Religion

Did the Mayas believe in one god?

How did Mayas talk with the gods?

Does Mayan religion still exist?

 

 

 


Did the Mayas believe in one god?

Ixchel, Moon Goddess
Religion was very important for the Mayas. They had many gods and goddesses, one for each part of life. The sun was a very important and brave god. The goddess of the moon was an elegant woman, always shown with a little rabbit in her hands. Do you know why? Look at the next full moon, and if you look closely, a rabbit will appear in it!
You already know that the Mayas depended a lot on nature. Clothes, construction materials, and tools all came directly from their natural environment. For food they also depended on what the earth gave them. So it's not hard to understand why religion was closely related with nature. There was a god of rain, a god of corn, a god of wind, and many more!
K'inich, Sun God
 
 

Who led the religious ceremonies?

Maya Priest
The priests that led the religious ceremonies were very special people. Only the most important men could be priests, and the king was the most important of all. Therefore, the king held a lot of power, because he wasn't just the boss of the kingdom, he was also the religious leader. So he could decide when to start a war, when to plant the fields, and when people would get married.   Maya Shaman

The common people - the farmers, villagers, and workers - obeyed the priests, but they also held their own small ceremonies in their homes or in caves in the mountains. The Mayas believed that caves were entrances into the underworld. They were dark and somewhat dangerous places and the Mayas left offerings to the gods there.
 

How did Mayas talk with the gods?

The Mayas believed that their gods and ancestors knew everything. So they would ask them for help in many situations. They would ask the corn god when to plant. They would ask the rain god to please send a good storm, and from the gods of war, they would ask for victory over their enemies. To be able to talk with their gods, the priests organized rituals with fire and music. Sometimes, the priest would cut his tongue or another part of his body so that he could put some drops of blood on the fire. In the smoke from the fire, the priests could "read" the gods' responses.
Ceremonial knife
 
Human sacrifice
So that the gods didn't get angry, the Mayas made offerings and sacrifices. Sometimes they were little things, like flowers or fruits, but if they wanted to ask a big favour of the gods, they offered them bigger presents, like a jaguar or other animals. And for really important ceremonies, they offered people! To us it seems horrible to kill people in order to please the gods, but for the Mayas, it was a big honour to be sacrificed in a religious ceremony.
 
 

What were the Mayan churches like?

The places where the ancient Mayas honoured their gods weren't very much like the churches of today. Many rulers had temples built on top of pyramids. The pyramid is the high platform and on top of it, the ruler would have a temple built where religious ceremonies were celebrated. The pyramid represented a mountain and the rooms of the temple were like caves in the mountain. From above, the ruler could see all the people gathered in the plaza and everyone could see the ruler and his priests.
Temple Rosalila
In the Copán Ruinas archaeological park, we can still see some of these temples. Even though they are still very impressive today, they don't look as nice as they did back then when they were painted different colours, especially white and red. At night, the torches lit up the carvings of the gods and goddesses, drums would be beating in the plaza, and copal (a type of tree resin) from the fire ceremonies could be smelled everywhere. In an atmosphere like that, the ceremonies were very impactful!
 

Did the Mayas play the ball game?

In many of the ancient cities, we've found ball game fields or courts. They played the game with a big ball made out of rubber that they had to hit markers on the outside of the court with. But the players could only hit the ball with their hips and their shoulders, never with their hands or their feet. To protect their hips, they wrapped a type of fat leather belt around their middles.

Ball player
Ball player
 
This game wasn't just for fun. It was also a religious ceremony, representing a battle as was described in the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas. The Popol Vuh tells about how two hero twins went down into the underworld to play ball against the gods. Reproducing this game on earth was a very important ceremony. All the people from the kingdom would come to watch the game, along with the ruler and his relatives.
 

Did the Mayas convert to Catholicism?

The Spanish conquistadors from the 16th century were Catholic and they considered the Mayan religion to be like devil worship, and forced the Mayas to convert to Catholicism, without giving them a choice. However, this conversion wasn't that problematic because, in some respects, Catholicism was similar to the Mayan religion. For example, the Catholic cross that the Spanish brought resembled the two branches of the sacred tree that the Mayas brought to their religious ceremonies.

The Mayas were forced to forget their gods, but the Catholic saints weren't that different from the gods that Mayas had always had. Like the Spanish, the Mayas also believed in heaven and the underworld, which is similar to Hell that the Catholics believed in. So, the Mayas converted to Catholicism, but we can still see evidence of the ancient Mayan religion in the ceremonies and rituals today.
The Maya Tree of Life
 

Does Mayan religion still exist?

Religion as it was practiced by the ancient Mayas doesn't exist today. But still today that are many Mayas that believe in the forces of nature. They practice a religion that has its roots in the religion of their ancestors and that honours some ancient gods, like Chaak, the rain god. For these Mayas, the ancient sites are sacred and they occasionally celebrate ceremonies there. There are also rituals done in the caves and in the fields asking for rain for the crops and giving thanks for the harvest.
Chaak, Rain God
Today's Mayas
We have to respect these sacred places, because they're very improtant to the Mayas. It doesn't matter whether or not we believe in the same things. The important thing is to respect the sacred spaces of others, just like we respect the Catholic and evangelical churches. To respect the sacred Mayan sites means that we must not destroy the ancient monuments or write our names on them. We also shouldn't take stones or other things from these sites.
 

Did you know that...

Chaak Glyph
The god of rain and lightning is named Chaak. Sometimes he has a lightning bolt in his hand. His 'glyph' or symbol is to the left. He was an important god for the farmers.
The Mayas also had a god of trade or commerce, a god of bees, a god of death, a god of war, a god of art, and many more! To the right is the glyph of a bee.
Bee Glyph
Rubber ball
The ball that the Mayas played with was about the size of a human child's head and it was heavy - it weighed 8 lbs (3.5 kg)!