The Mayas

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In the Yucatán peninsula between A.D 300 and 900 a civilization, former known as the Mayas, built an empire, astonishing still today. It wasn’t until our present time that archaeologist discovered this ancient culture in the forests where the mayas finally abandoned their homes. Why the Mayan civilization declined is still a mystery but as with all mysteries there are a lots of theories.

Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh is the creation story of the Maya. Below is one part of this story that recounts the first attempts of the creator, Heart of Sky to make humans. The story goes on to explain that the final attempt, that resulted in the "True people" was accomplished by constructing people with maize. This is a very reasonable explanation since, in essence, it was the cultivation of maize that gave the early Maya culture the means to change from hunters gatherers to their highly advanced civilization.

The Creation

Here is the story of the beginning, when there was not one bird, not one fish, not one mountain. Here is the sky, all-alone. Here is the sea, all-alone. There is nothing more –no sound, no movement. Only the sky and the sea. Only Heart-of-Sky, alone. And these are his names: Maker and Modeler, Kukulkan, and Hurricane. But there is no one to speak his names. There is no one to praise his glory. There is no one to nurture his greatness. And so Heart-of-Sky thinks, "Who is there to speak my name?
Who is there to praise me? How shall I make it dawn?" Heart-of-Sky only says the word, "Earth," and the earth rises, like a mist from the sea. He only thinks of it, and there it is. He thinks of mountains, and great mountains come. He thinks of trees, and trees grow on the land. And so Heart-of-Sky says, "Our work is going well." Now Heart-of-Sky plans the creatures of the forest -birds, deer, jaguars and snakes. And each is given his home. "You the deer, sleep here along the rivers. You the birds, your nests are in the trees. Multiply and scatter," he tells them. Then Heart-of-Sky says to the animals, "Speak, pray to us."
But the creatures can only squawk. The creatures only howl.
They do not speak like humans. They do not praise Heart-of-Sky and so the animals are humbled. They will serve those who will worship Heart-of-Sky. And Heart-of-Sky tries again. Tries to make a giver of respect. Tries to make a giver of praise. Here is the new creation, made of mud and earth. It doesn´t look very good. It keeps crumbing and softening. It looks lopsided and twisted. It only speaks nonsense. It cannot multiply.

So Heart-of-Sky lets it dissolved away. Now Heart-of-Sky plans again.
Our Grandfather and Our Grandmother are summoned. They are the wisest spirits. "Determine if we should carve people from wood," commands Heart-of-Sky. They run their hands over the kernels of corn. They run their hands over the coral seeds. "What can we make that will speak and pray? asks Our Grandfather. What can we make that will nurture and provide?" asks Our Grandmother. They count the days, the lots of four, seeking an answer for Heart-of-Sky. Now they give the answer, "It is good to make your people with wood. They will speak your name.

They will walk about and multiply." "So it is," replies Heart-of-Sky. And as the words are spoken, it is done. The doll-people are made with faces carved from wood. But they have no blood, no sweat. They have nothing in their minds. They have no respect for Heart-of-Sky. They are just walking about, but they accomplish nothing. "This is not what I had in mind," says Heart-of-Sky. And so it is decided to destroy these wooden people. Hurricane makes a great rain. It rains all day and rains all night.
There is a terrible flood and the earth is blackened. The creatures of the forest come into the homes of the doll-people. "You have chased us from our homes so now we will take yours," they growl. And their dogs and turkeys cry out, "You have abused us so now we shall eat you!"
Even their pots and grinding stones speak, "We will burn you and pound on you just as you have done to us!" The wooden people scatter into the forest. Their faces are crushed, and they are turned into monkeys.
And this is why monkeys look like humans. They are what are left of what came before, an experiment in human design.

The Olmecs, a historical background

To begin with, as the mayas, I would like to give a background to the history thru the Olmec history. Archaeologist of today doesn’t know very much about the Olmecs less than that it was the first American civilization. They emerged in the tropical forests along the Mexican Gulf Coast and lasted from about 1400 B.C. to 500 B.C. The remainings of rich tombs and temples suggest that they had a powerful class of priests and aristocrats. The important part, later connected to the Mayas, was that the Olmecs didn’t build any true cities. Instead the built ceremonial centers made of pyramid-shaped temples and other religious buildings. People came from farming-villages nearby to attend in religious ceremonies. The Olmecs spread their influence thru trade over a wide area. The most important part that the mayas later adapted was their leadership of priests.

The Mayan Empire

When so the Mayan empire evolved it did it thru religious beliefs. Since the people in those times, as today, depended on their harvest or food in generally, they where quite happy when they got it. This happiness the devoted to the sun itself and therefore it isn’t so hard to understand why many early civilizations worshipped the sun god. As a connection to the Olmecs the Mayas also built pyramids where they performed religious scenes. The difference was that the Mayas built large cities, each ruled by their own chief. Nobles who served as military leaders and officials who managed public works, collected taxes and enforced laws surrounded the chief. Most chiefs where men but records and carvings show that occasionally women governed on their own or in the name of their young sons.

The main principle to created a civilization that is ruled or governed in any way, are the large amount of harvest that allows some to do something that doesn’t have with farming itself to do. Of course the most mayas were farmers who grew corn, beans and squash. But without the priest who maintained their religious beliefs thru ceremonies and offerings there wouldn’t be so much to live on. Scientists have recently determined how Mayan farming methods allowed them to thrive in the tropical environment. Mayan farmers cleared the dense rainforests and then built raised fields that caught and held rainwater. They also built channels that could be opened to drain of excess water. This complex system produced enough maize and other crops to support rapidly growing cities.

The Real Power?

Who had the real power in the Mayan civilization then? As a legacy from the Olmecs we can see that the real power only could be maintained thru religion, but the givers of power where those who worked in the lands. Thru this mutual agreement the priests developed end advanced in both mathematics and writings. They also became experts in astronomy, this because of to read the future or calculate the unknown tomorrow. To do this the mayas developed an accurate 365-day solar calendar, as well as 260-day calendar based on the orbit of the planet Venus. Mayan priests also invented a numbering system and understood the value of zero long before Europeans acquired this idea from India through the Arabs. The reason they did this was, as you understand, to keep the mutual agreement with the farmers and the rest of the civilization.
To spread the ideas the priests also made impressive advances in learning. They developed a hieroglyphic writing system, which has only recently been deciphered. Mayan scribes kept their sacred knowledge in books made of bark. Though Spanish conquerors later burned most of these books, a handful was taken to Europe and survives in European museums.


Towering pyramid temples dominated the largest Mayan city of Tikal, in present day Guatemala. Priests climbed steep temple stairs to perform sacrifices on high platforms, while ordinary people watched from the plazas far below. Some temples also served as burial places for nobles and priests. The Mayan pyramids remained the tallest structures in the Americas until 1903, when the Flatiron Building, a skyscraper, was built in New York. In those days most of the houses only had one level, only nobles and people in higher classes could maintain a building with more than one level. This because the mayas worshipped the sun and therefore only people who had power could be near the sun.


We divide the Mayan culture in to three periods, the Middle Pre Classic (900-300 BC) and the Late Pre Classic (300 BC-AD 300) and the Post Classic (AD 900-Conquest) The Middle Pre Classic is also called the Formative and this is where the Mayas rose from their farming villages to their magnificent cities. In the Late Pre Classic period art, architecture, writing, commerce and intense agricultural practices flourished.
The Classic Maya cities did not survive into the 10th century. It seems that the system of rule that had served them well for centuries failed. They probably faced a foreign invasion, chronic warfare, climatic changes and perhaps diseases. The Classic period ended in what is called the Classis Maya collapse. The Mayas continued to live in both highlands and lowlands but their period of their prime was over even though the city Chichen Itza tried to keep it in the Post Classic period. Chichen Itza was probably abandoned by the 12th century.

Trading towns survived along the Caribbean Coast. Tulum, a spectacular walled city and a mayor trading town, located above the coastline of what is know state of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Carribean seashore is a great example of these. This city when seen from a Spanish ship was compared to Seville.

The Mayas of Yucatan finally broke up into small states and the Spanish took advantage of this division to take control in 1542. In that year, after having been fought back during 15 years, they were able to establish their own capital at Merida, (in today’s state of Yucatan, Mexico) on the site of a Mayan city called Tiho. The last of the Maya kingdoms, Tayasal, in Lake Peten Itza (Guatemala), was conquered by the Spanish in 1697, 155 years after the conquest of Merida.

The Mayas Of Today

Even though the Maya culture is said to disappear it only did that in the means of their governed states where they built cities. While the city-states of the Classic period lowlands may have been abandoned in the tenth century, the Maya people did not disappear any more than the Italians when the Roman Empire fell. Modern Maya religion is a colourful hybrid of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs and rituals. Their ancient gods have been replaced with statues of Santos (and secret Maximóns) but the stories of these saints only remotely resemble those of their European counterparts.

Today, devoted Mayas worship at mountain and cave shrines, making offerings of chickens, candles and incense with a ritual alcoholic drink. Shaman/day keepers keep count of the 260-day ritual calendar and provide healing by identifying curses and offended ancestors, counting seeds and crystals in their divinations, and performing curando rituals.
The Maya community has both secular and religious leaders. Most Maya families are maize farmers and they still use the slash and burn method for their milpas.

As with the Scottish quilt you can identify the community to which a Maya individual belongs by their dress. The women wear loose hand-woven or embroidered huipiles (blouses) with distinctive patterns and colours for each community. Few men in the Guatemala highlands wear the traditional traje as it could be dangerous to call attention to themselves as Maya.

The Maya language is actually a family of related languages spoken from South-Eastern Mexico through northern Central America as far south as H...

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  • Inactive member 2009-08-31

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Inactive member [2005-07-31]   The Mayas
Mimers Brunn [Online]. [2023-12-06]

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