Ancient Mesoamerica: The King of El Zotz

About 350 CE, the Maya city of El Zotz was founded in what is now Guatemala. The Maya name for the city is Pa’Chan which is translated as “Split Sky” or as “Citadel Sky.” The designation “El Zotz” comes from the many bats living in the caves on the site: zotz is the Maya term for bats.  

El Zotz is located about 20 miles (12 kilometers) from the major Maya center of Tikal and about 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Uaxactun. The emblem glyph for El Zotz associates it with the Maya city of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, Mexico and may indicate that the Yaxchilan royal dynasty originated in El Zotz.

The hieroglyphic texts associated with El Zotz suggest that the site was founded by the enemies of Tikal who wanted to exploit a period of weakness in this important Maya city. El Zotz was strategically located between two rival Maya kingdoms: Tikal and the alliance of El Perú and Calakmul. There is a possibility that El Zotz was established as an outpost for the El Perú/Calakmul alliance.

There are two major ceremonial sites at El Zotz: one at the central core of the city and one on the western edge. The western ceremonial center has been designated as El Diablo (The Devil). The pyramid at El Diablo rises 623 feet (160 meters) above the valley floor. The solid platform base of the pyramid is 76 feet by 85 feet (23 meters by 26 meters) and above this are two or three narrower terraces with a temple on top. The sides of the pyramid are very steep. When the site was occupied by the Maya, this pyramid, painted a saturated red, would have announced the presence of an important center. During the rising and setting sun, a time when the painted pyramid was brightest, it would have been visible for about 15 miles.

Archaeological excavations at El Diablo carried out in 2008 revealed stucco masks along the façade of the structure representing the various guises of the Maya sun god. The façade identified the structure as the Temple of the Night Sun. The shape of the building and its polychrome decoration are similar to the Rosalila Temple of Copán.

For the Maya, the sun was closely associated with kingship and symbols of the sun were often associated with the names of kings and their dynasties. The word for “day” is the same as the word for “sun” and the sun symbols on the Temple of the Night Sun suggest that it might be associated with the beginning of a royal dynasty.

A smaller building stands in from of the great temple. When archaeologists sank a test pit into the floor of the chamber of this building, they uncovered blood-red ceramic bowls which were filled with small packets of fingers and teeth. In one bowl the archaeologists found the remains of a partially burned baby. When archaeologists probed the floor of the chamber, they found a sealed chamber beneath the floor. Because this chamber had been sealed so tightly that air and water could not enter, the organic materials-wood, painted stucco, cord, textiles-within it had been well preserved.

The sealed chamber proved to be a royal tomb measuring about 12 feet (4 meters) by 4 feet (1.2 meters) by 6 feet (2 meters) high. In addition to the remains of an adult male, the tomb was filled with ceramics, textiles, and other ritual offerings. Also found in the tomb were the remains of six children (four of whom were infants) who appeared to have been killed in a ritual sacrifice and then placed as offerings in the tomb.

Human remains provide archaeologists with important clues about life in the past. The bones of the man in the tomb show that he was in his 50s when he died. His joints were arthritic and probably caused him some pain. Jewels had been embedded in his teeth, a sign of high rank.

For burial, the body had been dressed in the costume of a ritual dancer. This included an elaborate headdress (placed by his head) and small bells of shell with dog canine clappers which had been arranged around his waist and legs. Interpreting the symbolism of burial clothing is always problematic for archaeologists. On one hand, the costume could be an indication that he had been a ritual dancer in life. On the other hand, the costume could have been intended to help him in the next life and not be related to his past life.

The man was also laid out with an obsidian blade in his hand. While this may have been a sacrificial knife, analysis of the traces of red on the blade ruled out blood. This suggests that it may not have been actually used in sacrifices. A mirror buried with him may provide some additional clues about him: the glyphs on the back of the mirror can be translated as either “Red [missing] Turtle” or as “Great [missing] Turtle.”

So who was this man? The elaborate burial goods and the jeweled teeth suggest that he had a high rank. The proximity of his tomb to the Temple of the Night Sun, however, have led archaeologist to hypothesize that he was the founding ruler of El Zotz. They also suggest that the Temple of the Night Sun had been constructed to venerate this dead ruler. Once the burial rituals had been completed, the tomb had been sealed, a platform constructed above it, and a roofed sanctuary over it. Archaeologists found traces of burning in the sanctuary suggesting that rituals had been frequently performed at this site. A doorway through the sanctuary leads to the Temple of the Night Sun which may have been built to venerate the founding ruler. The El Diablo Pyramid was later built over the top of the temple.

It was a common practice in the Maya world to build new structures over existing structures. For archaeologists this means that digging down through existing structures often reveals earlier structures. In 2012 archaeologists began the task of uncovering and understanding the Temple of the Night Sun.  They found that the Maya builders had packed it in earth and small rocks in an attempt to preserve the earlier structure before constructing the pyramid.

Archaeologists found a frieze that wrapped around the structure. About 14 masks are included in the frieze. These masks depict a number of celestial entities including the sun. For the Maya these masks were living beings.

The Maya sun god, K’inich Ajaw, has been identified in three of the masks. Each of these masks represents the sun god at a different time of day. They are placed along the frieze relative to the time of day when the sun would have illuminated them. In the morning, the rising sun is associated with the Caribbean waters to the east. At about noon, the sun would illuminate a fearsome, blood-drinking creature and then in the evening a jaguar. In general the images in the frieze seem to represent the sun’s passage through the sky.

With regard to the importance of the stuccos, archaeologist Stephen Houston says:…

“The stuccos provide unprecedented insight into how the Maya conceived of the heavens, how they thought of the sun, and how the sun itself would have been grafted onto the identity of kings and the dynasties that would follow them.”

El Zotz continued to exist for only a few generations after the death of its founding ruler.  

Ancient America: The Maya City of Coba

Cobá was a Maya city located in the northern portion of the Maya region on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Most of the city was constructed between 500 and 900-a period corresponding to the Classic Maya Period. Most of the dated inscriptions found in the city date from the seventh century.

Maya Map

Cobá had a population of at least 50,000 and spread out to cover an area of more than 80 square kilometers. The city was situated around two lagoons. There are a series of elevated roads constructed out of stone and plaster which lead out from the center of the site to small sites. Some of these roads run east to the Caribbean coast. The longest identified road runs over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to the site of Yaxuna.

Coba Site Map

Cobá engaged in trade with a number of other Mayan communities, particularly the ones along the Caribbean coast in present-day Belize and Honduras. This trade utilized the ports of Xcaret, Xel-Há, Tancah, Muyil, and Tulum.

As with other Mayan sites, Cobá has a number of temple pyramids. The tallest of these, known today as Nohoch Mul,  is about 42 meters (140 feet) high. This means that it is higher than the pyramids at Chichén Itzá (El Castillo is 33 meters tall) and Uxmal (Pyramid of the Divine is 35 meters tall).

Coba Nunoch

Nohoch Mul is shown above.

Coba La Iglesia

Shown above is the pyramid known as La Iglesia, the second highest pyramid in Cobá.

Coba Crossroads Tempe

Shown above is the Crossroads Temple.

In Maya cities, ball courts were important features as the ball game was an important part of Mayan ceremonial and social life. In Cobá there are two ball courts which is an indication of its importance as a Maya center.

Coba Ballcourt 1

Coba Ballcourt 2

Shown above is one of the ballcourts at Cobá.

In the Yucatán Peninsula water is a critical element. There is actually very little surface water in the area. The cenotes-holes with fresh water-are important. The two lagoons at Cobá were important factors in the development of this city. The Maya built dikes around the lagoons in order raise the water level and make the water supply more reliable.

Coba Stela

One of the characteristics of the Mayan sites are the stele: carved slabs of stone bearing inscriptions-often dates and the names of kings-and depictions. These were often erected in the plaza, usually in front of a pyramid. The photograph above shows stele from Cobá.

During the Postclassic Maya Period, Cobá remained an important site. New temples were built and old ones were maintained until at least the 14th century and possibly until the arrival of the Spanish.  

Ancient America: Tulum, a Maya Port

Tulum, located on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya. The earliest date found on a stele at Tulum is 564 CE and the city flourished from about 1200 to 1521. It was a major link in the rather extensive trade route of the Maya. Its seaside location made it a transportation hub: both maritime and land trade routes converged here. Its fortifications show that it was an important site, one which had to be defended from raiders and enemies.  

The site’s current name, Tulum, is from the Yucatec Mayan word for fence or wall and refers to the site’s fortifications. There is some indication that the old name for the site may have been Zama, meaning “city of the dawn” in reference to its eastern location.

Tulum 1

On one side Tulum was protected by steep sea cliffs. On the landward side, the city was protected by a wall that averaged three to five meters (16 feet) in height. The wall was about eight meters (26 feet) thick and ran for some 400 meters (1,300 feet) on the side parallel to the sea. The walls which ran from the parallel wall to the seaside were about 170 meters (560 feet) long. On the southwest and northwest corners there are small structures which probably served as watchtowers. There are five narrow gateways in the walls: two on the north wall, two on the south, and one on the west.


Fresh water for the city was provided by a small cenote near the northern side of the wall.

With regard to trade, the artifacts which archaeologists have found at the site come from central Mexico and Central America. The trade goods included copper rattles and rings from the Mexican highlands; flint and ceramics from all over the Yucatán, jade and obsidian from Guatemala. The obsidian came from quarries in Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala which is 700 kilometers (430 miles) from Tulum. From the amount of obsidian found at Tulum, archaeologists feel that Tulum was a major center for the obsidian trade.

With regard to trade routes, the Río Motagua and the Río Usumacincta/Pasión would have allowed seafaring canoes access to both the highlands and the lowlands. The Río Motagua starts from the Guatemalan highlands and flows to the Caribbean. The Río Usumacincta/Pasión system also originates in the Guatemalan highlands, but empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Tulum Seaside

There is a cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs that would have been perfect for trading canoes coming in. This characteristic of the site is probably one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum here in the first place. The structure presently known as the Castillo has a small shrine which was used as a beacon for incoming canoes. It marks a break in the barrier reef that is opposite from the site. The Casillo is 7.5 meters (25 feet) tall and the lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved in them.

One of the most important gods of Tulum appears to have been the Diving or Descending God. There are many depictions of this god in the murals and other works around the site.

Temple of the Frescos

The Temple of the Frescos is shown above. Many people feel that this is one of the most spectacular buildings at Tulum. It has both a lower gallery and a smaller second story gallery. Niched figurines of the Maya Diving God and Descending God decorate the façade of the temple.  

Temple of Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God is shown above. This is located in the site’s central precinct.

dios del viento

The Temple of the Wind Gods is shown above.

Tulum 2

Tulum continued to be occupied for at least 70 years after the Spanish invaded Mexico. The Spanish first discovered the city in 1518 and by the end of the century it was deserted.  

Ancient America: The Gods of Palenque

For most people, the Maya and the Aztec are the best-known Mesoamerican cultures. The area occupied by the Maya included southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. The ancient Maya city of Palenque was “discovered” by Europeans in the 1700s. For the next several centuries, European explorers would marvel at the city’s architecture, loot its art, and destroy many of its buildings. Many people were convinced that the city was too complex, too well-built to have been constructed by American Indians, so they assumed that it must have been built by Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Europeans, or others. In the twentieth century, some pseudo-scholars, whose works are still promoted by certain television networks, claimed that the builders must have been ancient aliens from distant planets who brought a now-forgotten technology to the Maya.

Palenque Palace

Palenque is best known for its exquisite stone and stucco sculpture, its extensive hieroglyphic texts, and the funerary pyramid of Pakal the Great. For archaeologists it is a site that has also provided a great deal of insight into ancient America, particularly with regard to the ancient gods.


Pakal the Great is shown above.

Today Palenque is an archaeological and a tourist attraction managed by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Palenque Main Plaza

The main plaza at Palenque is shown above.

The Maya:

Archaeologists usually divide Mesoamerican history into three broad time periods: Preclassic (2000 BCE to 250 CE), Classic (250 to 900), and Postclassic (900 to 1500). During the Classic Period, the Maya were divided into many small kingdoms centered around cities. The largest of these cities-Calakmul, Tikal, Cobá, and Caracol-had populations of more than 75,000 and served as regional centers for powerful kings and queens and their royal courts.

Maya Map

The various Classic Maya kingdoms not only traded among themselves, but also waged war on one another. In addition, they traded with non-Maya kingdoms, such as Teotihuacán and also waged war against non-Maya kingdoms.



The ancient Maya city of Palenque has an urban core which is slightly larger than the Principality of Monaco. Archaeologists have noted the remains of some 1,500 structures within this core clustered into at least 35 major building complexes. Like other Maya cities, Palenque shows that the ancient Maya carefully managed their water supplies: there are stone aqueducts and walled stream banks. The area is characterized by fluctuations in dry and wet seasons and the maintenance of an adequate water supply throughout the year was critical to urban life.

As with other Maya cities, the primary building material was stone. At Palenque, the masons had available to them limestone that was as dense and flawless as fine lithographic stone. The stones in the Palenque area have natural cleavage planes which mean that it was easy to break into great slabs. The Maya masons used these stones to produce buildings of great beauty and Maya artists and scribes used them to produce panels with hieroglyphic texts and scenes of Maya life.

Palenque was initially settled about 500 BCE and had grown into a small city by 400 CE. By 850 CE, the city was largely abandoned. The last known date recorded at Palenque is 799.

Palenque Temple

Palenque Relief

The Kings of Palenque:

The Maya cities were ruled by kings and the kingship was usually passed down through the male line, from father to son. Palenque is famous in the archaeological world because it contains the first Maya royal tomb ever excavated. At one time it was thought that the Maya stepped-pyramids served solely as platforms for temples. At Palenque, however, archaeologists found the intact tomb of Palenque’s greatest king inside a pyramid. This was the tomb of K’inish Janab Pakal, or simply Pakal.

One of the interesting anomalies in Palenque occurred with the death king Kan Bahlam in 583. Royal descent traditionally passed from father to son, but in this case the person who assumed the throne, Ix Yohl Ik’nal, was a woman. While some people assume that she was the daughter of Kan Bahlam, there is no actual evidence of this. During her reign, in 599, Palenque was defeated militarily by Calakmul, another Mayan kingdom. At this time, the Palenque Triad gods were “thrown down” and the Great Jaguar, the militaristic totem of the Calakmul kings, appears.  

In 615, the twelve-year-old K’inich Janab Pakal assumed the throne of Palenque and went on to become its longest and greatest ruler. His father was K’an Hix Mo’ (Yellow Jaguar Macaw) who may have been a noble of foreign origin. There is no indication that his father ever occupied the throne of Palenque. The origins of his mother, Ix Sak K’uk’ (Lady White Quetzal), are also obscure, but during her son’s reign she became a powerful figure. There are some scholars who feel that Pakal was installed on the throne by the king of Calakmul to rule as a puppet.

The last known king of Palenque was K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam whose reign began on 8 March 764 and lasted for at least 20 years. There is, however, a vase which suggests that Six Death Janab Pakal was inaugurated on 17 November 1799. Little is known about this person who may have been Palenque’s last king.

Kan Balam

The Gods of Palenque:

Palenque provides us with some insights into Maya religion. First, a caution: we should not assume that there was a single religious tradition among the Maya. As with many other parts of the world, including ancient Egypt, the gods were associated with specific places. Thus the gods of Palenque should be considered just that: the gods of Palenque, not universal Maya gods.

Religious expression at Palenque focused on the Triad: three gods which were hierarchically arranged from most-to-least important and each of which had their own temple. These three gods were the creation of another god, known today as the Triad Progenitor who was born in 3121 BCE and who is considered a maize god.

Just prior to Pakal’s rule, the Triad had been thrown down, and during his rule there was a political and religious renaissance in which the Triad rituals were reinstated. During the rule of Pakal’s son, Ki’inich Kan Bahlam, the three temples of the Triad were constructed and made more opulent and impressive than before. All three of the temples currently designated as the Cross Group were dedicated on the same day: 10 January 692. At this dedication, according to the inscriptions, the three patron gods of the Palenque dynasty were housed in their respective shrines. The dedication was timed to coincide with the completion of the thirteenth K’atun: in the Maya calendar. The thirteenth K’atun was special in its own right as the number 13 is sacred in Maya numerology.

Cross Group

A reconstruction of the temples of the Cross Group is shown above.

God 1 (often designed as G1) was the most important of the Triad. His actual name is obscure, but he was born in the mythical realm of Matwiil on 21 October 2360 BCE. His shrine at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Cross. He was an aquatic deity with associations with the sun. He was associated with the east. Near the time of Maya creation, he descended from the sky and lived in a northern temple known as Six Heaven. The Temple of the Cross is the sky temple which is associated with solar re-birth and with the ancestral authority of rulership.

The great cross shown in the temple, and from which Europeans have given the temple its name, is not a European religious symbol, but rather is a representation of a sacred world tree. On top of this tree sits an elaborate supernatural bird.

God 2 (often designated as G2), whose name is Unen K’awiil, was born on 8 November 2360 BCE and is thus the youngest of the Triad though second in power. He was the god of lightning and was seen as a manifestation of royal power and agriculture. His temple at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Foliated Cross. One of his titles was the Young Lord of the Five Heavenly Houses. The Temple of the Foliated Cross represented the middle place where maize agriculture and water meet. It also symbolizes the procreative powers of the king.

God 3 (often designated as G3), the most junior member of the Triad (in terms of importance), was born on 25 October 2360 BCE. He was associated with the sun and was often seen as a warrior. His temple at Palenque is currently known as the Temple of the Sun. Within the Temple of the Sun is the depiction of a cave within the earth which houses the solar god associated with warfare and military authority. The symbol of this temple of sacred warfare is the crossed spears and the shield.

The Triad gods provided a model of kingship for Palenque. They established a mythical charter for how the kings were to interact with the gods. It was the kings who were entrusted with the care and protection of these gods.

At the K’atun (the celebration of the twenty year cycle of the Maya calendar) the gods of the Triad were dressed by the king and given proper offerings. It was the duty of the king to give them ornaments and ritual clothing. This aspect of the veneration of the Triad, seen as a form of caretaking, was extremely important to the Maya. A number of scholars have noted that the dressing rituals described in the Palenque texts are very similar to today’s rituals in the region in which the images of the Catholic saints are dressed in native ceremonial dress and given necklaces of gold coins.

Ancient America: Book Burning

Writing first appeared in the Maya area about 400 BCE. The Maya developed their writing systems more elaborately than any other group in the Americas. They used writing to establish the sequence of rituals and to glorify the rulers. Writing was used by the elite to order their world.  

Maya Glyph 2

Maya Stela 1


As in other parts of the world, the Maya wrote on stone monuments as a way of recording and glorifying their achievements and their kings. They also created books: the Maya would write on bark paper coated with plaster.

Dresden Codex

Shown above is the Dresden Codex.

Diego de Landa was a Spanish Franciscan monk who was one of the first of his order sent to the Yucatán in Mexico. He arrived in Mexico in 1549 to bring the Catholic faith to the Maya peoples after the Spanish conquest. He became bishop in 1573.

In 1562 he ordered an inquisition after hearing that some Roman Catholic Maya were continuing to worship pagan idols. Several thousand Indians were tortured to obtain “confessions,” and about 200 were killed during the process. As a result, at least 40 Maya codices (books written in Mayan) and 20,000 Maya religious images were burned. De Landa would later defend his actions by claiming that the displaced pagan priests were working to bring the people back to their heathen roots. He claimed that the people were not only worshipping idols, but were also engaging in human sacrifice. With regard to the burning of the Maya codices, the Franciscans felt that the very existence of these books was evidence of satanic practices. De Landa would write:

“We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.”

Diego de Landa catalogued the Maya religion, the Maya language, and the Maya writing system in his book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. The work was written about 1566. The original copies of his manuscript have been lost and the only versions available today are an abridgement which has undergone several changes by various copyists. The copy which is available today was published about 1660, then re-discovered and published in France in 1862.

While de Landa actively sought to suppress and destroy the aboriginal Maya religion, his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán is considered one of the most complete treatments of Maya religions that has ever been done.

Relación de las cosas de Yucatán has provided a valuable record of the Mayan writing system. In spite of some inaccuracies, it has proved instrumental in the twentieth century decipherment of the Mayan writing system.

The four Maya codices which are known to have escaped de Landa’s destruction are all treatises on astronomy and the calendar. The writing carved into the stone monuments tells about the lives of the rulers, battles, alliances, and the deaths of rulers. While the Maya writing gives us some insights into these ancient civilizations, the writing doesn’t mention anything about commoners, about the lives of the people. While the Maya may have written about commoners in their books, and they may have written poetry and novels, de Landa’s book burning has taken this knowledge from us.  

Ancient America: The Mayan Ball Game

The Mesoamerican ball game was played throughout Mesoameria-Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras. In addition, a version of the game was played by the Hohokam in Arizona and there is evidence of the games (stone yokes) found in the Caribbean islands. For the Maya, the ball game was culturally and ritually important. Most major Maya centers have a ball court.

Chichen Itza

The ball court at Chichén Itzá is shown above.

The earliest Mayan ball courts are in the lowlands-in Belize at Cerros and Colha. These ball courts were constructed after 400 BCE. By 200 CE, the ball game occupied a central place among the Maya elite. This was often a political game with religious overtones. Masonry ball courts are always located close to the central core of the monumental architecture of the lowland Maya sites.

The ball game was a team event played on a special court with a solid rubber ball. The size and weight of the ball varied from site to site and through time. Some archaeologists have suggested that the size of the ball was determined by the size of the hole in the stone scoring ring mounted on the side of the ball court. The ball could be up to eight inches in diameter (about the size of the modern volleyball) and could weigh nine pounds or more.

The clothing of the players-primarily determined from the art work of the time period-included a thick girdle or yoke worn around the waist. This provided some protection from the ball and was probably also used for striking the ball with more force. Some images show the players with chest protectors which had been inserted in the yoke and stood upright in front of the chest. Some of the players also wore kneepads, and some are shown with the pad only on the right knee.



The players also wore helmets: the images of helmeted players have been misinterpreted by popular pseudoarchaeologists as aliens from other planets.

For the Maya, the ball game was more than a sporting event. Sometimes it was a substitute for warfare. At times, human sacrifice was associated with it. This may have been the sacrifice of the losing team.

Ball Game Sacrifice

The carving above shows human sacrifice at a ball game.

The rules of the game seem to have varied from place to place. The ball players could use only their head, shoulders, and hips to hit the ball. The two teams of players faced each other lined up parallel to the long axis of the playing field.

The courts are generally between 49 and 115 feet in length, 10 to 39 feet in width. They are demarcated by two parallel platforms. Sometimes the platforms are banked as if to accommodate seating; at other times they are bounded with sharply vertical walls. Usually a stone ring is anchored to the side wall about 6.5 to 10 feet off the ground. The interior diameter of the ring is between 8 and 16 inches. Shooting the ball through the ring gives an instant win.

Cross Section

The size of the ball court does not seem to be related to the relative importance of the Maya city: the powerful Maya city-state of Tikal has a relatively small ball court. On the other hand, one of the largest ball courts is at Chichén Itzá in Yucatan. Here the court is 551 feet in length and 229 feet wide.

The Mayan site of El Tajín has over a dozen ball courts (more than 17) which have been uncovered by archaeologists.


The ball court at Uaxactun is shown above.

modern ball player

A modern ball player is shown above.

Ancient America: The Classic Maya

( – promoted by navajo)

At the height of the Classic Period (200 CE to 900 CE), the Maya population numbered several million people living in 60 kingdoms in the greater Yucatan area of Mexico. The Maya built large cities which were supported by the agricultural surpluses from the villages and towns in the surrounding countryside.

Maya Map


The Maya site of Palenque is shown above.


The Maya site of Tikal is shown above.

Maya kings were divine shamans who kept the world in balance through the power of their ritual performances. In this way they brought prosperity to their domains. Kings inherited their position through the male line and were thus able to trace their lineage back to a founding ancestor.

Maya kings were the conduit of the sacred, the path of communication to the Otherworld, and the means of contacting the dead. The king had the knowledge of when to plant and when to harvest as well as the knowledge of illness and health. The king would read in the heavens when to go to war and when to maintain the peace. Through his knowledge, the king would negotiate trade agreements which were advantageous for his people.  

Typical of kingdoms in other parts of the world, Maya kings faced the challenges of internal intrigues and wars with other kingdoms. It was not uncommon for a Maya king to end his life by being taken captive in a war that he was too old to fight.

Maya country was linked together by a series of roads which facilitated foot travel, and by rivers which acted as highways for canoes. Unlike the European civilizations, the Maya did not have domestic animals which could be used as beasts of burden. Therefore the canoe was the most important form of travel. Maya trade networks linked together the communities within each kingdom as well as linking the kingdoms with the outside world. The Maya traded as far north as the southern part of the United States and as far south as South America.

The Maya used several precious commodities for money: carved and polished greenstone beads, red spiny oyster shell beads, cacao beans, lengths of cotton cloth, and measures of sea salt. The values of these various commodities were probably set by the king.  

The Maya lived, and continue to live, in a tropical area which can receive as much as 150 inches of rain per year. The problem, however, is that there is often too much water during the rainy season and not enough during the dry season. More than 2,000 years ago Maya engineers began to tackle two problems: (1) how to store water for the dry times, and (2) how to make wet, fertile swampland suitable for farming. As a result, the Maya built reservoirs and massive, complicated canal systems. Maya buildings often contained great cisterns for holding the rain water.  

For their fields, the Maya excavated the muck from the swamp to create a system of raised fields and canals. This bottom mud was loaded with nutrients from fish excretions and provided fertilizer for the fields which resulted in two or three crops per year. In addition, the fields were adjacent to steady supplies of waters. To reduce the evaporation of the water in the canals, the Maya planted waterlilies and other plants. These plants, in turn, helped feed the fish in the canals. Overall, it was a delicate system which provided enormous productivity.

Many of the fields surrounding the Maya cities were owned by patrilineal family groups. Some of the fields were maintained as royal farms which used tribute labor.

The Maya were a literate people: their writing was capable of capturing all of the nuances of sound, meaning, and grammatical structure of the Maya languages. The Maya wrote by carving on stone, engraving jade, inscribing shell, and incising bone. In addition, they had accordion-folded books which were made from beaten bark paper surfaced with a thin layer of plaster. In their writings the Maya recorded their history, their genealogies, their views of the world, their mythology, and records of trading and tribute.

At one time, the Maya libraries held thousands of volumes of their books. These included literature and poetry as well as histories and the details of their rituals Feeling that the Maya books were the works of Satan, the Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish invasion of the continent ordered them to be destroyed. Today, only four books are left and all of these are calendar almanacs for the timing of rituals.

In addition to books, the Maya also carved their writings in stone, known as stellae. Numerous examples of this type of writing, which often commemorate kings and royalty, are found in the ancient Maya cities such as Tikal, Copan, Palenque, Bonampak, and Chichén Itzá.  

Maya counting (including mathematics and the Maya calendar) is based on units of twenty. From the Maya perspective, their counting is based on the full person, both fingers and toes. This is called a vigesimal counting system. In written Maya, a dot represents 1 and a bar represents 5. Numbers from 1 to 19 are represented by combinations of dots and bars. The largest number represented in this way is      19, consisting of three bars and four dots. For numbers great than 19, the Maya use a place value number system similar to that used by Europeans.

Maya Counting

While Europeans mark the passage of time on ten-based intervals – decades, centuries, millenium – the Maya calendar uses 20-year cycles: katuns which mark 20 years and baktuns which mark 400 years (20 times 20).

The Maya viewed the world as being made up of three domains: the starry arch of heaven, the stony middleworld of the earth, and the dark waters of the underworld below.

The four cardinal directions provided the fundamental grid for both the Maya communities and the surface of the earth. The most important direction was east which was associated with the color red. If today’s maps were drawn by Maya cartographers, east would be shown at the top of the page. North, associated with the cool rains, is represented by the color white. West, the dying place of the sun, was represented by the color black. South was associated with the color yellow and was considered the right-hand of the sun.

The four cardinal directions were seen in relationship to the center which was represented by the color blue-green. Running through this center, the Maya envisioned an axis called Wacah Chan which was symbolized as a tree with its roots in the underworld and its branches soaring into the heavenly area above. The world of the human beings was connected to the Otherworld through the Wacah Chan. The Wacah Chan did not exist at a specific geographic place, but could be materialized through ritual at any point in the natural or human-made landscape.

There were two representations of the Wacah Chan: the king who brought it into existence and the World Tree. Through bloodletting rituals the king would bring the World Tree into existence and in this way open the doorway to the Otherworld.

Bloodletting was an act of piety which was used in all rituals from the birth of a child to the burying of the dead. Bloodletting could range from the shedding of a few drops of blood to mutilation which generated a copious flow of blood. While blood could be drawn from any part of the body, the most sacred sources of blood were the tongue for both males and females and the penis for males. Among men, the penis would be pierced several times with an obsidian razor and then long strands of bark paper pulled through the wounds. After piercing the penis, men would whirl in a dance to draw the blood out onto the long streamers tied to their members.

An important part of the bloodletting rite was the obsidian knife. Obsidian is a form of volcanic glass which could be made into long, thin, razor-sharp blades which were unsurpassed in their ability to make clean, quick wounds. As obsidian was invaluable in the bloodletting rituals, the supply of obsidian was controlled by the king.  

Royal women would pierce their tongues using a sting-ray spine. Then a cord would be threaded through the wound. The blood would then saturate the paper lining a bowl which was held at the chest.

Some of the blood-soaked papers from both the tongue-piercings and penis-piercings would be burned in a censor along with offerings of corn, rubber, and tree resin.

The vision quest was also a central act of the Maya world. Through the vision quest, ancestors and gods could be enticed to communicate with human beings.  

Another important part of Maya life was the ballgame which was played in a large courtyard. Ballgames were played for many reasons. Often the game was played between friends or professionals for sport and/or wagering. At other times, the game was a ritual in which captives were forced to play. In these games, the losing team was usually executed, sometimes by beheading and sometimes by binding each player into a ball-like form and hurling them down the temple steps.


Ballcourt El Tajin

The Maya often used crystals in curing and in divining. The power of the crystals came from the earth and crystals which were found in caves were considered to be especially powerful.

Tikal Temple

The temple at Tikal is shown above.