JOHN HENDERSON: Religion, including ideas about what the universe is like and how it came to be, is the key to understanding the Maya. We have so much information on Maya religion that we can use it to get at least a little way into the minds of people who have very different notions than we do about what the universe is like. Religion affected every part of every Mayas life. Ceremonies set the structure of the life cycle from birth to death. The supernatural was part of everyday experience, so there are endless occasions for ritual and divination, to figure out what forces were in play at any given time, was a constant preoccupation.
Religion was also woven into the fabric of Maya politics. It shaped the state, it gave the explanations that justified it, and it provided the sanctions that kept states in business. Maya art was largely political, and it left no doubt in anybody's mind that there were special relationships between kings and divine forces. Supernatural forces were always at work in the Maya world, in the middle world of earthly affairs, as well as in the heavens and in the underworlds. Mountains and springs and rivers weren't just inanimate parts of the environment, they were inhabited by the supernatural, or they had supernatural qualities of their own. And so did plants and animals. When a Maya killed a deer or cut down a tree, he had to deal with their spirits, to ask permission, to explain his need, to make amends.
Maya religion wasn't just animism, though. Some supernaturals were more or less like the gods of other civilizations, although it's not clear that the Maya thought of them that way. Maya supernaturals blend into one another, and they're probably more like bundles of supernatural forces than like individualized gods, but most people probably thought of them most of the time as though they were gods with distinct personalities. Whatever their true nature, they came in multiple forms. They were connected with different parts of the calendar, with one or more of the four world quarters, and they could be male or female, old or young good or evil, depending on the context.
The closest thing to a Maya supreme being was a creator god who was also patron of knowledge. The death god, though, was equally powerful and not at all benevolent. Celestial bodies were important deities as well. The sun brought warmth, but might also bring drought. He was usually male. He could be young or old, and sometimes he was a deer. And at night, in the underworld, as the night sun, he had the form of a Jaguar.
The moon was usually female. She was often the sun's consort, and she was connected with weaving, with divination, with childbirth, with medicine in general, and with rabbits, because the Maya saw a rabbit when they looked at the face of the moon. Venus was sometimes the sun's brother, but he had a lot of other forms as well. And most of them were dangerous, especially when Venus appeared as the morning star.
Among the Earth gods were the maize god and the Chaacs, who brought rain and thunder and lightning. Social groups, merchants and cacao growers, for example, had their own patron gods. Kukulcan, the so-called feathered serpent, was the special god of priests and aristocrats. And he's interesting, because he's so hard to separate from historical individuals who are named after him, some of whom became larger than life culture heroes.
The universe had celestial, underworld, and earthly realms, crosscut by a division into four world quarters. Each of the four world quarters had a color, particular calendar units, particular gods, and its own set of symbolic animals and birds and trees. The heavens were layered. There were particular gods and celestial bodies in each of the 13 levels, but at the same time, the sky was a two headed dragon that carried the celestial bodies through the heavens. At the corners of the universe were four Bacab deities who held up the heavens. The Earth was a great crocodile floating in the sea. And from its back grew a great Saba tree that was the center vertical axis of the universe. Its roots reached down to the underworlds and its branches grew up to the heavens.
The underworld had nine levels, and the nine corresponding gods ruled the nights in succession. The underworld was also actually inside the Earth crocodile, which swallowed up the dead. Burial offerings quite often include things or symbolic replicas of things that would help the spirits of the dead make their final journey to one of the underworlds. The Popol Vuh, the 16th century Quiche mythic history, gives a detailed picture of the Quiche underworld and explains how Quiche heroes outwitted the Lords of Death.
Every instant of time corresponded to positions in several different calendar cycles, each of which had its own supernatural qualities. To act rationally in a universe like that, the Maya needed to evaluate the supernatural continuously, to figure out the fate of individuals according to when they were born, to figure out the causes and cures of disease, and as a general guide for a living.
Determining the omens wasn't simple. There were lots of gods in power at any given time and there was no guarantee that their dispositions would be consistent. Maya consulted specialist priests who were trained in astrology for advice about how to conduct their lives to stay in sync with the supernatural. Modern practice shows that divination isn't just a mechanical tallying up of the forces that are connected to the calendar. Modern Quiche diviners do very subjective kind of practice, in which they make use of their individual talents and their very personal relationships with the supernatural.
Time was cyclical for the Maya. Repeating calendar cycles brought the same gods back to power again and again, and each time similar things were likely to happen. So the past tells you about the present, and the present explains the past. And they both tell you something about the future. For the Maya, there was no real difference between history and prophecy. The history that the universe itself is cyclical, too. The world was repeatedly created and destroyed in past ages, and our world is going to end the same way, with a great catastrophe.
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Maya civilization is mysterious and fascinating, and probably the least familiar of the great civilizations of the ancient world. This part of CyberTower introduces the ancient Maya, puts them in the context of the larger cultural tradition of ancient Mesoamerica, and provides a point of entry to the sometimes daunting array of more detailed information on their cities, art, and writing.
This video is part 3 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.