The important Mayan sites such as Tikal and Palenque were built as ceremonial centres at a time where they had no metal tools. It displays the importance religion played in their lives, as today these pyramids are the last standing symbol of the Mayan might and ingenuity. It was their religion which brought about their advances in science, mathematics and astrology which has been found to be mystically accurate and ahead of its time. It developed through the need of priests to be able to perform certain religious acts on specified days and therefore, precise mathematics were needed to assist them in communing with the gods.
Communicating with the gods was a tricky business and had deadly repercussions if it went wrong, indeed it was still tricky when it went right. This was due to the fact that their gods demanded blood sacrifice be that human or animal, as the gods gave their blood to create humans with white and yellow corn. They would hunt for jaguars and other dangerous beasts to use for prestigious offerings, but mainly the Maya sacrificed prisoners of war and if there were none, the unluckiest of peasantry, slaves, unwanted children or volunteers were put to the slaughter. The way in which they were sacrificed was by cutting out the heart with an obsidian knife as four men held the victim down. However, blood sacrifice did not always end in death but took the form of bloodletting. Priests, other pious individuals and royals would cut holes into the tips of their tongues and draw hopes festooned with thorns through the wound or piece their ears, and even mutilate their genitals.
“Clad in long white cotton cloaks, reaching to their feet, and with their long hair reeking with blood, and so mattered together, that it could never be parted or even combed out again…”
-Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Historian.
The way the game was played was between 2-3 people and you must use your entire body except for the hands to get the ball through the hoop meters off the ground. Toltec Chichen has the largest and well preserved ball court in all of Mesoamerica. It has two upright walls which are over 82 metres long (272 ft), 8 metres high (27 ft) and 30 metres (99 ft) apart. At either end of the field were temples. It was known that at the end of some of these games the losing team would be beheaded much like in the story of the two Hero Twins (Explanation Below) and playing it appeased the gods. Though, most of the time it was fun to watch and the winning team were given clothes of the onlooker’s backs.
The Mayans had a concept of heaven and hell. It was depicted through the “Tree of Life” or the ceiba tree native to Central and South America. It is foretold that the sky is held up by the strong body of the ceiba tree and its roots lead down to the underworld. Heaven is for the gods and rulers who had been reincarnated as gods, as well as sacrificial victims and woman who died in child birth for they were considered honourable and clean deaths in service of the gods. It was rare for any other mortal to go to heaven and nearly all of the Mayan people were fated to go to the torturous underworld.
The underworld has many names such as Xibalba (Shi-bahl-ba) or ‘Place of Fright’. It was a multilayered system, with several torture houses and different trials at each level and ruled by twelve gods. It was believed that it took two years from the time a person died to go through each stage of the underworld. When kings died, they believed that they would be reborn after their time in the underworld and become gods in the Sky World.
The Mayan people believed that the entrance to the underworld was through caves or cenote. This played particular significance to the structure of the Mayan pyramids and temples. They ran deep tunnels through their structures as if too reach the underworld and smooth part of the journey there. For instance, in Chichen Itza in the building known as El Castio (or the castle) where Emperor Pacal Bahlam was buried, had his large tomb placed hundreds of metres underground down a steep staircase to aid his journey. The symbolism of caves with the underworld has been emphasised by the multitude of cave systems in Mesoamerica which house Mayan images of the underworld, its gods and various levels, as well as symbols of their popular ball game and bloodletting techniques.
The Mayans did not think of time as we do. Our perception of time is a line that you cannot repeat or go back, however to them time was not linear, but cyclical. They viewed time through periods of creation and destruction wherein rebirth would always occur. They also held the view that our world was only one of thousands of others which too held the same fate of destruction. The Mayan calendar which is most popularly known to mark the end of the world back in December 21 2012 is called the Long Count Calendar and runs on a 5,125 day cycle. This proves the Mayan belief of cyclical time, as on 21 December 2012 the world will not have a biblical destruction but a figurative rebirth.
The Mayans dedicated resources to their astrologers and priests to the accurate measurement of time. This was evident in their truly accurate calendar which displayed 365 days to a year, consisting of 18 months of 20 days and 5 extra days of the Wayeb. These extra 5 days were thought to be the most unlucky days of the year and many sacrifices and rituals were done to ensure nothing seriously bad would happen during this time.
To the Maya, the cosmos was something special and should be revered. They were famed for predicting eclipses and their connection with the sky. Their near perfect mathematical calculations helped them understand space, and it aided them mapping out the trajectory of Venus, the sun and moon so comprehensively it surpassed that of Roman and Greek scholars. This obsession with the cosmos is clear through the structure of their religious buildings. For instance, all temples were built for an astrological reason. For instance, in Chichen Itza’s famous El Castio is a symbol of this advanced cosmological knowledge and purpose as it has 365 steps to symbolise the days of the year and cast shadows along specific lines of view for only two days annually which marked the summer and winter solstice – a time marking the fact that religious and agricultural events needed to occur to appease the gods.