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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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[ 2 ]

Maya Architecture

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Maya architecture is best characterized by the soaring pyramid temples and ornate palaces which were built in all Maya centres across Mesoamerica from El Tajin in the north to Copan in the south. The Maya civilization was formed of independent city-states and, consequently, there are regional variations in architecture but almost all buildings were constructed with a precise attention to position and layout and a general style prevails. Multi-level elevated platforms, massive step-pyramids, corbelled roofing, monumental stairways, and exteriors decorated with sculpture and mouldings of Maya glyphs, geometric shapes, and iconography from religion such as serpent masks are all typical features of Maya architecture. Interestingly, unlike many other cultures, Maya architecture makes no particular distinction between religious and non-religious buildings.

Influences & Materials

The Maya were certainly aware of, and were often admirers of, the Mesoamerican cultures which had gone before them, especially the Olmec and at Teotihuacan, and so they took inspiration from this Mesoamerican heritage when developing their own unique architecture.
Maya architects used readily available local materials, such as limestone at Palenque and Tikal, sandstone at Quiriguá, and volcanic tuff at Copan. Blocks were cut using stone tools only. Burnt-lime cement was used to create a form of concrete and was occasionally used as mortar, as was simple mud. Exterior surfaces were faced with stucco and decorated with high relief carvings or three-dimensional sculpture. Walls might also have fine veneers of ashlar slabs placed over a rubble core, a feature of buildings in the Puuc region. Walls in Maya buildings are usually straight and produce sharp angles but a notable idiosyncrasy is seen at Uxmal's House of the Governor (10th century CE) which has outer walls which lean outwards as they rise (called negative batter). The whole exterior was then covered in stucco and painted in bright colours, especially red, yellow, green, and blue. Interior walls were often decorated with murals depicting battles, rulers, and religious scenes. Mansard roofs were typical and made in imitation of the sloped thatch roofing of the more modest wooden and wattle dwellings of the majority of the population.
Maya buildings were positioned to take advantage of solar and other celestial events or sight lines.
The earliest monumental Maya structures are from the Petén region, such as the 1st century CE pyramid at Uaxactun known as E-VII-sub, and are low pyramids with steps on all four sides rising to a top platform. Postholes in the platforms indicate superstructures of perishable material once stood there. The pyramids also carry sculptural decoration, masks in the case of E-VII-sub. Even at this early stage buildings were constructed on precise plans according to such events as the winter and summer solstices and equinoxes. In addition, the outline of structures when seen from above was also deliberate and could form or resemble Maya glyphs for, for example, completion and time. Indeed, many structures were built to specifically commemorate the completion of important time periods such as the 20 year katun.

Town Planning

Maya sites display evidence of deliberate urban planning and monuments are often laid out on a radial pattern incorporating wide plazas. Topography usually determined where larger buildings were constructed - see, for example, Palenque where use was made of natural rock rises - but they could also be connected via elevated and stuccoed roadways (bajos) within a single sacred complex. Buildings themselves were oriented along, for example, a north-south axis, and were so positioned to take advantage of solar and other celestial events or sight lines. Buildings might also be sited to take advantage of natural panoramas or even mimic the view itself such as in the ballcourt at Copan.


Maya pyramids soaring above the surrounding jungle, such as the 65-metre high Temple IV at Tikal (8th century CE), are amongst the most famous images from the ancient Americas. Pyramids were used not only as temples and focal points for Maya religious practices where offerings were made to the gods but also as gigantic tombs for deceased rulers, their partners, sacrificial victims, and precious goods. Pyramids were also periodically enlarged so that their interiors, when excavated, sometimes reveal a series of complete but diminishing pyramids, often still with their original coloured stucco decoration. In addition, individual shrines could be amalgamated into a single giant complex over time as Maya rulers attempted to impress their subjects and leave a lasting mark of their reign. A good example of this development can be seen at the North Acropolis of Tikal.
Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions, built c. 700 CE, is a model example of a Maya temple structure. A single steep staircase climbs several levels to reach a top platform topped by a single structure with several chambers. The pyramid is rich in symbolic meaning with nine exterior levels representing the nine levels of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, and a 13-level secret passageway descending to the tomb of King Pakal in the interior representing the 13 levels of the Maya heavens. In contrast to this standard approach, the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal (after 600 CE) is distinctive for its rounded corners which make it almost oval in shape when seen from above, making the pyramid unique in Maya architecture. Another two common Maya features of pyramids are a chamfer or deep horizontal groove running around each platform and rounded inset corners. The overall effect of these huge monuments is of a mountain, a feature of the landscape which the Maya held as sacred.


The larger Maya buildings used as palaces and administrative centres, like the temples, very often have sections with corbelled roofing - that is flat stones were piled one upon another, slightly over-lapping so that they formed a narrow enough gap that it could be spanned with a single capstone. Further support to these unstable vaults was given by the addition of wooden crossties. This technique was further refined at Palenque where the central wall of parallel corbelled passageways could support exterior roof comb structures which presented a lattice-work effect in stone. The use of corbel roofs can also be seen in the inner burial chambers of some pyramids, notably the tomb of Kink Pakal deep within Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. A further innovation for increasing the structural integrity of roofing is found at Uxmal and especially in the Nunnery Quadrangle building (pre-1000 CE), which has boot-shaped stones in its vaults.
The Nunnery complex at Uxmal is also a good reminder that Maya royal residences too had religious functions and were designed, like the temple pyramids, to visually represent the Maya view of the cosmos. The north building of the Nunnery has 13 doorways - the levels of the heavens, the south building has 9 - the levels of Xibalba, and the west building has 7 - the Maya mystic number of the earth.
Larger Maya buildings could have colonnades (or more commonly piers) and towers. The best surviving example is the palace at Palenque with its unique three-storey tower. Doorways are often multiple and of the post and lintel type in wood (usually sapodilla) or stone. They can also present relief carvings of rulers; especially fine examples are found at Yaxchilan. Alternatively, doorways could be carved to represent, for example, the mouth of a fierce monster, as in Structure 22 at Copan and the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal. These portals represented the mouths of sacred caves, traditionally considered portals to another world. Finally, besides halls, sleeping quarters, cooking areas, and workshops, some palaces, as at Palenque, also had luxury features such as lavatories and steam rooms.


Used to play the ballgame of Mesoamerica which involved two teams of players trying to bounce a rubber ball through a single ring without the use of hands or feet, the most splendid Classic Maya ballcourt is to be found at Copan. Built in c. 800 CE its elegant sloping sides perfectly frame the distant view of the hills. The ballcourt at Uxmal is unusual in that its sides are vertical and one example at Tikal has a unique triple-court. The ballgame could have a religious significance with losers being sacrificed to the gods, and the orientation of the court is, therefore, typically positioned between the north and south - the celestial and underworlds respectively - and an integral part of the city's sacred complex.


Maya architecture would, then, pass on the architectural baton from older Mesoamerica to subsequent cultures such as the Toltec civilization and Aztecs, especially at the noted centres of Xochicalco, Chichen Itza, Mitla, and Tenochtitlan. Maya influence even stretched into the 20th century CE when such noted architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Robert Stacy-Judd incorporated elements of Maya architecture into their buildings.
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[ 3 ]

Ghosts in the Ancient World

Origin and history
by Joshua J. Mark

To the people of the ancient world, there was no doubt that the soul of a human being survived bodily death. Whatever an individual's personal views were on the subject, culturally they were brought up with the understanding that the dead lived on in another form that still required some kind of sustenance, in an afterlife that was largely dictated by several factors: the kind of life they had lived on earth, how their remains were disposed of at their death, and/or how they were remembered by the living. The details of the afterlife in different cultures varied, but the constants were that such a realm existed, that it was governed by immutable laws, and that the souls of the dead would remain there unless given license by the gods to return to the land of the living for some specific reason. These reasons could include improper funeral rites, lack of any kind of burial, death by drowning where the body was not recovered, murder in which the body was never found (and so never properly buried), or to resolve some unfinished business or provide a true account of the events surrounding their death, such as when one was murdered and needed one's death avenged and the murderer brought to justice in order to rest in peace.
The appearance of ghosts of the departed, even those of loved ones, was rarely considered a welcome experience. The dead were supposed to remain in their own land and were not expected to cross back over to the world of the living. When such an event did occur, it was a sure sign that something was terribly wrong, and those who experienced a spiritual encounter were expected to take care of the problem in order for the ghost to return to its proper place. This understanding was so prevalent that ghost stories can be found, with very similar themes, in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and India as well as regions of Mesoamerica and the Celtic lands of Ireland and Scotland. Ghosts are also depicted in the Bible in much the same way as they were in earlier Roman works. The following is by no means a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Many books have been written on the belief in ghosts in each of the cultures that are mentioned and the many that are not. The purpose of this article is merely to provide readers with the basic concepts of the afterlife and the belief in ghosts in the ancient world.

Ghosts In Mesopotamia

Ghosts could appear to people on earth to right some kind of wrong.
In Mesopotamian culture, death was the final act of life from which there was no return. The land of the dead was known by many names; among them was the Irkalla, the realm beneath the earth known as the "land of no return", where the souls of the dead dwelt in a dreary darkness, fed off dirt, and sipped from mud puddles (though there were other visions of the afterlife, such as that expressed in the work Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld). This existence was the final end for all the living, no matter how great or poor a life they had lived, and it was ruled over by the dark queen Ereshkigal. No soul was permitted to leave Irkalla for any reason, not even a goddess, as exemplified in the poem The Descent of Inanna, in which even the Queen of Heaven (and Ereshkigal's sister), Inanna, must find a substitute to take her place once she ascends back to the world of the living. Special dispensation, however, was given to souls who needed to complete some kind of mission. Ghosts could appear to people on earth if it was thought that they needed to right some kind of wrong.
These appearances usually manifested themselves in some kind of sickness among the living. The scholar Robert D. Biggs writes, “The dead – especially dead relatives – might also trouble the living, particularly if family obligations to supply offerings to the dead were neglected. Especially likely to return to trouble the living were ghosts of persons who died unnatural deaths or who were not properly buried - for example, death by drowning or death on a battlefield” (4). The doctors of Mesopotamia, known as the Asu and Asipu, employed spells that would placate the ghosts but, before such treatment could begin, the doctor would ask the patient to honestly confess any sins that could have called the ghost forth from the underworld. Sickness in Mesopotamia was considered an outward manifestation of some sin that was being punished either by the gods or by the spirits of the departed and was always assumed to be the fault of the one who was ill until it was proven otherwise.
Upon one's death, a spiritual entity known as a Gidim was created, which maintained the personal identity of the deceased and traveled on to the land of the dead. It was this Gidim that would return to haunt the living if proper attention had not been paid to funeral rites and burial or if there had been some unlawful act involved in the person's death. Inscriptions do make clear, however, that sometimes the Gidim could mischievously slip out of Irkalla for visits to the earth, where they would harass the living for no good reason. These spirits would be punished by the sun god Shamash by having their funerary offerings taken from them and awarded to Gidim who had no one to remember them on earth, and so no one to provide them with offerings for their continued existence. Although there are records of loved ones returning from the afterlife with warnings or advice, most of the ghosts of Mesopotamia were unwelcome guests who were sent back to their realm through the use of charms, amulets, prayers, or exorcism.

Egyptian Ghosts

The living who were harassed by the ghost would have to plead their case directly to the returned spirit in hopes of a reasonable response.
In ancient Egypt, the return of a ghost was also considered a very serious matter. For the Egyptians, non-existence was an intolerable concept, and it was believed that, at death, the soul traveled to the Hall of Truth where it was judged by Osiris and the 42 Judges by having its heart weighed in balance with the white feather of truth; if the heart was found lighter than the feather, the soul proceeded on to the afterlife, while if it was heavier, it was thrown to the floor where it was eaten by a monster and the soul would cease to exist. One's heart would be lighter if one had lived a good life and heavier if one had not. The afterlife was known as the Field of Reeds, which was a mirror image of one's life on earth in Egypt. One would enjoy the house one knew, the stream by that house, one's favorite tree and dog, and so there was no reason for a soul to want to return to earth unless that soul had a very good reason for doing so.
In the earlier period of Egypt, the soul was considered a single entity known as the Khu, the immortal aspect of an individual but, in later times, the soul was thought to be comprised of five different components. Two of these components, the Ba and Ka (spirit and personality), came together after death in the form of the Akh, and it was this entity that would return as a ghost. If proper rites had not been observed in burial, or some sin had been committed by the living either before or after the person's death, the Akh was given dispensation by the gods to return to earth to redress the wrong. The living who were harassed by the ghost would have to plead their case directly to the returned spirit in hopes of a reasonable response and, if that was ineffective, would need to have a priest intervene and judge between the living and the dead. An example of this would be how, when misfortune fell upon a widower, it was first attributed to some "sin" he had hidden from his wife that she, now all-knowing in the Field of Reeds, was punishing him for. In a letter from a widower to his dead wife found in a tomb from the New Kingdom, the man pleads with the spirit of his wife to leave him alone as he is innocent of any wrong-doing:
What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should have come to this evil pass? What have I done to thee? But what thou hast done to me is to have laid hands on me although I had nothing wicked to thee. From the time I lived with thee as thy husband down to today, what have I done to thee that I need hide? When thou didst sicken of the illness which thou hadst, I caused a master-physician to be fetched…I spent eight months without eating and drinking like a man. I wept exceedingly together with my household in front of my street-quarter. I gave linen clothes to wrap thee and left no benefit undone that had to be performed for thee. And now, behold, I have spent three years alone without entering into a house, though it is not right that one like me should have to do it. This have I done for thy sake. But, behold, thou dost not know good from bad (Nardo, 32).
If properly buried with adequate rites and continually remembered, the spirits of the dead could be of great benefit to the living and watch over them throughout their lives. There was a significant difference, however, in Egyptian understanding of a "spirit" who resided peacefully in the Field of Reeds and a "ghost" who returned to earth.

Ghosts in Greece & Rome

Ghosts in ancient Rome were understood to appear in certain predictable ways and, usually, at certain times of the night.
In ancient Greece, the afterlife consisted of three distinct realms. When one died, a coin would be placed in one's mouth to pay Charon the Ferryman to take the soul across the river Styx. This coin wasn't "payment" exactly as much as a sign of respect between the soul and the gods - the greater the value of the coin, the better seat the soul got in Charon's boat. Once the soul was on the other side, one would pass by the three-headed dog Cerberus and then stand before the three judges to give an account of the life one had lived. When the story had been told, and as the judges conferred, one would be given a cup of water from the River Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness, and would forget one's former life on earth. The judges would then assign the soul a location: if you had been a warrior who died in battle, you went to the Elysian Fields which were a paradise; if you had been a good person, you went to the Plain of Asphodel, also pleasant; if you had been a bad person, then you went to the darkness of Tartarus where the soul remained until it had atoned for the sins of one's life. No soul was "condemned to eternal damnation". The soul in Tartarus could become elevated to the Plain of Asphodel in time. As in the cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt, souls were not expected to return to earth for any reason, but sometimes they still did. This same basic paradigm was adopted by the Roman culture who held a much more deep-seated belief in ghosts than the Greeks.
In the comedy Mostellaria (The Haunted House), the Roman playwright Plautus tells the story of how a rich Athenian merchant named Theopropides goes away on business and leaves the operation of his home to his son, Philolaches. Philolaches sees his father's absence as an opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest instead of proving himself a responsible steward and borrows a large sum of money to buy the freedom of a slave girl he loves. He then spends even more money to throw a grand party for his friends at his father's home. All is going well for Philolaches until his slave, Tranio, tells him he has just gotten word that Theopropides is returning unexpectedly from his trip and will soon be home. Philolaches panics, not knowing what to do with his guests or how he will explain his enormous expenses, but Tranio assures him all will be well. He locks Philolaches and his guests in the house and meets Theopropides outside, telling him that he cannot enter because the house has been found to be haunted. He tells Theopropides that a ghost appeared to Philolaches in a dream, in the dead of night, while the torches were still lit, and informed him that he was murdered in the house long ago by a his villainous host who killed him for his gold. Tranio further says that the corpse of the murdered man is still hidden in the house, and it is dangerous for anyone to enter. Theopropides believes the story without question and despairs of where he will live now. A money-lender then shows up, demanding payment on the loan Philolaches took out to buy the slave girl, and Tranio explains that this was done to buy the house next door since Theopropides' old home is now uninhabitable. Even when Theopropides goes next door and talks to Simo, the owner of the house, who denies that he sold it to Philolaches, Theopropides still shows no sign of doubting the ghost story.
The improper burial of the dead was considered the prime reason for the return of a spirit from the afterlife.
Ghosts in ancient Rome were understood to appear in certain predictable ways and, usually, at certain times of the night. The historian D. Felton has noted that audiences who enjoyed Mostellaria would have found Tranio's haphazard ghost story hilarious because it departed from what people knew the truth of such a haunting would be: the ghost of the murdered man would appear in a room lit by a torch (since ghosts could not be seen without some kind of light) but would not appear in a dream unless he was a friend or loved one. Ghosts who appeared in dreams were considered a completely different kind of spirit than a "restless" ghost who had suffered an untimely or unjust death and had not been buried with the proper rites. In his haste to put together a story for the master of the house, Tranio confuses two separate types of ghost story and, Felton observes, the ancient audience would have found this confusion funny.
An interesting departure from this paradigm is the story of the maiden Philinnion as told by Phlegon of Tralles (2nd century CE) and later by Proclus (5th century CE), in which Philinnion is married to one of Alexander the Great's generals, Craterus, and dies after six months of marriage. She is returned to life and visits a youth named Machates every night in his room at her parent's house. When she is discovered by her parents, she explains she was released from the underworld for a specific purpose and then dies a second time. The historian Kelly E. Shannon, among others, has pointed out the lengths Phlegon goes to authenticate his story, presenting it as a first person account in the form of a letter relating an historical event which happened in a specific place (Amphipolis) at a certain time (during the reign of Philip II of Macedon) while being careful not to be so specific that a reader acquainted with the history of that place and time would have reason to doubt it. Shannon writes:
What can a reader reasonably be expected to believe? Roman literature is filled with strange and inexplicable creatures, objects, and occurrences, from centaurs to ghostly apparitions to volcanic eruptions. And these are not confined to the world of myth. Accounts of the natural world often focus on phenomena that may seem outlandish or impossible: authors like Pliny the Elder present as true things that a rational modern audience would find it difficult or even impossible to take seriously (1).
This phenomena Shannon references were known to the Romans as mirabilia (wonders or miracles) and included talking beasts, incredibly tall spirit-women, visions from gods, and ghosts. Among the most famous of such mirabilia is the tale by Pliny the Younger (61-115 CE) who tells the story of the philosopher Athenodorus who comes to Athens and hears of a haunted house that is going cheaply because everyone is afraid of the ghost who haunts it. Athenodorus rents the house and, that night, hears the rattling of chains and wakes to find a man in his room who motions that he should rise and come with him. Athenodorus follows the ghost to a spot in the courtyard of the house where the spirit suddenly vanishes. The next day Athenodorus has the city magistrate dig up the spot where they find the remains of a man entwined with chains. The body is buried with all the proper rites, and the house is no longer haunted. This story is typical of a "haunting" in which a spirit appears to seek redress for a wrong. The improper burial of the dead - or lack of any grave - was considered the prime reason for the return of a spirit from the afterlife even above a spirit's desire to have their death avenged.
The possibility of a spirit returning to ask a loved one to avenge his or her death is illustrated in a tale told by Apuleius, in which a man named Thrasyllus falls in love with the wife of his friend Tlepolemus and murders him while out hunting. Tlepolemus's spirit appears to his wife in a dream, tells her how he died, and asks her to avenge him. Thrasyllus has asked if he may court her, but she has denied his suit because she is still in mourning. She now says, however, that he may visit her that night. She offers him wine which is drugged and, once he falls into a stupor, she blinds him with her hair pin, claiming that death is too easy a punishment for what he has done, and he must now wander through life without seeing the world. She then runs to her husband's tomb, tells the story of his death, and kills herself with his sword. Thrasyllus has himself shut up in Tlepolemus' tomb and starves himself to death.
These, then, were the two main ways an ancient audience understood ghosts to manifest themselves (though they were not the only modes of manifestation), either in dreams or in physical appearances and usually having to do with some problem surrounding their death, and this same paradigm is observed in other cultures.

Ghosts in China & India

During the Ghost Festival, people leave out food and gifts for the dead in the hope that they will remain in their own realm and not trouble the living.
In Chinese culture the spirit of a person who had drowned, died alone, died in battle, or suffered some other death where they went unburied would appear bodily and could only be seen at night by torch light. The spirit of an ancestor who wished to relate some information or give a warning would appear in a dream. Ghosts were considered a reality by the Chinese philosopher Mo Ti (470-391 BCE) who argued in favor of accepting the report of the ghost of the minister Tu Po returning from the afterlife and assassinating Xuan, the king of Zhou. He reasoned that when people tell of how a certain machine operates with which one is not acquainted, or how certain people behave or speak in a land they have never been to, one should accept what they say if their report seems credible and if they, themselves, seem reliable witnesses. Following this line of reasoning, then, one should accept what is said about ghosts if those who tell one about them can be trusted in what they have said about other things in life one can verify oneself. As ancient historical accounts, as well as contemporary reports of his time, contained references to ghosts, they should be accepted as a reality in the same way one recognized established history and news reports of the day, even if one has not experienced a ghost oneself.
The Chinese belief in ghosts was heavily influenced by their practice of ancestor worship and the belief that the departed continued to exert a powerful influence on people's lives. As in the other cultures mentioned, the spirits of the dead could benefit the living unless there had been impropriety in burial or funeral rites or the dead had been given dispensation from heaven to return to right a wrong. The Ghost Festival, which originated to honor and appease the dead, continues to be held on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the year. Known as the "Ghost Month", this time is thought to be when the veil between the realm of the living and that of the dead is thinnest and the dead can easily cross over (similar to the Celtic concept of Samhain and the Mesoamerican festival known as The Day of the Dead). During the Ghost Festival, people leave out food and gifts for the dead to appease and honor them in the hope that they will remain in their own realm and not trouble the living.
The Chinese afterlife was thought of as a journey in which the soul had to cross a bridge over an abyss where it was judged. If the soul was found worthy, it continued on, paused at a pavilion to look back on the land of the living one last time, and then drank a cup of a brew called Mengpo Soup which caused one to forget one's former life entirely. The ghost culture of China diverges at this point on what happens to the soul next; according to some works, the soul goes on to heaven, while according to others, it is reincarnated. If the soul is found unworthy as it crosses the bridge to the afterlife, it slips down into hell where it remains. In either case, the soul was not expected to return to the land of the living and, if one did, and it was not an ancestor appearing in a dream with some warning or advice, it was certain some kind of evil force was involved.
This is exemplified in the story of Ning Caicheng and Nie Xiaoqian from the writer Pu Songling's book of stories of 1680 CE. The story is thought to be much older than the 17th century CE and tells the story of Ning's visit to a temple where he is visited by the ghost of the maiden Nie. She tries to seduce him, but he resists owing to his belief in virtuous conduct. Two other travelers who come to stay at the temple are found dead the next morning with holes pierced in the soles of their feet and their blood drained. Nie comes to respect Ning's virtue in resisting her advances and tells him that she died in the temple when she was only 18 years old and came under the control of a monster demon who inhabited the ground where she was buried. This monster required her to seduce travelers and drain their blood which she then fed to him. Ning digs up Nie's remains and carries them home with him where he re-buries them near his house and pours out a libation on her grave as a sign of respect and honor. Having performed the appropriate funerary rites for the girl, he turns to leave her grave, but she calls out to him, and he finds she has been returned to life due to his virtuous conduct and his efforts in burying her properly. Ning and Nie then marry and, as the story goes, live happily ever after with their children.
Chinese ghost stories often carry a moral along the lines of the Legend of Ning and Nie and emphasize virtuous behavior and kindness to others. Confucius himself believed in the efficacy of the ghost story because he felt the lessons learned from supernatural encounters could instill proper virtues in the living. He felt this was even true of encounters with so-called Hungry Ghosts, which were spirits whose relatives had forgotten their duties of respect and remembrance or spirits of those who had been murdered but whose killers had not been brought to justice. Hungry Ghosts were thought to have received special dispensation from the gods to torment the living until they received their due. The Hungry Ghost could torment the mind of the living or inhabit the home and behave along the lines of the familiar poltergeist.
This was also true in India where the ghosts of the departed were seen as a kind of Hungry Ghosts. In ancient (and modern) India ghosts were known as Bhoots and appeared as humans but with backward feet who could change their appearance without warning. The feet are thought to appear backwards to symbolize that something has gone wrong, that the spirit is in an unnatural state. Bhoots materialize when the person dies before their ordained time on earth. Since they were unable to enjoy the fullness of their lives, they return to earth in the hope of possessing the body of some living person. Ghost possession, including the spirit re-animating their own corpse, was a great concern in ancient India, and some scholars maintain that this led to the practice of cremating the dead. If a body were cremated, the spirit could not return to re-animate it, and the burning of certain spices, along with the use of amulets and prayers, could protect the living from the spirit taking possession of them after it found it could not re-inhabit its dead body.
There are stories involving haunted regions, houses, and even cities where the ghosts have been present for many centuries.
Since these spirits have died before their allotted time, they are very unhappy and usually angry. Ghosts were thought to cause multiple problems when they manifested themselves physically but, as in other cultures, were considered beneficial when they appeared in dreams and could be recognized as the spirit of someone the dreamer had known, especially a relative. A particularly dangerous bhoot was known as the churail, which was the spirit of a woman who had died in childbirth. This ghost was thought to be encountered at crossroads and intersections and would make advances of friendship to the living. If the living person was a woman, the churail would seek to steal her children or try to possess her body and, if a man, it would seek to seduce and then kill him. Once the bhoot had lived out its allotted time on earth, even the churail, it would leave and re-enter the stream of reincarnation. The Indian belief in an afterlife involving the transmigration of souls dictated that the soul of the deceased was judged according to its acts while in the body and would move either up or down a spiritual hierarchy in the next incarnation. It would seem, however, that not every soul moved on, since there are stories involving haunted regions, houses, and even cities where the ghosts have been present for many centuries.
The most famous of these sites is Bangarh Fort in Rajasthan which is an abandoned city thought to be inhabited by ghosts. The city was built under the Mughal Empire in 1573 CE and, as the legend goes, was prosperous until cursed by a reclusive hermit who lived nearby. In one version of the story, this hermit was a wise man who gave his blessing to the building of the city on the condition that none of the houses rose so high as to cast a shadow on his hillside home and so block his sun. The original builders of the city respected his request but, later, it was forgotten and additions were made to the palace which cast its shadow over the hermit's home. He cursed the city and its inhabitants for their lack of consideration and, in a single night, all the upper stories of the buildings were destroyed and the people who survived then deserted Bangarh Fort and built a new city of Bangarh nearby.
The other version of the story involves the beautiful princess Ratnavi and the evil wizard Baba Balnath. The wizard was in love with the princess but knew she would never return his feelings. He concocted a love potion that would powerfully attract the princess to him and disguised it as perfume, which he then had presented to her one day in the market. Ratnavi suspected the bottle held something other than perfume and poured it onto a nearby boulder which, because of the potion's magical powers, drew the boulder directly toward the wizard and crushed him. As he was dying, Baba Balnath cursed Ratnavi and the entire city and swore no one should ever live within its walls again. As in the other version of the story, the city was then deserted in a single night after some catastrophe and, true to his curse, it was never again inhabited by the living. The dead, however, are believed to still reside at Bangarh Fort and there are reports in the present day by people claiming to hear spectral voices, disembodied laughter by the old bathing pool, footsteps, who also say they have seen lights moving in the city and have even seen the spirit of Princess Ratnavi herself.

Mesoamerican Ghosts

In the Maya belief system, lingering ghosts such as those said to inhabit Bangarh were intolerable and needed to be kept at bay through charms and amulets or driven back to the underworld through the intercession of a Daykeeper (shaman). The Maya idea of the afterlife was similar to the Mesopotamian view that the underworld was a dark and terrible place, but the Maya took the vision even further: in the Maya underworld (known as Xibalba or Metnal) there were numerous Lords of the Dead who could trick the soul of the deceased as it sought its way toward paradise. Once the soul descended into this underworld, it was on a journey from which there was no turning back. Ghosts, as with the other cultures mentioned, were not expected to return to the earthly realm. The spirit would leave the body and be conducted across a great expanse of water by a spirit dog who would then help the soul navigate through the various trips and traps of the Lords of Xibalba to reach the Tree of Life which the soul then had to climb up to paradise.
Like the Maya, the Aztecs held that the afterlife was a gloomy place of no return.
Spirits who returned, therefore, were considered unnatural unless, as with other cultures, they appeared in dreams and were recognizable as friends or family members (though even this was not always the case). The Maya preferred to believe that the dead who were not at perfect rest could return in the form of plants that were either beneficial or should be avoided. The best example of this belief is the Legend of the Xtabay which tells the story of two beautiful women, Xkeban and Utz-Colel. Xkeban was treated poorly by the respectable people of the town because she had engaged in unlawful sex with a man outside of marriage, but she was loved by the lower classes because of her goodness of heart and her kindness to all. Utz-Colel was highly regarded by the upper classes because she came from a good family and observed all the social etiquette, but she was hard-hearted and cruel and cared for no one but herself.
One day, a strange and intoxicating fragrance filled the village and, when the poor people followed it to its source, they came to Xkeban's hut and found her dead inside from some unknown cause. The lovely fragrance was emanating from her body. They buried her and, the next day, found beautiful wildflowers growing all over her grave which carried the same scent they had experienced the day before. Shortly after this, Utz-Colel died but, from her body rose a terrible odor. The respectable people of the village buried her with great ceremony as a good and noble woman and planted many flowers but, the next day, the flowers had drooped and died. From her grave then grew the flower known as Tzacam which has no scent while, from Xkeban's grave, grew the Xtabentun flower which smells sweet, and the two women's souls became infused with their respective flowers.
When Utz-Colel found that she was a prickly flower without scent, she was jealous of Xkeban and believed that Xkeban's sin of physical love had somehow brought her such prosperity. She entered into league with the dark spirits of Xibalba to bring her back to life so that she could now have sex with whomever she pleased and be as blessed as Xkeban. Utz-Colel did not understand, however, that Xkeban's act had been motivated by love while Utz-Colel's was motivated by ambition. She was returned to earth as the Xtabay, the flower which grows from the Tzacam cactus but sometimes assumes a human form and waits for travelers at crossroads. If a man pays attention to her, she seduces and then kills him while, if the traveler is a woman, she punishes her by afflicting her peace of mind.
The Aztecs have a similar entity in their beliefs which is actually closer to the churails of India. The Aztec spirit is known as a Cihuateteo and is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth. These spirits also haunted crossroads but ignored male travelers; they waited for women with children and then struck the women down and stole their children. They were also thought to be able to slip into homes in the night to abduct children there. Amulets and charms were hung by doorways and windows to ward off the cihuateteo. In the Aztec belief system, ghosts were also unwelcome guests who only brought bad news or served as omens of doom. Like the Maya, the Aztecs held that the afterlife was a gloomy place of no return and so, when a spirit did come back, it was a clear indication that something had gone wrong or soon would.
As with the Tarascan tribe, the Aztecs believed that dogs could see and would protect one against ghosts, and both groups buried their dead with dogs who were thought to then serve the soul in the afterlife as both a guide through the underworld and as a protector against ghosts. The Tarascans were deeply troubled by the fear of ghosts and so developed the concept of the spirit dog. It was thought that ghosts were the spirits of those who had been improperly buried, who had died alone on a hunt and were never found, or who had drowned. These spirits would return to haunt the living until their bodies were found and properly buried with ceremonies. The problem, of course, was that the bodies could not be found. In these cases, the Tarascans held that a spirit dog would find the body and lead the soul away to the afterlife so that it would not trouble the living.
The dead were celebrated in Mesoamerican cultures instead of being mourned and this gave rise to the event known today as The Day of the Dead (El Dia de los Muertos). The community gathers on this day to remember those who have passed on to the other side and to celebrate their lives. Originally, the Aztecs honored the goddess of the underworld, Mictecacihuatl, during this festival, and then honored the souls of children who had died, and then adults who had passed on to the other side. The festival used to take place during the time of the corn harvest (late July through August) but after the Spanish conquest it shifted to November to coincide with All Saints Day of the Catholic church.

Celtic Ghosts

This shift in the season of the Day of the Dead in Mesoamerica came about because of the Catholic church's policy of "Christianizing" previously existing pagan festivals. A similar celebration observed in northern Europe in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is known as Samhain (pronounced sou-when or sow-when). The pagans of these regions saw life as cyclical, not linear, and the year revolved like a wheel. Samhain was the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next and it was thought that, at this time, the veil between the living and the dead grew thin and the dead could walk again in life. This took place in late October/early November and traditionally is considered to begin at sundown on 31 October and go until 2 November (though some have observed the celebration for a week before the 31st of October to a week after). Although many modern day sources on the internet and some popular television shows from the United States claim that Samhain was the Celtic god of the dead and that people would sacrifice to him on 31 October, this is not so. There never was a Celtic god of the dead known as Sam Hain. "Samhain" simply means "summer's end" in the Celtic language.
During Samhain cattle were slaughtered, and the bones were burned in "bone fires", today known as bonfires.
The dead were thought to walk freely through the world during this time and people would prepare meals which their departed friends and relatives enjoyed while alive. Samhain was an important celebration when the harvest was brought in, cattle were slaughtered and salted for the winter, and the bones were burned, a practice which gave rise to the bone fires, which today are known as bonfires. The darker side of Samhain, however, was that the dead who were restless (like the Hungry Ghosts of China) were also free to roam, and so people initiated the practice of wearing masks so they would not be recognized by a spirit who may wish one harm. This custom eventually evolved into the modern-day celebration of Halloween. The Roman Empire had conquered much of the region of the Celts by the 1st century CE and, when Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the 4th century CE, the church incorporated many pagan holidays into their calendar. Since Samhain was such a popular festival, it was brought into the church as Allhallows or Hallowmas, which became All Soul's Day and then All Saint's Day when believers prayed for the souls of the dead in purgatory. As with Samhain in Europe, so it was with the Day of the Dead in Mexico; the pagan festivals became days of Christian observances.


Although the belief that the dead could return to earth at All Soul's Day persisted, it changed as the Christian vision of the afterlife became increasingly popular and ghosts came to be linked with demons and the devil. Ghosts are mentioned in the Bible in passages such as Matthew 14:25-27, Mark 6:48-50, and Luke 24:37:39. Among the most famous passages concerning a ghost is the one from I Samuel 28: 7-20 in which King Saul goes to the Witch of Endor and asks her to conjure the ghost of Samuel, his former advisor and a prophet of God. Saul is afterwards cut off from God's favor for choosing to consult a spirit about what he should do instead of trusting in God for his future. Ghosts, and especially conjuring spirits, came to be seen in a negative light as Christianity gained more adherents. The passage in Mark 6 has also been interpreted as a negative representation of ghosts in that the disciples think that Jesus is a ghost when they see him walking on the water. Ghosts could not walk on water, only gods and those who were divine, and so when the disciples mistake Jesus for a ghost, it is thought to show their hardness of heart in receiving Jesus' message of salvation. The scholar Jason Robert Combs has noted how the writer of Mark knew that his audience would recognize the symbolism of the ghost. He writes:
Gods and divine men walk on water; ghosts do not. But when the disciples see Jesus walking on water, they believe the impossible rather than the obvious. Mark's insertion of this absurdity, "because they saw him walking on the sea they thought he was a ghost" (6:49), emphasizes in dramatic fashion the disciples' misconstrual of Jesus' messiahship (358).
The author of Mark continually makes the point that the disciples failed to grasp who Jesus was and what his mission was about. His use of the ghost early in his book would have made this point clearly to an ancient audience who would have recognized that a ghost cannot walk on water and that, further, water was often employed to ward off ghosts. The biblical book of I John 4:1 states that one should test all spirits to see if they are from God and not believe that every spirit is what they appear to be. This passage, coupled with the belief expressed in the passage from Mark and I Samuel and others, encouraged an even further negative view of ghosts than people had previously. Although ghosts had always been regarded as unwelcome and unnatural, they were now linked with the demonic and were seen as agents of the devil. People were encouraged to reject the reality of ghosts since, at death, the soul of the person went to either heaven, hell, or purgatory and did not return to earth. If one saw a ghost, then, one should assume it was a trick of the devil to snare one's soul for hell in causing them to doubt the divine order of God. This attitude toward ghosts is exploited for dramatic purposes in Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Prince Hamlet doubts that the ghost he has seen is actually his father returned from the dead and says, "The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil, and the devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy/As he is very potent with such spirits/Abuses me to damn me" (II.ii.610-615). This view of ghosts completely altered the old understanding that ghosts were the souls of those who had died and, since they were of the devil, belief in them was discouraged.
In time, a growing trust in a secular and more "scientific" way of viewing the world completed the work begun by the church and relegated ghosts to the realm of superstition and fiction. Judging from the number of websites and books devoted to the subject, there are many in the modern day who are interested in the subject of ghosts but, generally speaking, the belief is not encouraged culturally; precisely the reverse situation of how ghosts were viewed in the ancient world. The journalist John Keel, who investigated many so-called paranormal events and is best known for his book The Mothman Prophecies, once wrote that there is no such thing as the "paranormal" or "supernatural". After citing a number of strange events which people have experienced throughout history, Keel observed that what people in the modern day call "paranormal" or "supernatural" events are actually normal and natural aspects of life on earth. The world of spirits, ghosts, and souls appearing from an afterlife, according to Keel, may be just as much of a reality today as it was to the people of the ancient world; the reason people no longer accept ghosts as a part of life is simply because a world that operates that way is no longer recognized as valid. A new paradigm of how the world worked rose with Christianity, and then the acceptance of a secular view of the universe, and ghosts were further distanced from the realm of the living until, finally, they lost their actual potency and became the staple of tales and legends.
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Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Copán (in modern Honduras) is located on the floodplain of the river of the same name. It was the most southerly of the Classic Maya centres and, at an altitude of 600 metres, the highest. Copán reached the height of its power in the 8th century CE when it boasted 20,000 inhabitants. An artificial platform, built to a height of over 30 metres, forms a main 12 acre acropolis with lesser platforms spreading out to form an imposing mass of precincts of monumental courts and pyramids. An elite residential area and more modest dwellings surrounded the sacred centre so that Copán once covered some 250 acres.

Historical Overview

A farming settlement from as early as 1000 BCE, Copán emerged as a major centre in the Early Classic Period (250-550 CE), almost certainly with influence from Teotihuacan. The Copán rulers themselves claimed their own dynasty was founded in 331 CE, but there is no record of the names of these early rulers. The traditional named founder of Copán was actually K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ (‘Great Sun Quetzal-Macaw’), who reigned from 426 CE to c. 437 CE and who was probably not himself from Copán but another Maya city, perhaps Tikal. K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’ was the first of a line of 16 rulers, and he is credited with making Copán a major centre, whose wealth was based on regional conquest and control of the lucrative local trade in obsidian and jade.
The traditional founder of Maya Copán was K’inich Yax K’uk Mo’.
King Smoke Imix (the 12th ruler, reign 628 - 695 CE) was another Copán ruler who oversaw a period of great prosperity in the 7th century CE. The ruler known as King 18 Rabbit or Waxaklahun Ubah K’awiil (reign 695 - 738 CE) again aggrandized Copán in the early 8th century CE. The last well-documented ruler was Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, whose mother was from Palenque and whose reign ended in 820 CE. Although Copán subsequently declined, there are no great signs of destruction, and there is some evidence (albeit controversial) that the elite rulers of Copán survived the general Maya collapse, which occurred between c. 760 and c. 910 CE, and continued their rule until 1000 CE.
Copán competed with local rival Quirigua over the centuries. Although Copán founded Quirigua, King 18 Rabbit was famously captured and beheaded by Chan Yopaat of Quirigua in 738 CE, possibly whilst campaigning for sacrificial victims. Copán recovered from this blow and even expanded the acropolis, but in the longer-term Quirigua gained in prominence, and Copán would never again enjoy the power and prosperity enjoyed during the Yax K’uk Mo’ dynasties.


The unusually few buildings at Copán, constructed using local tufa, andesite, and limestone blocks cemented with mud and faced with stucco, include several pyramid structures, a ball court, and the Hieroglyphic Stairway, all laid out along a north-south axis. Many of the structures were deliberately placed to take advantage of specific views of the surrounding valleys, notably the ball court with its stone macaw markers. The river Copán has washed away a sizeable chunk of the east side of the main site, especially the grand stairway, but enough remains of the site to indicate its once great prosperity.
The Hieroglyphic Stairway is a wide series of 63 steps which give access to the main court and heart of ceremonial Copán which dates to the 6th century CE. The stairway was constructed in the first half of the 8th century CE and is rich in both relief and fully round sculpture, a feature of Copán. Its name derives from the 2,500 glyphs which adorn it. These narrate the history of the Late Classical dynasty, and it constitutes one of the longest surviving Maya texts. The steps are interrupted by five Copán rulers and captives, whilst at the top of the stairway there was the shrine to Yax K’uk Mo’.
The 8th century CE kings of Copán built elaborately stucco-decorated tombs which were then deliberately covered in their entirety by less ornate pyramids, sometimes several times. An example is the largest building and earliest funerary monument Structure 16, a nine level pyramid inside of which are two tomb buildings known as Rosalila and Margarita. Temple 16 was further excavated in 1996-7 CE, and within was discovered the earliest structure in the pyramid, a small platform temple in the Teotihuacan style, inside of which was a tomb of a male over 50 years of age. As it is now known that Temple 16 was dedicated to the cult of Yax K’uk’ Mo’, the remains are considered to be of the great ruler himself. Isotopic analysis of the teeth suggests the man came from near Tikal. The neighbouring tomb of Margarita, the richest at Copán, is now considered to be that of the widow of Yax K’uk’ Mo’.
Another important building at Copán is the rectangular Temple 22 with its short stepped entrance. It has mask facades on all four sides and dates to before 780 CE. The doorway is framed by a giant serpent-mask so that the portal seems to be the creature’s open mouth with fangs on the sill and sides. This is a common Maya technique to reproduce the entrances to sacred caves and may specifically represent the sacred mountain entrance to the Maya underworld Xibalba of Maya mythology. The cornices were additionally decorated with maize gods. Another important building is Structure 22a which was built as a popol na or council house, where nobles advised the king and which has a fish on its façade, possibly the symbol of a prominent noble family.

Art & Pottery

Copán art is well represented by 14 altars, some which commemorate units of the Maya calendar, and over 60 elaborately carved stelae depicting Copán rulers (especially King 18 Rabbit). Several of the later stelae stand above a small cruciform vault which contained votive offerings, and some stelae were placed to create lines of sight connected to solar dates important in the agricultural year. Other fine examples of three-dimensional sculpture by Copán artists include a half-metre high monkey scribe god and a stone bust of the young maize god from Temple 22.
From c. 800 CE Copán also produced its own distinctive pottery style which was exported and even imitated, notably in western El Salvador. The style, known as Copador pottery, is distinct for its shiny surface (from the presence of hematite in the pigments) and stylised human and bird figures. Other finds include the ‘Dazzler’, a three-legged lidded box which depicts a Copán ruler and temple. The vessel is brightly coloured, and its clay came from distant Central Mexico. Altar Q has relief figures of 16 Copán rulers, including Yax K’uk Mo’ (wearing the goggles of a Teotihuacan war god) handing over the sceptre of power to Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat who commissioned the altar in 776 CE. Finally, there are various objects related to the Mesoamerican ballgame indicating an influence from Veracruz.
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[ 5 ]


Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Chocolate was one of the most desired foods of Mesoamerica and was consumed by the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations, amongst others. Its consumption even spread via trade routes to other parts of the Americas including the Chaco in modern New Mexico. The earliest known use of chocolate was by the Olmec around 1900 BCE and, enjoyed as a drink, it was drunk from special round jars known as tecomates. The Maya used tall cylinder beakers for drinking chocolate, and these very often had text on the rim indicating their intended use. The Aztecs also had richly decorated tall cups specifically reserved for chocolate drinks. It may be that such conspicuous vessels were designed to impress onlookers that the drinker had the means and status to enjoy such a prized drink.
Chocolate is made from the beans of cacao pods from the Theobroma cacao tree (actually native to South America) which was first cultivated in extensive orchards near the Pacific and Gulf coasts of central America, especially in the Xoconusco region and the valleys of the Sarstoon, Polochic, and Motagua Rivers (modern Guatemala and Belize), where the tree thrives in the warm and humid climate. There were, in fact, four varieties of cacao bean or cacahuatl, as the Aztecs knew them, and the corruption of this word or their term for the chocolate drink - xocolatl - is probably the origin of the word chocolate.
So esteemed was chocolate that beans were a commonly traded item, very often demanded as tribute from subject tribes and even used as a form of currency by the Aztecs. In fact, cacao beans were so valuable that they were even counterfeited either to pass as currency or, even more fiendishly, hollowed out of their valuable interior and re-filled with a substitute such as sand. As a currency, we know that in the Aztec markets one cacao bean could buy you a single tomato, 30 beans got you a rabbit and, for the more ambitious shopper, a turkey could be had for 200 beans.
'...the drink of nobles, of rulers - finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter.' Sahagún
As an expensive import then, chocolate was drunk mainly by the upper classes and consumed after meals, typically accompanied by the smoking of tobacco. It may have been enjoyed mixed with maize gruel by the poorer classes at important events such as weddings, but some scholars maintain that the pure chocolate drink was an exclusive status symbol of the nobility. Curiously, it could even be given to favoured sacrificial victims as a final treat before they departed this world, for example, at the annual Aztec festival of Panquetzaliztli held in honour of Huitzilopochtli.
To prepare the chocolate, cacao beans were fermented, cured, and roasted. Then the beans were ground into powder and mixed with hot water, as chocolate was usually (but not always) consumed as a warm frothy drink, the froth made by vigorously whisking the liquid with a wooden implement and pouring the liquid from one vessel to another. Indeed, the froth was considered the best part of the drink. Bitter to taste, it could be flavoured by adding, for example, maize, vanilla, flowers, ground chile peppers, herbs, honey, or fermented agave sap (octli). Apart from the taste, another advantage of chocolate is that it also contains caffeine and so can act as a stimulant.
Bernardino de Sahagún wrote a vivid eye-witness account of how chocolate was prepared by the Aztecs and how to tell a good quality drink from an inferior one:
The seller of fine chocolate (is) one who grinds, who provides people with drink, with repasts. She grinds cacao (beans); she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservatively; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes it foam; she removes the head, makes it form a head, makes it foam...She sells good, superior, potable (chocolate): the privilege, the drink of nobles, of rulers - finely ground, soft, foamy, reddish, bitter; (with) chile water, with flowers, with uei nacaztli, with teonacaztli, with vanilla, with mecaxochitl, with wild bee honey, with powdered aromatic flowers. (Inferior chocolate has) maize flour and water; lime water; (it is) pale; the (froth) bubbles burst. (Townsend, 178)
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[ 6 ]


Origin and history
by Joshua J. Mark

Burial of the dead is the act of placing the corpse of a dead person in a tomb constructed for that purpose or in a grave dug into the earth. In cultures such as Mesopotamia, tombs and graves were cut into the ground in the expectation that the soul of the individual so buried would more easily reach the afterlife which was thought to exist underground. Graves in the cultures of the ancient world were usually marked by a stone bearing the person’s likeness and name or by an elaborate tomb (such as the pyramids of Egypt or the tholos tombs of Greece) or megalithic stone dolmens, passage graves, and cairns such as those found in Scotland and Ireland.
Whatever kind of grave or tomb was constructed, however, the importance of the proper burial of the dead was emphasized by every ancient culture and the rites accompanying burial were among the most elaborate and significant in many ancient cultures. Burial of the dead in the ground has been traced back over 100,000 years of civilization as evidenced by the Grave of Qafzeh in Israel, a group tomb of 15 people buried in a cave along with their tools and other ritual artifacts. The earliest grave uncovered thus far in Europe is that of the `Red Lady of Wales' which is 29,000 years old.

Burial Practices in Mesopotamia

Burial in Mesopotamia began c. 5000 BCE in ancient Sumer where food and tools were interred with the dead. According to the historian Will Durant, "The Sumerians believed in an after-life. But like the Greeks they pictured the other world as a dark abode of miserable shadows, to which all the dead descended indiscriminately” and that the land of the dead was beneath the earth (128). Because of this, it seems, graves were constructed in the ground to provide the deceased with easier access to the nether world.
Throughout Mesopotamia those who were not royalty were buried below the family home or next to it so that the grave could be regularly maintained. If a person was not buried properly they could return as a ghost to haunt the living. This haunting could take the form familiar from popular ghost stories or films where a disembodied spirit causes problems in the home or, more seriously, as a form of possession in which the spirit entered into the individual through the ear and wreaked havoc on one's personal life and health.
Cremation was uncommon throughout Mesopotamia owing to the scarcity of wood but, even if fuel for a fire had been available, the Mesopotamians believed that the proper place for the souls of the dead was in the nether world of the goddess Ereshkigal and not in the realm of the gods. If one were cremated, it was thought, one's soul ascended sky-ward toward the home of the gods and, as a human soul, would not be at home there. It was far more fitting for one's soul to descend to the underworld with other human souls. In the region of Mesopotamia which came to be known as Babylonia it was believed that the dead “went to a dark and shadowy realm within the bowels of the earth, and none of them saw the light again” (Durant, 240). In Babylonia the dead were buried in vaults although, as Durant notes:
A few were cremated and their remains were preserved in urns. The dead body was not embalmed, but professional mourners washed and perfumed it, clad it presentably, painted its cheeks, darkened its eyelids, put rings upon its fingers, and provided it with a change of linen. (240)
This burial process would be developed further by the Egyptians.

Burial in Egypt

In Egypt the dead were also buried underground and, famously, in the pyramids of such as those at Giza. Durant writes:
The pyramids were tombs, lineally descended from the most primitive of burial mounds. Apparently the Pharaoh believed, like any commoner among his people, that every living body was inhabited by a (spirit) which need not die with the breath…The pyramid, by its height, its form and its position, sought stability as a means of deathlessness. (148)
For the more 'common’ of the Egyptians, however, a grave in the earth was the usual final resting place. The deceased would be buried with grave goods and as many shabti dolls as a family could afford to help with chores in the afterlife. Burial practices in Egypt extended to one's pets and Herodotus has recorded how, in an Egyptian home which has lost a cat, the family would shave their eyebrows and observe a period of mourning on par with the death of a human being. Cats were mummified as were dogs and other pets (such as baboons, gazelles, birds, fish) and rituals observed at their passing.
For both common Egyptians and royalty, sacred spells from the work known as The Egyptian Book of the Dead were recited in order to direct the soul toward the Hall of Truth and the judgement of the great god Osiris. Osiris would then weigh the heart of the deceased against the white feather of Ma'at (truth and harmony) and, if one's heart was found lighter than the feather, one was given passage to the Field of Reeds, the Egyptian paradise which was an eternal mirror image of one's life on earth. If one's heart was found to be heavier than the feather of Ma'at, however, it was thrown to the floor where it was eaten by the god Amenti (also known as Amut) and the soul of the individual then ceased to exist. In ancient Egypt, non-existence was the worst punishment imaginable.
The Egyptian tradition among royalty of creating great monuments and tombs inscribed with their deeds was observed to make sure the ruler would not be forgotten by the living and so would continue to exist on earth even after death. To erase one's memory on earth was to erase one's immortality and this is why Tuthmoses III, who vandalized the public statuary of Queen Hatshepsut, left those monuments to her which were out of the public eye untouched. He may have wanted to discourage other women from following Hatshepsut's example in the future but did not wish to condemn her to non-existence by removing all trace of her name and deeds.

Burial Rituals in Greece

Ancient Greece also employed burial under the earth and, as previously noted by Durant, continued the tradition of the after-life existing below the ground. The ancient Greeks (perhaps following an Egyptian tradition) made sure to provide their dead with carefully carved stones to remind the living of who the deceased were and what honors were still due them. Remembrance of the dead was a very important civic and religious duty, not simply a personal concern, and was dictated according to the concept of eusebia which, though frequently translated into English as `piety', was much closer to `civic duty' or `social obligation'.
Eusebia dictated how one should interact with one's social superiors, how the youth treated their elders, how masters interacted with slaves, and how husbands treated their wives. It also extended, though elevated to the concept of housia (holiness) to one's relationship with the gods. Different Greek city-states observed their own particular burial rites but the one aspect they all had in common was the continued remembrance of the dead and, especially, their names.
Sons were named for their father's father and daughters for their mother's mother in order to preserve the memory of that individual (to take one example, Aristotle's son, Nichomachus, was named for Aristotle's father). Whether buried in an elaborate tomb or in a simple grave, the Greeks maintained that the dead must continually be remembered and respected in order for their souls to continue to exist in the afterlife.

Maya Burial Rituals

The Maya viewed life after death as a dismal world fraught with peril and darkness and their burial rites centered on directing the soul in the right path toward freedom from the underworld. The dead were buried with maize placed in their mouth as a symbol of the rebirth of their soul and also as nourishment for the soul's journey through the dark lands of Xibalba, the nether world, also known as Metnal.
Bodies were positioned in graves underground, as in Mesopotamia, to allow easy access to Xibalba and were aligned in accordance with the directions of the Mayan paradise (north or west). As the color red was associated with death, corpses were sprinkled with the shavings of the red mineral cinnabar and were then wrapped in cotton for burial. The Mayan afterlife was a terrifying place of demons that could as easily harm one as help one in the soul's journey toward paradise and perhaps the cinnabar was thought to disguise the soul as one of these infernal spirits and so help the individual in their journey through the afterlife.
Everyone who died descended into the darkness of Xibalba except for those who died in childbirth, in battle, in sacrifice, or by suicide. `Sacrifice’ included death incurred during the play of the ball game Pok-a-Tok, considered the game of the gods. However one died, the rites of burial were more or less the same except, of course, for kings and nobility.

Burial Rites in India

In ancient India, as throughout India’s history, cremation was the usual practice in caring for the dead. Durant writes:
In Buddha’s days the Zoroastrian exposure of the corpse to birds of prey was the usual mode of departure; but persons of distinction were burned, after death, on a pyre, and their ashes were buried under a top or stupa –i.e., a memorial shrine. In later days cremation became the privilege of every man; each night one might see fagots being brought together for the burning of the dead. (501)
Even so, that was not the only means by which the dead were sent on to the next realm. It is also recorded that the elderly would often choose to have themselves rowed out into the middle of the Ganges River where they would then fling themselves into the sacred water and be swept away. Most people, though, were cremated and their ashes then strewn in the waters of the Ganges, thought to be the source of all life.
Depending on one's actions, beliefs, and behavior in life, the soul then rose to join with the Oversoul (the Atman) or descended back to the earthly plane in another incarnation. According to Hindu belief, the soul would continue to take on as many bodies in as many lifetimes as necessary to finally free one's self from the cycle of re-birth and death; a belief also held by Jains and Buddhists.

Roman Burial Customs

According to Durant, “Suicide under certain conditions has always found more approval in the East than in the West” but, as in India and with the Maya, the Romans also honored those who killed themselves as they believed it was preferable to disgrace and dishonor. The Roman belief in the continual presence of one's ancestors in one's life encouraged the practice of taking one's life in order to prevent shame attaching itself to the family name. There was, therefore, no difference, in pre-Christian Rome, in the burial of a suicide and one who died by other means.
The Roman burial practices always took place at night in order to prevent disruption of the daily activities of the city. A funeral procession began in the city and ended outside the walls at the cemetery. In order to maintain the boundary between the living and the dead (and also, no doubt, simply for health concerns) no one could be buried inside the city. The corpse was then either burned, and the ashes gathered in an urn, or interred in a tomb.
So important was the proper burial of the dead to the Romans that funeral societies, known as collegia, were common in which members paid monthly dues to make sure their funeral rites would be performed in accordance with tradition and their status in the community. Those who were buried without the proper rituals could return as ghosts. In Rome, as in other civilizations, ghosts were as much a part of the natural world as any other phenomena and were usually feared (an exception being the spirit of a loved one delivering a message). Proper burial of the dead with all attendant rites, therefore, was considered vital in keeping the dead happily in their place and the living untroubled by spirits in theirs.

Chinese Burial Rites

The Chinese burial practice, no matter what era or dynasty, was conducted with ritual ceremonies and the inclusion of personal property in the tomb or grave of the deceased. The particular items interred with the dead changed with dynasties and the passage of time but the belief in an afterlife which was very much like earthly existence (similar to the Egyptian concept in many ways) maintained that the dead would need their favorite objects, as well as things of value, in the other world.
According to The British Museum, “Chinese burial practices had two main components: tombs and their contents, and ceremonies to honour the dead, performed in temples and offering halls by their relatives.” The tomb of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangti, is the most famous example of Chinese burial practices in the ancient world. Shi Huangti’s tomb was designed to symbolize the realm he presided over in life and included all he would need in the next - including a terra cotta army of over 8,000 men - and the rites observed at his funeral were elaborate versions of those common throughout China.
In the Neolithic village of Banpo, for example, people were buried in individual graves c. 4500 BCE along with their possessions and tools. What rituals may have accompanied these early burials is not known. Later, however, as one’s ancestors were considered an important influence on one’s life, and their continued existence in the afterlife a certainty, prayers were offered both to those who had gone before and to the principle of divine harmony to aid the dead person in transition from this world to the next. As in Rome, Egypt, and other cultures, proper burial of the dead was considered most important in allowing the dead to rest in peace and prevent a haunting by an angry ghost.

Burial in Scotland & Ireland

Burial practices in Scotland and Ireland were remarkably similar early on in that both cultures built cairns, dolmens, and passage graves to house their dead. It is not known what precise rites were performed at the funerals in ancient Scotland or Ireland because there is no written record of these proceedings. It seems that burial in cairns dates to at least 4000 BCE while burial in graves becomes more common c.2000 BCE. Wooden coffins also appear in the 2000 BCE range along with personal possessions buried with the dead.
As so many cairns were looted through the centuries, whatever may have been interred in burial has long ago been carried away from them. Some, however, like the famous dolmen of Poulnabrone (County Clare, Ireland) still had enough grave goods and remains for archaeologists to be able to positively identify it as an important burial site. The Neolithic site of Clava Cairns (Inverness, Scotland) is another example of an intact burial site which also seems to have served astronomical purposes.
More modest graves which held the dead in coffins or sarcophagi were more often overlooked by looters and so their contents remain better preserved. In these cultures, as in the others, a belief in the continued existence of the soul after death prevailed and, while their precise rites are not known, they most probably were similar to those of other cultures and included prayers and supplications to higher powers for aid in the journey of the deceased. Although there is no written record of a belief in the afterlife from these cultures, the cairns, dolmens, and passage graves themselves attest to this belief in their construction and orientation with astrological directions and events.
With the coming of Christianity to Ireland and then Scotland, the burial rites became Christianized and are known through the written record. Although Christ was then addressed as the higher power that would comfort and lead the dead toward the afterlife, it is thought that this deity simply replaced the older, pagan, god who would have previously been featured in the rituals. This same process of the `Christianizing’ of older burial rituals and rites took place in every culture where Christianity established itself and, most notably, in Rome. It was the city of Rome from which the Catholic traditions concerning burial originated and developed into the most common customs surrounding modern day burials, whether secular or religious, in the west.
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[ 7 ]

Chichen Itza

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Chichen Itza, located at the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula of modern Mexico, was a Maya city which was later significantly influenced by the Toltec civilization. Flourishing between c. 750 and 1200 CE, the site is rich in monumental architecture and sculpture which promote themes of militarism and displays imagery of jaguars, eagles, and feathered-serpents. Probably a capital city ruling over a confederacy of neighbouring states, Chichen Itza was one of the great Mesoamerican cities and remains today one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico.

Historical Overview

The name Chichen Itza probably derives from a large sinkhole known as the Sacred Cenote or 'mouth of the well of the Itza' into which the Maya threw offerings of jade and gold, and as the presence of bones testifies, human sacrifices. The early history of the site is still not clear, but settlement was certain by the Classic period (c. 250-900 CE). With the collapse of Teotihuacan, migrants may have come to the site from varying parts of Mesoamerica, and it seems likely there was contact with the Itza, a Maya group. A second period of construction seems to coincide with influence from the Toltec civilization. That Chichen Itza was a thriving trade centre with a port at Isla Cerritos is evidenced by finds of goods from elsewhere in Central America, for example, turquoise from the north, gold disks from the south, and obsidian from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The cultivation of cacao is known, and the city may have controlled the lucrative salt beds on the nearby northern coast.
Dominating Chichen Itza is the huge Pyramid of Kukulcan, also known as the Castillo.
The city has been traditionally divided into two distinct parts and periods, even if there is some overlap both in time and design, and together they cover some 16 square kilometres. The earliest, in the south, is native Maya dating to the Epiclassic period (c. 800-1000 CE) with buildings displaying the distinct 'Puuc' architectural style and Maya hieroglyphs. The plan is more spread out than other parts of the city and, constructed on a roughly north-south axis, may reflect the course of the Xtoloc Cenote water source.
The second part of the city has been traditionally dated to 1000-1200 CE and is more mysterious, creating one of the most contentious debates in Mesoamerican archaeology. Built in the Florescent style and along a more ordered plan, it displays many hallmarks of the Toltec civilization, leading scholars to believe that they either conquered Chichen Itza as they expanded their empire from their capital Tula over 1,000 km away, or there was some sort of cultural and trade sharing between the two centres. Common features between the two cities found in architecture and relief sculpture include warrior columns, quetzal-feathered rattlesnakes, the clothing of subjects, chacmools (sacrificial basins in the form of a reclining person), atlantides (support columns in the form of standing males), the representation of certain animals, a tzompantli (sacrificial skull rack), Tlaloc (the rain god) incense burners, and personal names represented by glyphs which are present at both sites but which are not Maya.
Alternative to the two-period view, the Americas historian George Kubler divides the buildings of Chichen Itza into three distinct phases: prior to 800 CE, from 800 to 1050 CE, and 1050-1200 CE. Kubler adds that the latter stage saw the addition of ornate narrative reliefs to many of the buildings at the site. It has also been suggested that due to various styles of architecture pre-dating those found at the Toltec capital Tula, it may actually have been Chichen Itza which influenced the Toltec rather than the reverse. The exact relationship between the two cultures has yet to be ascertained for certain, and there are certainly other Mesoamerican (but non-Toltec) architectural and artistic features at Chichen Itza which are evidence of an influence from other sites such as Xochicalco and El Tajin.
Chichen Itza fell into a rapid decline from 1200 CE, and Mayapán became the new capital. However, unlike many other sites, Chichen Itza never disappeared from memory, and the city continued to be revered and esteemed as a place of ancestry and pilgrimage into the Postclassic period and up to the Spanish conquest, and even beyond.

Architectural Highlights

The earlier section of Chichen Itza displays many Classic Maya traits. The Temple of the Three Lintels, for example, has Chahk masks at each corner. Other structures include two small temples built on raised platforms, known as the Red House and the House of the Deer, and a pyramid known as the High Priest's Grave, named after the discovery of a tomb within it. There is also the 7th century CE Red House with its bloodletting frieze, the Nunnery with its carvings of the rain god Chac, and the small temple known as the Iglesia. All are Classic period structures.

The Caracol

The Caracol is one of the most impressive monuments at the site. It was constructed prior to 800 CE and was used as an astronomical observatory, especially of Venus, and perhaps was also a temple to Kukulcan in his guise as the god of the winds. A large flight of stairs on two levels leads to the circular tower structure which has windows not aligned with the steps giving the illusion the tower is turning. The interior vaulting may have been designed to represent a conch shell (an object associated with Kukulcan), and a spiral staircase gives access to the second floor. The vault is over 10 m high, the largest such Maya structure. The building as it is seen today was probably a result of remodelling to incorporate Toltec design features.

Pyramid of Kukulcan

Dominating Chichen Itza is the huge Pyramid of Kukulcan, also known as the Castillo (Castle), constructed before 1050 CE. The pyramid is 24 metres high, each side is 58-9 metres wide, and it has nine levels. On each side of the pyramid is a staircase which leads up to a single modest square structure. This summit building has two chambers and is decorated with jaguar relief panels and round shields. Each stairway climbing the pyramid has 91steps, except the northern side which has 92, and so, adding all four together, one arrives at a significant 365. Seen from above, the cross created by the stairways imposed on top of the square pyramid base recalls the Maya sign for zero. At certain times of year, for example on the autumnal equinox, triangular shadows from the different levels of the pyramid are cast onto the sides of the northern staircase, giving the illusion a gigantic snake is climbing the structure built in honour of the feathered-serpent god. The northern side also has large stone snake heads to further remind the purpose of the building. Used for religious ceremonies, human sacrifices would also have been made on the top terrace. Inside the pyramid another 9-level pyramid was built, this one with only a single staircase on the north side. Inside were a chacmool and a red jaguar throne inlaid with jade. This smaller pyramid was probably used for a royal burial, perhaps even of the great Toltec king Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl.

Temple of the Warriors

Another huge structure at Chichen Itza is the Temple of the Warriors, a three-level pyramid with neighbouring colonnades on two sides creating a semi-enclosed court. It was built in the Early Post-Classic period, sometime between 800 and 1050 CE. The colonnade of carved warrior and female gift bearer columns in front of the pyramid would have once had a roof. The building at the top of the pyramid has a doorway framed with feathered-serpents and two chambers; one contained a chacmool and the other a throne. The structure shares many common features with the Toltec Pyramid B of Tula. Buried within the base of the temple is another, older structure known as the Temple of the Chacmool. The interior walls of the temple were decorated with wall paintings showing scenes of warriors with captives, a lake, and thatched houses, all with some attempt made at achieving perspective. Next to the Temple of the Warriors is a more ruined pyramid known as the Mercado which has a 36-column gallery in front of it, and a small ballcourt.

Great Ballcourt

The Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza, measuring 146 m x 36 m, is the largest in Mesoamerica. It was constructed between 1050 and 1200 CE and is also unusual in that the sides of the court are vertical and not sloped as in most other courts. Temple platforms close off each end of the court. The lower parts of the walls and the ring on each wall are decorated with carvings of snakes. The dimensions of the court are so grand that it is difficult to envisage actual games being played here. The rings, for example, through which players had to direct the solid rubber ball, are placed at a height of 8 m. The relief carvings on the walls of the court remind us of the ritual function of ball games; for example, there is a gruesome scene of two seven-man teams facing each other and one team captain decapitating the losing captain of the opposition. It is a scene repeated on all six relief panels along the two benches of the ballcourt.


Near the great ballcourt a large platform takes the form of a skull rack or tzompantli, and a second platform, the Platform of the Eagles, has relief carvings depicting jaguars and eagles eating human hearts. Both were built 1050-1200 CE, and they are further indicators that human sacrifice was a part of religious ceremonies at Chichen Itza.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0



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