The Religion and Ideology of Mayan Civilization

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Mayan people were native Mesoamericans who developed one of the most sophisticated cultures of the world and left a legacy behind. The excellent knowledge of Mayan civilization on astronomy and mathematics played a fundamental role in present civilizations to flourish. Their advancement in calendar making, uncommon beliefs to cosmology make them different from other civilizations. The religion of distinct Mayan civilization was also different from other civilizations in terms of its mysterious practices. Unfortunately, not all features of the Mayan religion and ideology are clearly understood today because of its complexity and uniqueness. From the findings of archeologists about the Mayan religion, one can conclude that almost every aspect of Mayan life was concentrated on religion, and their beliefs were based on the combination of several ideas from nature, astrology, and religion. They associated every aspect with cosmology and they believed that if they perform the religious practices correctly, they would be gifted with supernatural powers. Mayans’ deep beliefs about religion made them practice even human sacrifice in the form of different rituals and games. Their practices on religion say a lot about their lifestyle, ideology, society, and culture. So this paper will examine the religious beliefs and practices of Mayan people in terms of different practices such as bloodletting and ballgame.

To begin with, the religion of the Mayan people was Polytheist, and they worshiped more than 165 Gods. In comparison with other western civilizations, the Maya did not believe in the heaven and hell concepts, rather believed in different levels of realms. The Mayan people do not perceive the supernatural levels as heaven and hell but as the upper world, middle world, and lower world: At the top the heavenly layer which was divided into 13 levels. The second layer was the earth layer where humans were supposed to live. The last layer was underworld, also called Xibalba, and was known as an unfortunate, cold place consisted of nine layers. Mayan pyramids, a noticeable part of Mesoamerican culture, were built for two purposes. Obviously, the first type of pyramids was constructed for religious practices. Findings indicate that the pyramids were built with nine layer steps to provide access to Xibalba. The second type was sacred pyramids which never used for religious purposes. They were not climbed, even untouched. These facts point out how religion shaped their daily lifestyle that even the temples were built based on their beliefs.

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According to their beliefs, when a Mayan died, his spirit went to the underworld where it was supposed to pass all these layers to reach the heaven. The Mayan religion believed that most peoples’ souls were vanquished to spend their afterlives in the Underworld-Xibalba. Only those who died at childbirth or were sacrificed would have escaped the underworld (Hamilton, 2013). Mayans perceived the sacrifice process as blood offerings of humans to Gods. According to their sacred book Popol Vuh, these sacrifices aimed to aid the rebirth and renewal of harvest and life cycles. On the other hand, thinking critically, the most important reason for human sacrifice could be they believed in the afterlife deeply and for them, there were thirteen levels to pass. With sacrificing they would pass all the levels directly and would not suffer after death. So their main reason was the fear of difficulties that one could face in Xibalba. Mayan civilization even sacrificed their children to please the gods. This is another example of their strong beliefs about their ideology.

The Mayans engaged in different religious practices. Not all of them were directly related to human sacrificing, although human sacrificing was a common practice. Bloodletting was one of the common ways of human sacrifice to satisfy the gods. This ancient ritual consisted of cutting the parts of the body, mainly tongues, lips and genitals to let the blood release. Bloodletting was limited to the royal line in the case of Maya. It was their special way to communicate with their gods. It was believed that the gods wanted blood because in the initial creation of mankind, gods spilled their blood in order to give life to humanity and they wanted it back. Royals taking part in this practice would spend days purifying in order to be ready for the bloodletting process. Both men and women were able to participate in this process. They were performing it on special dates like in the beginning and the end of the calendar cycle. Important dates in the life of kings and queens also completed with the bloodletting process. Even special tools were designed to produce more blood and more pain. Interestingly, throughout history, we always observed a high class of society forcing the lower classes to perform their duties. In Maya's case, we see kings’ and queens’ eager to do this painful practice.

Another way of human sacrifice was in the form of ballgame. For Mayans, it was not just a win or lose game. It was a part of Maya political, religious, and social life. Some myths about Mayan people indicate that because they were strong believers of cosmology, they assumed that this game maintains the cosmic order of the universe and fertility of lands. This is another example of how their strong beliefs to cosmology shaped their daily lifestyle. Two teams participated in the game and they aimed to pass the ball through the rings in the walls with their hips, elbows, knees, and forearms without letting it drop. The game was played in the specific I-shaped courts and called ball courts. Almost every city had at least one court. As it was in every aspect of Mayan social life, this game also mostly associated with human sacrifice. The members of winner team were sacrificed. It is also been assumed that this game was a way of solving conflicts among groups without military forces. Sometimes defeated foreign kings and prisoners, even slaves participated in the ball game. It is clear that main reason for this was to increase the number of people sacrificed. From Mayan point of view, more people sacrificed would please gods more and gods would award them more.

Spiritual stories beyond the ball game differ from each other. According to their sacred book Popol Vuh, one of the stories say that the twin gods Hunahpú and Ixbalanqué who represented the cosmos went to underworld to fight against the beings of darkness and death. They were sacrificed and turned into the moon and the sun. Another story was these twin brothers made noise while playing this game and got killed by the gods living in Xibalba (Gomez, 2019). Even some people consider the court as a portal between underworld and middle world. Of course, it is impossible to say which myth was closer to reality. But all in all, the purpose was to show their respect and devoutness to gods by killing innocent people.

All in all, the Mayan civilization was one of the most impressive and distinctive civilizations to explore because of its richness of culture, religion, and ideology. Through the paper, I examined how strongly, more precisely, blindly they believed in the religion that they were proud of sacrificing innocent people to make some creatures happy. This shows how they were afraid of the gods and how they needed the help of the gods. On the other hand, their advancements in sciences like mathematics and astrology are surprisingly mystery to us nowadays. There can be two potential reasons. One was they were “genius” that they invented the calendar, they acknowledge understanding of mathematics and astrology. However, it is impossible to be that much clever and intelligent and to be happy with killing innocent people, even kids. The other reason can be as they believed, their gods awarded them with supernatural powers that they can use to improve their society. On the other hand, Mayan civilization was declined because of several reasons including hunger, illnesses and massive deaths. Why their supernatural power did not help them to survive if they had? Unfortunately, not everything about Mayan culture is clearly explained today because it was such a rich and complex culture and this civilization does not entirely exist today. But even today they are doing the practices as their ancestors did such as ballgame, but without sacrificing someone. Mayan civilization shows how a belief, a religion, an ideology can make a big society blind and can make them happy to kill an innocent person.

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