By the time when Columbus discovered America in 1492, this territory was inhabited by a variety of Native American tribes and ethnic groups, most of which were in the primitive stage of development. However, some of them living in Mesoamerica (Central America) and the Andes (South America) reached a level of highly developed ancient civilizations. The Maya civilization can serve as a vivid example of a highly primitive culture of the New World. The Maya is the great civilization of Central America known for its literature, art, architecture, mathematical, and astronomical systems. The civilization started forming in 2000 BC - 250 BC and continued to exist until the arrival of the conquistadors in the Yucatan peninsula in 1517. More than one hundred years of archaeological researches still did not allow unraveling the mystery of appearance, rise, and fall of the Mayan culture. The current research paper examines the Maya civilization, its religious beliefs, and cultural development. Moreover, the paper focuses on how Mayans combined their daily activities with their religion practices.
Culture and civilization of Maya stretched throughout Central America and became an amazing phenomenon of pre-Columbian America, which existed in the I-XV centuries BC. “The Maya world embraces the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, the countries of Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and the western part of Honduras”. The modern researchers of the region called Maya the most fascinating of all the civilizations of ancient America. Indeed, everything related to Maya is shrouded in mystery and enigma. Their origin and choice of settlement in the jungles of Mexico is a secret. At the same time, the ups and downs of their subsequent development are also a great mystery. In the classical period of the Maya civilization, their culture achieved the remarkable development. In the first century AD, they achieved the highest level and amazing excellence in architecture, sculpture, and painting. Emerging large and crowded cities became centers of handicraft production marked with a real flowering of painted pottery. At this time, the Mayan created developed hieroglyphic writing, which was the only in America as evidenced by the inscriptions on the walls, reliefs, and small plastic objects. The ancient Maya developed an accurate solar calendar and successfully predicted solar and lunar eclipses. In the VI-IX centuries, monumental sculpture and painting achieved high levels of success. Sculptural schools in Palenque, Copan, and other cities made a rare skill and subtlety when transferring natural postures and movements of the characters depicted including rulers, dignitaries, and soldiers.
In the IX-X centuries, most Maya cities were destroyed by invading tribes of the Toltecs. Nevertheless, in the XI century, Maya culture was revived in the Yucatan peninsula and in the mountains of Guatemala. Though, by the middle of the XV century, the Maya culture entered a grave crisis and went into decay. When the Spanish conquerors came in the Maya cities at the beginning of the XVI century, many of them were abandoned by their inhabitants. The reasons for this unexpected final of flourishing culture and civilization still remain a mystery. Nowadays, most of the achievements of this civilization are lost. In the book Daily Life in Maya Civilization, the author states that “Many of the intellectual achievements of Maya civilization were lost”.
Religion of the Ancient Maya
The beliefs of the Maya and religion of ancient American cultures are characterized by the complex, sophisticated rites, and rituals. The fundamental objective of these beliefs is to obtain leniency from the gods in the form of various benefits. The Maya religion could boast with a huge variety of rituals including incense of aromatic resins, cult dances, chants, vigils, fasting, and prayers.
The sacrifice occupied a special place in the religion of the ancient Maya. The victims were the inhabitants of flora and fauna including jaguars, turkeys, turtles, flowers, and fruits of trees, as well as handicrafts crafts and humans. Moreover, in the post-classical period, the Maya’s victims of sacrifices were mostly humans. An essential attribute of religious ceremonies and sacrifice was a special ceremonial blue paint. The priests daubed a person intended for sacrifice with blue paint and wore a special high sacrificial cap on his head. Then, accompanied by religious songs, they led a person to the top of the pyramid. Four assistants of the high priest also smeared with sacred sacrificial azure and put the victim on the altar. Then, the master of ceremonies with a stone knife dissected a victim’s chest. Swiftly pulling out the beating heart of the gaping chest, he gave it to the main priest. The latter sprinkled a picture or a statue of the god with heart blood, in whose honor they made the sacrifice. The victim’s body was dumped from the steps of a pyramid. At the bottom, other priests tore off the skin from the warm corpse. The main priest immediately donned the skin and performed a frenetic ritual dance. Then, the victim’s body was either burned or cut into many small pieces and then eaten by the nobles and priests. The ancient Maya worshiped blood as favorite food of the gods.
It is obvious that with the reverent attitude to the traditions and rituals, the priests occupied a special place in the Maya society. They constituted a particular social stratum and caste with unshakable hierarchy. In the Maya empire, the power came from the high priest to young acolytes. The Maya religion was distinguished by the fact that the priests acted as scientists. They were engaged in the study of the world and accumulated scientific knowledge. According to information provided by the chroniclers, images, and codes relating to the culture of the ancient Indians, it is possible to restore the rituals, through which Maya religion was manifested. It is known that most of the inhabitants of Mesoamerica cared about such issues as food production and the extension of life. The Maya religion dictated Indians that it could be achieved through various collective or individual rituals.
Religion was the spiritual foundation of the Maya culture as in many ancient civilizations. In views of the Maya, the world was a complex form. It was filled with a variety of sacred powers. Therefore, the pantheon of gods was extremely large. There were dozens of gods. The ancient Maya divided gods on the benevolent and malevolent. According to their understanding, the first gods gave rain, provided a harvest of corn, and promoted fertility. The latter ones were mainly engaged in the destructive work. They gave droughts, hurricanes, and wars. Master of the World Itzamna was among the main celestial deities in the pantheon of the Maya. He was an old man with a toothless mouth, an aquiline nose, and a wrinkled face. He was considered as the creator of the world, God of Day and Night, the founder of the priesthood, and the inventor of writing. The god of fire also played an important role among the Maya deities. He was most commonly depicted as an old man with a huge branched nose in the form of a stylized sign of fire.
One of the distinguishing features of the Maya religion throughout their history was a ritual of bloodletting. The authors Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler state that “There is no doubt that over time, Maya religion was influenced and changed by concepts introduced from Mexico and elsewhere in Mesoamerica”. Despite this fact, traditional rituals still remained. Perforation was the main type of ritual operation during the classical period. The ancient Maya pierced tongues. Moreover, both men and women practiced this ritual. However, in the post-classical period, women did not use bloodletting, although they were quite devout. Lynn Foster affirms that “Images including bloodletting as a critical ritual act appear with frequency in Maya sculptures, murals, and vessels”. In the scenes of bloodletting in the Madrid Code of the XVI-XVII centuries, there are women piercing their ears. It is known that the rulers and their wives also made joint bloodlettings.
It is important to mention that medicine of the Maya civilization was at the level of the main achievements of the developed slave societies of the ancient East. For a number of positions, it was comparable with the medicine of ancient Greece and Rome. In some respects, it was even superior to the medicine of feudal Europe. Pagan Maya religion was closely connected with the belief in life after death. It led to the veneration of the dead, lush funeral rituals of the nobles, and practices of embalming the dead. Maya knew chemical methods of preserving corpses, which were used in the mummification of the dead kings and nobles. The technique of autopsy remained the ancient Egyptian. After removing the innards and the brain, the body was polished with the special balsam, the composition of which is defined due to the success of modern chemistry. It consisted of Peru balsam, wood tar, salts, menthol, alkaloids, tannin, and many other local natural substances. At the burial, the mummy was given the sitting posture. A dead person was dressed in the finest clothes, wrapped in a blanket, and placed in a specially constructed building with lots of rooms in the sand deep underground caves or natural alpine caves, cold and fresh air of which helped preserve the bodies. Along with the mummies, things that a person used in life were also buried. People believed that a dead person would use these things after death.
The study of graves of Maya showed that the customs of these people included the deliberate change of body parts of certain stratum of society - sharpening of the upper teeth, inlaid of teeth with jade, obsidian, jasper, and gold, changing of the shape of the skull, as well as piercing of the nasal septum, ear lobe, tongue, and other body parts. The concept of beauty among the Maya included a flat forehead, an elongated skull, and strabismus. In this regard, immediately after birth, the baby’s head was fixed between the two boards. A prominent bead was hung on the forehead between the eyes. Besides, the Maya did not consider that these rituals could cause some disabilities and diseases. The causes of the disease were considered peculiarities of the calendar year, bad deeds and sins, and magical and extraterrestrial forces not depending on the person. The Maya associated fever, jaundice, bloody vomit, and hemorrhoids with monkeys, which were considered to be their ancestors. Medicinal doctoring on the continent was closely connected with magic. However, in its essence, it was based on centuries-old empirical experience of people. Many priests and physicians were involved in the treatment of diseases.
On the whole, the Maya civilization existed several thousand years ago. It covered the territories of modern states such as Guatemala, Belize, a part of Honduras, El Salvador, and some states of Mexico. According to scientists, the Maya civilization reached the great development to the beginning of a new era. The civilization had many religious rituals including cult dances, prayers, aromatic resins, chants, fasting, and vigils. The Mayas especially honored blood. They conducted bloodletting rituals and sacrifices.