Pyramidal depiction of Maya social organization, with the king and his nobility at the top and the common people at the bottom.
Maya artists represented the universe in three levels: Xibalbá, the underworld; the earth; and the heavens. They usually depicted the earth sitting atop either a turtle or a crocodile in water. The earth was a large, flat square; each corner had a specific color. There was also a specific god, called Bacad, who ruled each corner of the planet.
According to the Maya, the heavens were comprised of thirteen layers, while Xibalbá, the dark, watery world below, was comprised of nine layers. At the center of all things was the World Tree. Its roots reached deep into the underworld, its trunk rose up to the earth, and its branches soared into the heavens. The tree demonstrated the Maya belief that the three levels of the universe were interconnected and humans could communicate with the spirit world on any of the three levels. This belief was also represented by the worship of caves as sacred portals (doors or gates) leading from the earth to the spirit world.
The Maya religion focused heavily on measuring time. Using earlier Mesoamerican calendars as a base, the early Mayas developed an incredibly accurate three-calendar system. The system combined a 260-day sacred calendar; a solar calendar made of eighteen months of twenty days each, plus five extra days; and a 52-year solar cycle. The primary purpose of these calendars was to determine the proper times to perform rituals and ceremonies to keep the gods happy. According to the Maya religion, the world had been created and destroyed several times before the present age. Time was viewed very differently than today—instead of running straight forward into the future, it ran in long cycles that would eventually return to their starting points. The ends of these cycles were greatly feared as a time when the gods might destroy the world.
Passing through portals
The complexity of the Maya religion, with its numerous gods and hundreds of rituals, demanded that a group of privileged people spend most of their time learning about the Maya universe and creating ways to communicate with the gods. The people who did this were priests or shamans (religious leaders who communicate with the spirit world to influence events on earth). Most scholars believe these early shamans created the remarkable Maya calendar, numeral, and writing systems. They were also responsible for curing illnesses and healing injuries, listening to confessions, and teaching new shamans. Their most important function, however, was to communicate with the gods—and for this they found several ways to travel through portals and into the spirit world.
The Maya believed every person had an animal companion spirit, a soul identical to his or her own within the body of an animal. The two souls would share the same fate— if the person was killed, the animal would die, and the reverse was true as well. By entering into a trance (an altered mental state), a skilled shaman could transform into his or her animal spirit—good shamans probably had several animal companion spirits—in order to enter the supernatural world.
Sometimes shamans achieved transformations through the use of hallucinogenic drugs (mind- and sense-altering drugs that may create visions of things not physically present) or fasting (not eating for a long period of time). Often, though, the transformations were done along with Maya blood ceremonies.
The Maya believed it was the job of human beings to regularly feed the gods with blood. This was done through bloodletting—piercing one’s own skin to draw blood—and through sacrifice, either animal or human. The Mayas believed if the gods were properly nourished, the world would be in harmony. This demanded pain and sacrifice on the part of humans.
Nobles and shamans performed bloodletting during ceremonies. Males frequently pierced the skin of their genitals, tongues, or ears to draw blood. They used the spines of stingrays (sea creatures with sharp, barbed tails) or knives made of obsidian (dark, solid glass created by volcanoes and often used to make sharp instruments). The blood dripped onto strips of paper, which were then burned. The smoke from the bloody paper was believed to bring the blood directly to the gods, along with the Maya people’s prayers.
One famous mural depicts the wife of a king pulling a thorny rope through a hole she has pierced in her tongue. The blood flows out of her mouth and onto paper strips in a basket. Bloodletting rituals such as that were sometimes performed in public ceremonies, in which the viewers could watch as the loss of blood induced a trance in the person spilling his or her blood. While in the trance, the bloodletter was believed to be transporting him or herself into the spirit world to communicate with the gods.
Sacrifice to the gods often consisted of offerings, usually of animals, but of human sacrifice, too. The victims of sacrifice were usually prisoners of war. During Classic times (from about 250 to 900 C.E.), wars were waged simply for the purpose of obtaining captives for sacrifice (the Maya tended not to sacrifice people from their own city). The Maya also sacrificed criminals and children, usually orphans, whom they brought from cities nearby.
There were many methods of sacrifice. None were humane (gentle or caring) and some involved unthinkable kinds of torture. The most common sacrifice method was to paint the victim blue and place him or her on a stone altar, with four people stationed to hold down the arms and legs. With a sharp knife a priest then cut open the chest and reached between the ribs to pull out the victim’s beating heart and offer it to the gods. The heart was smeared on carved figurines made in the image of the gods and then the corpse was thrown down the temple stairs.
The practice of human sacrifice was important to Maya beliefs. Despite its horror, sacrifice must have seemed necessary to people who felt it was the only way to influence the powerful forces around them. In the Maya set of beliefs, death was required to sustain life.
The Epic Tale of the Hero Twins
The myth of the two ball-playing young men known as the Hero Twins was a major cornerstone of the Maya belief system. The Hero Twins appear frequently in Maya art, and the Maya ball game was considered a reenactment of their deeds. The most complete tales of their adventures are taken from the Popol Vuh (Book of Counsel), a book presenting the traditional mythology (traditional, often imaginary stories dealing with ancestors, heroes, or supernatural beings, usually making an attempt to explain a belief, practice, or natural phenomenon) of the Mayas.
The Popol Vuh was probably written in glyphs (figures used as symbols to represent words, ideas, or sounds) in the Quiche Mayan language (one of the Mayan language groups) long before Europeans arrived in the Americas. Sometime after the Spanish conquest in 1542, someone copied the original book, still in the Quiche Mayan language, but written in the Latin alphabet. The manuscript was discovered many years later in a university library in Guatemala.
The tale of the Hero Twins actually begins with their father, Hun Hunapu (pronounced wan wan-a-PWA) who was also a twin. He and his twin brother were playing the Maya ball game one day and disturbed the Lords of Death by making too much noise. The lords called them down to Xibalbá and challenged them to a ball game. When the twins lost, the lords cut off their heads.
Hun Hunapu’s head was placed in a tree, where the daughter of one of the Xibalbá lords found it. When she stretched out her hand to it, the head spit into her hand. This made her become pregnant with the Hero Twins. Escaping from the Lords of Death, she went to live with Hun Hunapu’s mother until the twins—Hunahpu and Xbalanque (pronouced shpah- LAHN-kay)—were born.
When the twins became young men, they found the ball gear of their fa ther and uncle and decided to play. Like their elders before them, they disturbed the Lords of Death with their noise. The lords challenged the twins to come to Xibalbá for a ball game. In Xibalbá the lords put the twins through many tests and ordeals, and in some of them the twins died, but they were able to quickly come back to life. Through their quick-thinking, trickery, and courage, the twins outsmarted the Lords of Death several times. In the end they allowed themselves to lose the game, knowing it was their fate to be sacrificed (offered to the gods).
When the lords challenged them to jump over a fire, the twins jumped right into it and burned to death. The lords, delighted to have finally won a victory, took no chances. They ground the twins’ bones into powder and threw the bone dust into a river. At the bottom of the river the bones knit together and transformed back into the living twins. Over and over, the Hero Twins used their magic and wits, allowing themselves to be sacrificed in a variety of ways and then coming back to life.
The Lords of Death became so intrigued with the twins’ power to defeat death that they asked the twins to show them how it was done. After watching the twins die and come back to life so many times, the lords wanted to try it themselves. The Hero Twins seized the opportunity—they killed the Lords of Death as they had requested, but refused to bring them back to life.
Having defeated death, the twins brought their father and uncle back to life. The Hero Twins then ascended into the sky from the underworld, becoming the sun and the moon, making the maize grow, and bringing balance to the world. Their story brought the message that there is always hope—one may defeat death in the afterlife. Their adventures mirrored the journey of the sun, which disappeared, or died, every night in the underworld and was resurrected each morning to bring light and life to the Maya people.