The religion of the Maya is not definitively known, mainly because the conquistadors of Spain destroyed as much of the “heathen” culture as possible before trying to convert the people to Catholicism. Never the less, much has been learned of their religious beliefs as archeologists uncover things like ancient books, pottery with text or paintings on them, mural paintings, carvings, and other various treasures that were left untouched.
Thanks to these artifacts, we now know a little about what these people believed, who they worshiped, and how they performed their religious ceremonies.
Their religion is highly complex, with a spider web of beliefs, worshiped beings and ceremonies. Most cities also worshiped their own particular heroes, deities, and ancestors, not unlike the European Catholics and their saints. Priests were responsible for carrying out the rites and acting as a link between this world and the world of the deities and spirits. With a heavy belief in nature, mythology, and the afterlife, the Mayan belief system is definitely one of the most complex religions in both ancient and modern times.
The Gods and priests
The Mayans worshiped several groups of figures: the ancestors, heroes (a special group within the ancestors that performed great deeds during their life), deities, animal persons (animals that behave as humans and serve the deities), spooks (ghosts), demons, bush spirits, goblins (believed to be created by the priests to assist the farmers), dwarfs, and hunchbacks. Each group was worshiped and cared for through rituals, retelling of tales, sacrifices, and other religious ceremonies. It was also common for the mountains, rivers, caves and other natural features to be assigned to specific ancestors or deities. Other various forms of worship included purification (fasting, confession, and bloodletting), prayer, pilgrimages, and dramatic performances.
The hierarchy of the Priesthood was extensive, but is not well known. Most of what is known was learned by the one-sided viewpoint of the Spanish that conquered them. We do know that many of the different deities had their own priesthood, and that each level of the hierarchy had their own duties and responsibilities. Some even held a title, such as oracle, astrologer, or being in charge of sacrificing humans. Priests were also scientists, masters of arithmetic and astronomy. They were the ones mainly responsible for studying the heavens and writing the charts. This led the way to astrology and the other sciences of fortune reading.
Offerings and Sacrifices
Both offerings and sacrifices played a huge role in keeping the deities and other worldly creatures content. Offerings were varied, but they were also exact, with precise numbers, quantity, quality, preparations, and arrangement of items. Most ceremonial rites called for the sprinkling of blood, which, in turn, meant sacrifices. Turkeys were especially used, but in some cases, other animals, such as deer, dogs, and fish were also used, while exceptional occasions required a human. Bloodletting by the priests and royal family was also fairly common. Though fantasized in horror films, cannibalism during these rituals was exceedingly rare.
There is so much more to learn about their religion, and yet, archeologists are still uncovering new facts. Perhaps we will never know to what extent their beliefs reach. What is known is that their entire lives focused around what they believed and who they worshiped.
Learn more about Mayan History on these Tours:
- Chichen Itza Tour by Air
- Mayan Jungle and Tulum Tour
- Muyil and Sian Ka’an Tour
- Ek Balam Tour
- Tulum and Zip Line Tour
- Mayan Culture in Coba Tour
- Coba Adventure Tour