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  1. Maya Civilization
  2. Maya Religion: The Light That Came From Beside The Sea
  3. Maya Writing
  4. Maya Food & Agriculture
  5. The Ball Game of Mesoamerica
  6. The Classic Maya Collapse
  7. How to Read a Maya Glyph

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Maya Civilization

Origin and history
by Joshua J. Mark

The Maya are an indigenous people of Mexico and Central America who have continuously inhabited the lands comprising modern-day Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas in Mexico and southward through Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. The designation Maya comes from the ancient Yucatan city of Mayapan, the last capital of a Mayan Kingdom in the Post-Classic Period. The Maya people refer to themselves by ethnicity and language bonds such as Quiche in the south or Yucatec in the north (though there are many others). The `Mysterious Maya’ have intrigued the world since their `discovery’ in the 1840's by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood but, in reality, much of the culture is not that mysterious when understood. Contrary to popular imagination, the Maya did not vanish and the descendants of the people who built the great cities of Chichen Itza, Bonampak, Uxmal and Altun Ha still exist on the same lands their ancestors did and continue to practice, sometimes in a modified form, the same rituals which would be recognized by a native of the land one thousand years ago.

MAYA Origins

The history of Mesoamerica is usually divided into specific periods which, taken together, reveal the development of culture in the region and, for the purposes of this definition, the emergence and cultivation of the Maya Civilization.
The Archaic Period: 7000-2000 BCE – During this time a hunter-gatherer culture began to cultivate crops such as maize, beans and other vegetables and the domestication of animals (most notably dogs and turkeys) and plants became widely practiced. The first villages of the region were established during this period which included sacred spots and temples dedicated to various gods. The villages excavated thus far are dated from 2000-1500 BCE.
The Olmec Period: 1500-200 BCE – This era is also known as the Pre-Classic or Formative Period when the Olmecs, the oldest culture in Mesoamerica, thrived. The Olmecs settled along the Gulf of Mexico and began building great cities of stone and brick. The famous Olmec heads strongly suggest highly sophisticated skill in sculpture and the first indications of Shamanic religious practices date from this period. The enormous size and scope of Olmec ruins gave birth to the idea that the land was once populated by giants. Though no one knows where the Olmecs came from, nor what happened to them, they lay the foundation for all the future civilizations in Mesoamerica.
The Lost Gods: The Maya (Planet Knowledge)
The Zapotec Period: 600 BCE-800 CE – In the region surrounding modern-day Oaxaca, the cultural center now known as Monte Alban was founded which became the capital of the Zapotec kingdom. The Zapotecs were clearly influenced by (or, perhaps, related to) the Olmecs and, through them, some of the most important cultural elements of the region were disseminated such as writing, mathematics, astronomy and the development of the calendar; all of which the Maya would refine.
The Teotihuacan Period: 200-900 CE – During this era the great city of Teotihuacan grew from a small village to a metropolis of enormous size and influence. Early on, Teotihuacan was a rival of another city called Cuicuilco but, when that community was destroyed by a volcano c. 100 CE, Teotihuacan became dominant in the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was an important religious center which was devoted to the worship of a Great Mother Goddess and her consort the Plumed Serpent. The Plumed Serpent god Kukulkan (also known as Gucamatz) was the most popular deity among the Maya. Like many of the cities which now lie in ruin throughout the southern Americas, Teotihuacan was abandoned sometime around 900 CE.
The El Tajin Period: 250-900 CE – This period is also known as the Classic Period in Mesoamerican and Mayan history.
The El Tajin Period: 250-900 CE – This period is also known as the Classic Period in Mesoamerican and Mayan history. The name `El Tajin’ refers to the great city complex on the Gulf of Mexico which has been recognized as one of the most important sites in Mesoamerica. During this time the great urban centers rose across the land and the Maya numbered in the millions. The very important ball game which came to be known as Poc-a-Toc was developed and more ball courts have been found in and around the city of El Tajin than anywhere else in the region. Who, precisely, the people were who inhabited El Tajin remains unknown as there were over fifty different ethnic groups represented in the city and dominance has been ascribed to both the Maya and the Totonac.
The Classic Maya Period: 250-950 CE – This is the era which saw the consolidation of power in the great cities of the Yucatec Maya such as Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Direct cultural influences may be seen, in some sites, from the Olmecs and the Zapotecs and the cultural values of Teotihuacan and El Tajin but, in others, a wholly new culture seems to have emerged (such as at Chichen Itza where, though there is ample evidence of cultural borrowing, there is a significantly different style to the art and architecture). This period was the height of the Maya civilization in which they perfected mathematics, astronomy, architecture and the visual arts and also refined and perfected the calendar. The oldest date recorded in this era is on Stele 29 in the city of Tikal (292 CE) and the latest is from an inscription on the Stele at the site of Tonina (909 CE). The city-states of the Mayan civilization stretched from Piste in the north all the way down to modern-day Honduras.
The Post-Classic Period: 950-1524 CE – At this time the great cities of the Maya were abandoned. Thus far, no explanation for the mass exodus from the cities to outlying rural areas has been determined but climate change and over population have been strongly suggested among other possibilities. The Toltecs, a new tribe in the region, took over the vacant urban centers and re-populated them. At this time, Tula and Chichen-Itza became dominant cities in the region. The widely popular conception that the Maya were driven from their cities by the Spanish Conquest is erroneous as the cities were already vacant by the time of the Spanish invasion (in fact, the Spanish conquerors had no idea the natives they found in the region were responsible for the enormous complexes of the cities). The Quiche Maya were defeated at the Battle of Utatlan in 1524 CE and this date traditionally marks the end of the Maya Civilization.

MAYA Culture

The height of the Maya Civilization in the Classic Period produced the incredible cultural advances for which they are well known. The Maya believed deeply in the cyclical nature of life – nothing was ever `born’ and nothing ever `died’ – and this belief inspired their view of the gods and the cosmos. Their cosmological views, in turn, encouraged their imaginative efforts in architecture, mathematics, and astronomy. Beneath the earth was the dark realm of Xibalba (pronounced `shee-Bal-ba’ and translated as `place of fear’) from whence grew the great Tree of Life which came up through the earth and towered into the heavens, through thirteen levels, to reach the paradise of Tamoanchan (`place of the misty sky’) where beautiful flowers bloomed. In Mayan belief, however, one did not die and go to a `heaven’ or a `hell’ but, rather, embarked on a journey toward Tamoanchan. This journey began in the dark and treacherous underworld of Xibalba where the Xibalbans who lived there were more apt to trick and destroy a soul than help one.
If one could navigate through Xibalba, however, one could then find the way to ascend through the nine levels of the underworld, and the thirteen levels of the higher world, to paradise. The only ways in which a soul could by-pass Xibalba and travel instantly to Tamoanchan were through death in childbirth, as a sacrificial victim, in warfare, on the ball court, or by suicide (the Maya had a special goddess of suicide named Ixtab who was depicted as the rotting corpse of a woman hanging by a noose in the heavens). Once one reached Tamoanchan there was eternal happiness but, it must be noted, this paradise was not thought to actually exist in the sky but on the earth. After ascending through the thirteen levels, one did not live in the air but, rather, on a mystical mountain back on the planet. It was because of this cyclical view that the Maya did not believe there was anything wrong with human sacrifice. Those people who were offered to the gods did not `die' but simply moved on. This cosmological belief influenced every aspect of the Mayan civilization and rituals were performed regularly in caves, evoking the darkness of Xibalba, and on hills or high temples which symbolized the heights of Tamoanchan.
The great pyramids which characterize so many Mayan sites are replicas of the great mountain of the gods known as the Witzob. The cyclical nature of human existence is mirrored in the famous Maya calendar. The depictions of the many gods and goddesses all go toward their function in helping one through the cycles of life or hindering. The great religious book of the Quiche Maya, the Popol-Vuh, tells precisely this story of the cyclical nature of life through the tale of the Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque and their victory over the forces of chaos and darkness symbolized by the Lords of Xibalba. The game the twins are famous for playing, Poc-a-Toc, serves the same purpose.
Poc-a-Toc was the most popular game among the Maya and was far more than `just a game’ as it symbolized the human struggle and reflected the way the Maya viewed existence. Two opposing teams of seven men each would face each other on a ball court and try to score a small rubber ball through a vertical hoop affixed to a wall (sometimes as high as twenty feet in the air, sometimes higher) while defending their own goal. What makes the game even more impressive is that a player could not use the hands or the feet, only the hips, shoulders, head and knees. The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa wrote that watching the Maya play Poc-a-Toc was like watching lightning strikes, they moved so quickly. It has long been believed that the losing team (or the captain of the losing team) would be killed at the end of the match but recent advances in deciphering the Mayan glyphs, together with archaeological evidence, suggests it may have been the winning team or the winning captain who was given the honor of a quick death and instant passage to paradise. The game is thought to have been symbolic, not only of the victory of the hero twins over darkness, but of the cyclical nature of life. The Mayanists Schele and Matthews claim, "Many modern myths have grown up about the ballgame. The most popular says that the Maya sacrificed the winners so as to give a perfect gift to the gods. There is no evidence for this interpretation in any of the ancient or historical sources" (210). This is not quite correct, however, as glyphs at many ball courts, Chichen Itza to name only one, could be interpreted as showing the winning team or captain being sacrificed and modern Mayan daykeepers at both Altun Ha in Belize and Chichen Itza in the Yucatan point to the hope of escape from the darkness of Xibalba as the reason for the winners being executed. Whichever team was chosen to die, and under what circumstances (since teams could not have been continually sacrificed as there is evidence of `star' teams) the ball game was deeply meaningful to the Maya as more than just a spectator sport. More information on the particulars of the game, and the life of the ancient Maya in general, comes to light as more heiroglyphics are discovered and interpreted.

MAYAN Hieroglyphics

The modern day difficulty in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphics stems from the actions of the same man who, inadvertently, preserved so much of what we know of the Maya Civilization: Bishop Diego de Landa. Appointed to the Yucatan following the Spanish conquest of the north, Landa arrived in 1549 CE and instantly set himself to the task of routing out heathenism from among the Mayan converts to Christianity. The concept of a god who dies and comes back to life was very familiar to the Maya from their own deity The Maize God and they seem to have accepted the story of Jesus Christ and his resurrection easily. Even so, Landa believed that there was a subversive faction growing among the Maya which was seducing them `back to idolatry’ and, having failed to crush this perceived rebellion through the avenues of prayer and admonition, chose another more direct method.
On 12 July 1562 CE, at the church at Mani, Landa burned over forty Mayan Codices (books) and over 20,000 images and stele. In his own words, “We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented.” Landa went further, however, and resorted to torture to extricate the secrets of the subversives among the natives and bring them back to what he saw as the true path of the church. His methods were condemned by the other priests and he was called back to Spain to explain his actions. Part of his defense was his 1566 CE work Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan which has preserved much of the culture Landa tried to destroy and has proved to be a valuable asset in understanding ancient Maya culture, religion, and language.
Only three books of the Maya escaped the conflagration at Mani: The Madrid Codex, The Dresden Codex, and The Paris Codex (so named for the cities where they were found many years after they were brought back from the Yucatan) which have provided scholars with a great deal of information on the beliefs of the Maya and, especially, on their calendar. The codices were created by scribes who made careful observations in astronomy (the Dresden Codex alone devotes six pages to accurately calculating the rising and positions of Venus) and their interpretations of the planets and the seasons exhibit a precision unmatched by other ancient civilizations. So important were their stories and books to the Maya that the Legend of Zamna and the Hennequen Plant describes the great goddess telling the prophet Zamna:
I want you to choose a group of families from my kingdom, and three of the wisest Chilames, to carry the writings which tell the story of our people, and write what will happen in the future. You will reach a place that I will indicate to you and you will found a city. Under its main temple you will guard the writings and the future writings.
The city of Izamal was founded, according to this legend, by Zamna (associated with the deity Itzamna) of the Itzas who placed the sacred writings under the central temple. Izamal became known as the most important pilgrimage site in the Classical Period besides Chichen Itza. Shamans (known as Daykeepers) would interpret the particular energy of the day or month for the people by consulting with the gods presiding over the various months of the Maya calendar.

MAYA Calendar

There are two calendars at work simultaneously in the Maya system: the Haab, or civil calendar of 365 days in an 18 month period of 20 days each, and the Tzolkin, or sacred calendar, of 260 days divided into three groups of months of 20 days. The Haab and the Tzolkin work together, like gears interlocking in a machine, to create what is known as the Calendar Round but cannot account for dates farther in the future than 52 days. For longer calculations, the Maya devised what is known as the Long Count Calendar and is this which has attracted so much international attention in recent years regarding the end of the world on 21 December 2012 CE. As the long count calendar begins 11 August 3114 BCE, it goes into its next cycle (known as a Baktun) on 21 December 2012 CE.
There is nothing in the extant writings of the Maya to suggest any kind of cataclysm accompanies this transition. On 10 May 2012 CE it was reported that Boston University archaeologist William Saturno and Boston University student Maxwell Chamberlain, excavating at the Maya site of Xultun in Guatemala, discovered a 6x6 foot room dating to 800 CE which seems conclusively to have been a calendar workshop for Mayan scribes. The paintings and inscriptions on the walls of the room show the Maya calendar extending well beyond the year 2012 CE and that future Baktuns were understood to already be underway in the great cyclic dance of time. According to David Stuart, an expert on Maya hieroglyphs at the University of Texas at Austin, "Baktun 14 was going to be coming, and Baktun 15 and Baktun 16. ... The Maya calendar is going to keep going, and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future."
The months of the years of the Mayan calendars were governed over each by a specific god and, as these gods were eternal, they assured the continuance of the energy of their particular month. As all of life was considered one eternal cycle, the western concept of an `end of the world’, so popular in Christian ideology, would have been a completely foreign concept to a Maya scribe.

MAYA Today

In the modern age the Maya still farm the same lands and travel the same rivers as their ancestors did from the north in the Yucatan down to Honduras. The claim that the Maya somehow vanished, simply because their cities were found abandoned, is not only inaccurate but insulting to the over six million Maya who carry on the traditions of their ancestors. Though the region was Christianized in the 16th century CE conquest and inquisition, the old ways are still observed in a hybrid between European Catholicism and Mayan mysticism. The Daykeeper of a village still interprets the energy of a day and rituals are still performed in caves and on hills. On the island of Cozumel shrines to the Virgin Mary and the goddess Ixchel are interchangeable and, often, one and the same. A great deal has been learned about the Maya since the days when Stephens and Catherwood explored and documented the ancient ruins but, for the Maya living today, nothing of importance has ever been forgotten and the cycle of life continues on.
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Maya Religion: The Light That Came From Beside The Sea

Ancient origins
by Joshua J. Mark

The Mayan religious text, the Popol Vuh (known by many names, among them, The Light That Came From Beside The Sea) is the Quiche Maya story of creation translated into Spanish in the early 18th century CE by the missionary Francisco Ximenez from much older tales. As most of the books of the Maya were burned by the Bishop of the Yucatan, Diego de Landa, in July of 1562 CE, this text is all the more important in understanding Mayan culture and religious beliefs even though information is available elsewhere through glyphs, stele, assorted art work, and the three famous Mayan books (known as the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices after the cities where they were taken) which survived Landa’s auto-de-fe. The Popol Vuh has been called “the Mayan Bible” and this designation is unfortunate in that it presents the Mayan text in the interpretative light of the better known western scripture. Unlike the stories and poems which make up the anthology of ancient texts known as `The Bible’, the Popol Vuh was never considered a revelatory work by the Maya who heard the tales it contains. It was interpreted by the Maya much in the same way as the ancient Greeks received and understood Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: as stories to be understood as the way things could have been, could be, not as any direct `Truth’ revealed by an omnipotent god to human beings. The Maya referred to the work as an Ilb'al - an instrument of sight - which provided a hearer with clarity.
The Popol Vuh is a collection of stories which describe the creation of the world, of human beings, and how order was established by the great Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, through their victory over the forces of darkness and death. The characters whose tales are told in the stories are carefully constructed figures who symbolize the planets and the stars and a reader who recognizes this understands that one is encountering in these characters a vision of the world quite different from that presented in the Bible. While the tales told may be mythical in nature, the truths represented could be empirically proven by observing the paths the planets took (most notably Venus) and the positions of the stars. It was clear to the Maya, from astronomical observations, that all of life was cyclical and this eternal round of existence was made so by the cyclical nature of time.

A World of Spiritual Forces

It could be argued that time itself is the supreme god of the Maya pantheon as the intricate calendars of the Maya rose from, and then directed, the religious beliefs. The religion of the ancient Maya infused every aspect of their civilization from their architecture, to their dress and personal appearance, their sports, and, of course, their calendar. The Maya believed that the gods, though living high in the mists of Tamoanchan, were an integral part of their daily lives. The jungles which ringed their cities were inhabited by spirits and by the great god of the woods, Yum Caax, protector of plants and animals. The cities themselves each had a patron god who made the city thrive by accepting the invitation to residence in the central temple. When the rains came, it was because the god Chac was pleased and when the lightning flashed it was the work of the lord Yaluk. Each individual had a `Way’, a spirit guide known as a Wayob, who helped him or her throughout life and could appear as an animal, or in dreams, to impart important messages from the spiritual realm. Each year, at the spring and autumn equinox, the great god Kukulcan descended from the sky down the staircase of his temple at Chichen Itza as was (and is still) clearly recognized by the shadow the serpent god moving down the steps to meet the stone heads at the base. The whole of the earth, and human life, then, was imbued with spiritual forces which needed to be recognized, honored, and regularly consulted in order for the community and the individual to prosper.

The Calendar & Role of the King

To the Maya, there was no difference between what a modern-age person would define as `science’ and religion. Mathematics and Astronomy were a part of religious observance and went to the creation of the Sacred Calendar. The calendar was of such importance that, when the gods made the second attempt to create human beings, they decided to destroy them because the humans lacked the ability to consult the calendar and, so, to honor the gods. The Maya had a secular calendar to track the days and the seasons and a sacred calendar to predict the future and chart the courses of the stars. The scribes and the priests were astronomers and mathematicians and worked to understand the cycles of the planets in order to recognize in those patterns the celestial meaning being imparted by the gods. This meaning, then, would be carried to the ruler of the city who was considered an intermediary between the gods and the people. Blood was the food of the gods and the king and his court were not exempt from this sacrifice. Rituals surrounding royal blood-letting included drawing a string of thorns through the tongue or penis and spiking the ears or tongue with sharp spines. The blood was then let to fall on paper which was burned as an offering to the gods. If the offering was acceptable - so determined by the pattern of the burning paper - the petition of the king and his people was granted and, if not, further sacrifice would need to be made.

Human Sacrifice

While animals and precious gems were regularly surrendered to the gods in ritual, human sacrifice was central to the religious observations of the Maya (although a modern-day visitor to Mayan sites will hear the tour guides say differently). Excavations in and around the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, as well as at other sites, have revealed bones of what seem to be sacrificial victims and human sacrifice is depicted in stele, in paintings, and in carvings throughout the region the ancient Maya inhabited. Some of these victims were captives taken from other villages or cities but some were citizens of the community who were honored in being chosen as messengers to the gods. Diego de Landa, wrote, “Their festivals were only to secure the goodwill of favor of their gods…They believed them angry whenever they were molested by pestilences, dissensions, or droughts or the like ills, and then they did not undertake to appease the demons by sacrificing animals, nor making offerings only of their food and drink, or their own blood and self-afflictions of vigils, fasts and continence; instead, forgetful of all natural piety and all law of reason they made sacrifices of human beings as easily as they did of birds” (Ancient Maya, 90). Sometimes this sacrifice took the form of being thrown into the Sacred Cenote and, other times, the victim was disemboweled or had the heart torn out on an altar of a temple. As the Maya believed in the cyclical nature of life, nothing ever truly `died’, and so the individual sacrificed was considered to have simply `moved on’ to live among the gods. Whatever form the sacrifice took did not finally matter because the individual was guaranteed instant transport to the realm of the gods and by-passed the arduous road most other souls needed to travel after death.

The Afterlife

To the Maya, the afterlife was a journey of the soul toward paradise; but there was no guarantee at all that one would reach one’s destination. At death, the soul went down to the underworld, a dark and frightening place called Xibalba (or Metnal) which was populated by terrifying deities with names like Bloody Teeth, Flying Scab, and Bloody Claw. In perpetual darkness, the underworld had rivers of blood and pus and the trees were dead, the landscape barren. The Lords of Xibalba were just as apt to steer a soul in the wrong direction on its quest as the right one. Having arrived in Xibalba, one needed to not only navigate one’s way across it but, then, ascend the nine levels to reach the middle world (earth) and then thirteen more levels before arriving at Tamoanchan (paradise). Once one attained the realm of the gods, one would then descend to a lower level, on the earth or just above it, to live in eternal happiness. The only souls considered exempt from this journey were sacrificial victims, women who died in childbirth, those killed in warfare, suicides, and those who died playing the ball game Pok-a-Tok.

The Sacred Ball Game: Pok-a-Tok

Pok-a-Tok was more than just a popular sport as it symbolized the struggle of the forces of life and death, light and darkness, and, it is thought, was also an act of sacrifice to the gods who enjoyed watching the game as much as the people did. Two teams of seven players each would attempt to score a rubber ball through a sideways hoop attached to a wall (sometimes as high as twenty feet in the air, sometimes lower or higher) without using their hands or feet. Players were only allowed to use their heads, shoulders, hips, elbows, knees and, sometimes, wrists. Scoring a point was so difficult that a single game could continue for days and the play was so rough that participants were frequently killed in the course of it. Prisoners of war were often sent to play in the great ball courts of the cities but not, as many think, as a punishment; they were a sacrifice to the gods. For many years, since engravings and stele concerning the game were first discovered, it was thought that the losing team (or losing captain) was sacrificed but as a clearer understanding of Maya culture has emerged it has become apparent that it was the winning team (or winning captain) who was beheaded at the game’s conclusion in that the victim was then sent instantly to paradise. There was no doubt he was received well by the gods because they loved Pok-a-Tok as much as mortals did and would appreciate the gift of an excellent player. Even so, the claim that the winning team was executed is still a subject of some debate. The Mayanists Schele and Matthews contend that, "the most popular (myth surrounding the ballgame) says that the Maya sacrificed the winners so as to give a perfect gift to the gods. There is no evidence for this interpretation in any of the ancient or historical sources" (210). Those who disagree with Schele and Matthews claim that the long-standing belief that the losers were sacrificed, or that prisoners of war were forced to play to the death as a means to dishonor and punish them, is not consistent with the religious and cosmological beliefs of the Maya. The gods would have been uninterested in receiving a losing team or captain as a gift and would have visited the city with wrath instead of benevolence. Further, the concept of the prisoners of war being punished may simply be a conflation of the Maya game in the ball courts and the Roman gladiatorial games in the coliseum first suggested by 19th century interpreters of the game. A definitive answer on whether the winners or losers were sent to their deaths is not yet available because extant glyphs are often open to both interpretations. Some modern-day Maya Daykeepers (shamans) have claimed that the winners were killed but whether this is the majority opinion is not known as there has been no systematic study of this particular question with the Daykeepers of the modern Maya.

The Popol Vuh

The importance of Pok-a-Tok as a religious ritual is illustrated clearly in the Popol Vuh. In this text, the early demi-gods Hun Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu (symbolizing planets and fertility) are excellent Pok-a-Tok players. It is their enjoyment of the game, and the noise they make in playing it, which enrages the Lords of Xibalba who invite the brothers to the underworld on the pretext of playing against them in a game. Once the young men arrive in Xibalba, however, they are tricked and murdered. Their bodies are buried under the ball court but Hun Hunahpu’s head is placed in the axis of a calabash tree as a warning to others of the Xibalban’s strength. This head (which is animated by both brothers) later spits into the palm of the virgin goddess Xquiq and she becomes pregnant with the two boys known as the Hero Twins, Hunahpu an Xbalanque, also both expert Pok-a-Tok players, who defeat the Lords of Xibalba and the forces of chaos and darkness. In playing the game, then, the Maya were re-creating the victory of the twins over death while, simultaneously, honoring the gods in the present with sacrifice. The Mayanist Dennis Tedlock writes, “For Mayans, the presence of a divine dimension in narratives of human affairs is not an imperfection but a necessity and it is balanced by a necessary human dimension in narratives of divine affairs” (Popol Vuh, 59). The divine dimension in the game of Pok-a-Tok was multi-layered and, like everything else in Mayan life, reflected the importance of the gods in one’s daily life.

The Cyclical Nature of Existence

The religious beliefs of the Maya, then, were intricately bound up in cycles, whether the cycle of a day, a ritual performed, or the great ball game. All of existence carried on eternally in the great cycle of time and this was illustrated through the calendar, both the secular and the sacred versions. The calendars were envisioned as great cogs with interlocking teeth which clicked precisely and, if understood properly, enabled one to predict future events. Much has been made recently of the Maya allegedly predicting the end of the world on 21 December 2012 but, again, this is a result of interpreting the beliefs of the Maya through a western European understanding. As time was an eternal god, bound up in, outside of, and manifesting itself through the workings of the universe, it could never end. The world brought into being through the operation of time as represented by the gods could never end either as that would contradict the very nature of existence as understood by the Maya. 21 December 2012 is better understood as simply the end of one cycle (known as a Baktun) and the beginning of another as, to the Maya, there is never an end to anything, only ceaseless change through the eternal work of time.
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[ 3 ]

Maya Writing

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

The celebrated hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya was a sophisticated combination of pictographs directly representing objects and ideograms (or glyphs) expressing more abstract concepts such as actions or ideas and even syllabic sounds. Maya writing has survived in stone carvings, on stucco, wood, pottery and cloth artefacts, and in codices. These artefacts derive from across Mesoamerica covering territories in modern-day Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize. The writing was deciphered in the 20th century CE and now around 75% of surviving texts can be understood.


The hieroglyphic writing system of the Maya may have developed from the less sophisticated systems of earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Olmec, which used only literal images (pictographs) or it may have developed completely independently; scholars are not in agreement on the point. More certain is when the Maya began their writing system: the second half of the Middle Preclassic period, c. 300 BCE. However, the more sophisticated writing system of this time almost certainly would have had earlier, less complex precedents present in the preceding centuries of Mayan culture. From the Early Classic period onwards there was a significant increase in stone monuments bearing inscriptions and the language reached full maturity and flourished throughout the Classic period (250-900 CE).
Mayan Glyphs


The best preserved examples of Maya writing are often from stone monuments, most commonly altars, stelae and elements of architectural sculpture, especially around doorways and stairs. Pottery is another important source of script as vessels often carry either painted or inscribed writing. Examples of painted writing, although much rarer, also survive in caves and on some interior walls of buildings. Another source, albeit with shorter examples of text, are inscribed artefacts made from jade, greenstone, shell, and bone. Finally, there are written books. These screen-fold volumes written on bark paper had always been in use and, from the 9th century CE, they became the preferred medium for Mayan writers as inscriptions on monuments all but disappeared. Unfortunately for posterity, only three examples have survived the ravages of a tropical climate and zealous spanish priests, and these all date from the late Postclassic period. The three surviving codices - interestingly, written using only black and red ink - are currently housed in museums in Paris, Madrid and Dresden. A few pages from a fourth Mayan text also survive and are housed in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The System

The meaning of a given text has to be interpreted from a triple combination of images which literally represent real objects or actions (pictographs); symbols (glyphs) which symbolically refer to objects or actions (and which can also indicate adjectives, prepositions, plurals, and numbers); and phonetic glyphs which represent sounds (for example a vowel or a consonant and a vowel together), correct pronunciation, pre-fixes, suffixes, pronouns and tense. The Mayan script is, therefore, a combination of signs representing syllables (syllabograms) and words (logograms). Sometimes, concepts could be represented in alternative ways, for example, a jaguar could be indicated by a picture of a jaguar head or by the phonetic glyphs ba-la-ma or by a combination of a jaguar head and the glyph ma.
Although there are around 1,000 different symbols in the Maya script, scribes of any one period used a range of between 300 to 500 signs. Despite the fact that there are only five vowels and nineteen consonants in the Maya language, there are actually 200 syllabic signs. This is because combinations of vowels and consonants could be indicated and a single sound could also be represented by several different signs. In addition, the language evolved over time to produce symbols more aesthetically pleasing for certain inscriptions and innovations could combine, or reduce by simplification, older symbols which made the signs more and more abstract. However, symbols representing whole words always remained more common than syllable symbols, a fact perhaps explained by the Mayan reverence for tradition, the sacred nature of language, and the desire to make the text as accessible as possible to all readers.
Maya text is read by starting from the top left & reading horizontally across two blocks & then moving down to the row below.
Signs and symbols were arranged in blocks which were placed in double columns. The text is read by starting from the top left and reading horizontally across two blocks and then moving down to the row below. In very short texts the glyph blocks are placed in a single line and are read from top to bottom in vertical texts or left to right in horizontal texts. Sentences follow the structure verb-object-subject and when necessary adverbs are placed before the verb.

Maya Literacy

It is probable that only a small elite of the Maya population could read, possibly only the nobility and priests. Interestingly, women of such status were not barred from learning to read and write. This restriction on just who acquired literacy fitted with the belief that writing was sacred. Indeed, the Maya believed that writing was invented by the god Itzamna and in the sacred text the Popol Vuh, the Monkey Scribes - the gods Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, brothers of the Hero Twins - are the patrons of writing and the arts in general. These two gods are often depicted on Maya pottery sat together with pen or brush in hand writing in a codex. Although literacy was, then, almost certainly limited, it may be that the general populace could recognise common symbols such as those representing dates and rulers.
The actual production of texts was probably limited to priestly scribes assigned to the workshops of royal palaces. The high frequency of artists' signatures on stelae, pottery and sculptures and their notable absence in written texts suggests that scribes did not enjoy the status of other artisans. Indeed, it may be that scribes were not regarded as authors but, rather, as recorders of the declarations of the gods and divine rulers. This is also indicated by the very formulaic nature of Maya writing where formalised phrases are often repeated and the fact that the most common subjects of Maya texts are histories of both the real world and mythology, texts which declare ownership of particular objects, and texts dedicating buildings and monuments to specific gods.


The Maya system of writing would go on to influence that other great Mesoamerican civilization the Aztecs who would build upon the progress made by the Maya by incorporating even more phonetic elements into their writing. The Maya writing system continued to be used up to the Spanish Conquest but then this 'pagan' text was prohibited. Despite the deliberate destruction of Maya texts and the prohibition of the language the Maya did, though, continue to use it in secret well into the 18th century CE.
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[ 4 ]

Maya Food & Agriculture

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

For the Maya, reliable food production was so important to their well-being that they closely linked the agricultural cycle to astronomy and religion. Important rituals and ceremonies were held in honour of specialised workers; from beekeepers to fishermen, and maize, the all-important Mesoamerican staple, even had its own god. An agricultural society, 90% of the Maya population were involved in farming. Management of land and natural resources brought a more dependable harvest and varied diet, enabling economic growth. This allowed for the flourishing of Maya culture but eventual over-exploitation, an ever-increasing population, and protracted periods of drought may have been factors in the ultimate collapse of the Maya civilization.

The Maize God

One of the most important Maya deities, perhaps even the most important, was the 'Young Maize God'. Typically portrayed with a head in the form of an ear of maize, he could appear in Maya mythology as the creator god. Descending to the underworld, he reappeared with the world tree which holds the centre of the earth and fixes the four cardinal directions. The world tree was, indeed, sometimes visualised as a maize plant. One of the names of the Maya maize god was Yum Caax ('Master of the Fields in Harvest') but another, as at Palenque, was Hun-Nale-Ye ('One Revealed Sprouting'). If any further proof were needed of the Maya reverence for maize, one need only consult the Popol Vuh religious text, where the ancestors of humanity are described as being made of maize. Other important foodstuffs besides maize had their own gods, for example, Ek Chuah (aka God M) was considered the god of cacao and so vital was water to crops that the Maya rain god Chac gained special prominence, especially in times of drought.
To maximise productivity crops were planted together such as beans and squash in fields of maize.

Maya Agricultural Methods

The quality and quantity of agricultural land around Maya cities varied depending on their location. In the lowlands of the Peten and Puuk regions, for example, the soil was relatively fertile but restricted to small patches. A technique to increase soil fertility was the use of raised fields, especially near water courses and flood plains. At these locations stone-wall terraces were sometimes built to collect fertile silt deposits. Forests were cleared to make way for agriculture but such land quickly declined in fertility and necessitated slash-and-burn techniques to rejuvenate the land after two years of crops, which then requires on average a further 5-7 years to be ready for re-planting. A similar necessity to leave fields to rejuvenate was common in the highland sites, where plots had to be left empty for up to 15 years. To maximise productivity, crops were planted together such as beans and squash in fields of maize so that the beans could climb the maize stalks and the squash could help reduce soil erosion.
Those cities without access to large areas of land suitable for agriculture could trade with more productive cities. For example, slaves, salt, honey and precious goods such as metals, feathers, and shells were often traded for plant products. Just how larger plots of land were distributed, in what manner farmland passed on between generations, and the level of state management in agricultural production remain unclear. It is known, however, that many Maya private homes would have cultivated food in small gardens, especially vegetables and fruit. Once harvested, foodstuffs were stored in wooden cradles above ground and in subterranean sites.
Water management was another necessity, especially in certain Maya cities during the dry winters and hot summers. Water was collected in sinkholes created by collapsed caves and known as a tz'onot (corrupted to cenote in Spanish) and sometimes brought to fields using canals. Cisterns (chultunob) were also excavated, typically bottle-shaped and built using wide plastered aprons around their entrances to maximise the collection of rainwater.

Maya Crops & Food

Maize (milpa) was one of the most important crops but so too were root crops such as sweet manioc, beans, squash, amaranth, and chile peppers. Maize was typically boiled in water and lime, and eaten as a gruel mixed with chile pepper (saka') for breakfast or made into a dough for baking on a flat-stone (metate) as tortillas or flat cakes (pekwah) and as tamales - stuffed and baked in leaves.
Animals which were hunted include deer, peccary, turkeys, quails, ducks, curassow, guan, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, the tapir, and armadillo. Dogs were also fattened up on maize and eaten. Fish were caught using nets, traps, and lines, and, as in certain Asian cultures, trained cormorants were used to help catch fish: The cormorants' necks were tied so that they could not swallow the bigger fish, which they would then bring back to the fisherman. Meat and fish were typically cooked in stews along with various vegetables and peppers. Fish was either salted and dried or roasted over an open fire.
Fruits eaten included guava, papaya, avocado, custard apple, and sweetsop. A frothy chocolate drink and honey were also popular desserts. Another very popular drink was pulque beer, known to the Maya as chih and made from fermented agave juice.
Important trees used by the Maya for their wood were the sapodilla and breadnut. The bottle gourd was cultivated to make containers from its hard but light-weight fruit shell. The copal was valued for its resin which was burned as incense and used for rubber. Finally, cotton was also cultivated, especially in the Yucatan province, famous for its fine textiles.
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[ 5 ]

The Ball Game of Mesoamerica

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

The sport known simply as the Ball Game was popular across Mesoamerica and played by all the major civilizations from the Olmecs to the Aztecs. The impressive stone courts became a staple feature of a city’s sacred complex and there were often several playing courts in a single city. More than just a game, though, the event could have a religious significance and featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. The contests even supplied candidates for human sacrifice, for the sport could, quite literally, be a game of life or death.


The game was invented sometime in the Preclassical Period (2500-100 BCE), probably by the Olmec, and became a common Mesoamerican-wide feature of the urban landscape by the Classical Period (300-900 CE). Eventually, the game was even exported to other cultures in North America and the Caribbean.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú & Vucub Hunahpú.
In Mesoamerican mythology the game is an important element in the story of the Maya gods Hun Hunahpú and Vucub Hunahpú. The pair annoyed the gods of the underworld with their noisy playing and the two brothers were tricked into descending into Xibalba (the underworld) where they were challenged to a ball game. Losing the game, Hun Hunahpús had his head cut off; a foretaste of what would become common practice for players unfortunate enough to lose a game.
In another legend, a famous ball game was held at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan between the Aztec king Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (r. 1502-1520 CE) and the king of Texcoco. The latter had predicted that Motecuhzoma’s kingdom would fall and the game was set-up to establish the truth of this bold prediction. Motecuhzoma lost the game and did, of course, lose his kingdom at the hands of the invaders from the Old World. The story also supports the idea that the ball game was sometimes used for the purposes of divination.

The Court

Courts were usually a part of a city’s sacred precinct, a fact which suggests the ball game was more than just a game. Early Preclassic playing courts were simple, flattened-earth rectangles but by the Late Formative Period (300 BCE onwards) these evolved into more imposing areas which consisted of a flat rectangular surface set between two parallel stone walls. Each side could have a large vertical stone ring set high into the wall. The walls could be perpendicular or sloping away from the players and the ends of the court could be left open but defined using markers or, in other layouts, a wall closed off the playing space to create an I-shaped court. The court at Monte Albán, Oaxaca is a typical example of the I-shaped court. The length of the court could vary but the 60 m long court at Epiclassic El Tajín (650-900 CE) represents a typical size.
The flat court surface often has three large circular stone markers set in a line down the length of the court. Some of these markers from Maya sites have a quatrefoil cartouche indicating the underworld entrance which has led to speculation that the game may have symbolised the movement of the sun (the ball) through the underworld (the court) each night. Alternatively, the ball may have represented another heavenly body such as the moon and the court was the world.
Surviving courts abound and are spread across Mesoamerica. The Epiclassic city of Cantona has an incredible 24 courts with at least 18 being contemporary. El Tajín also has a remarkable number of courts (at least 11) and it may well have been a sacred centre for the sport, much like Olympia for athletics in ancient Greece. The earliest known court is from the Olmec city of San Lorenzo whilst the largest surviving stone playing court is at the Mayan-Toltec city of Chichén Itzá. With a length of 146 m and a width of 36 m, this court seems almost too large to be actually played in, especially with the rings set at the demanding height of 8 m.

The Rules

The exact rules of the game are not known for certain and in all probability there were variations across the various cultures and different periods. However, the main aim was to get a solid rubber (latex) ball through one of the rings. This was more difficult than it seems as players could not use their hands. One can imagine that good players became highly skilled at directing the ball using their padded elbows, knees, thighs and shoulders. Teams were composed of two or three players and were male-only. There was also an alternative version, less-widespread, where players used sticks to hit the ball.
The ball could be a lethal weapon in itself, as measuring anywhere from 10 to 30 cm in diameter and weighing from 500 g to 3.5 kg, it could easily break bones. Remarkably, seven rubber balls have been preserved in the bogs of El Manatí near the Olmec city of San Lorenzo. These balls range from 8 to 25 cm in diameter and date from between 1600 and 1200 BCE.

The Players

Players could be professionals or amateurs and there is evidence of betting on the outcome of important games. The game also had a strong association with warriors and war captives were often forced to play the game.
Players were frequently depicted in Mesoamerican art, appearing in sculpture, ceramics and architectural decoration - the latter often decorating the courts themselves - and these depictions often show that the players wore protective gear such as belts and padding for the knees, hips, elbows and wrists. The players in these works of art also typically wear a padded helmet or a huge feathered headdress, perhaps the latter being for ceremonial purposes only. Zapotec relief stones at Dainzú also depict ball players wearing grilled helmets as well as knee-guards and gauntlets.
Winners of the game received trophies, many of which have been excavated and include hachas and palmas. A hacha was a representation of the human head (early ones might have actually been heads) with a handle attached and was used as a trophy for a winning player, a piece of ceremonial equipment or as a marker in the court itself. A palma was also most likely a trophy or element of ceremonial costume worn by ball players. They are frequently represented in stone and can take the form of arms, hands, a player or a fan-tailed bird. Other trophies for game winners include stone yokes (typically u-shaped to be worn around the waist in imitation of the protective waist gear worn by players) and hand stones, often elaborately carved. All of these trophies are frequently found in graves and are reminders of the link between the sport and the underworld in Mesoamerican mythology.
As games often had a religious significance the captain of the losing team, or even sometimes the entire team, were sacrificed to the gods. Such scenes are depicted in the decorative sculpture on the courts themselves, perhaps most famously on the South ball court at El Tajín and at Chichén Itzá, where one relief panel shows two teams of seven players with one player having been decapitated. Another ominous indicator of the macabre turn that this sporting event could take is the presence of tzompantli (the skull racks where severed heads from sacrifices were displayed) rendered in stone carvings near the ball courts. The Classic Maya even invented a parallel game where captives, once defeated in the real game, were tied up and used as balls themselves and unceremoniously rolled down a flight of steps.
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[ 6 ]

The Classic Maya Collapse

Ancient origins
by Mark Cartwright

The Terminal Classic period in Mesoamerica between c. 800 and 925 CE saw one of the most dramatic civilization collapses in history. Within a century or so the flourishing Classic Maya civilization fell into a permanent decline, so that once great cities were abandoned and left to ruin, in many cases, to be reclaimed by the jungle and so disappear from human memory for centuries. Some northern Maya cities, conversely, prospered like never before in this period, as did the Maya along the Gulf Coast and central highlands of Mexico; however, for the majority of the Maya in the southern lowlands, the period was nothing short of disaster and, as the historian M.E. Coe describes, 'This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history'. The question, then, which has preoccupied scholars ever since the re-discovery in the 19th century CE of mysterious ruins built by, at the time, an equally mysterious civilization, is why did this happen? Below are some of the reasons presented by historians today as to just what caused such a dramatic reversal in fortunes.

Theory & Facts

Early in the study of the Maya collapse all manner of theories were presented as to what exactly had happened, some more plausible than others. Disease, a social revolution, drought, famine, foreign invasion, over-population, disruption in trade routes, earthquakes, and even hurricanes were held responsible. Unfortunately, the inscriptions left by the Maya themselves are strangely silent on the topic. To find the answer, then, we must reconstruct the past starting with what we do know. From the mid to late 8th century CE, relations between city-states deteriorated. There was a decline in trade and an increase in armed conflicts. We know that the death-rate increased in this period, and from 830 CE no new buildings were constructed in the central Maya area. As the Maya were fond of writing dates on their monuments and stelae, it is interesting to note that no dates after c. 910 CE are seen in the lowlands sites.
From the mid to late 8th century CE relations between city-states deteriorated. There was a decline in trade and an increase in armed conflicts.
We also have evidence of large areas becoming completely depopulated and royal dynasties and elites disappearing without trace. Finally, we can say that the collapse was neither unique - smaller scale abandonment of Maya cities had occurred several times before over the centuries - nor was it a sudden one but rather a process of decline which occurred over a period of 150 years between c. 760 and c. 910 CE. Such a slow decline would seem to cross off the list disease pandemics and natural disasters, like earthquakes, as factors in the collapse. Further, in both these cases populations tend to recover relatively quickly, whereas the Maya lowlands were never significantly re-populated.
Then we must also consider what we do not know about the Maya civilization, as different guesses and interpretations of these points can colour the reasons proposed for the collapse. We do not know with any great accuracy the population figures in the Late Classic period. Nor do we know exactly how the Maya farmed, how agricultural production was managed and controlled, or whether trade of this produce was local, regional, or even cross-cultural. These are the facts of the matter and the latest state of knowledge on the subject; now let us examine the various theories of how the Maya arrived at this situation.

What Causes Civilizations to Collapse?

Firstly, it has been fruitful to note the process of collapse in other civilizations, such as the Roman Empire. Differences in time, geography, and circumstances mean no direct correlations are possible, but the outstanding point of similarity is that no single factor accounts for a large civilization's collapse. Perhaps another similarity in the complex process which brought the downfall of other empires is the general disregard of rulers for the resources at their disposal and the long-term welfare of the people they ruled. Was this also the case with the Maya? The period prior to the Maya collapse is certainly characterised by extravagant building projects, unproductive wars, and over-exploitation of natural resources, especially land, forests, and water. An ever increasing population may well have driven the Maya to deforest areas which were subsequently eroded. One case which points to the running out of resources is the curious change in wood used in Maya buildings. Sapodilla was the architect's choice prior to the 740s CE for such details as lintels but was then replaced by the inferior wood of the smaller logwood tree. Sapodilla did make something of a comeback, but beams were never the thickness as previously. Had the Maya exhausted their supply of Sapodilla? Had the tree recovered over time or did the Maya even establish protected areas to specifically cultivate the tree?

Three Main Factors

Maya historians have generally settled on a combination of three main factors which could have caused the Maya collapse: warfare between city-states, overpopulation, and drought. The factors were not always contemporary or found all together in a single city.
Warfare had been a part of Maya culture for centuries, but its intensification and scale increased prior to the collapse so that cities began to build fortifications. Previously, warfare had often been token, in that defeat might result in only a small number of important figures being taken as captives. By the Late Classic period, war seems to have been much more damaging to all involved. The conquest of territory and the capturing of a large number of sacrificial victims now became a priority - the former perhaps to increase agricultural production and acquire resources and the latter to appease the gods and return to the more stable times of earlier centuries. The presence of large numbers of arrow heads at certain sites is further evidence that life in the cities was becoming more precarious.
There may also have been a military threat from foreign states. Supporting the invasion theory are several archaeological finds, notably at Ceibal where a figure known as 'Wat'ul' is depicted who has a distinctly non-Maya moustache and hairstyle but who is wearing Maya costume; stelae with glyphs which are not Mayan; a figure in a mask of Ehecatl; the wind god of central Mexico; and the presence of Fine Orange pottery from the Gulf coast. However, such evidence seems sparse to what one would expect to find if the collapse were down to foreign invasion and, significantly, few cities display evidence of deliberate destruction.
Over-population may well have put an unbearable strain on the agricultural production the Maya were capable of managing. Ever more archaeological evidence shows that Maya cities and peripheral settlements were much more heavily populated than previously imagined. Even worse, scientific evidence clearly indicates that the Maya lowlands suffered a sustained series of droughts between c. 800 and c. 1050 CE. However, it should be noted that not all cities suffered from droughts, as some lakes and rivers never dried up completely. For those regions which did suffer a water shortage, the lack of rain and repeated crop failures make it entirely conceivable that either the lower levels of society - 90% of the population were farmers - or perhaps more likely, non-ruling elites, rebelled against the ruling class, who could no longer justify their role as protectors of society and intermediaries with the gods such as Chahk the rain god. With the consequent collapse of the social structure and city infrastructure, those who could may well have migrated to the north and south and the early Colonial chronicles written in Yucatan Mayan do indeed describe a 'Great Descent' and a 'Lesser Descent'. There is no archaeological record of such a large population movement, only that after the collapse, the 60,000 square miles of the Maya lowlands was deserted.


The most reasonable explanation, then, for the Classic Maya collapse is a combination of inter-connected factors. Warfare, social disorder, over-population, and unfavourable climatic conditions combined, perhaps not all together and in varying degrees and with different timing and sequence depending on location, to bring an end to the established order of the southern Maya lowlands.
As already stated, the Classic Maya collapse was not the end of the Maya culture. Northern cities and those in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala survived up to the Spanish Conquest, and even today seven million people speak Mayan in Mesoamerica. The Maya culture suffered a terrible blow, but it did not disappear completely. In the power vacuum and general social upheaval left by the collapse, one group seized the opportunity to achieve regional dominance: this was the Toltec civilization, and it was they who would pass on the baton of Mesoamerican culture which had begun with the Olmec, been perfected by the Maya, and would end with the Aztecs.
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[ 7 ]

How to Read a Maya Glyph

Ancient origins
by Lily Ball

For over three centuries, the ancient Maya flourished in Mesoamerica. They built giant stone pyramids surrounded by dense jungle, used a calendrical system that made many believe that 2012 would be the end of the world, and created a writing system that is as beautiful as it is complex. Its decipherment is ongoing, even today. In fact, it is so aesthetically rich and difficult to master, one needed to be an accomplished artist in order to write it properly. Fittingly, ancient Maya scribes and artists were all known by the same title: t’zib.

Deciphering Ancient Maya: Syllables & Concepts

The Maya writing system is logosyllabic, meaning its symbols can represent sounds in the form of syllables (like “ma” or “tot”), or they might represent whole concepts (like “river” or “house”). This made the language very difficult to decode, and in fact, scholars initially thought the entire writing system was phonetic due to the unfounded assumptions of a missionary named Diego de Landa. Originally from Spain, de Landa’s first language was naturally Spanish. Therefore, when he attempted to decipher the Maya language, he broke it down into individual sounds (vowels and consonants) rather than syllables, the product of which is an inaccurate record of the Maya written and spoken language and a misleading guide for scholars. It wasn’t until 1952 CE that it was suggested that the language might be syllabic rather than phonetic. This was a major breakthrough in the decipherment of the ancient Maya written language.
Even with all these hurdles, scholars have managed to decipher much of the ancient Maya written language, which covered topics from astronomical mathematics to their royal lineage.
The distinction between a phonetic and a syllabic language is small but essential. A phonetic language uses individual sounds to build spoken words. English, German, and modern Romance languages like French, Italian, and Spanish are phonetic languages, to name a few. When written, each symbol (letter) represents a single sound (a vowel or consonant) like “o” or “b”. Syllabic languages, however, are made up of consonant-vowel (CV) or consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) combinations, like “ta” or “bot.” Japanese, for example, uses the CV model for the majority of two of its alphabets: katakana and hiragana.
The Maya glyphs are further complicated by their use of conflation, wherein two or more glyphs are combined, and some elements of the glyphs are eliminated or simplified, diminishing their individual complexity in order to create a legible, aesthetically pleasing glyph that fits within the space provided, whether that be on a small decorated cup, or a giant stone stela.

Reading Ancient Maya

Even with all these hurdles, scholars have managed to decipher much of this ancient written language, which covered topics from the Maya’s vast understanding of astronomical mathematics, to their vivid storytelling, to their royal lineage. The basic structure of this writing system consists of one or more main glyphs with additional glyphs attached to it. For example, this complex glyph represents the ancient Maya city of Copan. The main glyph is the head of a bat, complete with upturned nose, a flaring ear, and grinning mouth. With a glyph like this, it’s easy to see the complex artistry necessary to become an accomplished t’zib.
Arguably one of the most famous glyphs of the Maya written language is the glyph for chocolate. This glyph has been painted or inscribed onto many vessels, some of which have been found to contain traces of chocolate, leading scholars to believe that in these cases, the Maya labeled vessels with their intended use. Luckily, the glyph for chocolate is entirely syllabic, making it easy for us to read.
There are three elements we need to recognize in order to read this glyph:
1. the main glyph, which resembles a fish (we’ll call this part of the glyph element “A”);
2. the oval and hook shapes on the right, which resemble a fish’s tail but are actually a separate glyph (let’s call this element “B”);
3. the two dots that resemble a colon near the fish’s mouth (element “C”).
The main glyph, A, represents the syllable sound “ka”. Element B, near the fish’s tail, represents the syllable sound “ua” (also written “wa”). So far, the glyph is pronounced “ka-ua” since the Maya read their glyphs left-to-right and top-to-bottom. Next, we need to take into account element C near the fish’s mouth. Anyone who reads music will recognize element C as a repeat sign, which can be placed at the end of a bar of music to indicate that a portion of the piece should be repeated. Surprisingly, that’s exactly the function it serves here, too. It tells the reader to repeat the sound of the symbol next to it. Here, that’s element A, “ka”. So, when each element is read in the correct order, left-to-right and top-to-bottom, the glyph reads “ka-ka-ua.”
Just one further insight is needed to pronounce this glyph properly: the Maya were known to drop the last vowel of a spoken word. Therefore, this glyph should be read without the final “a” sound at the end. Without that last “a,” the glyph reads “ka-ka-u,” or as we currently spell it, cacao, the main ingredient for chocolate.
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