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Characters and historical events ››

  1. Maya Government
  2. Maya Religion
  3. Popol Vuh
  4. Pulque
  5. Tikal
  6. Uxmal
  7. Wall
  8. Palenque

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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[ 1 ]

Maya Government

Origin and history
by Maria C. Gomez

Ancient Maya government was formed on the basis that rulers were thought to have been god-like, which to some might suggest one unified state. However, the consensus amongst anthropologists supports that each major Maya city remained its own independent and sovereign entity with its own unique struggles for political power. The Maya belief in god-like rulers also made it important to keep the line of power in the family, which would occasionally include a woman ruler.
The various Maya city-states are found in what is today Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The civilization extended from circa 1500 BCE to approximately 1500 CE. These years are typically divided into three periods; the Pre-classic, the Classic, and Post-classic. The Pre-classic ranges from approximately 1500 BCE to 250 CE, the Classic from 250 CE to 900 CE, and the Post-classic ranges from 900 CE to 1530 CE.
The periods are usually distinguished by a few characteristics. The Classic period can be recognized by the abundance of Maya polities and the thriving trade between the Maya polities and other non-Maya polities. In contrast to the elites from previous periods, elites from the Classic period are believed to have been literate and knowledgeable. The Pre-classic period is notable for fewer large polities. The fundamentals of the later Classic period’s trade were also being developed at this time. The Post-classic period is marked by the decline of many of the large and once-powerful city-states. Many of these city-states were abandoned and had a severe drop in their populations.

Politics of the Maya

Maya politics did not begin with kings in the early Pre-classic period. Much of the political systems in the Maya polities began in the late Pre-classic period around 300 BCE. The rulers of the various Maya city-states were thought to be a kind of human-god hybrid. Men weren’t the only people who were allowed to rule. On occasion, women would rule when the king wasn’t yet of age, when a king was away at war, or if a king was unavailable for some other reason. According to Martin, rulers could assert their status as king or lord on Ajaw or Ahau (lord) day. Kings would have an effigy of themselves carved on the Sacred Round. The Sacred Round was a 260 day calendar which consisted of 13 20-day months. Each day of the month was represented by a specific god; Ahau day was specifically for kingly rituals. Once a king had achieved the honor of being on the Sacred Round, the depiction became an actual personification of the king and time. Throughout the Maya era, the Maya remained in separate polities and did not unite as one empire. The same can be said for the celebrated Classic Maya period.
The Classic period is considered to have Had about 72 major political units.
The Classic period is considered by Cioffi-Revilla and Landman to have had about 72 major political units. These polities did not all exist simultaneously. The researchers posit that about 50 polities existed together at one point. The 72-polity figure doesn’t include the smaller, less politically stratified units, however. Because these polities would trade with each other as well as non-Maya polities and were independent from each other, the Maya civilization is seen as an internationally trading civilization.
The increased trade of the Classic states contributed to the politics of the Maya. Researchers have understood that the Maya underwent two cycles of politics. The cycles involved an initial period of rise and fall, then a so-called “rebound” time which was shorter than the first period, but still followed the normal patterns of the cycle and went on until the late Post-Classic Maya period. The first cycle involved a longer period of time for economic, political, and population development. Cioffi-Revilla and Landman state that while the number of polities did fall at the end of the first cycle of collapse around 900 CE, the politics did not completely vanish.

Maya EconomY

The economics of most Maya polities are intertwined with the social framework of the Maya. The most widely accepted system of social framework for the Maya is the classic three-tiered system. The system consists of elites, a “middle class,” and a “lower class.” The elites were typically situated near the temples in the city center and their homes were built of stone. The “middle class,” was further from the city centers, with homes made of wattle and daub. Wattle and daub are essentially the new world equivalent of thatch-roofed homes. The “lower class,” were typically even further from the city centers and had wattle and daub homes as well. However, this take on the social structure of the Maya may be shifting.
Robert Hamblin, a professor at Southeast Missouri University and Brian L. Pitcher, sociologist and chancellor at Washington State University, have found evidence for a wide variety of elite uniforms which suggests that there may have been specialization among the economics of the elite. Because the middle class was the main goods producer, it is implied that the elites and middle class worked closely together in regards to the production of specialized goods. The combination of the different elite uniforms supports the theory that the elites and middle classes worked together. While it may not be the case that elites are actually the producers of goods, they could have been foremen-types for certain industries.
While there is much study about the larger Maya cities, more recent studies in moderately sized Maya cities is important for establishing what life may have been like throughout the Maya realm. The following cities were the focuses of three different studies which help to illustrate the overarching themes of Maya government.
Kosakowsky’s study on the Classic Maya city of Motul de San José demonstrates the shifting tendencies of reign amongst the elite. These changes in the actual geographical boundaries of reign for the elites could also indicate that at some point, there could have been independent cities. In other words, there was no ruling system in some of the ancient Maya cities. The theory is supported by the varying Ik-style pottery. Ik-style poverty is mainly a Motul product that shows designs pertaining to gods, current rulers, feasts, scenes of warriors, and bloodletting scenes. Research also unveils another take on Maya social and economic structure. Instead of the traditional three-tiered system, Kosakowsky argues for a more complex stratification of the Maya economy. The elites of Motul de San José had access to a variety of valuable horticultural items. Elites were not the only segment of the population that had access to high-value materials. Kosakowsky’s studies have found that lower classes had access to goods such as white-tailed deer.
In a study at Copán, there was more evidence to support the diversity between the social classes. Many of the skeletal remains of children across the classes exhibited similar nutritionary and disease stresses. In contrast, the adult elites were more full-bodied, had less signs of arthritis, and were taller than adults from different classes.
In the third case, Cobos examines life in Xunantunich and its surrounding lands. This late Pre-classic/Early-Classic city shows evidence of political experimentation. He argues that this experimentation occurred over a short period of time, but with drastic shifts in policies. Xunantunich showed evidence of “lower class,” people living in the outskirts of the city. However, in contrast to the original notions of class separation, there was also evidence of elites living in the hinterlands of Xunantunich. It is believed that the elites living in the hinterlands were also in charge of the production of goods. The trade of the hinterlands was mainly that of stone tools, and silex, a type of whimsically crafted flint. As for the reigning or royal families, Xunantunich shows that they kept palaces and other large living areas away from the hinterlands and Xunantunich.

Classic Maya Rulers

The moniker “K’inich,” isn’t evident in the early rulers of Palenque. The name is used to signify the elite status of the ruler by epitomizing the power of the Sun god K’inich. The first known use of the “K’inich,” title is by Kan Bahlam I. He ruled from 524 CE to 572 CE.
As mentioned above, women were occasionally rulers of Classic Maya cities. Women rulers were a more prominent phenomena in Palenque. There are at least two notable female rulers of Palenque which include Lady Yohl Ik’nal and Lady Sak K’uk. One recent discovery of an acclaimed “warrior queen" in Waká has brought about a question about female Maya rulers: did Maya queens participate in battles?
Lady K’abal of Waká was given the moniker of kaloomte, or “supreme warlord,” by her city. This suggests that she may have taken part in battles. However, some experts believe that she did not participate as a warrior. This is due to the fact that there is no glyph or artistic depiction to support Lady K’abal’s or any other queen’s participation in battle, yet. Of course, kings were often required to participate in battles.
In Copán, K’inich Yax K’uk Mo was ruler and founder in 426 CE. The founder of Classic Tikal was Yax Ehb Xook. While it has been suggested that Maya rulers were legitimized based on family ties, there are several deviations from this in Tikal. One such deviation is that of the dynasty of Jaguar Claw. The shared culture of the Maya can be puzzling when the Maya were never politically unified. However, the Maya are considered one culture primarily because of the shared beliefs, practices of advanced astronomy, and architectural and art styles. Ultimately, it seems that the lack of political unification is what led to their ultimate demise, among many factors.

Disintegration during the Classic Period

The Classic period is characterized by its seemingly exponential growth whose cause is attributed to a rise in trade and communication. What is clear is the rise in warfare amongst the different Maya polities. There is not much consensus about the cause of the Maya collapse, but there are several theories. Some argue that the collapse was due to a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions, extensive warfare between the polities, famine, civil unrest, and even environmental change.
The most popular belief pertaining to the fall of the Maya civilization is that it was the increase in inter-polity warfare that caused the disintegration. The rise in warfare is attributed to the increased trade of the Classic period. With the higher rates of interaction between the polities, scholars believe that tensions between polities because of their political differences caused episodes of inter-polity warfare.
Anthropologists suggest that the falls of the varying polities happened slowly over the course of about six centuries. Cioffi-Revilla and Landman also hint that “most of the polities that survived the preclassic,” began early during the pre-classic period and survived into the post-classic period. These longer lasting polities would last about 2,000 years and ultimately collapse during the Post-classic period. Neither author argues that warfare was the sole cause of the Maya collapse. It is possible that there could have been several factors that simultaneously affected the dissolution of the Maya.
One theory gaining popularity is that the Maya fell because of a lack of political unity. One study noticed that Maya states toppled much more quickly than they took to form. Throughout the entire Maya era the states lasted an average of 675 years, with a standard deviation of 65 years. However, Pre-classic states lasted an average of 1154 years, with a standard deviation of 96 years. Classic states averaged 348 years, with a standard deviation of only 24 years.
Pre-Classic states were fewer in number compared to those of the Classic period. As mentioned before, there were at least 50 Maya states in existence at one point during the Classic period. This is almost contradictory for Pre-Classic states. Similarly, the size of Pre-Classic polities is a stark contrast to that of Classic polities. Classic polities had populations of up to or more than 50,000 people while Pre-Classic polities had anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people.
Some argue that the lack of political unity amongst Classic states was the likely cause for the disintegration of the Maya. While there was a lack of political unity during the Pre-Classic period, there was not the same amount of competition as in the Classic period. Pre-Classic states did not need political integration to survive. Classic states needed a political harmony in order to combat the growing competition and populations of the many powerful states. Pre-Classic states were all more or less equal, while there were frequent power struggles amongst the Classic states. There is a growing consensus, however, that the collapse of the Maya was due to various agricultural, political and ecological factors acting together.
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[ 2 ]

Maya Religion

Origin and history
by Maria C. Gomez

Maya religious beliefs are formed on the notion that virtually everything in the world contains k’uh, or sacredness. K’uh and k’uhul, similar terms which are used to explain the spirituality of all inanimate and animate things, describe the most divine life force of existence. Maya belief establishes the creation and sanctity of human beings, the earth, and all things sacred. This divine sanctity can be translated into Maya creation myths as well.

The Maya Creation Myth

Before explaining the Maya creation myths, it is important to understand the difference between the two sources that the Maya creation stories have been found in. These sources include the Popol Vuh and the Books of Chilam Balam. The Popol Vuh is associated with the highland Maya of what is today Guatemala. It contains text about human creation, prophecies, and traditional myths and histories. The Books of Chilam Balam are normally associated with the lowland Maya of the Yucatán area of Mexico. There are several books of Chilam Balam which are named for the area in which they were written. The most famous and influential books include the books of Chumayel, Tizimin, Mani, Kaua, Ixil, Tusik, and Codex Pérez. The books are written by a Jaguar priest, a literal translation for Chilam Balam. These books date to colonial Spanish times, circa 1500s CE, and there is a clear influence of Spanish colonialism on the creation stories of the Chilam Balam.
For the Maya the creation of the earth is said to have been a deed of Huracán, the wind and sky god. The sky and earth connected, which left no space for any beings or vegetation to grow. In order to make space, a Ceiba tree was planted. The tree grew roots in all the levels of the underworld and its branches grew into the upper world. The tree trunk grew to leave space on earth for animals, plants, and humans. According to Maya belief, animals and plants were extant before humans. The gods were not satisfied with only the animals because they could not speak to honor them. From there, humans were made in order to honor the gods.
The Lost Gods: The Maya (Planet Knowledge)

The Many Epochs of the Maya

According to Maya texts, thus far, there have been three creations. Two of these creations have ended or, in other words, the creatures have been destroyed. There are many variations of the three creations. Some have been influenced by Christianity, however, the basic events of the creations are detailed in the following explanation from the Popol Vuh of the highland Maya.
Built from Mud
The first creation saw the people who were made of mud. The mud people were not the most productive as many were not able to think in the capacity that modern-day humans do and, according to Maya sacred texts, these men “spoke but had no mind.” They could not move because they were made of mud and they also were not technically mortal. The gods were not happy with their first creation, so they destroyed the mud people with water.
Built from Wood
For the second creation, the deities made men from wood and women from reeds. These people could function as humans do, but had no souls and did not honor the gods. They were also immortal. When they died, they only remained dead for three days and would rise from the dead. The destruction of the tree men and reed women was caused by an inundation of boiling hot water. The few who may have survived this apocalypse are thought to have become the monkeys that exist today.
Built from Maize
The third creation saw the birth of modern-day humans. These humans are made of white and yellow maize dough and the blood of the gods. The first humans were four men and four women. These men and women were deemed too wise by the gods. The Maya deities believed these intelligent humans were a threat to their authority and almost destroyed them as well. However, Heart of Heaven (also known as Huracán, but in the creation story he is the Heart of Heaven, Heart of Earth, or Heart of Sky) clouded their minds and eyes so that they would become less wise.
The most important concept to understand about Maya religious belief is that time and the creation of humans are thought to be cyclical.
The different Maya groups believe in a variety of creation myths. The most important concept to understand about Maya religious belief is that time and the creation of humans are thought to be cyclical. This means that some Maya believe that contemporary humans will be destroyed and another creation is imminent. However, this does not necessarily equate to the popularized notions that the Maya believed in an “end of the world” event. Belief in the end of humanity isn’t the end of the world, it is the end of an era and, perhaps, the beginning of a new epoch of the gods.
The gods destroyed the different versions of “humans” because they either could not or would not worship their creators. This is a crucial consideration for the gods. They could not afford to have creations which were unworthy and incapable of providing sustenance to the gods.

Major Maya Gods & Goddesses

Typically, Maya gods are fluid and have diverse personalities. This sometimes makes it difficult to distinguish one god from another. However, it may be simpler to keep in mind that although the Maya deities are numerous, the most consequential gods sometimes morph with the less notable gods and share characteristics of both deities. The incorporation of connectivity in Maya culture, not surprisingly, applies to Maya deities as well. Some deities even have conflicting personality traits.
The multiplicity of the deities’ personalities are furthered by their appearance. Many gods are an amalgamation of a human and particular animal. They are also associated with different cardinal directions and an individual god’s importance can vary depending on historical context. This fluidity is precisely why scholars refer to some Maya deities with the letters of the Latin alphabet.
Itzam Ná & Ix Chebel Yax
Itzam Ná is the god attributed to creation. Not much is known about him and the same can be said of his counterpart, Ix Chebel Yax. Itzam Ná is often depicted as a squinty-eyed, long-nosed old man or sometimes even an iguana. Ix Chebel Yax was the wife of Itzam Ná and is also depicted as an iguana. Both she and Itzam Ná are considered to be high in the hierarchy of gods. The spelling of their names can vary, as can the spellings of many Maya names can.
Huracán, another significant Maya god, is often referred to as the Heart of Heaven, Heart of Sky, or Heart of Earth. While there is not much direct evidence about Huracán being the supreme creator god, the Popol Vuh does imply in one of its prayers that Huracán is a “giver of life.” The same prayer also refers to Huracán as the Heart of Heaven and Earth, which also suggests his importance as a creator. Due to the fluidity of Maya gods, it’s not vital to make an absolutely clear distinction between the creator gods. Having said that, however, Huracán is typically associated with the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. The Quiché believe that Huracán formed the earth and created it for humans. He, too, formed people by making them out of maize dough and is lord of fire, storms, and wind.
K’inich Ajaw
K’inich Ajaw (pronounced Ah-how), sometimes known as God G or Kinich Ahau, is the “Sun-faced Lord.” K’inich Ajaw is typically portrayed as rising or being born in the East and aging as the sun sets. This fierce sun deity would then turn into a jaguar and become a war advisor in the underworld. The sun deities are both worshipped and feared because, while they offer the life-giving properties of the sun, they can sometimes provide too much sun and cause a drought.
Hun H’unahpu
The maize god, Hun H’unahpu, is perhaps the most important of the celestial beings as well. Also referred to as God E, Hun H’unahpu is considered to be the creator of modern humans by the lowland Yucatec Maya. This is because his maize and blood are what made humanity possible. He is a symbol of life and fertility and is portrayed as a young, long-haired man.
Chak, the seeming counterpart of K’inich Ajaw, is the rain god or God B. Chak is both part human and part reptile and he is usually shown with a lightning bolt, a serpent, or an axe. This fearsome god sometimes is shown painted in blue and with snake-like whiskers protruding from his face. The Maya believe that Chak lived in caves where he would make lightning, thunder, and clouds. Chak, too, was both feared and worshipped. He brought the needed rains for the people, but also produced floods, threatening lightning, and behaved much like a wild storm. He also demanded blood sacrifices in payment for the rains that he provided.
God K, or K’awil, is the keeper of the scepter. He is predominantly the protector of the royal line and is known for being linked to lightning as well. He is usually pictured with a piercing of a smoking torch or a grisly axe blade. In addition to his frightful piercings, he also has a snake as one foot and an upturned snout for the other. K’awil is credited with discovering cocoa and maize after striking a mountain with one of his lightning bolts.
Kisim, or God A, is known as the “flatulent one.” Don’t let the humorous name fool you, though. This deity is a terrifying god of death and decay. Kisim has been portrayed as a veritable decomposing skeleton or zombie. Sometimes, Kisim was accompanied by an owl. In Maya belief, owls are messengers of the underworld.
Ix Chel
God O, or Ix Chel, is the goddess of rainbows. While rainbows may symbolize goodwill in western culture, Ix Chel should not be confused as a god of goodwill. The Maya actually believe that rainbows are the “flatulence of demons,” and bring bad luck and disease. Ix Chel also represents these things because of her association with rainbows. In her typical form, Ix Chel is a fanged, clawed, and dilapidated crone. However, in conjunction with the duplicity of Maya beings, Ix Chel also has a more benevolent form. She occasionally represents fertility and childbirth and, in these contexts, she is pictured as youthful and beautiful.
The Hero Twins
Finally, the legend of the Hero Twins entails the adventures of two brothers, Xbalanque and Hunahpu, through the underworld. The legend, chronicled in the Popol Vuh, begins with the conception of the brother-gods. The Twins’ father was the god Hun H’unahpu. Hun H’unahpu and his brother were lured to the underworld to be sacrificed through decapitation. However, because Hun H’unahpu was immortal, his decapitated head survived and turned into a fruit on a tree. Hun H’unahpu’s fruit head spit into the hand of the goddess Xquic, who ultimately gave birth to Xbalanque and Hunahpu, the Hero Twins.
The twins faced many challenges, but the most epic story is of their journey through Xibalba (pronounced Shee-bahl-bah), the Maya underworld.
The twins were summoned to the underworld after playing a raucous and loud ballgame above the heads of the lords of Xibalba. The lords challenged the twins many times, but through wit and cunning, the twins were able to best the lords of Xibalba. Xbalanque and Hunahpu grew tired of the endless challenges and devised a way to escape the underworld. They disguised themselves as travelers and entertained the underworld gods with tricks and games. The lords were so impressed with their trick of bringing a person back to life after they were sacrificed that they asked the twins to sacrifice them and bring them back to life. However, instead of bringing the gods back to life, the twins left them dead and made the underworld a place for the wretched. The Hero Twins and the lords of Xibalba now reside in the night sky as stars. Kings were thought to follow the trials of the Hero Twins after their death and make their journey to the heavens or upper world.
There are many more celestial beings, but the aforementioned are those which occur most frequently. They can come in many forms and their multiplicity is a pillar of the connective ideals of Maya religion.

Heaven, Hell, & The Cardinal Directions

Contrary to contemporary western ideas of heaven and hell, the Maya believed in different levels of these realms. There are three main areas to distinguish from one another, however. The Maya understand supernatural levels not as heaven and hell, but as the upper world, middle world, and underworld.
The upper world consists of thirteen levels, the middle world is one level, and the underworld is nine levels. The Ceiba tree is believed to grow through all of the realms, from the highest level of the upper world to the lowest level of the underworld. The Ceiba tree is vital to understanding the importance of the cardinal directions in the Maya world.
Maya deities, in particular, are linked to the cardinal directions. While we are familiar with the four cardinal directions, the Maya understood that there were five elements to the cardinal directions, the four directions and the center. Arguably, the most meaningful cardinal direction to the Maya is the east. The east is where the sun rises and it is associated with birth because of the Maya belief that the sun is born daily from the east.
These principles were also part of Maya daily life. Homes were designed to reflect the cardinal directions and the Ceiba tree. The Maya even built hearths at the center of their homes in order to represent the Ceiba-tree center of the cardinal directions.

Maya Rituals

The Maya participated in various religious rituals. Not all of these were related to human sacrifice, although sacrifice was a common practice in religious ceremonies. Contrary to popular belief, ritual sacrifice was not restricted to the gruesome death of a poor captive. While this did happen in the Maya world on a few occasions, it was a relatively rare occurrence. By far the most common sacrifice ritual was bloodletting.
By far the most common Maya sacrifice ritual was bloodletting.
Bloodletting is precisely as it sounds, the spilling of blood as a practice of sacrifice. In the case of the Maya, bloodletting was constrained to the royal line. The gods demanded blood because of the initial creation where the gods spilled their blood in order to give life to humanity. Also, but not as often, bloodletting was performed in order to communicate with ancestors.
The practice of bloodletting marked significant dates in the Maya world. Royals participating in the practice would spend, sometimes, days performing purification rituals in order to prepare for bloodletting. Both men and women of royal lineages were expected to perform these rituals. Maya kings and queens would participate in varying forms of bloodletting, even making sacred tools to perform the ritual. Blood was usually taken from different parts of the body with specialized tools designed to produce more blood and perhaps more pain as well. The tools were typically made of stingray spines and adorned with different glyphs to show their religious significance. One frightful instance of sacrifice noted by Rubalcaba described how women, typically royal women, would use a thorned rope to pierce their tongue and draw blood to scatter over Maya icons. Men, on the other hand, would do the same, except on the penis rather than the tongue.
The practice of bloodletting would often serve to commemorate and sanctify important events such as births, ascents to the throne, and anniversaries. On the other hand, human sacrifice was reserved for the greatest Maya events.
Human Sacrifice
While wars were usually fought for reasons other than religion, when wars did occur, religion would become involved. Oftentimes, shamans or priests would help plan war strategies. A war priest was called a nacom. The Maya would often combine aspects of warfare and religion. Typically, this was in the form of taking prisoners for sacrifice.
Sacrifices were important in keeping the gods satisfied and were also vital in ensuring a military victory. When a king or queen would ascend to the throne and a political prisoner had been captured, they would commemorate the life-altering event with a human sacrifice. Typically, these prisoners would be royals or elites of an enemy state. The most high-up royals were saved for the sole purpose of recreating events from the Popol Vuh.
These sacrifices were performed in many ways, but there were three methods that were most common. The first method was through decapitation. The next method was the popularized method of removing the heart from the living person. The final, most popular, method was to throw a living person into a cenote, or natural well, as an offering to the gods.
Other Offerings & Rituals
While the most prevalent ritual associated to the ancient Maya is the practice of sacrifice, they also performed other kinds of rituals. Not all Maya offerings were so bloody and gruesome. While they may not seem quite logical to westerners, the alternative offerings do provide interesting ways to communicate with and satisfy the deities.
One rather startling and overlooked means of communication with the gods involved lowering children into cenotes. Children were placed in the wells in order for them to speak to the god or gods. After a few hours of being in the well, the children would be retrieved so that the message from the deities could be heard. Of course, the Maya also participated in offering to the gods precious items such as jade, gold, masks, shells, carved human bone, and ceremonial or sacred tools.
Marriage was another religious ritual and a cause for celebration. Maya marriages were typically arranged marriages within the same social class. Age at the time of marriage varied, but experts speculate that the marriage age was related to population growth and decline. When the Maya population declined, youths would marry at a younger age. Couples would be matched at a very young age, sometimes even when they were infants.
Marriages were performed by priests at the bridal home. Priests would burn incense to bring a fortuitous marriage and then a feast or other type of celebration would ensue. If the marriage was not deemed successful by either husband or wife, the couple could “divorce.” There is no known ritual for divorce, but it is intriguing that divorce was, more or less, an acceptable action.
Dance is another overlooked ritual. Dance rituals were performed to communicate with the gods. The dances would feature lavish costumes which depicted the visages of divinities. Often the Maya would wear or include ornaments such as staffs, spears, rattles, scepters, and even live snakes as dance aids. The Maya believed that by dressing and acting as a god, they would be overtaken by the god’s spirit and therefore would be able to communicate with him or her.
The ancient Maya maintained a complex religion. The multifaceted gods and rituals have even persisted in today’s Maya culture, however syncretized they have become. Their ideologies of creation, sacrifice, sacredness, and multiplicity are key to understanding the Maya religion.
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[ 3 ]

Popol Vuh

Origin and history
by Joshua J. Mark

The Popol Vuh is the story of creation according to the Quiche Maya of the region known today as Guatemala. Translated as `The Council Book', The Book of the People' or, literally, `The Book of the Mat', the work has been referred to as "The Mayan Bible" although this comparison is imprecise. The Popol Vuh is not regarded by the Maya as `the word of God' nor as sacred scripture but rather as an account of "the ancient word" and the understanding the Quiche had of cosmology and creation before the coming of Christianity. The Quiche referred to the book as an Ilb'al - an instrument of sight - and it was known as "The Book of the Mat" because of the woven mats the people would sit on to hear the work recited at the council house. One such building, at Copan, features stone lintels `woven' to look like such matting.
In the beginning of Book I the unknown author states:
This is the beginning of the ancient word, here in this place called Quiche. Here we shall inscribe, we shall implant the Ancient Word, the potential and source for everything done in the citadel of Quiche, in the nation of Quiche people...We shall write about this now amid the preaching of God, in Christendom now. We shall bring it out because there is no longer a place to see it, a Council Book, a place to see "The Light That Came from Beside the Sea", the account of "Our Place in the Shadows", a place to see "The Dawn of Life", as it is called (63).
Regarding these phrases describing the Popol Vuh, the Mayanist Dennis Tedlock writes:
Because they obtained the book (or some section of it) on a pilgrimage that took them down from the highlands to the Atlantic shore, they called it "The Light That Came from Beside the Sea", because the book told of events that happened before the first true dawn, and of a time when their ancestors hid themselves and the stones that contained the spirit familiars of their gods in forests, they also called it "Our Place in the Shadows." And because it told of the rise of the morning star and the sun and moon and foretold the rise and radiant splendor of the Quiche lords, they called it "The Dawn of Life" (21).
The work recounts the Creation, the exploits of the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque, and the early history of Quiche migration.
The work recounts the creation of the world, the exploits of the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque in the underworld and their triumph over the Lords of Death, the creation of humans, and the early history of Quiche migration and settlement up until the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century CE. The Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa burned as many of the books of the Yucatan Maya as he could find on 12 July 1562 CE at the city of Mani but, as he had no jurisdiction in the southern region of the Quiche, the Popol Vuh was spared. Still, it seems from the work itself that the continued practice of the indigenous religion was suppressed in the land of the Quiche as it was elsewhere and the anonymous author of the work felt the need to set down the myths of his people before they were lost.

Origin & History

The Popol Vuh was probably written c. 1554-1558 CE at a time when it had become abundantly clear that the ancient beliefs and practices of the Maya would no longer be tolerated by their Christian conquerors. Dennis Tedlock determines this date based upon textual evidence toward the end of the work in which the author details migrations, genealogies, and settlements. It came to the attention of a Spanish priest early in the 18th century CE. Tedlock writes:
Between 1701 and 1703, a friar named Francisco Ximenez happened to get a look at this manuscript while he was serving as the parish priest. He made the only surviving copy of the Quiche text of the Popol Vuh and added a Spanish translation. His work remained in the possession of the Dominican order until after the Guatemalan independence, but when liberal reforms forced the closing of all monasteries in 1830, it was acquired by the library of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City. Carl Scherzer, an Austrian physician, happened to see it there in 1854, and Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, a French priest, had the same good fortune a few months later. In 1857 Scherzer published Ximenez' Spanish translation under the patronage of the Hapsburgs in Vienna, members of the same royal lineage that had ruled Spain at the time of the conquest of the Quiche kingdom, and in 1861 Brasseur published the Quiche text and a French translation in Paris. The manuscript itself, which Brasseur spirited out of Guatemala, eventually found its way back across the Atlantic from Paris, coming to rest in the Newberry Library in 1911 (27).
The manuscript, which presently is divided into four books, originally had no divisions and was a seamless narrative recorded from oral tradition. The work itself, however, mentions an "original book and ancient writing" which suggests that the author of the Popol Vuh was working from some earlier written source. The author also states that this earlier work is in the possession of one who "has a hidden identity" indicating that the religious works of the Maya needed to be hidden from the Christians who would destroy them; as de Landa did at Mani in 1562 CE. De Landa records burning over forty books and writes, "We found a large number of books and, as they contained nothing in them which were not superstitions and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them much affliction" (Christenson, 11). The Maya had trusted de Landa and voluntarily showed him their books; an honor not accorded to every Christian missionary. He burned over forty Mayan works and thousands of statues and paintings in a single night. Only four works of the Yucatan Maya survive in the present day (the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris Codices, so-named for the cities they were brought to, and the Chilam Balam) and only one of the Quiche: the Popol Vuh.
The Lost Gods: The Maya (Planet Knowledge)

The Structure of the Popol Vuh

The work is divided into a brief preamble and four books. The preamble states the intention of the author in writing the work, sets the time period as post-conquest, and makes the point that the original work "takes a long performance and account to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth" (63). This has suggested to some scholars that the original work was much longer than the present Popol Vuh but, to others, it simply means that one should take one's time in hearing the work in order to appreciate the story. The extant manuscript does not seem to contain any gaps in the narrative but, since there is no record of the earlier work - and no evidence outside of the one line in the preamble alluding to it and another at the end - there is no way of knowing what the author of the work may have left out or whether he left out anything at all. The Mayanist Allen J. Christenson, who translated the work, considers it complete and the last remaining pre-Columbian Maya work of the Quiche people.
Christenson cites the 16th century Spanish missionary Bartholome de las Casas, one of the minority of sympathetic priests who lamented the destruction of the Mayan books. Las Casas saw a number of Mayan works in Quiche in 1540 CE. Christenson writes:
He wrote that they contained the history of the people's origins and religious beliefs, written with `figures and characters by which they could signify everything they desired; and that these great books are of such astuteness and subtle technique that we could say our writing does not offer much of an advantage.' Las Casas was particularly impressed by the fact that the Maya could write `everything they desired.' The Maya were, in fact, the only people in the New World who had a writing system at the time of the Spanish Conquest which had this capability (23).
All of these books which, at the time of Las Casas, were carefully hidden from the Christian missionaries and their fires, are presumed to have been eventually found by them and destroyed. If any do still exist, they have not yet come to light.
Originally the work was a single, long poem. It was only divided into separate books once it was translated into European languages. The intention of the original author seems to have been to preserve the experience of hearing the poem recited and, through the magic of the storyteller's art, to live the events personally as the tale unfolded. This practice is in keeping with oral traditions in other cultures such as those of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, among others. Christenson notes:
The Popol Vuh is written in progressive tense, suggesting the narrator sees it before him as he writes. This is consistent with the way stories are told in contemporary Quiche households. The storyteller invites the listener to imagine the setting of his tale, and nearly always tells the story as if it were happening right then, even if it happened in the distant or mythic past (12).
The four books tell the story of the creation of life, the attempts of the gods at making human beings, the triumph over death of the celestial hero twins, the success of the gods in creating humans, and the genealogies of the people of Quiche. Robert J. Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania writes: "The world of the ancient Maya was governed by a cosmological order that transcended our distinction between the natural and supernatural realms. All things, animate or inanimate, were imbued with an unseen power" (Stuart, 47) and the Popol Vuh fully articulates this vision.

Book I

The first book begins:
This is the Account, here it is: Now it still ripples, now it still murmurs, ripples, it still sighs, still hums, and it is empty under the sky...There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, forest. Only the sky alone is there; the face of the earth is not clear. Only the sea alone is pooled under all the sky- there is nothing whatever gathered together.
Out of this silent nothingness the gods created the world and all living things except humans. The animals could not speak or praise their gods, however, and so the gods declared, "we must make a provider and nurturer. How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth?" They try to create human beings but fail because the creatures "have no heart" and do not remember their makers. They try again, this time making people out of wood, but this also fails and the creatures are destroyed by a great flood. Those not destroyed by the deluge are set upon by their dogs, by their cooking pots and tortilla grinders, by all of the things of the earth they have misused and mistreated. The gods, in the end, are left alone to glorify themselves; this leads to the ascent of the deity Seven Macaw who thinks of himself too highly.

Book II

As the second book opens, two celestial boys named Hunahpu and Xbalanque (the Hero Twins) plot the destruction of Seven Macaw and his two sons Zipacna and Cabracan. There are still no humans on the earth and the boys are upset that Seven Macaw should lord himself over all with no one to challenge him or point out his flaws. It seems that, without human beings to give the gods particular value, any god can claim any value he pleases. Seven Macaw refuses to acknowledge the other gods or their works and so, through a series of tricks and clever ruses, the Hero Twins kill him and his sons, thus restoring order and balance to the world.

Book III

The third book chronicles the adventures of the father and uncle of the Hero Twins, Hun-Hunahpu and Vucub Hunahpu, who were the sons of Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, the first diviners who tried to create humans. They are, therefore, linked to creation and divination. Tricked by the Lords of Death into accepting an invitation to a ball game in Xibalba, the two are murdered and Huh-Hunahpu's head is placed in a Calabash tree in the underworld. The virgin princess Xquiq, (also known as Blood Moon Goddess), is attracted by the head, even though she has been told to stay away from it. She draws close to the tree and the head spits into her hand, thus impregnating her. She must then leave the underworld and go to the upper realm of the earth to live with her new mother-in-law Xumucane. Because of the tragedy which befell her sons, Xumucane distrusts Xquiq and sets her a number of tasks to prove herself. When the twins are born, she also mistrusts them and they too must show they are worthy. Xumucane hides the ball gear of her sons because she does not want her grandsons to know what happened to their father and uncle and try to avenge them. The twins do find the gear, however, and challenge the Lords of Death to a re-match. After numerous adventures in the underworld in which they trick the Lords of Xibalba repeatedly, the Hero Twins destroy them and ascend the World Tree into the sky where they become the sun and the moon.

Book IV

In Book IV human beings are successfully created out of maize. At first, the gods make four men who:
...were good people, handsome, with looks of the male kind. Thoughts came into existence and they gazed; their vision came all at once. Perfectly they saw, perfectly they knew everything under the sky, around in the sky, on the earth, everything was seen without any obstruction...As they looked, their knowledge became intense. Their sight passed through trees, through rocks, through lakes, through seas, through mountains, through plains.
This troubles the gods who understand that humans should not have the same gifts as their creators. They confer among themselves, saying, "Aren't they merely `works' and `designs' in their very names? Yet they'll become as great as gods unless they procreate, proliferate at the sowing, the dawning, unless they increase. Let it be this way: now we'll take them apart just a little." The gods introduce mortality to humanity and:
...changed the nature of their works, their designs, it was enough that the eyes be marred. They were blinded as the face of a mirror is breathed upon. Their vision flickered. Now it was only from close up that they could see what was there with any clarity. And such was the loss of the means of understanding, along with the means of knowing everything.
The gods then provide the men with wives and "right away they were happy at heart again, because of their wives" and they forget that once they knew everything and were like the gods. The men and women content themselves with having children and planting crops and appreciating the gifts the gods have given them. The book concludes with the story of the migration of the Quiche and their genealogy. Included in this section is the introduction of the god Gucumatz, the plumed servant, known to the Maya of the Yucatan as Kukulkan and to the Aztec as Quetzalcoatl. Book IV ends with the lines:
This is enough about the being of Quiche, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost, but even so, everything has been completed here concerning Quiche, which is now named Santa Cruz.
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Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Pulque is an alcoholic drink which was first drunk by the Maya, Aztecs, Huastecs and other cultures in ancient Mesoamerica. Similar to beer, it is made from the fermented juice or sap of the maguey plant (Agave americana). In the Aztec language Nahuatl it was known as octli and to the Maya it was chih. Only mildly alcoholic, the potency of pulque was often increased with the addition of certain roots and herbs.
The drink had its own personified goddess and was featured in episodes of Mesoamerican mythology. Drunk in moderation throughout the region on a daily basis it was served in more copious amounts at important religious festivals and celebrations such as weddings, fertility rites (especially those involving the Aztec god of Summer Xochipilli), and agricultural ceremonies. The substance was not just drunk as the Huastec used pulque as an enema using thin hollow bones; this was a relatively common practice in the administration of hallucinogens in the ancient Americas.

Pulque in Mythology - Mayahuel

The maguey plant, important not just for pulque but also as a source of fibres for weaving, had its own personified deity – a goddess known as 11 Serpent by the Post-classic Mixtecs. In central Mexico the goddess was known as Mayahuel and usually depicted as a beautiful young woman. She was associated with fertility and sometimes referred to as ‘the woman of 400 breasts’ no doubt in reference to the milk-like sap of the plant. Pulque was also personified as a goddess known as 2 Flower. In addition, the god 3 Alligator was closely associated with the drink.
To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give humanity a drink which would lift their spirits.
The consumption of pulque, then, went right back into mythological times and there was, naturally, a myth to explain its invention. The great god Quetzalcoatl was watching humanity one day and noticed that at the end of the working day the people did not dance and sing but, instead, seemed rather miserable. To brighten up their lives Quetzalcoatl decided to give them something which would lift their spirits. Falling in love with a beautiful goddess Mayahuel, Quetzalcoatl whisked her off to Mesoamerica and there, embraced, they turned into a tree with two branches. Now, Mayahuel’s grandmother was not best pleased with this turn of events and so, accompanied by a troop of fellow demons (tzitzimime), she attacked the tree, splitting it into two. Mayahuel was then ripped to pieces and eaten by the terrible demons. A heartbroken Quetzalcoatl collected the bits and pieces left of his lover and tenderly buried them. Eventually, these remains grew into the first maguey plant and humans used it to make pulque. In the end, Quetzalcoatl’s wish that humanity might benefit from a drink which increased their happiness came to pass.
Another famous myth is when Quetzalcoatl, under the drink’s influence, slept with his sister, Quetzalpetlatl. The god’s realization and embarrassment on discovering his shameful act the next morning was used as an explanation as to why the god abandoned Tula, his capital. The episode was also a warning to the Mesoamericans that abuse of pulque could carry serious consequences. For this reason the Aztecs were rather more particular about who could drink pulque compared to other Mesoamerican cultures. They reserved its consumption in public as a special privilege for nobles and warriors and imposed penalties ranging from head-shaving, property destruction, and even the death penalty for repeated cases of drunkenness.

The 400 Pulque Gods

There was also a group known as the pulque gods who were almost always males. These were particularly important to the Aztecs who called them the Centzon Totochtin (400 Rabbits) as it was believed a rabbit had first discovered the juice of the maguey by nibbling on a leaf. The mother of the pulque gods was Mayahuel and their father Patecatl. Taking on many forms, their exact significance has been difficult to determine. Many were associated with specific towns, days, and time periods. They were also representative of drunkenness and sexual lust and so wore half-moon nose rings, symbol of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of lust and filth.
As a group the pulque gods were represented as either the god Ome Tochtli or 2 Rabbit. Several pulque gods have been identified as ceremonially buried beneath the Templo Mayor temple at Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Historian Mary Miller suggests this was in homage to the 400 victims killed by the god Huitzilopochtli in Aztec mythology.

Representations in Art

The earliest depictions in Mesoamerican art of pulque are from the great city of Teotihuacan, at its peak between 300 and 550 CE. Here stone relief carvings show masked figures with milky drops falling from their mouths and one mask has a background of maguey leaves.
Monuments set up by the Zapotec civilization (500-900 CE) show scenes from wedding ceremonies where guests are drinking pulque. From the Post-classic period (900-1200 CE) there is a rock painting at Ixtapantongo which is the earliest representation of Mayahuel. She is shown within a maguey plant and holding a cup in each hand, probably containing pulque.
As pulque had a milk-like appearance it was associated with mother’s milk and this is evidenced in such artefacts as the Aztec Bilimek Pulque Vessel on which is a scene showing the drink pouring from the breast of an earth goddess. Finally, Mayahuel and the pulque gods appear in illustrations in several colonial-era codices, notably the Mixtec Codex Vindobonensis (sheet no. 25) and on several sheets in the 16th century CE Aztec Codex Magliabechiano.
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Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Tikal, located in the north of the Petén region of Guatemala, was a major Maya city which flourished between 300 and 850 CE. The city, known to the Maya themselves as Mutul, is one of the grandest in Mesoamerica. Amongst the first Maya cities to gain prominence in the Early Classic period (250-600 CE), Tikal built its wealth by exploiting its natural resources and geographical location to become a Maya superpower, a status it also enjoyed in the 7th century CE when some of the site's most impressive later monuments were constructed.

Historical Overview

Settlement at Tikal began from around 300 BCE and, first clearing away areas in the jungle, monumental architecture was built in the period up to 100 CE. The city's prosperity was based on exploitation of natural resources such as cedar wood, dye from brazil wood, copal resin, flint, and cultivating maize in cleared areas of rainforest and fertile swamp areas. In 378 CE Tikal was invaded by forces from distant Teotihuacan (or at the very least trade contacts were established) with a consequent influence on the cultural practices at Tikal, from clothes to art and architecture. From the late 4th century CE, Tikal was able to further expand its sphere of influence and conquer long-time local rivals Uaxactún and Rio Azul, and the city formed useful alliances with such centres as Kaminaljuyú. At its height the population of Tikal, including the scattered urban settlements around the city, was over 50,000, and it utilized some 200 square kilometres of surrounding territory.
TIKAL's prosperity was based on exploitation of natural resources such as cedar wood, dye from brazil wood, copal resin, flint, and cultivating maize.
In the 6th century CE the power of Teotihuacan declined, and other Maya cities, notably Caracol, sought military expansion, defeating Tikal in 562 CE. However, by the 7th century CE Tikal regained its place as an important Maya city, contemporary with such centres as Palenque, Copan, and Tikal's greatest rival Calakmul. The most important ruler in this resurgence was Jasaw Chan K'awiil (r. 682-734 CE) who defeated Calakmul in 695 CE and oversaw a significant rebuilding programme in the city. The most impressive new buildings were the massive pyramids known simply as Temple I and II. Jasaw Chan K'awiil was buried in Temple I on its completion in c. 727 CE. Other pairings of pyramids were built later but most of these remain unexcavated. Along with other Maya cities, Tikal went into gradual decline during the 8th century CE, and by around 900 CE the site had been abandoned. The city, including its towering temples, was eventually reclaimed by the jungle and would only be rediscovered in the mid-19th century CE.

Layout & Architecture

Tikal consists of nine different plazas and courts connected by causeways and ramps and has, in all, over 3,000 structures. The buildings are spread over some 15 square kilometres, and so the city was relatively low in density. Sometime before 250 CE the Great Plaza and North Acropolis were constructed to follow a north-south axis. This plan was adhered to by later constructions until the 8th century CE Temples I and II were built on an east-west axis. Buildings used limestone blocks around rubble cores with lintels and crossbeams in wood (sapodilla was the preferred choice), often elaborately carved to depict scenes. Besides its imposing temples, the city also had palaces, a market complex, ten reservoirs, two sacred causeways, and a unique triple ballcourt. Another typical Maya feature is the sculpture of stone slabs to depict rulers and record their greatest accomplishments. Such stelae were set up in rows along the sides of the plazas. The oldest example of these stelae in Mesoamerica was discovered at Tikal and dates to 292 CE. It shows a ruler holding in his left hand the Jaguar God of the Underworld, probably a patron god of Tikal.
The earliest structures, such as the North Acropolis, are typically squat with corner apron moldings. These and later architecture at the site all display the usual Maya features of multi-level pyramids, raised platforms, corbel-vaulted chambers, large stucco masks of gods which flank staircases, and a deliberate orientation with the heavens, cardinal directions and, often time itself, as indicated by the 8th century CE pairs of pyramids built every 20-year katun cycle. The large pyramids also had roof-combs which made them even taller, and these may have represented the sacred caves which Mesoamerican people had used as places of worship for millennia. Many tombs within buildings have murals, the earliest dating to c. 50 BCE, typically depicting rulers and gods, no doubt, to emphasise the divine ancestry of the tomb's occupant.

Architectural Highlights

North Acropolis
The North Acropolis, first built c. 250 BCE and modified many times over the centuries, includes the oldest structures at Tikal. These temples were built on two rectangular platforms, the oldest and largest measures 100 x 80 metres, and used as mausoleums for the early Tikal kings. The most opulent tomb was of Yax Nuun Ayiin, also known as 'Curl Nose', who died in 420 CE and who was buried in all his finery along with nine sacrificial victims and several fine pots of chocolate and maize gruel. Other colourfully named rulers buried in the twelve temples include Moon Zero Bird (accession c. 320 CE), Great Jaguar Paw, Stormy Sky, and Smoking Frog.
Central Acropolis
Facing the Great Plaza, this is the location of Tikal's five-storey royal palace. Similar to the better preserved palace at Palenque, the structure had extensive galleries, benches set along walls, enclosed courtyards, and stucco depictions of captives. The presence of four huge hearths suggests meals were prepared for a large number of resident scribes and administrators. The courtyards would have been used for important ceremonies, including blood-letting and sacrifices.
Mundo Perdido Complex
The Mundo Perdido or 'Lost World' complex is dominated by a huge pyramid, and along one side of the complex is a row of small temples, their exact purpose unknown. The complex has three platforms on its eastern side and a single platform on the western side. Those to the east are aligned with the sunrise at the equinoxes.
Temples I, II, & IV
Built in the 8th century CE on a west-east axis and facing each other across the Great Plaza, the Temple I pyramid has the typical nine levels to imitate those of the Maya underworld Xibalba. Temple I is 50 m (164 ft) high and is climbed by a steep 70-degree staircase with steps so narrow they can only be climbed side-footed. Deep within Temple I the Tikal king Jasaw Chan K'awiil was buried, while his wife is a prime candidate for the now missing occupant of the 42-metre high Temple II. The king's tomb, besides the usual precious jade and shell jewelry also contained a large number of incised bones which relate tales from Tikal history. Finally, mention should be made of Temple IV as, at 70 metres high, it is the tallest structure at Tikal and was used as the tomb of King Yax Kin (734-746 CE).
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Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Uxmal, in north-west Yucatán, Mexico, was an important Maya city which flourished between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. The city, following an extensive restoration programme, is the best preserved of all Maya sites, and it possesses some of the most outstanding examples of Terminal Classic architecture anywhere.
First settled in the 6th century CE, or even earlier, it was between 850 and 925 CE that Uxmal fully established itself as the capital of a collection of lesser cities in the eastern Puuc region. Along with other northern sites like Chichen Itza, Uxmal survived the collapse which affected most other Maya cities c. 900 CE. Indeed, the city embarked on a new round of monument building in the 9th and 10th centuries CE and became by far the largest Puuc site. Later, in the 13th and 14th centuries CE, Uxmal was a part of an alliance of Yucatan city-states led by Mayapan.
Puuc style architecture prevails and arched doorways and elaborate Decoration are a common feature of Uxmal buildings.

Layout & Architecture

The limestone buildings of Uxmal are, in the main, oriented along a north-east axis. The exception is the House of the Governor which faces the rise of Venus at its southern-most cycle. Fortification walls surround the central sacred complex. Puuc style architecture prevails and arched doorways are a common feature of Uxmal buildings, as are distinctive boot-shaped blocks designed specifically to support vaulting. Building façades are divided horizontally into two distinct parts - a plain lower portion and a highly decorative upper section. Fine veneers over a rubble core are also characteristic of the Puuc style. The city includes the typical sacred causeways (sacbe) of Maya cities. The 18 km one which connected Uxmal to Kabah began with a huge monumental corbel arch and steps which is reminiscent of the Roman triumphal arch. The structure is unique in Maya architecture.
Besides the major monuments mentioned below, Uxmal also includes a ballcourt with unusual vertical sides, the Cemetery Group, the North Group - a collection of structures built around a chambered pyramid, the squat House of the Turtles, and the square four-level pyramid known as the Pyramid of the Old Woman, which is the oldest structure at Uxmal.

Architectural Highlights

Pyramid of the Magician
The three-level pyramid has two distinct profiles which leads scholars to believe the structure had two separate building phases, beginning in the 6th century CE and ending in the 10th century CE. The pyramid is distinctive for its rounded corners which make it almost oval in shape when seen from above, making the pyramid unique in Maya architecture. A steep staircase embellished with carved masks climbs the west side and reaches a doorway carved to represent the mouth of a terrible serpent monster. A less steep staircase climbs the eastern side and ends in a single-chamber structure.
Nunnery Quadrangle
The building was built in the late 9th century CE with various additions being made in subsequent decades. A large courtyard enclosed by four separate rectangular buildings is accessed via a monumental staircase on the south side which leads up to a large corbel arch entrance. The building is in the richly ornamental Puuc architectural style. The structure includes vaults, finely-cut veneer masonry, roof-combs, and an unusually high number of doorways precisely numbered along each façade and set closer together as they move towards the ends.
The North Building of the Nunnery is the highest and has a many-chambered terrace accessible via a second wide staircase leading from the courtyard. This structure has 13 doorways, almost certainly a representation of the 13 levels of the Maya heavens. Opposite, the South Building has nine doorways, imitating the nine levels of the Maya Underworld (Xibalba). Significantly, it is also the lowest set building of the four. The West Building has seven doorways, this time reflecting the Maya mystic number of the earth. Further, representations of the earth god in the guise of a turtle (Pawahtun) suggest the building represented the Middleworld which for the Maya was the place where the sun descends into the Underworld. Mosaics on the East Building suggest this structure may represent the point in the Middleworld where the sun rises. Decorative elements on all four buildings include stone masks, sky bands, double-headed snakes, modest thatch-roofed houses, and statues in the round. The exact purpose of the building is unknown.
House of the Governor
This 24-room building was constructed in the 10th century CE to commemorate the reign of Lord Chahk, the last great ruler of Uxmal, whose portrait is placed above the main entrance. Also built in the Puuc style it was perhaps originally conceived as three separate parts connected by corbel doorways. The whole building, just as with the Nunnery, leans slightly outwards (negative batter) giving an impression of lightness and also correcting the distorted perspective created by the long horizontals of the building. The top portion of the façade employs stone mosaic decoration using motifs such as serpents, step frets and lattice work along with human portraits and small thatched houses. Decorative stone serpent-masks are arranged in diagonals to create striking outlined triangles on all façades. In contrast, the corners of the building each have a vertical line of five serpent-masks. As well as the royal residence of Uxmal, the building was used as the city's main administrative centre.
House of the Pigeons
Located immediately west of the House of the Governor and the Great Pyramid, this buildings gets its name from the intricate façade with its many small apertures which resembles a dovecote. The complex has three courts, each diminishing in size as one climbs the three levels of steps. Its poorer condition and highly decorative architectural style suggest the building is several centuries older than the Nunnery and House of the Governor.
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Origin and history
by Joshua J. Mark

The English word 'wall' is derived from the Latin, 'vallus' meaning 'a stake' or 'post' and designated the wood-stake and earth palisade which formed the outer edge of a fortification. The palisades were in use early on and are mentioned by Homer in the 8th century BCE and later by the Greek historian Polybius (c 200-118 BCE) and the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145-86 BCE) among others. Walls have traditionally been built for defense, privacy, and to protect the people of a certain region from the influence or perceived danger posed by outsiders.

Ancient Walls of Mesopotamia

The oldest walls found in existence so far are those of the temple of Gobekli Tepe in Urfa, southeast Turkey which date to 11,500 years ago. City walls, which became common for purposes of defense, are first seen around the city of Jericho (now in the West Bank) around the 10th century BCE and the Sumerian city of Uruk which was founded somewhat later (though both cities lay claim to the honor of `first city in the world'). The walls of Uruk were thought to have been built by the great king Gilgamesh upon which he inscribed his heroic deeds which formed the basis for the later epic he is most famous for.
Walls began to rise around cities throughout Mesopotamia shortly after urbanization began in the region c. 4500 BCE.
Walls began to rise around cities throughout Mesopotamia shortly after urbanization began in the region c.4500 BCE. City walls were constructed to include gates and watchtowers and usually a ditch running around the outer perimeter of the wall which could be filled with water. King Hammurabi surrounded his city of Babylon with more impressive walls than usually seen shortly after he assumed the throne in 1792 BCE, but the credit for transforming the city of Babylon into an awe-inspiring wonder belongs to King Nebuchadnezzar II. Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE) built three walls around Babylon at heights of forty feet and so broad at the top that chariots could race around them. The Ishtar Gate in the wall of Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon was claimed by some to be greater than any of the listed Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that "Babylon surpasses in wonder any city in the known world" and specifically praised the walls which he said were 56 miles (90 kilometres) long, 80 feet (24 metres) thick, and 320 feet (97 metres) high. Although it is generally believed that Herodotus exaggerated the majesty of Babylon, other ancient writers have also noted the magnificence of the walls.

Defensive Walls

It is thought the very first wall not built around a city was erected by the Sumerian King Shulgi of Ur c. 2038. Shulgi's wall was 155 miles (250 kilometres) long and was built between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to keep the invading Amorites out of Sumerian lands. This wall was unusual in that it did not surround a city but, rather, marked a territorial, national (rather than private) boundary and, as such, was a first of its kind. Shulgi's son, Shu-Sin, grandson, and great-grandson all tried to maintain this wall but, as it was not anchored at either end to any terminus, proved to be ineffective (one could simply march an army around either end of the wall) and finally was breached by the Elamites c. 1750 BCE resulting in the fall of Ur and the region of Sumer. Another wall of this kind, still extant, is the Great Wall of Gorgan (known as `The Red Snake' due to the red color of the bricks) in modern-day Iran. Built by the Parthian Empire (247 BCE-224 CE) it was restored and renovated by the Sasanian Persians in the 5th or 6th century CE, the wall runs 121 miles (195 Kilometres) long and included over thirty forts along its line. The wall was built as both a defensive construct and a strategic means of observing enemy deployment. It was far more effective than Shulgi's wall and it is thought that the Sasanian Persians learned the lesson of Shulgi's wall and improved upon their own. The Great Wall of Gorgon is over 1,000 years older, though far less famous, than the Great Wall of China which, though begun under the reign of Shi Huangti (ruled 221-210 BCE) was not completed in its present state until the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). Like the Great Wall of Gorgon, the Great Wall of China was built as a free-standing structure for defense of a region as was the Anastasian Wall (also known as The Long Walls of Thrace) of the Byzantine Empire (begun c. 469 CE) located in modern Turkey.

Walls in Homes and Cities

The Neolithic village of Banpo in China (c. 4800 BCE) consisted of stone-walled circular houses supported by timber with thatched roofing while the village of Skara Brae (in Orkney, Scotland) was built in 3100 BCE with walls and houses of stone to protect people from the elements and provide privacy. Interestingly, both villages are similar in construction. The basic form of these villages, and the use of walls, continues along the same lines in other cultures. In ancient Egypt most private homes had walled courtyards to help deter robbers or simply unwanted and uninvited neighbors (papyrus scrolls and tomb inscriptions relate that human beings could be as insufferably annoying to each other in ancient times as they are now). Every city in ancient Egypt was walled and each of the great palaces had elaborate painted walls for the purpose of defense, but also for ornamentation. This same building pattern held true in ancient Greece where citizens of Athens built small decorative walls around their courtyards and patios. The Athenians also surrounded their city with thick walls which lasted until the end of the Peloponnesian Wars with Sparta when the victorious Spartans had them torn down. Also of note in Athens were the Long Walls which were two parallel stone structures which ran from the Acropolis down to the port of Piraeus and protected the center of the city. The walls of the fabled city of Troy from Homer's Iliad were uncovered by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann during excavations between 1871-1874 CE and served this same defensive purpose. The fortifications of the Chinese city of Xi'an (built c. 194 BCE) were also constructed for defense and lasted four years before falling. The modern day walls of Xi'an, like the Great Wall of China, was re-built and restored by the Ming Dynasty.

Walls in Europe & Hadrian's Wall

In Europe the custom of the walled city continued as evidenced by sites such as the Oppidum of Manching (located near modern-day Ingolstadt, Germany) which was a 3rd century BCE Celtic community of the Vindelici tribe. The Roman city of Lugo in Galicia, Spain was surrounded by enormously thick walls considered utterly impregnable. The most famous wall of antiquity in Europe, however, is Hadrian's Wall in Britain. The Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 CE) grew tired of incursions into the Roman provinces in Britain and so, in the year 122 CE, began building a wall across the northern border of Roman Britain to separate it from the invading Pict tribes much in the same way that Shulgi built his wall almost two thousand years earlier to keep out the Amorites (as with the Great Wall of China and the Anastasian Wall). It took six years to build, stretched for 80 miles (128 kilometres) across the border between what is now England and Scotland and was, at points, over nine feet wide (2.7 metres) and twenty feet (6 metres) high. It was fortified at towers along the way and served as a symbol of Roman military might and power. The later Antonine Wall (begun in 142 CE under the reign of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius) stretched 39 miles (63 kilometres) between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde and was constructed for the same reason as other such walls: to protect the known region of the inhabitants from the incursions of the `other' whom they regarded as dangerous barbarians.
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Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Located in the foothills of the Chiapas altiplano of modern Mexico, Palenque was an important Maya city which flourished between c. 600 and 750 CE. The name Palenque derives from the Spanish, meaning 'fortified place', but the original Maya name, we now know, was Lakamha. Situated where the highland and coastal plains join, the site prospered as an inland trade centre which allowed Palenque to control a large territory and form beneficial alliances with other powerful cities such as Tikal, Pomoná, and Tortuguero.
The list of Palenque kings begins with K'uk' Bahlam I, who reigned from 431 to 435 CE, but the most famous monarch is Kinich Janaab Pacal I (meaning great sunflower shield), also known as Pakal the Great, who reigned from 615 CE until his death in 683 CE, aged 80. Pakal created a dynasty which, over four generations, saw the city reach its greatest period of prosperity. Pakal's sons, K'an Bahlam II (r. 684-702 CE and otherwise known as Chan Bahlum) and K'an Joy Chitam II (r. 702 - c. 720 CE), and grandson K'inich Ahkal Mo' Nahb III (r. 721 - c. 736 CE ) continued Pakal's work and transformed Palenque into one of the greatest of all Maya cities. However, sometime in the mid 8th century CE hostilities broke out with Toniná and Palenque, as other contemporary Classic Maya cities, was abandoned c. 800 CE.
The investigation inside the great pyramid of Palenque led to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries in Mesoamerica.

Layout & Architecture

The city may be divided into three separate periods: Early, Middle, and Late Classic. Most of the larger buildings at Palenque date to the middle period, whilst the Late Classic saw the construction of terraced fortifications for defence against central Gulf Coast peoples. Built on three different levels, the city follows the contours of the local terrain, and many of the limestone temple structures are built on natural hills. Palenque, with over 1,000 different structures, was one of the most densely populated of all Maya cities. Eight small rivers running down from the surrounding mountains wind their way through the city. The most important such stream was called Otulum which was re-directed to bring water directly to the royal palace, and, in places, made to follow an underground aqueduct which supported platforms and walkways.
Architecture at Palenque was innovative. For the first time in Mesoamerica, corbeled roofs were constructed, often in parallel, which brought greater interior space and, via the central supporting wall, improved structural stability. On top of the sloping upper portion of many buildings, a latticed roof-comb was added. Palenque architecture is also distinct due to the use of thin walls and wide doorways. Buildings used the local soft limestone with lintels in wood, and bright colours of red, blue, green, yellow, and white were used to decorate them on the outside and murals inside. Palenque is also famous for its decorative stucco sculpture and low-relief carvings which present some of the most naturalistic portraits in Maya art. Also of note are the many palaces with wide courtyards, ornamental fountains, and artificial pools dotted around the city.

The Palenque Palace

Uniquely for Maya cities, at Palenque a royal residence and not a temple is the central focus of the city. The palace, first begun c. 721 CE, is one of the most complex architectural structures at any Maya site. The building, set on a 10-metre high platform, is largely composed of rooms arranged around internal courtyards and galleries with vaulted ceilings, the whole measuring 91 x 73 metres. Perhaps the palace's most striking feature is the square four-storey tower, another feature unique in Mesoamerican sites. The 25-metre tower was climbed via a staircase winding around the interior walls. The building was used as a royal residence and court but also as accommodation for nobles, servants, and military personnel. Other features of note are a steam bath, two lavatories constructed over an underground stream, and various reliefs showing captives. The palace was also richly decorated with stucco painted in bright colours which depict scenes of Maya kings and nobility.

The Temple of the Inscriptions

Set into a hillside and completed c. 682 CE, the pyramid has nine different levels, corresponding, no doubt, to the nine levels of the Maya Underworld. Carrying out an archaeological survey at the top of the pyramid in 1952 CE, the Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz famously discovered that a single curiously holed slab in the flooring of one chamber could be removed, and beneath it he revealed a staircase which descended into the heart of the building. At the base of the twisting 65-step staircase, after clearing away the deliberately left rubble and now deep inside the pyramid, Ruz reached a single corbel-roofed chamber, outside of which were five or six human skeletons, almost certainly sacrificial victims. Clearly someone important had been buried here. Inside the richly decorated crypt were nine stucco attendants on the sloping walls and two more in jade standing by the room's most remarkable artefact. This was a sarcophagus topped with a magnificently carved 3.8 metre long slab depicting a Maya ruler falling into the jaws of the Maya underworld Xibalba. On finally opening the sarcophagus, Ruz discovered the jade and cinnabar-covered remains of that greatest of all Palenque rulers, King Pakal the Great. The king had been given a life-like jade mosaic death mask and a great deal of matching jewellery to accompany him into the next life. It was one of the greatest discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, and it finally proved that the great Maya pyramids had not simply been built as temples but also as tombs for great rulers, just as in ancient Egypt.
Other interesting features of the tomb include inscriptions on the walls which relate episodes from Pakal's reign (hence the temple's modern name), a narrow stone airway (psychoduct) which runs right through the pyramid to connect the tomb to the outside world, and exactly 13 corbel roof sections connecting the tomb to the upper chamber, corresponding to the Maya 13 levels of the heavens. So then, just as depicted on the sarcophagus slab, the entire pyramid was a metaphor for Pakal's descent through the nine levels of the underworld and subsequent ascent up the World Tree and the 13 levels of heaven to finally reach divine status. The tomb is also interesting architecturally as it has unique stone crossbeams, no doubt, because the architect felt the usual wood beams would not be strong enough to support the great mass of masonry above. Finally, the temple is also notable as the only known example of a Maya pyramid being built before the death of the occupant.

The Group of the Cross

This is a collection of three temples - the Temple of the Sun, the Cross, and Foliated Cross - built in the late 7th century CE and arranged on three sides of a plaza. Each temple is built on a raised platform accessed by a frontal flight of monumental steps, and each contains parallel galleries with a corbeled passage set at right-angles, so creating a large chamber. All three also have large roof-comb structures. Inscriptions within the shrines of each of the structures reveal that they were built in honour of three Palenque gods (known only as GI, GII, and GIII) by King K'an Bahlam, (Snake Jaguar) and dedicated in 692 CE. The king's accession is recorded in tablets in all three temples, and he is himself depicted aged six and again when made king, aged 49.
The three temples are rich in Maya imagery and symbolism. The inner shrine of the Temple of the Sun had a mask of the sun in his night aspect, the Jaguar God of the Underworld. The shrines in the Temple of the Cross and Foliated Cross contained a World Tree above which was a quetzal bird. The Maya called these buildings sweat baths or pibnal, places of ceremonial importance, especially before and after childbirth. Perhaps, then, they are symbolic of the gods' birth, and taken as a group they may represent the Maya Creation. The sculptures and reliefs as a whole emphasise the king's role as a guardian of fertility, maize, and rain, and they also present a clear ancestral link between the Pakal dynasty and the gods.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0



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