Mayan Civilization

The Mayan civilization arose in Mesoamerica around 250 AD, influenced by the culture and religion of the Olmecs. The Mayan urban culture especially flourished until about 900 AD, but continued to thrive in various places until the Spanish conquest.

During this first 650 years, which scholars call the Classic Period, the Mayan civilization consisted of more than 40 sizeable cities spread across modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize.

At its peak, the total population may have reached 2 million people, the majority of whom lived in modern-day Guatemala. The cities seem to have been mainly ceremonial centers, with the majority of the Maya living a rural, agricultural life around the cities.

Sometime after 900 AD, the Mayan culture declined dramatically and most of the cities were abandoned. Latest scholarship attributes this decline to the loss of trade routes due to war.

The great southern cities became depopulated, but the cities of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico (such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán) continued to thrive in the early part of the "Post-Classic Period" (900–1519). By the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century, however, most of the Maya were village-dwelling farmers.

The remaining Maya were conquered by the Spanish and converted (at least nominally) to Roman Catholicism. The present-day Mayan peoples are spread mainly across southern Mexico, with small numbers in Guatemala and Belize. They practice a religion that combines Roman Catholicism with Mayan cosmology, deities, and domestic rituals.

The Maya had a highly sophisticated culture, and this included a written hieroglyphic language. Mayan hieroglyphics were carved into stone monuments or pieces of bone, painted on pottery, and written on books (codices) of bark paper.

Mayan texts describe religious rituals, astronomy, and divination, and are the most valuable source of information on the ancient civilization. Many of them were destroyed by the Spanish because of their pagan religious content, but three main codices have survived. Named for the cities in which they are now kept, these are the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices. The Dresden Codex contains very precise tables of Venus and the moon and describes a method of predicting solar eclipses
Other important texts are those written by learned Indians who transcribed or summarized Mayan hieroglyphic records into Latin script. One of these is the Books of Chilam Balam, written in Yucatec Maya and consisting of historical chronicles mixed with myth, divination, and prophecy. Another text, The Ritual of the Bacabs, covers religious symbolism, medical incantations, and similar matters.

Perhaps the most famous of these texts is the Popol Vuh (1554-1558), which was written in Quiché, a highland Maya language, and translated into Spanish by a priest. This tells of the mythology and cosmology of the Postclassic Guatemalan Maya, and shows central Mexican influences. It chronicles the creation of man, the actions of the gods, the origin and history of the Quiché people, and the chronology of their kings down to 1550.

These Mayan texts were not regarded as sacred or authoritative in themselves (they are not revelations from the divine like the Bible or Quran), but rather as important records of religious rituals and knowledge.

The Maya worshipped a pantheon of nature gods, each of which had both a benevolent side and a malevolent side. The most important deity was the supreme god Itzamná, the creator god, the god of the fire and god of the hearth.

Another important Mayan god was Kukulcán, the Feathered Serpent, who appears on many temples and was later adopted by the Toltecs and Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl. Also important was Chac, a hooked-nose god of rain and lightning.

A third god that frequently appears in Mayan art is Bolon Tzacab, who is depicted with a branching nose and is often held like a sceptre in rulers' hands. He is thought to have functioned as a god of royal descent.

Mayan rulers were seen as intermediaries between the gods and the people, and as semi-divine themselves. They were buried in elaborate tombs filled with valuable offerings.

The Mayan view of the afterlife consisted primarily of a dangerous voyage of the soul through the underworld, which was populated by sinister gods and represented by the jaguar, symbol of night. The majority of Maya, including the rulers, went to this underworld. Heaven was reserved for those who had been sacrificed or died in childbirth.

To the Maya, science and religion were one and the same. The Maya developed an impressive system of mathematics and astronomy, which was initimately related to religious rituals. Their mathematical achievements included positional notation and the use of zero; in astronomy, they accurately calculated a solar year, compiled precise tables of positions for the Moon and Venus, and were able to predict solar eclipses.

The Maya were obsessed with time; to understand and predict various cycles of time allowed them to adapt to and best make use of their natural world. Mayan cosmology had it that the world had been created five times and destroyed four times. On a more temporal scale, the various days of the year were considered appropriate to specific activities, while some were entirely unlucky.


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