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Mayan Cosmology and Religion

The Maya thought that the ancestors, spirits, and deities not only inhabited the Underworld, but also the Upperworld and the Middleworld (Earth). In the Middleworld, the supernatural beings claimed geological features as their own and the pyramids that humans constructed for rituals. Those structures bridged the gap between the sacred horizontal space outward and upward across vertical space.

Sacred Spaces and Levels of the Cosmos

Traditional Maya religion is often referred to as costumbre, the 'custom' or habitual religious practice. For the most part, Maya religion is really a complex of ritual practices; the Yucatec village priest is simply called jmen 'practitioner'.

The Fourfold Cosmic Order

The Horizontal spaces of the Maya cosmos formed a quadripartite hierarchy, four quadrants dividing a central axis, also the center of the world, or the mythical Ceiba Tree, “World Tree”. Each quadrant corresponded to the Pawahtun gods, a four fold deity, also called the Bacabs that stood at each of the corners of the cosmos and held up each of the three realms, and ruled the last days at the end of the year. The Pawahtuns, the equivalent of Atlases to the Greeks, are often incorporated into Mayan architecture, such as at Chichen Itza, where the Pawahtuns support thrones, altars, and temple roofs. Each of the four cardinal directions also corresponded with a specific color, tree, and bird. East, the direction of the rising sun, possessed the color red. North symbolized the direction of the ancestors and death, identified with the color white. West pointed to the setting sun, and the horizon of the Underworld, designated by the color of black. South signified the right hand of the sun, containing the color yellow. The center of the axes symbolized the world of Maya and the World axis, corresponding to the color green. The center also closely related to the green corn fields of the Maya farmers. The contemporary Yucatec Maya still continue to summon the benevolence of the ch’a chak rain deity, asking for rain to nourish the maize crops at a wooden altar adorned with four posts signifying the four cosmic supports. Arches of saplings bend over the altar mirroring the Milky Way streaming through the night sky (The Cosmos), the altar being the flat earth beneath. The arches might also dually represent the ecliptic path of the Sun, Moon, Planets, and stars arching across the sky.

The Great Ceiba Tree

The concept of the quadripartite order, or the “Quincunx”, represented a fundamental theme in Maya cosmology, often pictured as a cross. The center, or axis mundi, housed the great Ceiba tree. The celestial bird Itzam-Ye, or the principal bird deity, sat in the branches of the axial tree. The branches extended up into the heavens, the trunk pierced through the earth and sent roots digging down into the Underworld; thus, the supernatural energies of the three charged vertical realms continuously flowed along the living axis of the world through the Tree’s body. The tree allowed the souls of humans to pass into the Underworld and the gods, when summoned by priests, to pass into the Middleworld. The pyramid temples the Mayans built replicate the cosmological function of the sacred primordial tree.

The quincunx structure also translated to smaller human scale vernacular architecture. The commoner’s houses lay supported by four poles representing the Bacabs or Pawahtun deities that held up the three separate cosmic realms. A fifth central pole served as the cosmic axis mundi or the ceiba tree. At the center, the Maya built a domestic hearth by laying out three stones in a triangular arrangement, a configuration also related to three stars that formed a triangle in the nocturnal sky. The center of the triangle in the sky also mirrored the central hearth of the home, a cosmic hearth of the ancestors residing up in the celestial heavens.

The Nocturnal Skies of the Serpents

The ecliptic path that every celestial body traced across the sky represented a bicephalic serpent (double headed serpent) to the Maya, and is reinforced in Maya speech, as “kan”, both means “sky” and “snake, in Yucatec, “Chan” in Cholan Mayan. The Mayans, like the Aztecs, probably divided the heavens into thirteen different tiers. The Maya believed that the movement of the planets and stars in the heavens revealed the actions and activities of the deities in the Upperworld. The dead also traveled to the Upperworld via the Milky Way.

The Maya regarded Venus, in contrast to Western society, as the bringer of war rather than peace, a powerful and potentially dangerous element in Mayan astrology. Rulers timed military campaigns around the appearance of Venus in the sky after planetary inferior or superior conjunctions. Scribes inscribed the glyph of Venus in reference to the campaigns. Given the auspicious nature of war, dead warriors went to the paradise of the Upperworld along with women that died of childbirth rather than the dismal Underworld.

The Underworld: Xibalba

Most scholars postulate that the Maya divided the Underworld into 9 levels, called Xibalba by some Mayan accounts, a watery place through which two rivers flowed. The Mayans thought the Underworld lay accessible only through caves or natural springs, “cenotes”, which housed special generative powers, but at the same time harbored forces of frightful decay and disease. Those who died peaceful deaths went to the dreaded Underworld of Xibalba.

The caiman, or crocodile that inhabited the cenotes, metaphorically reinforced the cosmic order for the Maya as well. The Maya thought the rough back of the reptile appeared uncannily like the cracked surface of the earth, the dry soil farmers worked and plowed to cultivate. Another metaphor consisted of the giant turtle swimming in the cosmic ocean. The uneven shell of the turtle paralleled the earth; the pawahtun or bacabs that help up the sky, earth, or underworld, sometimes wore turtle shells on their backs. The Maya associated the stars of Orion’s belt in the night sky instead with a turtle, a feature that observers could glimpse at midnight on the ending of a special cycle of time called a k’atun.

Homes of the Gods

Through architecture, the Mayans sought to recreate the geological landscape of the natural world, thereby reconnecting the people to the gods, spirits and ancestors through communal spaces. Often, the Maya tried to reconstruct the mountain homes of the gods, spirits and ancestors, and the original place of the maize corn through pyramids. The word “witz” in Mayan means both mountain and pyramid. The top temple of the pyramid called the “k’uh nah”, symbolized the home of the principle god. The Maya also considered the pyramids “living beings” or the “stone ancestors” that took the form of zoomorphs in Maya art, monsters with eyes, muzzles, mouths, and ear ornaments. Also called the Monster Mountains or “witz” zoomorphs, the beings often accompany markings resembling bunches of grapes and clusters of small circles. The word, “tun”, associated with the witz, means stone.

Witz monster mask diagram

One such witz monster occurs at Palenque in the Usamacinta region. The pyramid-temple, or the Temple of the Foliated Cross, houses a large tablet carved with a relief image depicting King Kan B’alam II, standing on top of a zoomorphic head. The foliage, resembling the leaves of corn plants, sprouts from the cleft forehead of the monster under the weight of the King’s heavy foot. Hieroglyphs in the creature’s eyes label the monster as a witz, or mountain monster. The relief cleverly integrates the King’s divine participation into the sacred landscape of the city through the iconography of the witz monster and the myth of the primordial corn mountain.

The Maya tried to incorporate cave systems underneath pyramids, which the Maya considered important portals into the sacred mountains, the natural womb of the earth that birthed the first human beings of the world. The tomb underneath the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque that housed the body of the king Hanab Pakal, is a cavelike funerary crypt that recreates the Underworld of Mayan cosmology below the pyramid. Another architectural practice incorporated natural caves underneath the temple, such as at Chichen Itza, in the northern Yucatan, under the High Priest’s Grave. The cave appears to have been a ritualistic center long before the temple was ever built. A vertical shaft with narrow toeholds descends into the cave from the pyramid. Another such cave exists under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, a lobed cave that represented the cave of human origins.

The Pyramid of the Magician in the northwestern Yucatan, houses an interior that metaphorically represents a cave. A mask ornament forms the mouth of the monster around the entrance leading into the interior of the “architectural mountain,” (the pyramid).

Pyramid of the Magician

The Zinacantecos Maya still believe that the ancestral spirits of the caves and mountains possess powerful healing powers. On certain ceremonial days, the Zinacantan Maya Indians visit mountain shrines to cure sick loved ones. A shaman chants at the crosses erected at the shrines, people place fresh pine boughs and flowers at the crosses, light candles, pray, and drink local rum to petition ancestors for curative blessings.

In the tablets of the Cross Group at Palenque, the association of the World Tree icon with the central ruler, Kan B’alam, emphasized the belief among the Maya that the ruler served as a conduit much like the Ceiba Tree, through which supernatural energies flowed to all the other realms of existence. Maya Kings, priests, and elites claimed to possess the same powers of shamans, able to speak with spirits and attain shamanic travel and spiritual transformation through induced trances.

Modern Mayan Shaman blessing child at Tikal

Vortices of the World

The axis mundi of the earth, such as caves, crevices, wells, and pyramids or mountains, pierced all tiers of the cosmic fabric. If a shaman stood over one of the axis mundi, the shaman gained the ability to not only see visions of the other realms but actually could shift into the Underworld or Upperworld through soul companions. A ritualistic dance complete with musicians, dancers and attendants, enabled the cosmic matrix of the other realms to open up. The shaman also ingested hallucinogenic plants, fasting, or bloodletting, allowing the mind to enter into dreamlike states. It is thought that in those states a Shaman “went out of mind”, and the body of the Shaman acted as an empty host to which spirits might enter and speak to the people of the earth.

In other instances, the shaman could insert themselves into another way, or soul companion, depending on the ritual. Animals often served as the soul companion, such as a jaguar, mostly reserved for the most elite, such as the king. The hieroglyph denoting the wayob, plural for the soul companion, is comprised of a stylized human face partially covered by a jaguar skin. As a jaguar companion, shaman-rulers might confront celestial forces, engage in battles, or guard the Middleworld from malevolent forces. The shaman represented a vital link in spiritual communal life amongst the Maya people; shamanic experiences allowed the earthly limitations of humanity in the Middleworld to be uplifted and diminished.

Souls of the Otherworld

Today, the traditional Mayas believe in the existence, within each individual, of various souls, usually described in quasi-material terms (such as 'shadow', 'breath', 'blood', and 'bone'). The loss of one or more souls results in specific diseases (generically called 'soul-loss', 'fright', or susto). In Classic Maya texts, certain glyphs reference the souls. Much more is known about the so-called 'co-essences', that is, animals or other natural phenomena (comets, lightning) linked with the individual, usually a male, which also provided protection. In some cases, often connected to black sorcery, one can change into co-essences or 'werewolves'. Among them were spook-like creatures, but also violent stars.

Face of the Jaguar God

Unlike the gods of disease and death, spooks, or apparitions, and demons possessed little legitimacy. Spooks did just that, spook people or in other words, scared away one of the souls, causing soul loss and thus disease, in contrast to the spectres of the dead; demons instead devoured people. In practice, however, the borderline between demons and spooks can be thin.

One of the best-known spooks is an attractive woman maddening the men who give in to her lures (known in Yucatec as the xtabay 'Female Ensnarer'). Spooks of the Tzotziles include such figures as the 'charcoal-cruncher', the 'one who drops his own flesh', and 'white-bundle'. The boundary between spooks like these and the wayob of the Classic period is not always entirely clear. The principal demon of the Tzotzil area is the 'Black-man' (h?ik'al), a kidnapper and rapist. An ancient Mesoamerican bird demon, which the Popol Vuh called Vacub Caquix, severed the limbs of victims, a well known spook since Preclassic Izapa. It is thought that kings took on the shape of spooks and demons to frighten enemies. Bush spirits (such as the 'Wild Man' or Salvaje) belong to the frightening denizens of uninhabited areas.

Jaguar Nenufar

To the present day, the Maya believe in the continual presence of the '(grand)fathers and (grand)mothers', the usually anonymous, bilateral ancestors, inhabiting specific mountains, expecting offerings from descendants. In the past, too, the ancestors played an important role, with the difference that, genealogical memory and patrilineal descent remained a powerful obsession among the nobility. The Popol Vuh lists three genealogies of upper lords descending from three ancestors and wives. The first male ancestors - ritually defined as 'bloodletters and sacrificers' – originally received private deities in a legendary land of origins called 'The Seven Caves and Seven Canyons', Tulan or Nahua Chicomoztoc and left sacred bundles to the gods. In Chiapas at the time of the Spanish conquest, the people thought that lineage ancestors emerged from the roots of a ceiba tree long ago; the Tz’utujiles possess similar beliefs today.

Around 1500, notable Yucatec families enclosed the cremated remains of men in wooden effigies placed on the house altar, and ritually left food offers on festive occasions; alternatively, according to accounts by de Landa, the people built a shrine and placed the remains in an urn within the temple. In the Verapaz region, the people placed a statue of the dead king on the burial mound, establishing a place of worship to the king. In Classic courts, tombs are found integrated in the residences of the nobility, and, in the case of royal families, in funeral pyramids. Apart from the ancestral remains themselves, the Maya often left sacred bundles beside the ancestors. Reliefs from the Classic kingdom of Yaxchilan show that royal ancestors sometimes approached humans to offer advice during bloodletting rituals, emerging from the mouth of a terrestrial serpent, or “Vision Serpent.”

Among the different ancestors, a special category is constituted by heroes, best known through the sixteenth-century Quichean epic of the Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. Most traditional Maya groups have specific ancestral heroes, such as Juan K'anil among the Jacaltecs of the northwestern highlands, and Ohoroxtotil, defeater of the jaguars, worshiped among the Tzotziles of Chiapas. A number of scholars think the actions of the heroes might belong to a recent past, preserved in the memory of semi-historical events. People often addressed heroes in prayer.

Goblin Charms

According to Yucatec belief, the indigenous priests could create goblins (aluxob). If properly revered, the goblin might assist the farmer in his work by protecting the field, ensuring the arrival of the rain deities. In the same area, dwarfs, and also hunchbacks, were associated with antediluvial times; those people perished in the flood with the sinking of their stone boats. The child-like dwarfs and hunchbacks of Classic iconography often accompany the king and the Tonsured Maize God. The dwarves and hunchbacks repeatedly show aquatic features. Due to the aquatic associations, scholars speculate the Maya dwarves are quite similar to the dwarfish assistants of the deities of rain, lightning, and thunder mentioned in Aztec sources, the Tlaloqueh.

Sacred Topography

The Maya landscape is a ritual topography, with landmarks such as mountains, wells and caves being assigned to specific ancestors and deities. The Tzotzil town of Zinacantan is surrounded by seven 'bathing places' of the mountain-dwelling ancestors. One of the waterholes serves as the residence of the ancestors' 'nursemaids and laundresses'. Rituals usually take place in or near such landmarks, and in the Yucatán around karstic sinkholes (cenotes).

Ritualistic activities depended largely on the geographical lay-out of shrines and temples; calendrical models also, superimposed over the landscape, determined rituals as well. In contemporary Quichean Momostenango, specific combinations of day-names and numbers designated at shrines in the mountains, signaled the appropriate times for ritual use. In the northwestern Maya highlands, the four days, or 'Day Lords', that can start a year are assigned to four mountains. In early-colonial Yucatán, the thirteen katun periods and appropriate deities, mapped onto the landscape formed a hypothetical 'wheel' over whole towns and villages.

The main calendar consisted of 260 day cycles, important for individual rituals, and the year of eighteen months, the Haab’, and monthly feasts. Diego de Landa described the events of the Yucatec kingdom of Mani along with New Year celebrations together with the elaborate New Year celebrations. Anthropologists are uncertain as to whether the following events and festivities remained popular among other Maya kingdoms or more ancient ones.

Pacts with the Gods

The Maya thought offerings established and renewed relations, also called 'contracts', 'pacts', or 'covenants', with the other world. The kinds of offerings, number, preparation, and arrangement of maize breads, maize and cacao drinks and honey licor, flowers, incense nodules, rubber figures, and cigars, obeyed certain codified rules. For example, a drink of exactly 415 grains of parched maize was needed in a pre-Spanish New Year ritual, and on another occasion the precise number of 49 grains of maize mixed with copal was to be burnt. A well-known example of a ritual meal is the "Holy Mass of the maize field" (misa milpera) celebrated for the Yucatec rain deities. The Lacandon ritual focused entirely on 'feeding' the deities using incense burners.

Movie Still "Apocalypto": The First Priest or High Priest stands in the middle, the shaman ("out of mind") to the left stretching hand out to the sun, the king sitting at left, the queen on the right.

In contemporary sacrificial rites, there is an overall emphasis on the sprinkling of blood, especially that of turkeys. In the pre-Spanish past, sacrifice usually consisted of animals such as deer, dog, quail and turkey, and fish. However, on special occasions, the accession to the throne of the king, severe illness of the ruler, royal burial, or drought, rites required a human sacrifice. Such sacrifices do not appear to have been forced upon people, rather sacrifice was usually seen as a great honor; ritual anthropophagy (cannabilism) was, on the other hand, very rare.

A characteristic feature of ancient Mayan ritual involved the coveted "bloodletting" sessions held by high officials and members of the royal families. Usually, earlobes, tongues, and penises were cut with razor-sharp small knives and stingray spines; the blood fell on paper strips, which were then burnt.

Blood: Catalyst of the Heavens

The offering of blood through autosacrificial rituals, was a ubiquitous practice among all the ancient Maya. The people believed that the appeasing of the gods’ blood with human blood returned the favor that the gods bestowed on man at the time of creation. According to myth, long ago, the gods created humans from mashed corn dough mixed with the blood of the gods. By using stingray spines, obsidian lancets, and carved bone awls, the elites cut the cheeks, lips, tongues, and phalli to offer blood to recompensate the gods' sacrifice. Sometimes, chords or pieces of straw were pulled through the incisions, which then dripped the blood onto bundles of paper. Evidence exists on reliefs that Mayan women also participated in bloodletting sacrifices. The powerful and painful experience was thought to be critical among the Maya in order to traverse the cosmic layers of existence, and thus initiate contact with the gods and deities. This provided justification for the capture of prisoners to be sacrificed.

Priestly Functions

Our picture of the earlier Maya priesthood is almost entirely based on Spanish missionaries (Landa for Yucatán, Las Casas and others for the Guatemalan Highlands). The upper echelon of the priesthood functioned as a repository of learning, also in the field of history and genealogical knowledge. Around 1500, the Yucatec priesthood hierarchically organized the priests from the high priest living at the court down to the priests in the towns; priests received certain books according to the descending hierarchy.

The role model for the high priest is likely to have been the upper god Itzamna, first priest and inventor of the art of writing. The most general word for priest, including the Yucatec high priest, appears to have been ah k'in 'calendrical priest'. A number of priests specialized in the marking and study of the katun cycle. Priests took on multiple tasks, performing life crisis rituals to divination, and held special offices, such as that of oracle (chilan), astrologer, and sacrificer of human beings (nacom). In the K’iche’ Kingdom of Q’umarkaj, the most important deities, Tohil, Awilix, Jacawitz, and Gukumatz, each had their own high priests. During the late-Postclassic period, the priesthood appears to have been restricted to the nobility. Even less is known about the Classic Maya priesthood. Very few priestly positions have been identified from the period.

Fasting, sexual abstention, and (especially in the pre-Spanish past) confession generally preceded major ritual events. In 16th-century Yucatán, purification (exorcism of evil spirits) often represented a ritual's initial phase. In general, purification was needed before entering areas inhabited by deities. In present-day Yucatán, the Indians drink standing water from a rock depression upon entering the forest. The water is then spat on the ground, cleansing the mouth and body, allowing the individual to freely carry out the business of humankind in the sacred forest.

Maya prayer accompanies acts of offering and sacrifice, usually long litanies, addressing the names of personified days, saints, angels (rain and lightning deities), and the landscape connected with historical or mythical events. The prayers often consist of hypnotic dyadic couplets in Classic period texts. The earliest prayers recorded in European script are in Quiché, and are embedded in the creation myths of the Popol Vuh. Maya communities in the northwestern highlands of Guatemala sometimes congregate into specialized groups called 'prayermakers'.

Holy Network

Pilgrimages created networks connecting places regionally as well as over larger distances. In such a way, Maya religion transcended the limits of local community. Nowadays, pilgrimages involve reciprocal visits of village saints and visits to sanctuaries, such as the Q'eqchi' pilgrimages to the thirteen sacred mountains. Around 1500, Chichen Itza attracted large numbers of pilgrims from all surrounding kingdoms to a large cenote; other pilgrims visited local shrines; women went to the sanctuaries of Ix Chel and other goddesses on the islands off Yucatán's east coast.

Religious Feasts

Feasts are usually organized by religious brotherhoods, with the greatest expenses being for the higher charges. Similarly, in the pre-Spanish kingdom of Maní, a few religious feasts appeared to have been sponsored by wealthy men, perhaps reflecting a general practice in Postclassic and earlier kingdoms. Feasts redistributed capital (food and drink), among the populace. The continual and obligatory drinking established community among the human participants and also between the people and the deities.

Both in recent times and in the Classic Period, more complex rituals included music and dance, processions, and theatrical plays. For the late Postclassic period, Landa mentions specific dances executed during either the New Year rituals (e.g., the xibalba okot 'dance of Xibalba') or the monthly feasts (e.g., the holkan okot 'dance of the war chiefs').

Theater of the Supernatural

The theatrical impersonation of deities and animals (a general Mesoamerican practice), involved the invocation of the wayob (were-animals). Ritual humor often accompanied the performance, involving such actors as opossums, spider monkeys, and the aged Bacabs; at times women took on erotic roles. The god most often shown dancing during the Classic period is the Tonsured Maize God, a patron of feasting.

In the Classic period, the rituals of kingship predominated over all other rituals. The term 'theatre state' (Geertz) originally coined for the Hindu kingdoms of Bali, might be pertinent in describing the Classic Maya kingdoms; the “theater” reflected the cohesion of the state, but also simultaneously demarcated status differences between aristocratic families. The king (or queen) often impersonates important deities and the forces of nature, quite commonly the rain deity and the rain or lightning serpent. On monuments, the king is often seen assuming a dancing posture suggestive of participation in the rituals. On important occasions, the royal impersonator might be elevated above the crowd in a large palanquin, evident on a wooden lintel from Tikal’s Temple IV.

At times, the king appears to scatter incense or, perhaps, seed kernels; at other times, the king offers blood in front of directional trees (murals of San Bartolo), or officiating in front of a tree (temple sanctuaries of Palenque).The erection of royal steles at intervals of five 360-day years involved a ritual by itself, effectively creating a protective 'tree of life' for the community.

The monthly feast cycle of the Postclassic kingdom of Maní included a commemorative festival for the hero Kukulcan, the founder of Yucatec kingship. Spanish writers refer to the Yucatec king (halach uinic) as 'bishop', indicating a leading role in major public rituals.

Divinatory techniques of the king might include throwing and counting seeds, crystals, and beans. In the past, a priest might gaze into a magical mirror, a process called scrying, and read the various sorts of signs, or auguries, demonstrated by birds; during the Classic period, pictures of birds saw use as logograms to describe larger time periods in the calendrical system.

Worship of Time

The Maya calendar is one of the most fundamental aspects of Maya ritual life. Among the highland Maya, the calendrical rites of the community relate to the succession of the 365-day years and to the so-called 'Year Bearers', the four named days or new years days. Conceived as divine lords, the worshipers welcomed the Year Bearers on the mountain (one of four); the mountain acted as the seat of the power of each of the Year Bearers on one of the days. The calendrical rites included the five-day marginal period at the end of the year. In 16th-century Yucatán, the Maya set up a straw puppet called 'grandfather' (mam) on the mountains to be venerated, only to be discarded at the end of the marginal period, or Uayeb (Cogolludo). In the same interval, the Maya then install a new puppet of the incoming patron deity of the year and remove the old one. Eventually, through annually shifting procession routes, the Maya projected the calendrical model of the four 'Year Bearers' (New Year days) onto the four quarters of the town. Landa's detailed treatment of the New Year validates many essential points of the rites depicted in the much earlier Dresden Codex.

The Cyclical Katun Calendar Wheel

Apart from writing, the fundamental priestly sciences were arithmetics and calendrics. The priests at court, by Classical times, customarily deified the numbers and the basic day-unit, and - particularly in the south-eastern kingdoms of Copan and Quirigua, conceived the mechanism of time as a sort of relay or estafette that passed the 'burden' of the time-units on from one divine numerical 'bearer' to the next. The numbers did not represent distinctive numerical deities, but the principal general deities, gods responsible for the ongoing 'march of time'. The day-units (k'in) often represented the patrons of the priestly scribes and diviners (ah k'in), usually as Howler Monkey Gods, at times also seen as creator gods. In the Postclassic period, the time-unit of the katun personified the divine king, as do the 20 named days still personify the traditional 'day-keepers' of the Guatemalan Highlands.

The Maya used a 260-day calendar often referred to as tzolkin. The length of the calendar coincides with the average duration of human gestation in the womb. The system of measure provided guidance in life through a consideration of the 20 named days and 13 numbers, which aligned to specify particular days for sacrifices at specific 'number shrines' (recalling the number deities of Classic times); the timed rituals might lead to favorable omens. K’iche’ daykeepers use puns to help remember and inform the meanings of the days. The people deified days and attempted to invoke the power of days as 'Lordships'. The general Yucatec word for 'priest' (ah k'in) referred more specifically to the counting of the days.

Even today, such ‘daykeepers’ (divinatory priests) stand in front of a fire, and pray in Maya to entities such as the 260 days, the cardinal directions, the ancestors of those present, important Mayan towns and archaeological sites, lakes, caves, or volcanoes, and deities from the Popol Vuh. People also come to these daykeepers to know about baby names, wedding dates and other special occasions.

Like the Year Bearers, the Maya viewed the thirteen twenty-year periods or “katuns” of the Short Count, as divine lords. Each katun possessed specific divine patrons (as mentioned in the Chilam Balam books) and special priests. Occupational festivals periodically marked the 18 months, each dedicated to specific deities, celebrated by occupational groups (hunters and fishermen, bee-keepers, cacao planters, curers, and warriors).

Life cycle rituals (or rites of passage) demarcate the various stages of life. Landa details one of the rituals, destined for making young boys and girls marriable (caput sihil 'second birth'). The Yucatec Maya continue the ritual (hetz mek) which marks a child's movement from cradling or carrying in the arms to the mother's hip. The ritual occurs at about three months, presided over by godparents. The child is offered implements appropriate to its gender, tools for boys and cloth or thread for girls. If the children grasps the items, the destiny of the child is revealed.

Curative Spells and Weather Influence

Contemporary healing rituals focus on the retrieval and reincorporation of lost souls or soul particles imprisoned by deities. The main collection of ancient Yucatec curing rituals is catalogued in the so-called Ritual of the Bacabs. In the texts, the four trees and four carriers of earth and sky (Bacabs) located at the corners of the world, manifest a large theatre, whereby shamanic curing sessions can take place; Shamans address "the four Bacabs" to assist in the curing of the disease-causing agents. Not represented amongst the ritual texts is black sorcery.

Influencing the weather is the main purpose of rain-making rituals; others include the 'Sealing the frost' just before the sowing season. The officiating priests of the rain-making rituals are thought to ascend into the clouds during seances and mimic the dancing rain deities above. Influencing the weather can also mean deflecting the rain clouds to neighboring rival cities or areas, thus implying black sorcery.

The eastern Yucatán peoples have formed a whole sequence of rituals involving the maize corn, including rituals for protecting an area against evil influences (loh), thanksgiving (uhanlikol 'dinner of the maize field'), and imploring the rain deities (ch'a cháak).

War Spirits

In Maya narrative, warfare involved the warriors' transformation into animals (wayob) and the use of black magic by sorcerers. In the pre-Hispanic period, war rituals focused on the war leaders and the weapons. The jaguar-spotted War Twin Xbalanque counted as a war deity in the Alta Verapaz; preceding a campaign, Maya held rituals for Xbalanque during thirty days, hoping that the deity might imbue the weapons with the lord’s power.

The Yucatec ritual for the war chief (nakom) venerated a puma war god, and included a five-day residence of the war leader in the temple, "where they burned incense to him as to an idol." In Classic war rituals, the Maya jaguar gods held particular significance, especially the jaguar deity associated with fire, patron of the number Seven; the deities face commonly adorned a king's war shield. The Palenque Temple of the Sun, dedicated to war, shows the emblem of such a shield, held up by two crossed spears.

Observance of the Skies

What is often called Maya 'astronomy' is really astrology, a priestly science resting on the assumption of an influence exerted on earthly events by the movements of heavenly bodies and constellations. The observation of sky and horizon by present-day Mayas relates chiefly to celestial signs of seasonal change relevant to agriculture. With but few exceptions, the names of certain stars and constellations is all that remains preserved from records; the influence of star lore on social and professional activities beyond agriculture and on individual destiny is largely not known or understood within ancient traditions.

Pre-Hispanic Mayan astrology is mainly found in the relatively late Dresden Codex, which concerns lunar and solar eclipses and the varying aspects and cycles of Venus; animals and deities symbolize the social groups negatively affected by Venus during the planet’s heliacal rising as the “Morning Star.” The Paris Codex contains what appears to be the Mayan Zodiac. The Chilam Balam books of the Colonial period reveal how the Mayans held great interest in the western astrology of the conquering Spanish.

Primary Sources

Most of the information gathered about the Maya religion stems from the modern Maya descendants. Sharing knowledge with anthropologists, figures of religious hierarchies in Indian tribes, diviners, and tellers of tales have helped form a great deal of the corpus of knowledge of the Mayan civilization's religious beliefs and customs. Materials that shed more light on the ancient past come from 5 other primary sources. Namely, three surviving pre-Spanish codices, called the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices, which all date from the Postclassic period c.900AD. Ceramic codices (pottery scenes) and mural paintings provide information from the Classic (200-900AD) and the Late- Preclassic (200BC-200AD). The Popul Vuh of the early colonial period, as well as the Ritual of the Bacabs, and the Chilam Balam books also help to reconstruct older beliefs. Secondary sources, notably Spanish treatises from the Colonial period, mostly from Diego de Landa commenting on the Lowland Mayas and Las Casas of the Highland Mayas, reveal more information. Archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic studies contribute, as well as anthropological reports published in the late 19th century.

 

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