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Ancient Mayan Beliefs and Practices
Posted In: Ancient Civilizations  2/29/12
By: Yona Williams

Every ancient civilization has a set of beliefs and practices that they follow. For the ancient Mayans, they formulated interesting views regarding the afterlife, science and religion. In this article, you will learn more about the beliefs and practices of the ancient Mayans, including their calendars and cycles that they followed.

Views on the Afterlife

The Mayans believed that the afterlife involves a dangerous journey of the soul as it traveled through the underworld. During this voyage, it encountered evil gods. The symbol of night (the jaguar) played an important role in this belief. Most of the Maya, including the rulers, believed they were going to this underworld. They viewed heaven as a place that only those that died in childbirth or who had been sacrificed would go.

The Role of Mayan Rulers

Mayan rulers were viewed as intermediaries between the gods and the people, and possessed a semi-divine status. When they died, they were laid to rest in elaborate tombs that were filled with valuable offerings.

Science, Religion and Mathematics

The Mayans viewed science and religion as the same, and from it, they created an impressive system of mathematics and astronomy that was figured into their religious rituals. Some of their achievements associated with math included the use of zero and positional notation. They excelled in astronomy in their own way – accurately calculating a solar year, predicting solar eclipses, and creating precise tables regarding the positions for the Moon and Venus.

Time was an obsession of the Maya and they were eager to understand and predict various cycles of time, which led to better ways of adapting with the world around them. They wanted to know the best ways to make use of their natural surroundings. According to Mayan cosmology, the world was created five times and destroyed four.

The Mayan Calendar

The Mayans produced a calendar that was rather advanced. It was comprised of a solar year with 365 days. Their version was divided into 18 months with 20 days each – followed by a period of five days that was considered very unlucky. They also followed a 260-day sacred year (called the tzolkin), which was divided into days that were named by the combination of 13 numbers and 20 names. To work with longer periods of time, the Maya created an intricate system of periods and cycles of varying lengths.

Human Sacrifice

After nearly all of the Mayan hieroglyphic writings were deciphered, more information about the ancient people came to light. The previous view that the Mayans were a peaceful civilization was shattered when it was learned that Mayan rulers waged war on rival Mayan cities – taking rulers captive and subjecting them to torture. They also ritually sacrificed other rulers and innocent people to the gods.

Human sacrifice was a central part of Mayan religious practices. The people believed that this act would promote fertility and please the gods – amongst other things. Human blood was seen as a way to provide nourishment to the Mayan gods. The Maya felt that if this ritual was abandoned, they would face chaos and cosmic unrest.


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