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An Overview of Ancient Mayan Society

Updated on June 17, 2014
Ruins of Chichen Itza
Ruins of Chichen Itza | Source

The Maya civilization was already a shadow of its former self by the time the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century; its empty cities having long since fallen to the encroaching jungle.

Earthquakes, epidemics, foreign invasion and even climate change have all been mentioned as potential factors contributing to this mass migration; but with so many Maya codices having been destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors during their subjugation of the Yucatan peninsula, the “Maya collapse” remains one of many mysteries surrounding this ancient culture.

However, significant progress has been made in deciphering Maya hieroglyphs, allowing for a deeper understanding of the people who built the temples and pyramids that lie scattered throughout the Guatemalan rainforests.

Maya Religion

Statue of a Maya Maize God
Statue of a Maya Maize God | Source
The Pyramid of Kukulkán
The Pyramid of Kukulkán | Source

It's known that the Maya were obsessed with astronomy, and that some of their most recognizable structures may have been built for the very purpose of observing the stars and measuring the passage of time. The most famous example would be Chichén Itzá, where the position of the setting sun at two specific points of the year causes a serpent-shaped shadow to slither down the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulkán.

Remains of a Teenage Girl Sacrificed by the Mayans
Remains of a Teenage Girl Sacrificed by the Mayans | Source

It's also known that the Maya performed human sacrifice (though not as frequently as the Aztec); and that they practised slavery (as much out of a need for sacrificial victims as labourers). The ritual of human sacrifice required that three priests restrain the victim's arms and legs while a fourth - known as the 'nacom' - cut his heart from his chest using a flint knife.

Maya civilization was agriculturally based, and the sacrifices were presumably a means of keeping the gods appeased so as to prevent drought and ensure bountiful harvest (as well as being a demonstration of priestly power). Since earthquakes were frequent in the region, the Mayans would have had good reason to fear the perceived wrath of the gods.

The priests were extremely influential, such that even Maya nobility feared to cross them; and since they were well studied in astronomy, mathematics and the arts of healing, they were sure to be consulted on all matters of import.

Maya Political and Social Structures

Jade Plaque Depicting a Maya King
Jade Plaque Depicting a Maya King | Source
Location of the Maya Civilization
Location of the Maya Civilization | Source

The Maya city-states shared a common language and culture, but they never united to form a single empire. Each state was a separate political entity, with a class of nobles (Maya almehenob) and the priesthood (Maya ahkinob) holding leadership and administrative positions; while a class of commoners (Maya ah chembal uinieol) served as artisans, merchants and farmers. At the very bottom of this social ladder was the slave class (Maya ppencatob).

Slavery was reserved primarily for prisoners of war and criminals, though orphans could also be enslaved if nobody wanted them. The class structure was rigidly enforced, but it was possible to rise through the ranks. Slaves could earn their freedom, and commoners could achieve distinction through military service.

The Halach Winik was the Maya equivalent of a king; his countenance deemed so holy that a cloth had to be held in front of his face so that no one could address him directly. He was assisted by a council of advisers; the most influential among them being the high priest and the supreme military commander - the latter serving a three year term. The Halach Winik in turn appointed governors (Batabs) to administer the various districts of the state in his name.

Maya Ball Court and Temple of the Jaguars
Maya Ball Court and Temple of the Jaguars | Source

Maya law was extremely harsh. Crimes such as adultery, arson and even breaking an entering were punishable by death. However, it was possible to obtain a pardon from the injured parties. For example, adulterers could be pardoned by the wronged husband, and the family of a murder victim could demand restitution instead of the death penalty. Nobles found guilty of crimes not punishable by death received a permanent tattoo on their face marking them as disgraced.

Maya citizens each held two legal names, one passed down by their mother and the other by their father. The former pertained to marriage laws, while the latter was used for matters of property and inheritance.

Legacy of the Maya

The Maya People
The Maya People | Source

The Maya civilization reached its height between the third century and ninth century A.D, and still flourished in certain areas after the “Maya collapse”. But even had they retained their former power, it's unlikely they would have been able to resist the Spanish conquistadors and their cannons.

A population of around 2 million Mayans still inhabit the region. Together with powerful monuments such as Chichén Itzá, they help to preserve the legacy of one of the world's most fascinating ancient cultures.


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