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Sunday, November 11, 2007

HUX 576: Pre-Columbian Maya

Deep in the dense forests of the Yucatan peninsula, a civilization was borne; one which would erect great monuments to its gods, tame and cultivate the flora and fauna of its domain, and one which would live in a highly stratified society. It would be a society of social and ethical rules, of great celebrations and terrible conflicts, and of refined rational knowledge coupled with immeasurable superstition. Before this civilization was hispanicized and conquered in the name of the Catholic God, these people, the Mayans, had carved an empire of their own. Before the conquest of this paradise, the Mayans were a people of intense ritualized social customs, religion, industry and creativity.

The history of the Mayan people following their conquest has been well documented. However, the history and custom of these people would likely be lost if not for Friar Diego de Landa, a Spanish holy man sent to the Yucatan to help oversee the conversion of the natives to Christianity. His Yucatan Before and After the Conquest is the most complete first-hand account of how the Mayan culture grew and what there customs and practices were before they were conquered by Spain. Arguably, one must take Landa’s book with a grain of salt as he, a devout follower of less a tolerant time of Catholicism, looks down upon the natives of the Yucatan as savages who have been perverted by the devil’s influence. Regardless of Landa’s flaws, or those of his textual history of the Maya, his work is an invaluable source when beginning any passing or serious study of the Yucatan people.

Landa’s book cites numerous examples of the ritualized customs and practices of the Mayan people. Mayan women bathed almost incessantly and had the “habit of filing their teeth…as a matter of fashion” (Landa 53). Furthermore, they pierced their ears and noses and tattooed their bodies from the waist up (53). Mayan women also had the custom of rubbing themselves down with red ointment, similar to what their husbands would do (53). A woman preparing for marriage also had very a very ritualized process for preparing their hair for their weddings. According to Landa, the mother of the bride was responsible for arranging her hair with such skill that the final product creates a coiffure “as fine as those of the most coquettish Spanish women” (54). Mayan women also dole out punishments to their children, being fair but stern disciplinarians. Typical punishments included a strike or slap to the ear or arm or peppering the eyes of a child who rolled them at a parent (54). Those women without children entreated their various idols with gifts and prayers in the hopes of multiple pregnancies (55). Widows would not marry for a year following the death of a spouse and any sexual contact during this time was strictly forbidden as engaging in such would bring bad humors onto her(46).

The Maya people had very rigid customs regarding death and burial. Landa speaks clearly that the Maya fear death (Landa 56). They would weep in silence during the day and wail with “loud and mournful” cries at night for the deceased (56). The preparation of the dead required ritualized ceremony which included the wrapping of the body in a shroud after filling the mouth with maize (56). The body would also have been given drink and stones which the Maya used as money, perhaps in belief of paying their way to paradise or paying Death (56). Burial of the dead took place in the home. Furthermore, if the deceased was a priest or a sorcerer, Landa indicates that many of their idols, books or “divining stones” would be buried with them (56). Chiefs, however, were another matter. Following cremation, the remains of the chief were placed into an urn and placed in hollow gray statues (57).

The Mayans also baptized their children. This highly ritualized practice included the use of priests and other town folk. Priests were required to expel all evil demons and spirits from the house where the baptism was to be performed (Landa 44). The parent or parents would fast prior to the baptism and were responsible for preparing their children for the ceremony (43). The priest would place ground maize and incense into the hand of the child to be baptized, who would then throw it into a lit brazier (44). After adding a bit of wine to the brazier, it was carried from the house and away from the village by an attendant, removing any offending demons or spirits thus (44). After a spoken service, the priest would “menace” the head of the child with a bone nine times before wetting the bone in water and anointing the face/extremities of the child (44). After some further rites and prayers, the priest would then menace the child’s head with a tobacco pipe nine times before presenting the child with a bouquet and the pipe to smoke (45). A feast for the child happened in turn followed by ritualistic offering of wine to the gods (45). Landa makes note that the process of baptism was lengthy, but not a private ceremony. Many children could be baptized at the same time regardless of gender. Furthermore, Landa notes that communal baptisms would occur at a centralized location. Regardless, the night would end with a large party called the em-ku which featured good wine and drink (45).

Of great importance to Mayan society were priests and their religious duties. The High Priest was called the Ahkin May which means the Priest of May (Landa 12). This priest was held in high regard by the village chiefs and received offerings from both the village chiefs and lesser priests. The High Priest gave counsel to the chiefs, instructed younger priests in their duties, and taught the science of time and dates which the Maya had mastered through mathematics (12-13). Mayan priests also heard confessions from the people of their villagers. The villagers felt that torments, disease and death would “come on them because of evil-doing and sin” (Landa 45). Villagers afflicted with illness or hardship would either confess his or her sins to the priest, or their family and neighbors would remind them to do so (45). And although the typical sins confessed included homicide (whether intentional or accidental), indulging of the flesh, thievery and lying, acts of sexual misconduct with female slaves was not considered an offense as slaves were viewed as property (46-47).

Religious idols and ceremonies were very important to the Maya. Idols were carved from stone, clay, wood or terra-cotta and the artisan responsible for the crafting of the idol had to fast during its creation and follow many rituals (Landa 37). The Maya also prayed to a variety of gods and had deep fears of demons that cause misfortune. Their principle god was Itzamna, which literally translates into “iguana house”; he was the creator of the universe (Ivers 13). Itzamna was also in charge of crops and the more tangible elements like water and earth (Ivers 13). Beyond Itzamna, the Maya worshipped a number of minor gods as well including Kinich Ahau (the sun god) and Ix Chel (the moon goddess) (Ivers 13). There were also earth-bound gods such as Kukulcan. Kukulcan (also known as Quetzlcoatl to the Aztec), was a great lord who ruled Chichen Itza, where a massive pyramid built to honor him still stands. Kukulcan was a wise and fair ruler and was revered as a god due to his great service to the state where he settled the “discord caused in the land by {the chiefs} deaths” (Landa 10).

One practice that was reprehensible to Landa was human sacrifices. Sacrifices have been documented in many ancient and modern religious practices, whether human or otherwise. The sacrificed were slaves though some were sons offered up by devout father’s (48). The victim was “feted up to the day of the sacrifice, but carefully guarded that they might not run away” (48). On the day of the sacrifice, the villagers danced while attendants to the priest held the arms and legs of the victim down (48). From here, either a single arrow was shot into the heart of the victim, or the priest would make an incision on the chest with a flint knife before plunging his hand into the chest and ripping the still beating heart from the living victim (48-49). In either case, the face of an idol was doused in blood and the deceased might be flayed or have his hands and feet removed (49).

The Maya were a very industrious, organized people. They were excellent with ceramics and woodworking. Maya physicians (called ‘sorcerors’ by Landa) healed the sick using herbs and other superstitious practices (Landa 37). The most common occupation dealt with agriculture, “the raising of maize and the other seeds” which was gathered and stored in a large granary (38). Another typical occupation was that of trade, usually coco and “stone counters” for salt, cloth, and slaves (37).

The Maya also refined a manner in which to create books. Their books were written on a “long sheet doubled in folds, which was then enclosed between two boards finely ornamented” (Landa 13). The paper used in the making of these books was dredged from the roots of trees. According to Landa, the paper had a “white finish excellent for writing upon” (13).

Mayan homes were typically constructed of wood covered with thatch, or sometimes with the broad leaves of palm (Landa 32). The roof of the home was usually very steep to prevent rain from drizzling into the interior of the house (32). The first half of the house is reserved for meeting guests. As a result, it was typically adorned in a whitewash to help refine the appearance of the place (32). If this were the house of a chief, the front room may include carved frescoes (32). The rear of the house served as the bedroom(s) for the family while the front room is for formal reception and provided for “lodging of guests” (32). The area around the home was very clean and absent of plants or litter (26). The center of the town was built around the temple(s) while around the town center stood the houses of the chiefs and priests (26). The homes of the wealthy and the town elders (“leading men) radiated out from the homes of the chiefs and priests with the homes of the commoner creating the town’s borders (26). Outside the village proper was where one would find the great cotton, pepper, maize, and wine plantations which stimulated the Maya economy (26).

The political system of the Maya was one ruled by a chief who was advised at times by leading men and priests. Should the chief die, his eldest son would take his place while the lesser sons would be held in high regard as lords (Landa 32). The chiefs act as judge and moderator in the affairs of their people and the village as a whole (32). Important judgments were brought before the leading men who offered their advice and counsel on the matter. Serious matters such as war were left to be resolved by the Mayan soldiery who were outfitted with hatchets, lance, and bows and arrows tipped with sharpened animal teeth (50). The soldiers wore protective coats made cotton, wooden helmets, and defended themselves with small bucklers made of reeds and deer hides (50).

The arts seem to have been actively cultivated in Maya culture. The native peoples acted, sung, made music, sculpted, carved and made massive architectural wonders. Mayan actors, according to Landa, performed with great skill and he even makes mention of their performances as ‘art’ (Landa 36). The Maya made whistles of deer bones, small drums, and long, thin trumpets created from hollow wood (36). Idols, as indicated previously, were common and made with great skill. Carvings and statues were common for larger temples and frescoes were in use in the houses of the aristocracy. Heiroglyphic writing was common and helped to refine not only the written language of the Maya, but also refined their skills in relief carving. Stucco was used to create massive murals and panels of glyphs decorated with flat colors and heavy black line (Ivers 12). Maya temples were colossal stone constructs, megalithic in proportion. Some of the most celebrated are the stepped pyramids in present day Honduras. These pyramids often included finery such as carved designs or masks or statues on their balustrades (Ivers 12).

Before their conquest, the Mayans were a people of intense ritualized social customs, religion, industry, and creativity. The extent of their “civilization” is obvious to any modern scholar or enthusiast of Yucatecan history. With the exception of metal tools, the Maya were just as cultured and civil as any European nation in its time. An established language and well organized political and religious system is often cited as a benchmark for what makes for a true society. As such, the Maya are no different than the more socially advanced nations of their time. Landa continually reminds us through the text of how barbaric or primitive the customs of the Maya people were, and we must take his testimony with a grain of salt considering his background and occupation. Where we see custom, he saw blasphemous sacrifices. Where we see statues and carvings in relief, he saw idols--the tools of the devil. Landa was myopic in his views. Today, a modern reader can note a civilization steeped in tradition, rich in custom, firm in their faith, refined in their art, organized in their governmental and theocratic offices, and intensely ritualized in their day to day living.

Works Cited

Ivers, Dr. Louise. Humanities 576. “Key Periods and Movements, Art: Ancient Maya”.

Course Guide. California State University, Dominguez Hills, 2000.

Landa, Friar Diego de. Yucatan Before and After the Conquest. Translated by

William Gates. Dover Publications Inc. New York. 1978.

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Graduate of The University of Akron, Graduate of California State University (HUX)

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