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Mayan Symbolism: Rituals and Mayan Religion

This section gives background information on the components, main characters, symbolism and significance of Mayan rituals.

Who participated in the ceremony?

Priests, the chosen (men), and mature or elderly women. Children and young women were not involved. The name of the high priest was Ahua Can (Serpent Lord), or Ah Kin (The Sun). They called to the prophets with the name of Chilamoob; Ah meneoob was the name given to sorcerers, diviners and doctors. The Nacomes were the sacrificers. And the Chacoob were four elderly men that helped during the rites.

Meaning of the Mayan Colors

  • Green: used by royalty. Symbol of power.
  • Blue-green: used by the priests. Related to death. For this reason the sacrificed and the sacrifice stone were painted blue.
  • Red and Black: associated with warriors.
  • Yellow: associated with sorcerers and fortune tellers.
  • White: associated with people from the village.

Color in relation to the cosmic directions

  • Red: East.
  • Black: West.
  • Yellow: South.
  • White: North.
  • Blue-green: center.

Ritual Colors
The participants painted their bodies with colors alluding to the kind of rite

  • Black for fasting.
  • White, yellow or blue for sacrificial acts.
  • Red for war.

Mayan Rites’ Structure

There was an overall structure to perform the rituals which consisted of:

  • Fasting, preliminary abstinence, symbol of purification of the Pixan (soul) and other ascetic rites to come into contact with the sacred: sexual abstinence, insomnia, food deprivation and painting the face in black (with soot).
  • Selection by priestly divination of the right moment for the celebration. The oracle or priest determined the day, the time and members of the celebration.
  • Steam baths or in water currents using fresh spring water, bloodletting, change of attire, public confessions and consecrating objects.
  • Sahumerio (perfuming with incense) of idols: With a special mix of herbs perfuming with incense the idols and participants of the ritual using copal resin, intake of alcoholic beverage(Balché and Chicha), and special food like corn, cacao, turkey or dog meat, among others.
  • Prayers and devotion according to the deity, celebrated with music, dances, songs, processions and dramatic performances.
  • Sacrifice, if possible of a living being, animal or human. This was a ritual in which an offering to the gods is transformed from profane to sacred, to serve as a link between men and the divine. Its purpose is to approach that which is sacred, in order to show gratitude for its benefits and strive to bring them about , to fertilize nature, to atone guilt, to keep off evil, to communicate with the spirits of the dead, to integrate with the divine power through a communion and achieve its transfiguration.
  • Offerings such as objects, food, plants, animals or the person itself. The Maya believed gods were invisible and intangible, they were sustained with subtle materials such as the scent of flowers and incense, the flavors of food and drinks; but mostly with the vital energy contained in the blood of animals and humans, which was released when the heart stopped beating or when burned.

Motives for Mayan Rituals

Rituals were public celebrations in honor of related calendar periods, major gods, fertility, unions, or initiation for religious men. They were also done for private family celebrations, divination, healing and life passages such as: pregnancy, birth, infancy, puberty, marriage and death.

Mayan Myth of Corn and Agriculture

The myths of the creation of cultivated plants gave a sense of cosmic creation to the birth of cereals and turned the origin of agriculture into the inaugural moment of civilized life. Thus, the myths, chants and ceremonies that celebrated the origins of cultivated plants promoted the values of an agricultural society, as well as painting, sculpting, and architecture, pottery, and other arts. Agriculture in consequence, was a synonym of wealth and civilized life; its symbols were the abundance of goods, the majesty of temples, the magnificence of the cities, and the splendor that radiated from the image of the gods.

Characteristics of the Mayan gods

The Mayan gods presented a combination of human, animal and fantastic features. They were respresented in four different ways and with different names, each associated with a specific color and direction. They had a dual aspect, benevolent or malevolent, young or old, depending on the context. They were also associated with time periods, embodied in the ancestors and materialized in many different shapes.

Mayan cosmogonic myths

They narrate the events that have taken place in a fundamental yet timeless period. This is the sacred time, which is qualitatively different from the profane and from the duration of the daily reality of men, which is finite.