What do we really understand about the Mayans? Their way of life, culture, jewelry, and couture? They are often mistaken with the Aztecs and the Incans because they are basically neighbors. Mayans are the aboriginal folks of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. These countries are part of the Mesoamerican civilization developed by the Mayans.
This era date from 7000 to 2000 BCE where the culture of hunting and land cultivation was developed. They planted maize and other vegetables and started domesticating animals. Temples to venerate Gods were also built together with the rise of the first village.
Dating from 1500 to 200 BCE, the Olmec era is when the construction of stone and brick buildings started. The most famous is the Olmec heads set up alongside the Gulf of Mexico. These statues were shows the remarkable ability of the Olmecs in sculpture as well as gave a peek of shamanic deeds happening during this time. The belief that the Olmecs were giants also became popular due to the lack of knowledge of their origin and why their civilization ended.
The era between 600BCE to 800CE where Monte Alban was built. It is believed that the Zapotecs were related to the Olmecs. Their knowledge of astronomy, mathematic, and hieroglyphics was passed on.
From 200 to 900 CE, This is the time where the city of Teotihuacan developed from a small village to an enormous city.
The era between 250 to 900CE, most commonly known as the classic period. El tajin is the city constructed on the Gulf of Mexico, and the population of the Mayans was estimated to reach a million, and a number of ball courts were seen around the great city.
Dating between 250 – 950 CE, the era where power was centered in the cities of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. This is the era where a new culture rose where the union of cultures from the Olmecs, Zapotecs, El Tajin, and Teotihuacan is still seen, which was said to be the height of the Mayan civilization. This is where they have reached the summit of their skills in astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and arts. The Mayan calendar was also perfected during this time. The city in Tikal, located in the Northern region of Guatemala, also flourished in this era. They called this city Mutul, one of the majestic cities built by the Mayans. The Mayans of Tikal used available natural resources such as cedarwood, copal, resin, and agriculture. They established trade with their nearby city, Teotihuacan, which impacted their architecture, clothing, and arts. Artifacts of Jade, shell jewelry, and incised bones were seen in temple I found in Tikal, which was the tomb of King Jasaw K'waiil.
From the year 95 to 1524 BCE, the Mayans abandoned their cities with no conclusive evidence as to the reason why: some considered overpopulation and climate change. The remaining Quiche Mayans were defeated in 1524, which marked the end of the Mayan civilization.
By Wolfgang Sauber (User:Xenophon) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5769549
Ancient ruins of the Mayan civilization can be found in the jungles of Southern Mexico. They left behind engravings (hieroglyphs) on every surface, from walls, monuments, and even stairs. It took centuries for historians and archeologists to decode what was left of their history.
The Spanish conquistadors scorched more than 40 Mayan written scriptures and more than twenty thousand images of the Mayan evolution in the 16th century destroying the writing system of the Mayans, Mayan hieroglyphics. The reasoning behind this is that the friar named Diego De Landa sees their writing as tools of evil. He learned that the Mayans still worships the maize God and was tasked to convert them to Christianity. Mayans were also tortured and burned on stakes for practicing what was, in his eyes, a form of devilish act. He was called back to Spain upon learning of his actions. There are currently three surviving Mayan scriptures, the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codex.
According to the Dresden Codex, the Mayans have an in-depth knowledge of astronomy proved by how they have calculated the rise and position of the planet Venus, which was associated with warfare.
City of Izamal
The city where the sacred scriptures were kept based on the text from the Dresden Codex is based on the legend of Zanna. This is also the place where shamans interpret and consults with the Gods. It remains a mystery why the Mayans abandoned their home in the jungle in the 9th century
Diego Calderon rediscovered their Mayan ruins in Palenque and found stone tablets. in 1880
By Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5284838
The Mesoamerican cultures are known for their magnificent architecture, an advanced form of hieroglyphics writings, and a calendar system. However, they were also believed to practice bloodletting and human sacrifices. They believe in the cycle of life, which led to their faith in the cosmos and Gods.
By Yaxchilán_lintel_15.JPG: MaryG90derivative work: Jebulon (talk) - Yaxchilán_lintel_15.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14697789
The Mayans believe in the existence of Xibalba or the dark realm and the tree of life. The tree of life extends from the Earth towards the heavens consisting of thirteen levels. The paradise, called Tamoanchan (Misty Star), is the place where stunning flowers bloom. The journey starts from the netherworld as the Xibalbans try to trick the souls of the travelers as they embark on their lifelong journey going up to the misty sky. There are nine levels included in the underworld before a person can start their journey to the 13 stages of the tree of life. To hasten one's ascent, they must either die, give birth, or offer sacrifice during war or suicide. Once a person was able to reach the peak of heaven, he can now begin his descend back down to Earth. Based on this belief, human sacrifice is not seen as death but a way to move forward to the next stage. When Christianity came to the Mayans, the idea of Jesus resurrecting from the dead was easily accepted by the Mayans, for the concept is similar to their belief. However, it was said that they were tempted to go back to their old ways of worship, which resulted in the former friar to burn their manuscripts.
By Michel wal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15448993
It took centuries to decipher the Mayan hieroglyphs. It gave historians and archeologist a vision of who the Mayan lived. They were engaged with continuous wars and the tug and war for power that involved capturing slaves, decapitation, and even burning. The most iconic of their glyphs was the story of the twin plying a ball game against the Xibalba's. One of the twins was sacrificed and had his head cut off and hung on a tree. One of the sisters of rulers of the underworld became pregnant by talking to the head and spitting in her hand. She was banished for then netherworld and gave birth to another twin who later defeated eth lord of the underworld. They resurrected their father, the maize god, and went up to the heavens and became the moon and the sun.
Poc – a – Toc
Poc-a-toc was a game of the Mayan bases on the myth written in the Popol Vuh about the twins who were summoned to playball against the rulers of the underworld. Consisting of two-seven man team trying to shoot a tiny rubber ball in a hoop fixed high on the wall. The companies are only permitted to use their hips, shoulders, knees, and head, barring any use of both their hands and feet. What is captivating about this game is that the captain of the winning team is awarded instant death in the belief of ascending quickly to the heavens. The surviving glyph from both Belize and Yucatan point has brought light to this deed. The reason why the captain is sacrificed is to escape the blackness of Xibalba.
It was believed that the dance would create a trance-like state enabling the dancer to connect with the spiritual realm. The dancers would wear a mask and costumes dressing like a bird or a jaguar and other forms not limiting to animals. The dance was a way for the dancers to transform into their chosen form. This state is called wayob. However, it was later found that the trance maybe influenced by some hallucinogenic drugs and alcohol. The shamans were drinking alcoholic beverages as in honor of the God of alcohol Acan.
Mayan were known for their peculiar bloodletting practices. One event where bloodletting is observed is prior to the Mayan dance. Various tools used in bloodletting ceremonies which was believed to be a way to help them bring to a trance state.
Self-sacrifice was seen on some of their engravings, which was an image of a woman perforating her tongue with a stingray spine drawing a thread with thorns through the incision, while blood-soaked paper is burned in a ceramic bowl. This was done to conjure a vision from the serpent Yoshino with their ancestors.
The pyramids seen on various Mayan sites were replicas of the mystic mountains of Gods (Witzob).
There are two types of Mayan calendar that are designed to work together: The Haab, known as the civil calendar, consists of 18 months with 20 days on each moth totaling three hundred and sixty-five days in a year. The second one is the Tzolkin, also known as their sacred calendar consisting of 260 days, divided into 20days a month. The two forms a calendar round. They likewise designed a long count calendar, which was the basis behind the hype of the end of the world in 2012.
Based on the book entitled Popol Vuh, which tells about world creation by the Quiche people.
Itzamna (God D)
Known as the great ruler of the heavens and the king of the night and day. Depicted as a toothless man wearing a hat with large eyes and ab friendly appearance. Itzamna, together with his wife, the Goddess Ixchel, is responsible in the creation of the entire plethora of Mayan Gods. Itzamna is represented by a two-headed snake of a man and a lizard hybrid, which is only apt for Itzamna when translated means lizard.
The God of suicide is depicted by a rotting body of a woman hanging from the heavens described in the Dresden codex. In ancient Mayan culture, suicide was a noble act, for it results in an immediate passage to heaven. The death of the winning team's captain in the game poc-a-toc as well as death from childbirth and battle, are considered suicide; therefore, they are immediately ascended to paradise.
Kisin / Cizin - Death Gods (God A)
The God of death is depicted as a dancing skeleton while smoking a cigarette. The has a distinctive collar made up of human eyes. Compared to other gods of death, he punishes and keeps evil folks un the underworld and torments them continually. He is comparable to the Christian devil.
By Luis García, CC BY-SA 3.0
The gods that hold the four direction and winds of Earth. Ix for the north, Kan for the south, Muluc for the east, and Cauac for the western winds. They are responsible for the union of both positive and negative energies used by the deities in creating humans in both the mortal and immortal world.
Known as the jaguar lord and ruler of the netherworld.
Another jaguar god that is responsible for shielding the community from external dangers protecting the people in their everyday life. In Quiche belief, the B'alams are divided into four, they are Agab, Iqi, Mahucatah, and Quitze.
Chaac (God B)
The Rain God of the Mayans, patron of agriculture, uses his lighting blade to strike the clouds to produce rain and thunder. Rain rituals were performed by the Yucatan's consisting of four boys and young women. The boys would face each cardinal point, acting and chanting like frogs. During the 16th century, the ritual involves young men and women being lowered or thrown in a well and later drawn back up as they give divinations. He is depicted with a reptilian body with serpent scales. He wears shell ear ornaments with a non-human face with fangs.
Mayans were known with the skin tattoos. They worship their God of tattooing, Acat, by having their skin marked with the images of their Gods. Acat is also linked with the growth of unborn children.
Known as The God of safe childbirth in both physical and spiritual aspects.
(God K) A Ah Puch
The God of death, destruction, and regeneration. The lord and ruler of Xibalba
The patron God of the nobles, kings, and royalties.
God of drunkenness, alcohol (Balche), bark, and honey. Balche is a cocktail drank by the Mayans.
The deity of earthquakes and highlands. He and his brother Zipacna were defeated by the twins as described in the book of Popol Vuh.
God of war, death, and human sacrifice.
God of travelers
The seven macaw, a bird demon, the father of twins Cabrakan and Zipacna who was defeated by the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque.
Hunahpu and Xbalanque
most commonly known as the hero twins wherein their story became the basis of the well-loved Mayan game Poc-a-toc.
Nature God worshipped by hunters and farmers.
kululkan / Giucamatz
The feathered serpent was the consort of the Great Mother Goddess worshiped during the Teotihuacan period by the Mayans.
Goddess Ixchel (God O)
The Great Goddess of the Mayans was venerated until the present day by the Mayans. Also known as the moon goddess, associated with children, well-being, and fertility. In contrast to being the Goddess that laid the foundation for the Mayan civilization, she was also depicted as a goddess that has the power to destroy the Earth. Described as an old woman with a red body, clawed and fanged, the red rainbow.
Kinich Ahau (God G)
Yucatan's Sun God, a version of Itzamna where he was also deemed as the ruler of the heavens and the lover of Goddess Ixchel. He is linked with a jaguar, which was venerated by the Tikal's seen in one of their structures. HE embodies the sun during the day and transforms into a jaguar during the night.
Boluc-Chabtan (God F)
The God of war, death, and violence to whom the Mayans offered a sacrifice on a regular basis. He was described in the Dresden codex grossly being eaten by maggots as he set homes on fire, scorching people on skewers.
Hun Hunahpu / Tonsured Maize god
The Maize God was among the most venerated God of the Mayans due to their staple crop, maize. He was rendered as a young man wearing a beaded necklace, jade belt, and a headdress decorated with ears of corns. The sacred book of the Mayans called Popol Vuh described how humans were successfully made from a dough made of white maize after an attempt to create humans from clay and wood had failed. Hun Hunahpu was also a symbol of rebirth. He was said to be decapitated during harvest and is reborn during the next budding season.
Ancient maize crop needs to be boiled with lime and grounded to make a paste made into dough. These are planted together with squash and beans, which together forms a highly nutritious source of food to sustain the highly active lifestyle of the Mayans.
The Goddess of maize and magic. She was also linked with the moon and is sometimes depicted as a man.
Mitnal was described in Popol Vuh as a dark land with bluff and pus flowing on its rivers.
The brother of kisin, and the sworn adversary of the serpent Hapikern. He was predicted to defeat the world snake by smothering him.
Simon Burchell / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
The Mayans wove colorful and patterned fabrics using plant fibers like cotton and hemp. There were two types of cotton used by Mayans, these are the white and light brown natural cotton fibers called cayuscate. They would tint theses fibers using Brazilian wood dyes and weave them with various patterns such as flowers, animals, geometric shapes, and humans. Cotton was mostly worn by women of high status. In the 19th century, fibers were dyed using mollusk dyes that produce a reddish-purple color.
Tales and folklore about how the Mayans weave their fabric vary from its origin. However, much lie their different Gods, they all have a similar theme. Mayan's textiles were inspired by nature. At present, Mayan is bringing the beautiful and rich traditional Mayan weaving pattern that was a lost art similar to the Mayan hieroglyph.
Popular Symbols / Patterns
A creature that has constantly been connected with the Mayan ruler. The spirit animal of a Mayan leader that is able to travel to the spirit world during ceremonies. The skin of a jaguar is part of Mayan coronation, where the king would sit on. Various Mayan Gods were also associated and represented by this beautiful creature. Mayan warriors also wear jaguar skins that represent valor and ferocity. Its ability to hunt at night means foresight.
By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "artifacts" - Uploaded from the Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool on Flickr, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8894943
Bats are both seen as good and bad omen. Believed to be the keeper of the netherworld, which should have a negative connotation, but the Mayans worshipped them. They were respected for their power over the darkness and were a symbol used against their opponents.
These delicate and colorful insects were representative of freedom with its spread wing and the ability to fly. Different colored butterflies also come with their own meaning. Green butterflies, much like jade, were a symbol of fertility and growth that the Mayan would welcome them inside their homes. Black butterflies, on the other hand, are captured and burned when it enters a house, for it is seen as a bringer of bad luck and scorching the poor insect was the only way to purge its negative influence. White butterflies were the contrast of their black counterpart, which bring good luck and positive news.
The most staple food of ancient Mayans where some myths even tell that humans were molded using maize. The colors of the thread are used to represent different parts of the human body—White for the bones, followed by a yellow for the muscles. The black thread represents the eyes and mane, and red for the blood.
Modern Mayans commonly have dual religious beliefs due to the takeover of the Spaniards. Combined together with the cosmic based view of the Mayan. Cross pattern weaves represents both the Christian's cross and the four-point or direction of the winds.
For modern Mayans, the chalice is a cup that represents the union of both the Christian and ancient Mayan belief. It also describes the cup used by Christ during the last supper.
A mysterious spiritual creature that represents the animal kingdom. The embodiment the link between humans and nature. according to the Mayan calendar, when the day is pointed to the deer sign, it is an excellent day to ask for protection, healing, and harmony. Deers were also linked to the Goddess of wild animals, AH-wink-ir-masa.
Owls are not symbols of wisdom, which what we usually hear of. Instead, they are animal that brings death during the night. Owls are nocturnal birds that hunt under the darkness of the night. A bad omen that is associated with evil and dark magic.
Mayans have always loved and preferred the quetzals. They treasure their beautiful colors and the length of their tail feather that the royals can only use it. To the present Mayans, the Quetzal symbolizes how the proud Mayans have fought against and bled against the Spanish conquistadors to protect their land and race. Its red-feathered breast represents this traumatic time in the life of the Mayans.
The symbol of the moon goddess that signifies wisdom, unity, and when depicted with a double head, it represents both good and evil.
The serpent plays a vital role in the pre-Columbian Mayan folklore. Snakes were seen as a symbol of rebirth rooting from how they shed their skin. Vision serpents are described to have two bearded heads with a rounded nose. He was shown to have ancestors coming out of his mouth in some hieroglyphs during Mayan's bloodletting rituals to conjure a vision and communicate with their ancestors in the spiritual realm.
There is also the serpent God Gucumatz, believed to have created the world. The zigzag snake patterns on weaving also represent the mountains that bring fresh and clean air.
Almost every artifact of the Mayan civilization venerates the sun god, which was the bringer of life. It gives warmth and light that are essential in growing their crops.
The World Tree is the conduit linking the underworld to heaven together with the vision serpent. Caves were a sacred portal to the netherworld. This image of a limestone formation inside a cave where ancient Mayan civilization used to burn incense to call upon the rain god Tlaloc.
There are no existing artifacts of sample clothing from the ancient Mayans due to the organic property of the materials used that would have been naturally destroyed by nature. Our current knowledge of what the Mayans wore in the past are based on the paintings and wall engravings that they have left behind.
The Mayan women wore a stack of loose clothing and drapes tied by a vibrantly colored belt. They would also sport a hip wrap and a shawl.
Traje – Loose blouse
Huipil and corte – Characterized by rectangular clothing with a hole at the center for the head. Commonly made from cotton fibers wit geometric patterns using the brocade technique.
Faja – belt or a sash to fastened the traje.
Hair sash – part of the traditional Mayan clothing made using a backstrap loom.
Mayan men wear a loincloth or a breechcloth wrapped around their kilt. Turbans for the head and a poncho to keep warm during winter. In some cases, men would also wear a sleeved shirt.
Pompom deerskin sandals were a famous footwear for the Mayans.
Mayans were famous for their love for jewelry, earrings, nose rings, lip rings, necklaces, pins, bracelets, and anklets. The rich would use piece s of jewelry made from copper, silver, gold, shells, and gemstones, while the poor wear jewelry made from bones, clays, and wood.
By Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Feathered hats were a symbol for the lords. The higher the hat, the better. The Mayans used to trap birds for their feather and exclusively used for the aristocrats that a commoner would face death in an attempt to wear them. The most famous bird was Quetzal, for its long feather extending up to three feet in length. Feathers are used to add height to a noble's hat. Colorful feathers were also used in fashioning accessories for the nobles like hairbands, collars, anklets, and many more.
Mayans still farms and inhabits the Yucatan region to Honduras. Some carry their traditions and belief combined with Catholicism. Shamans still travel to caves and hill to seeking guidance for good days to plane, marriage, and other concerns. They worship both the Virgin Mary and the Goddess Ixchel.
They now wore Spanish inspired clothing such as a wool jacket or a Saco, trousers or Pantalones, tunic or capixaij, a shirt or camisa and retained some of their traditional clothing such as the sash or banda, rodilera, or the hip cloth made from wool.
By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "artifacts" - Uploaded from the Wikipedia Loves Art photo pool on Flickr, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8894953
Jade was of more importance to the Mayans than gold. The noblemen love jade that wore them as jewelry and even had some chips inserted in their teeth. A majestic green gemstone represents fertility, water, and life. It was customary for the Mayans to place jade together with some ground corn in the belief that the dead will not starve in the stage of his life. It was also believed that jade was an important gemstone worth offering to the Gods to take care of the deceased. Jade masks were also buried with the nobles as a symbol of wealth that aims to inform the Gods of their status. Jade was found in the Eastern region of Guatemala.
The word jade was dubbed by the Spanish conquistadors naming it as piedra de ijada or loin stone. Mayans used various techniques to fashion their jade accessories by drilling, sawing, pecking, and grit.
The largest Mayan jade artifact was found in 1968 in Belize from the temple of Atun Ha. It was a cabochon carving of the ancient sun god pendant weighing around 9.7 pounds buried in a royal tomb. This was believed worn as an accessory during the Mayan dance as they communicate with the Gods. The weight of the pendant was perceived by some as a symbol of one's responsibility. This comes for the word kuch, meaning burden. The weight is a reminder of his duty to his fellowmen.
It is important to note that there were two types of jade used by the Mayans. These are Nephrite and Jadeite. Some other green gems were also used, but jade was their gemstone of choice.
Tzuk - Royal Belt
A royal belt dating back to the late classic era from year 600 to 900A AD
Royals and nobles imitate the clothing of their Gods seen on this jade belt—the maize god wearing a net overskirt decorated with jade beads accompanied by a belt embellished with shells.
Mayan Belt Plaques
Used by ancient Mayan rulers during important rituals to confirm their position with the use of engraved images of gods and ancestors. The plaque has two faces. One side displays the image of the ruler while the other side was a carved hieroglyph explaining the importance of the plaque. These plaques were a symbol of status as well as a symbolic dogma that an ajawob is perceived to be the closest link to their ancestors and Gods. The sound these gems made as they move creates a magical tinkling sound as a way to communicate with the spiritual world.
Ear flares were worn by the nobles on essential ceremonies and other accessories to embody their deities and for communication and harnessing their power.
Jade masks, also known as the funeral masks, were placed over the deceased to enable the rebirth of their ruler to have eternal life and be one with the Gods. Artifacts from the burial site in Palenque showed a death mask made of hundreds of jade fragments. His bones were covered with a suit if jade plaques linked together with gold.
Flint was used by the Mayans to carve and polish their jewelry, a form of mineral quartz found in limestones. Extremely durable that when struck together with steel, it would produce a spark to create fire.
A magnificent maize god statue carved from stone from Honduras dating back from 100AD
used as a whistle, this three-dimensional figure of a Mayan ball plater was carved from a ceramic base. found in the Jaina island assumed to have date back from 600 to 900AD
Jewelry made from shells is not commonly found in the ancient Mayan civilization, for they are far from the waters. Shells were mainly burned to produce lime and cement. They use the conch to create dyes and musical instruments.
Here is an ancient Mayan plate displaying a woman grinding cocoa
The Dresden codex stated that cacao was the food of the God Kon, the God of wind, and rain. It was also described in the Madrid codex that the gods used their blood to create cacaos. The Mayan used cacaos as offerings, tributes, and as a drink combined with chili peppers and cornmeal. Cacao beans were used as currency in exchange for goods like turkey, rabbits, and other commodities. It can even be exchanged with slaves.
Traditional Mayan weddings are officiated by a shaman. It starts with a prayer together with music produced by a conch shell. This is a ritual to ask permission from the four points to the wind. The couple shares a glass of balche, the ancient Mayan alcoholic beverage, which feeds the souls. The exchanging of yellow flowers symbolize the sun, while white flowers represent the moon. The couple also exchanges maize and cacao. The shaman ties their hands with a red-colored ribbon or tie, followed by symbolically planting the seeds of corn and cacao ion water. Trust and humility are seen in the act of washing their feet. Finally, the closest members of the family wishes the couple well. Trailed by the blowing of the conch and playing of the copal and drums signaling the end of the ceremony.
As we have established, gold was not the preferred jewelry base for the Mayans. It was the Aztecs who used and left various artifacts and jewelry that are commonly interchanged with the Mayans.
Recent studies have suggested that the reason why the Mayan civilization suddenly abandoned their great cities was due to the long period of droughts. However, this is not conclusive enough as evidence as to why they abruptly left. The artifacts they left us only show a peek about how they lived. Their civilization remains to be a mystery that researchers and archeologists are still looking for answers despite the lack of artifact to go on.