Maya Religion


Doctrines The Maya had a large pantheon of gods that often had different aspects (the combination of young and old characteristics or human and animal forms) and fulfilled different functions. The gods often had a counterpart of the opposite sex. The supreme deity was Itzam Ná who pervaded all aspects of life, and represented iconically as an old man; he was the inventor of writing and patron of learning and sciences. His wife was IxChel -old goddess of weaving, medicine, and childbirth, who was also the old moon goddess. The Maya had celestial deities such as the Sun God (who was transformed into the Jaguar God when he journeyed under the earth), the Moon Goddess, deities that represented the north star and Venus. Four gods (the Bacads) sustained the four corners of the world and the quarters of the moon calendar. The gods related to various professions and to social classes, as well as to lineages.

The Maya believed the earth was flat and square; each corner having a specific colour, that was also the colour attributed to each Bacad of the corresponding corner. The underworld, called Xibalbá (place of fright), was divided into nine layers. Xibalbá was inhabited by deities, most of them related somehow to death.

In addition to the nine layers beneath the earth there were thirteen higher layers where different gods dwelt

Astrology and numerology were of major importance and intrinsically related to the religious rites. So were the three calendars. One of them, composed of 260 days was related to the moon cycle, the other one based on the cycle of the sun was composed of eighteen month of twenty days plus the last five days of the year (considered unlucky days. A third calendar combining the previous two operated in a fifty two year solar cycle. A part from these three calendars there were also other ways of counting the cycles of time. It was based on these calendars that agricultural rites, as well as other rites and ceremonies were performed.

The rituals were performed in order to satisfy the gods and guarantee some order to the world. Different rituals and ceremonies corresponded to different practices such as divination, baptism, rites related to the cycles of the year, cycles of time and ceremonies of sacrifices for the gods. The ceremonies generally began with preparation and purification through fasting and abstinence (obligatory for those celebrating the ceremony and voluntary for others). Then there were offerings of food, ornaments and valuables belonging to the elite and the practice of sacrifice (including human sacrifice), as well as the own blood sacrifices of the rulers and priests (this, was done by means of cutting themselves and letting the blood fall into a special paper that was afterwards offered to the gods). In the ceremonies there were also burning of incense, dancing, expulsion of evil spirit from the worshipers. To close the ceremonies there was usually feasting and drunkenness. During ceremonies the priests practiced the impersonation of gods, use hallucinogens or other substances in order to enhance their powers of divination.

As women were considered impure because of their menstruation, they were not allowed to attend the ceremonies. An exception was made to the vestal virgins that could attend the fires.

The priests were part of the elite and had as their superior the ruler that was also a political leader. During the ceremonies they were helped by assistants.