Mayan religion beliefs

USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences
May 16, 2018 – 05:43 pm
Mayan Religion and Culture

While spiritual practices of the modern day Maya have incorporated aspects of Roman Catholicism due to Spanish influence, much of the ancient religion remains unclear. For one, we do not yet have a strong understanding of ancient Mayan religion through an ideological basis. What is left of any religious documents suggest that it was highly ritual based. The destruction of most written Mayan texts by Spanish settlers, as well as the erosion of hieroglyphic inscriptions from the stone fixtures they are found on, limits the number of sources that could offer information on Mayan religious beliefs and practices. Fortunately, some insight into the religious practices of the ancient Maya does exist.

The Mayan religion is based around rituals and practices passed down from their predecessors. They believed that every part of the world contained some sort of soul. Essentially, every part of the natural world was alive, containing its own manifestation of the divine. Houston asserts that the Classic Mayans believed that everything was living; statues were living aspects of their gods, hills could sprout eyes, and that doorways were literal mouths capable of speech (1999). However, unlike Roman Catholicism, there is no unifying belief system embodied in a book or creed (Maya Religion). Instead, religious practices are localized and carried out in slightly different fashions in different regions. Some higher-level religious figures do exist, such as oracles or shaman, who interpret the wishes of the gods. These individuals often lived in remote caves, and the common peasants would make long pilgrimages to hear the will of their gods. The rulers of the Mayans were also essential figures of the religion. Kings were either viewed as demi-gods themselves, or care-takers of the gods. Large temples were constructed in order to tend to the needs of the gods, or even physically house them. In some regions, rulers would sometimes ascend into the temple, and return wearing god-like masks and painted cloaks. They would then dance and perform religious ceremonies, essentially becoming the god and giving it a physical form. (Houston, 1999). Additionally, as care-takers of the gods, the elites bore most of the responsibility for repaying the gods for giving the Mayan people their physical form. Repayment came in the form of praise, dance, incense and most importantly, blood. Blood-letting was a common practice among Mayan elites. The individual would cut him or herself (sometimes on the genitals) and allow the blood to spill onto paper. The paper was then burned so that the blood would rise to the gods. The other major form of giving blood was through sacrifice. The highest form of blood sacrifice was the torture and killing of enemy elites (Houston, 1999). The following image is a painted mural found in the Temple of Murals at the Mayan site of Bonampak.


It depicts the torturing and killing of captive enemy warriors. Behind the mural, archaeologists found a headless skeleton, adorned with jade earrings and a jade necklace (Roach 2010). This implies the torture and killing of an enemy elite as a sacrifice to the gods.

Mythology of the American Nations: An Illustrated Encyclopedia Of The Gods, Heroes, Spirits, Sacred Places, Rituals And Ancient Beliefs Of The North ... Indian, Inuit, Aztec, Inca And Maya Nations
Book (Lorenz Books)
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