Religious ritual was elaborate and imposing, with frequent festival occasions in honour of the gods of the winds, the rain, the cardinal points, the harvest, of birth, death, and war, with special honours to the deified national heroes Itzamn‡ and Kukulcan.
The whole country was dotted with temples, usually great stone-built pyramids, while certain places - as the sacred city of Izamal and the island of Cozumel - were places of pilgrimage.
There was a special "feast of all the gods". The prevailing mildness of the Maya cult was in strong contrast to the bloody ritual of the Aztec.
Human sacrifice was forbidden by Kukulcan, and crept in only in later years. It was never a frequent or prominent feature, excepting at Chichen-Itz‡, where it at least became customary, on occasion of some great national crisis, to sacrifice hundreds of voluntary victims of their own race, frequently virgins, by drowning them in one of the subterranean rock wells or cenotes, after which the bodies were drawn out and buried.
The Popol Vuh, preserved in various transcriptions since the 16th century, was lost for many years and rediscovered. A simplified version of the complex text is now available in English and Spanish.
The Popol Vuh is the creation story of the Maya.
Below is one part of this story that recounts the first attempts of the creator, Heart of Sky to make humans. The story goes on to explain that the final attempt, that resulted in the "True people" was accomplished by constructing people with maize.
This is a very reasonable explanation since, in essence, it was the cultivation of maize that gave the early Maya culture the means to change from hunters gatherers to their highly advanced civilization.
"They came together in darkness to think and reflect. This is how they came to decide on the right material for the creation of man. . . . Then our Makers Tepew and Q'uk'umatz began discussing the creation of our first mother and father. Their flesh was made of white and yellow corn. The arms and legs of the four men were made of corn meal."
So goes the story of creation from the Maya sacred book, the 'Popol Vuh'.
It is believed that the Maya book of creation was first written in hieroglyphics. After the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, indigenous people were persecuted and most Mayan books were burned. But the stories were passed along orally.
In 1558, a Maya transcribed the Popol Vuh into the Quiche language. Almost two centuries later, a priest, Father Francisco Ximenez, found the manuscript in his church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and translated it into Spanish. For almost a century, the manuscript was lost. But it was rediscovered and eventually the bark-paper folding book was transferred to the Newberry Library in Chicago, where it is today.
Like most ancient scriptures, one of the problems with the Popol Vuh is that the original text was difficult to understand. A handful of translations for adults have been published since the Popol Vuh was first made accessible to the public in the 1980s. Now, a long-awaited version of the Popol Vuh adapted especially for children has been published and is being distributed throughout the United States and Latin America.
"Popol Vuh: A Sacred Book of the Maya" marks the first attempt to provide a simplified yet authoritative version of the Maya creation story for children and adults who are unfamiliar with the indigenous civilization.
The new adaptation, which is being published in English and Spanish, could become an important learning tool for the estimated 20,000 Maya living in Southern California. Most are Catholic, but some blend Christian teachings with indigenous rituals and beliefs. Some traditionalists practice what they call "Maya spirituality," a faith that embraces nature's elements and includes meditation, ceremonial dance and other indigenous rituals.
When scores of Maya fled Guatemala's civil war in the 1980s and came to Southern California, many brought their blend of indigenous and Christian beliefs to their new home.
An estimated 1 million Maya are believed to have been killed during the country's civil war. Many were village elders who were passing the oral traditions to younger generations, Montejo said.
"For decades, the Maya tried to hide their culture because they were targets of persecution.
Although many Maya found refuge in Southern California, they also discovered that some Catholic priests and church officials rejected their indigenous religious beliefs as paganism and witchcraft. Montejo said the treatment resembled what they had encountered in their native country.
Many missionaries who came to Guatemala tended to think their religion was the only one. They should read the Popol Vuh carefully and learn to respect our religious beliefs.
More recently, as the Central American immigrant population has surged, the Los Angeles Archdiocese has become more tolerant of Maya rituals and traditions, even organizing a procession earlier this year for the country's patron saint, the Lord of Esquipulas.
Evangelical churches, which have amassed a strong following in Guatemala, have been more resistant to the indigenous beliefs, said Aldana.
"It seems the evangelical churches in Guatemala are not supportive of Maya religion, at all," she said. "It's my understanding you have to reject those indigenous beliefs if you want to join their churches."
The validity of the Popol Vuh has long been in doubt. But in 1997 the discovery of a stone frieze inside a 1,500-year-old temple in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas bolstered the theory that the book was written by Indian converts to Christianity who wanted to preserve the religious texts that had been passed down orally or through Mayan hieroglyphics.
Acceptance of the Popol Vuh as the true story of creation varies among Guatemalans depending on their religious upbringing and beliefs. Although the tale has parallels with many other creation stories, including Genesis, some Guatemalan Catholics classify the Popol Vuh as an artifact of history, not theology.
"This is the Bible of the Maya. It is like a history book on this intelligent civilization," said Pantileon Gomez, a member of a prayer and support group, based at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Los Angeles, for newly arrived immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries.
I respect it because they were searching for a higher being. But it is distinct from the Bible. The Popol Vuh is not the word of God. Those are two different things."
Montejo, on the other hand, believes the Popol Vuh is a sacred book equivalent in sanctity to the Bible.