. Contrary to popular belief, ritual sacrifice was not restricted to the gruesome death of a poor captive. While this did happen in the Maya world on a few occasions, it was a relatively rare occurrence. By far the most common sacrifice ritual was bloodletting.


Bloodletting is precisely as it sounds, the spilling of blood as a practice of sacrifice. In the case of the Maya, bloodletting was constrained to the royal line. The gods demanded blood because of the initial creation where the gods spilled their blood in order to give life to humanity. Also, but not as often, bloodletting was performed in order to communicate with ancestors.

The practice of bloodletting marked significant dates in the Maya world. Royals participating in the practice would spend, sometimes, days performing purification rituals in order to prepare for bloodletting. Both men and women of royal lineages were expected to perform these rituals. Maya kings and queens would participate in varying forms of bloodletting, even making sacred tools to perform the ritual. Blood was usually taken from different parts of the body with specialized tools designed to produce more blood and perhaps more pain as well. The tools were typically made of stingray spines and adorned with different glyphs to show their religious significance. One frightful instance of sacrifice noted by Rubalcaba described how women, typically royal women, would use a thorned rope to pierce their tongue and draw blood to scatter over Maya icons. Men, on the other hand, would do the same, except on the penis rather than the tongue.

The practice of bloodletting would often serve to commemorate and sanctify important events such as births, ascents to the throne, and anniversaries. On the other hand, human sacrifice was reserved for the greatest Maya events.

Human Sacrifice

While wars were usually fought for reasons other than religion, when wars did occur, religion would become involved. Oftentimes, shamans or priests would help plan war strategies. A war priest was called a nacom. The Maya would often combine aspects of warfare and religion. Typically, this was in the form of taking prisoners for sacrifice.

Sacrifices were important in keeping the gods satisfied and were also vital in ensuring a military victory. When a king or queen would ascend to the throne and a political prisoner had been captured, they would commemorate the life-altering event with a human sacrifice. Typically, these prisoners would be royals or elites of an enemy state. The most high-up royals were saved for the sole purpose of recreating events from the Popol Vuh.

These sacrifices were performed in many ways, but there were three methods that were most common. The first method was through decapitation. The next method was the popularized method of removing the heart from the living person. The final, most popular, method was to throw a living person into a cenote, or natural well, as an offering to the gods.

Other Offerings & Rituals

While the most prevalent ritual associated to the ancient Maya is the practice of sacrifice, they also performed other kinds of rituals. Not all Maya offerings were so bloody and gruesome. While they may not seem quite logical to westerners, the alternative offerings do provide interesting ways to communicate with and satisfy the deities.

One rather startling and overlooked means of communication with the gods involved lowering children into cenotes. Children were placed in the wells in order for them to speak to the god or gods. After a few hours of being in the well, the children would be retrieved so that the message from the deities could be heard. Of course, the Maya also participated in offering to the gods precious items such as jade, gold, masks, shells, carved human bone, and ceremonial or sacred tools.

Marriage was another religious ritual and a cause for celebration. Maya marriages were typically arranged marriages within the same social class. Age at the time of marriage varied, but experts speculate that the marriage age was related to population growth and decline. When the Maya population declined, youths would marry at a younger age. Couples would be matched at a very young age, sometimes even when they were infants.

Marriages were performed by priests at the bridal home. Priests would burn incense to bring a fortuitous marriage and then a feast or other type of celebration would ensue. If the marriage was not deemed successful by either husband or wife, the couple could “divorce.” There is no known ritual for divorce, but it is intriguing that divorce was, more or less, an acceptable action.

Dance is another overlooked ritual. Dance rituals were performed to communicate with the gods. The dances would feature lavish costumes which depicted the visages of divinities. Often the Maya would wear or include ornaments such as staffs, spears, rattles, scepters, and even live snakes as dance aids. The Maya believed that by dressing and acting as a god, they would be overtaken by the god's spirit and therefore would be able to communicate with him or her.

The ancient Maya maintained a complex religion. The multifaceted gods and rituals have even persisted in today's Maya culture, however syncretized they have become. Their ideologies of creation, sacrifice, sacredness, and multiplicity are key to understanding the 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 (250 – 850 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.

Maya civilization

The ancient Maya believed in recurring cycles of creation and destruction and thought in terms of eras lasting about 5,200 modern years. The current cycle is believed by the Maya to have begun in either 3114 B.C. or 3113 B.C. of our calendar, and is expected to end in either A.D. 2011 or 2012.

Maya cosmology is not easy to reconstruct from our current knowledge of their civilization. It seems apparent, however, that the Maya believed Earth to be flat and four-cornered. Each corner was located at a cardinal point and had a colour value: red for east, white for north, black for west, and yellow for south. At the centre was the colour green.

Some Maya also believed that the sky was multi-layered and that it was supported at the corners by four gods of immense physical strength called "Bacabs". Other Maya believed that the sky was supported by four trees of different colours and species, with the green ceiba, or silk-cotton tree, at the centre.

Earth in its flat form was thought by the Maya to be the back of a giant crocodile, resting in a pool of water lilies. The crocodile's counterpart in the sky was a double-headed serpent - a concept probably based on the fact that the Maya word for "sky" is similar to the word for "snake". In hieroglyphics, the body of the sky-serpent is marked not only with its own sign of crossed bands, but also those of the Sun, the Moon, Venus and other celestial bodies.

The image of the human face emerging from the jaws of the serpent is a recurrent theme in Maya art. In this case, however, the sculpture of the feathered serpent is a later (Toltec) addition to the Maya geometric mosaic design - part of an elaborate frieze on the West facade of the "Nunnery" at Uxmal.

Heaven was believed to have 13 layers, and each layer had its own god. Uppermost was the muan bird, a kind of screech-owl. The Underworld had nine layers, with nine corresponding Lords of the Night. The Underworld was a cold, unhappy place and was believed to be the destination of most Maya after death. Heavenly bodies such as the Sun, the Moon, and Venus, were also thought to pass through the Underworld after they disappeared below the horizon every evening.

Very little is known about the Maya pantheon. The Maya had a bewildering number of gods, with at least 166 named deities. This is partly because each of the gods had many aspects. Some had more than one sex others could be both young and old and every god representing a heavenly body had a different Underworld face, which appeared when the god "died" in the evening.

Glyph from Palenque representing a Maya deity

Some Maya sources also speak of a single supreme deity, called Itzamná, the inventor of writing, and patron of the arts and sciences. His wife was Ix Chel, the goddess of weaving, medicine and childbirth she was also the ancient goddess of the Moon.

The role of priests was closely connected to the calendar and astronomy. Priests controlled learning and ritual, and were in charge of calculating time, festivals, ceremonies, fateful days and seasons, divination, events, cures for diseases, writing and genealogies. The Maya clergy were not celibate, and sons often succeeded fathers.

All Maya ritual acts were dictated by the 260-day Sacred Round calendar, and all performances had symbolic meaning. Sexual abstinence was rigidly observed before and during such events, and self-mutilation was encouraged in order to furnish blood with which to anoint religious articles. The elite were obsessed with blood - both their own and that of their captives - and ritual bloodletting was a major part of any important calendar event. Bloodletting was also carried out to nourish and propitiate the gods, and when Maya civilization began to fall, rulers with large territories are recorded as having rushed from one city to the other, performing bloodletting rites in order to maintain their disintegrating kingdoms.

    For the Maya, blood sacrifice was necessary for the survival of both gods and people, sending human energy skyward and receiving divine power in return. A king used an obsidian knife or a stingray spine to cut his penis, allowing the blood to fall onto paper held in a bowl. Kings' wives also took part in this ritual by pulling a rope with thorns attached through their tongues. The blood-stained paper was burned, the rising smoke directly communicating with the Sky World.

Human sacrifice was perpetrated on prisoners, slaves, and particularly children, with orphans and illegitimate children specially purchased for the occasion. Before the Toltec era, however, animal sacrifice may have been far more common than human - turkeys, dogs, squirrels, quail and iguana being among the species considered suitable offerings to Maya gods.

The shaman is about to perform a cha-chac ceremony: a petition to the god, Chac, to send rain.

Priests were assisted in human sacrifices by four older men who were known as chacs, in honour of the Rain God, Chac. These men would hold the arms and legs of a sacrificial victim while the chest was opened up by another individual called a nacom. Also in attendance was the chilam, a shaman figure who received messages from the gods while in a trance, and whose prophecies were interpreted by the assembled priests.

    (left) Public performances of ritual dancing and dramas, in which kings and nobles were transformed into gods by entering a visionary trance, were another means of communication with the spirit world. Marked by singing, the playing of musical instruments, and the shouts and jeers of thousands who came to witness the event, these rituals reaffirmed the king's power to act as a vessel in bringing supernatural powers into his domain for the benefit of his people.
    (right) This tiny figurine shows a ball player. The ball game is symbolic of the life-and-death battle that took place during the third creation. The floor of the court represented the earth's platform, which separates the human world from the Underworld. It was the gods who determined the winners of the ball game, just as they decided who would be victorious at war. (Photo courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologiá e Historia)

The Maya believed that when people died, they entered the Underworld through a cave or a cenote. When kings died, they followed the path linked to the cosmic movement of the sun and fell into the Underworld but, because they possessed supernatural powers, they were reborn into the Sky World and became gods. Death from natural causes was universally dreaded among the Maya, particularly because the dead did not automatically go to paradise. Ordinary people were buried beneath the floors of their houses, their mouths filled with food and a jade bead, accompanied by religious articles and objects they had used when alive. The graves of priests contained books.

Great nobles were cremated - a practice of Mexican origin - and funerary temples were placed above their urns. In earlier days, nobles had been buried in sepulchres beneath mausoleums. Some Maya even mummified the heads of dead lords. These were then kept in family oratories and "fed" at regular intervals.

Following the Spanish conquest, there was a great deal of overlap between Maya and Catholic belief systems. Some archaeologists have suggested that the systems were similar in many respects: both burned incense during rituals both worshipped images both had priests both conducted elaborate pilgrimages based on a ritual calendar.

Two ceramic censers, used for burning incense at Maya religious ceremonies. That on the left represents the god Chac, holding a human heart in his left hand and a drinking cup in his right. (Photos courtesy of the Instituto Nacional de Antropologiá e Historia)

Most Maya today observe a religion composed of ancient Maya ideas, animism and Catholicism. Some Maya still believe, for example, that their village is the ceremonial centre of a world supported at its four corners by gods. When one of these gods shifts his burden, they believe, it causes an earthquake. The sky above them is the domain of the Sun, the Moon and the stars however, the Sun is clearly associated with God the Father or Jesus Christ. The Moon is associated with the Virgin Mary.

Many Maya are convinced that the mountains which surround them are analogous to the ancient temple-pyramids. Mountains and hills are also thought to be the homes of ancestral deities: elderly father and mother figures who are honoured in the home with prayers and offerings of incense, black chickens, candles and liquor. In many Maya villages, traditional shamans continue to pray for the souls of the sick at mountain shrines. The Maya also believe in an Earth Lord - a fat, greedy half-breed who lives in caves and cenotes, controls all waterholes, and produces lightning and rain.

There is also a supernatural belief in the spirits of the forest. Some villages today have four pairs of crosses and four jaguar spirits or balam at the village's four entrances, in order to keep evil away. In agricultural rites, deities of the forest are still invoked, and it is still believed that evil winds loose in the world cause disease and sickness.


Maya Religion - History

Believing that Maya studies today are "suffering from imbalance," J. Eric S. Thompson here approaches Maya history and religion from the standpoint of ethno-history. Present-day archaeologists often tend to restrict their curiosity to their excavations and social anthropologists to observe the modern Maya as members of a somewhat primitive society in an era of change. In this volume, a distinguished Maya scholar seeks to correlate data from colonial writings and observations of the modern Indian with archaeological information in order to extend and clarify the panorama of Maya culture.

The shock of the Spanish Conquest was devastating to the Maya. Not only were they placed under the domination of a people uninterested in their ancient ways, but their religion was proscribed, they were removed from their familiar settlements into new areas, and new diseases were introduced which ravaged their civilization. In spite of these ordeals, the Maya have clung closely to the old ways, and Maya culture is still very much alive, though slowly giving way before modern technology and influences.

Topics discussed include Putun Maya expansion in Yucatan and the Pasión drainage, the depopulation of the Maya Central area at the time of the Conquest on account of newly introduced diseases, the location of the controversial eastern boundary of the Maya area, trade relations between the highlands and the lowlands, the use of hallucinatory drugs and tobacco, lowlands Maya religion, and the creation myths of the Maya in relation to those of other Middle American cultures.

Mr. Thompson's approach to Maya life will prove thought-provoking to archaeologists, ethnologists, historians, and all others interested in the ancient Maya civilization.

J. Eric S. Thompson, one of the world's foremost Maya scholars, is a veteran of archaeological field expeditions to southern Mexico and Central America. Associated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington for many years, he now lives near Cambridge, England, where he continues his investigations of Maya hieroglyphic writing. He is the author of A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs and Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction, both invaluable tools for Mayanists. His other books include The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, the classic account of the prehistoric Mayas, and Maya Archaeologist, the delightful story of his archaeological adventures. All are published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Meaning of Maya: Astronomers, mathematicians, agronomists, philosophers, artists, architects, sculptors and warriors – the Maya of old were a rich, complex society that continue to fascinate.

Their stunning accomplishments are still evident today: it was they who first cultivated chocolate, chilli peppers, vanilla, papayas and pineapples. The Maya built causeways and reservoirs, created great works of sculpture and art, carved fantastic jade masks and wove rich colorful textiles. They also developed sophisticated mathematical systems complex, accurate calendars and perfectly proportioned buildings of immense size and beauty. Much of this while Europe remained in the Dark Ages.

In the modern world, observers continue to comment that Maya culture will soon disappear. Roads and cars have made their world smaller seaside resorts such as Cancun attract hoards of camera-clicking foreign daytrippers and television brings cosmopolitan Mexican and North American programs into remote villages. But the Maya have always been resilient. Their history has reinforced a pattern of community-based culture – with pride and respect for tradition. Their communal society has adapted modern means to preserve the Maya culture and language. Besides, they’ve had nearly 475 years to practice survival skills under pressure – and even longer before that.

The rise of the first civilizations in Mesoamerica took place in what’s called the ‘Preclassic period’ (ca. 1500 B.C.-A.D. 250), with several different peoples in several different areas of Mexico and Central America – the Zapotec of Oaxaca, the Olmec on the Gulf coast and the Maya in the lowlands and highlands of Guatemala and Mexico, ideal crossroads on the huge land bridge between the Americas.
Powerful kings who were both rulers and high priests had direct responsibility for the ordered world of the Preclassic Maya. The success and power of their rule was in a direct relation to the kingdom’s military strength. Inter-city rivalries were common and, if defeated, the high-living royalty often met ignominious sacrificial ends.

By A.D. 400, complex writing and regional trade had developed and some impressive capital cities had been built. El Tigre, the largest single Maya temple ever built, was constructed at El Mirador, an important Preclassic city a few kilometers south of the Mexican border in the Pet‚n region of Guatemala. The Maya civilization waxed and waned during three periods archeologists have distinguished as Preclassic, Classic and Post Classic.
The end of the Preclassic period may have come about with the eruption of a volcano in 250 A.D. in El Salvador that spewed ash over much of the southern Maya area. Loss of agriculture and commerce in the south increased the importance of the lowlands of the Yucatan in the north, thus be getting new power bases and new glory days of Maya civilization.

The apex of Maya growth and prosperity occurred during the time A.D. 250-900. The Early Classic (A.D. 250-600) saw the rise of city states of Tikal and Calakmul – who struggled with each other for control of the lowlands. Calakmul eventually defeated Tikal but was unable to exert power over more territory, losing its chance to rule the world. The Early Classic period gradually slid into the Late Classic period (A.D. 600-800). The Classic age is considered to be the peak of Maya civilization with advanced building styles and carved stone records called stelae. Large ceremonial city centers were built that included massive stone pyramids, ballcourts and platform temples. Tikal reemerged as a powerful city of as many as 40,000 people over six square miles – a population density comparable to an average city in modern Europe or America.

But for reasons not fully understood – drought and overpopulation are two theories – the Classic kingdoms began to lose their luster. The last hundred years of this time are known as ‘Terminal Classic’ and, as the name implies, marked the demise of the era. Maya kings’ influence over the population declined, indicated by the halt of ceremonial construction, and by A.D. 900, with no more dated religious stelae carved in Tikal, it was a clear end of the epoch. The great mystery is why. That question lured the Yucat n’s first tourists, John Lloyd Stephens, a self-taught American archeologist, and Frederick Catherwood, an English sketch artist experienced in architectural drawing, to explore the ruins of southern Mexico. They set out in the midst of social and civil war and recorded 44 abandoned ruins. Stephens wrote two books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucat n (1843), which launched the archeological search for the Maya past.

Of his first visit to Uxmal he wrote: ‘… emerging suddenly from the woods, to my astonishment came upon a large open field strewed with mounds of ruins and vast buildings on terraces and pyramidal structures, grand and in good preservation, richly ornamented, without a brush to obstruct the view, in picturesque effect almost equal to the ruins of Thebes.’ Stephens was one of the first who correctly surmised that the ancient cities of the Maya world were built by the native people still living there and not some mysterious Egyptian or lost European race.

Cities that reached their prime during the Classic period – Palenque, Tikal, Uxmal, Cob , Edzn and Copan – are often thought of as the cities of the ‘lost’ Maya civilization. No one knows exactly why these great metropolises were suddenly abandoned – forfeited to the jungle – beginning in the ninth century. However, the beginning of the end of the Classic period did not mean the complete end of Maya culture. Other cities rose to take their place.

Into the vacuum caused by the demise of the Classic kingdoms came outside invaders into the land. The lowland Maya were partly conquered around A.D. 850 by the militaristic Toltec peoples from the highlands of central Mexico and the Itza , a Mexicanized Chontal-Maya tribe perhaps from Tabasco. The capital they occupied and built in mixed-architectural-style grandeur was centrally located Chichen Itza in northern Yucatan. The foreigners brought with them their fierce warrior ways, blended religion and influences from central Mexico, such as the cult of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzalc¢atl or Kukulcan).

No other deity-personage ever created a deeper impression on Mesoamerican people than Quetzalc¢ atl (‘Snake of Precious Feathers’ or ‘Plumed Serpent’). The Maya origins of the legend begin with the Toltec civilization in Mexico’s central valley around the mid 900s. Topiltzin, a young Toltec prince, entered the priesthood of the ancient god of civilization and fertility, Quetzalcoatl. As was the custom, he assumed the name of the deity. He became a great leader and spurred the Toltec to new heights of civilization. His name became inseparable with the legend. But a power struggle with other lords forced him into exile. Maya records indicate that Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcan as they called him, invaded the Yucatan and may have ruled at Chichen Itza . Legends of his ‘death’ vary, but all state that he would return to vanquish his enemies. The vague date indicated was 1-Reed, the anniversary of his birth in the cyclical calendar. This was the sword of Damocles that hung over the Aztec, the civilization that had succeeded the Toltec by the time Cortez landed in 1519 – the year of 1-Reed.

The most beautiful bird of Central America is the Quetzal very rare, especially in the Yucatan. Its long, brightly colored tail feathers could be worn only by Maya royalty and it was forbidden for anyone to kill one. Their non-flight feathers were plucked and then they were released to grow new ones.
The Yucatecan Maya despised the Itza Maya and referred to them with such epithets as ‘foreigners,’ ‘tricksters and rascals,’ ‘lewd ones,’ as well as ‘people without fathers or mothers,’ in surviving Maya chronicles. The Itaz ruled the Yucatan from their centrally located capital until the city fell to warriors from a rival city, Mayapan, in A.D. 1221. In what may sound like a plot from Shakespeare, the ruler of Chichen kidnapped the wife of the king of Izamal. Izamal’s main ally was the opportunistic king, Hunac Ceel, of Mayapan. His warriors drove the Itza from Chichen and the victorious city of Mayapan became the new center of civilization. But Mayapan was in turn sacked and abandoned in a civil uprising around A.D. 1440 after a later Cocom king apparently tyrannized his people. The revolt, lead by a prince of the Xil family, slaughtered him and his family. One son, away on a trading mission, survived. In an ironic twist of fate, one of his descendants would wreak terrible revenge on all the Maya people nearly 100 years later.

In 1536, after the Spanish had been initially driven out of most of the Yucatan, the ruler of the Xil at Mana decided it was a good time to offer thanks to the gods at the Cenote of Sacrifices in Chichen Itza . Nachi Cocom, the great grandson of the surviving Cocom son, granted the Xil ruler safe passage through his province on the way. He entertained the 40-man travelling court for four days until a banquet on the last evening, when he and his warriors suddenly turned and butchered their Xil guests. This treachery caused a civil war between the two most powerful kingdoms in the Yucatan. Luckily for the Spanish, when they returned in 1540 they found a Maya empire divided against itself.

There’s an interesting sidelight to the fall of Chichen Itza in 1221: Surviving Itzas fled south and settled on an island in the middle of Lake Peten in Guatemala. They founded a city known as Tayasal, now named Flores. This isolated Itza kingdom remained intact until 1697 – over 450 years after their defeat at Chichen and 150 years after the Conquest – when a Spanish naval force finally destroyed the last of over 3,000 years of Maya high civilization.


Mayan ceremonies are usually led by the high priests. For instance, the ceremony of Ya’axche’ is one of the most sacred Mayan ceremonies and is performed by highly qualified priests. Ya’axche’, in Mayan mythology, represents the centre of life on earth, the connection between heaven, earth, and the underworld. This symbol of life and of the planet earth has its roots in all the levels of the underworld, with its branches reaching to heavens. In other words, this is one of the most important cosmic concepts in Mayan spirituality and thus the ceremony associated with it is highly regarded.

The Mayan Calendar

What we call the Mayan calendar is actually a set of three interlocking calendars, the sacred calendar of 260 days called the Tzolkin, the solar calendar of 365 days known as the Haab, and a Long Count calendar of much longer time periods. When the Mayans inscribed a date on a temple wall or a stone monument, they wrote the date using all three calendar notations. Every 52 years, the Tzolkin and the Haab come back in sync with each other. This was called a Calendar Round.


The Tzolkin or sacred calendar consisted of 20 periods each with 13 days for a 260-day count. Each day had a number and a name, the numbers from 1 to 13 and 20 day names. When the 13 numbers were gone through, they began again, and the 20 day names continued. When the day names were gone through, they repeated, and the numbers continued up to 13. The cycles of 13 and 20 repeated until they came back to the first number, first name again in 260 days. The priests who kept the calendars used the Tzolkin to determine days for sowing and harvest, military triumphs, religious ceremonies and divination.

The solar calendar or Haab has 365 days made up of 18 months of 20 days each, which adds up to 360 days. The remaining five days at the end of the year is an unlucky, dangerous time known as the Wayeb. Mayans stayed home and neglected all activities during this time to avoid disaster. In the Haab calendar, a day is represented by a number in the month, then the name of the month. There were 19 month names, plus Wayeb for the dreaded five-day month, making 20 month names.

Long Count Calendar

In order to keep track of longer periods of time, the Mayans used the Long Count calendar. The Long Count counts all the days since the beginning, which the Mayans marked as August 11, 3114 B.C. The Long Count calendar is cyclical as each period of time will begin again, but it is also linear. Because it is linear, it can take into account dates far in the future or in the past. The basic unit of this calendar is the tun, a year of 360 days, the basic Haab year without the five-day Wayeb. Long Count dates are expressed in five digits. The five digits represent a kin (day), uinal (month), tun (year), katun (20 years) and baktun (20 katuns).

Mayan Dates

Most Mayan dates note both the day of the Tolzkin and the Haab calendar. For instance, a day may be marked as 2 Chik’chan 5 Pop, with 2 Chik’chan being the date in the Tzolkin calendar and 5 Pop the date in the Haab, being the 5th day of the month Pop. The next day would be 3 Kimi 6 Pop. When the Mayans inscribed a date on a stela, however, they also included the five digits of the Long Count calendar. Thus January 1, 2000 would be written 11Ik 10 K’ank.

Creation Story of the Maya

The Popol Vuh, or Popol Wuj in the K’iche’ language, is the story of creation of the Maya. Members of the royal K’iche’ lineages that had once ruled the highlands of Guatemala recorded the story in the 16th century to preserve it under the Spanish colonial rule. The Popol Vuh, meaning “Book of the Community,” narrates the Maya creation account, the tales of the Hero Twins, and the K’iche’ genealogies and land rights. In this story, the Creators, Heart of Sky and six other deities including the Feathered Serpent, wanted to create human beings with hearts and minds who could “keep the days.” But their first attempts failed. When these deities finally created humans out of yellow and white corn who could talk, they were satisfied. In another epic cycle of the story, the Death Lords of the Underworld summon the Hero Twins to play a momentous ball game where the Twins defeat their opponents. The Twins rose into the heavens, and became the Sun and the Moon. Through their actions, the Hero Twins prepared the way for the planting of corn, for human beings to live on Earth, and for the Fourth Creation of the Maya.

Our Creation Story teaches us that the first Grandparents of our people were made from white and yellow corn. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.” Juana Batz Puac, K’iche’ Maya, Day Keeper

Maya Empire for Kids Religion

The Maya believed in many (many!) gods. They believed their gods could help or hurt them. They worshiped their gods every day. Religion was at the heart of everything they did.

Gods lived everywhere, but especially in the heavens. The Maya believed in a heaven, an earth, and an underworld.

Heaven was the home of the gods. A piece of the heavens was reserved for the Maya afterlife. They believed their ancestors lived in this little piece of heaven, but kept a watchful eye on their relatives still alive on earth. The poor buried their dead under the floor of the house, to make it easier for their ancestors to know what was going on. Nobles were buried in tombs, but they too believed that their ancestors watched over them.

The Maya also believed in an underworld. This was the Place of Awe. The Maya underworld was not a good place. It was a place where demons lived. If the Maya people did not worship in the right way, the demons would be released and able to leave the underworld and attack the Maya people. This was a huge fear. The Maya held many religious ceremonies to make sure the demons and other evil creatures who lived in the underworld stayed in the underworld. Priests wore masks and costumes at these religious ceremonies to scare the demons. They wanted to appear stronger and more fierce than the demons, so the demons would stay away.

No women in the Maya world ever looked in a mirror. It was too dangerous. The Maya believed that creatures from the underworld could reach through a mirror and yank you into the Place of Awe. Men would look into a mirror as an act of courage.

Maya History and Religion

Believing that Maya studies today are "suffering from imbalance," J. Eric S. Thompson here approaches Maya history and religion from the standpoint of ethno-history. Present-day archaeologists often tend to restrict their curiosity to their excavations and social anthropologists to observe the modern Maya as members of a somewhat primitive society in an era of change. In this volume, a distinguished Maya scholar seeks to correlate data from colonial writings and observations of the modern Indian with archaeological information in order to extend and clarify the panorama of Maya culture.

The shock of the Spanish Conquest was devastating to the Maya. Not only were they placed under the domination of a people uninterested in their ancient ways, but their religion was proscribed, they were removed from their familiar settlements into new areas, and new diseases were introduced which ravaged their civilization. In spite of these ordeals, the Maya have clung closely to the old ways, and Maya culture is still very much alive, though slowly giving way before modern technology and influences.

Topics discussed include Putun Maya expansion in Yucatan and the Pasión drainage, the depopulation of the Maya Central area at the time of the Conquest on account of newly introduced diseases, the location of the controversial eastern boundary of the Maya area, trade relations between the highlands and the lowlands, the use of hallucinatory drugs and tobacco, lowlands Maya religion, and the creation myths of the Maya in relation to those of other Middle American cultures.

Mr. Thompson's approach to Maya life will prove thought-provoking to archaeologists, ethnologists, historians, and all others interested in the ancient Maya civilization.


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