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Brief History of the Mayans
Posted In: Ancient Civilizations  2/27/12
By: Yona Williams

When the Mayan civilization in Mesoamerica emerged around 250 AD, it showed the influences of the culture and religion of the Olmecs. The urban culture of the civilization was especially prosperous until around 900 AD until the Spanish conquest of the region. The culture continued to survive in certain places even thought the Spanish had made their mark.

The first 650 years of the Mayan civilization was called the Classic Period by scholars, who saw the Mayan civilization comprised of more than 40 sizeable cities that stretched across modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, and northern Belize. When it was at its best, the total population of the Maya civilization is thought to have reached 2 million with the majority of people calling modern-day Guatemala their home. Most of the Maya lived in rural regions around the larger ceremonial centers – focusing on agriculture.

A dramatic decline hit the Mayan culture sometime after 900 AD and most of the cities were left behind by the people. Many scholars believe that this decline took place due to the loss of trade routes during times of war. The southern cities that were once seen as great became depopulated with the cities of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico continued to thrive during the early part of what was dubbed as the "Post-Classic Period" (900 to 1519). These cities included Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán. By the time the Spanish came to the lands in the early 16th century, the majority of the Maya were farmers that lived in villages.

The Maya that were left became conquered by the Spanish and for the most part, were converted to the Roman Catholic faith. To present-day Mayan descendents became mostly scattered over southern Mexico with smaller numbers residing in Guatemala and Belize. The religion that they practice is a mixture of Roman Catholicism with traditions in Mayan cosmology, ancient deities, and domestic rituals.

Mayan hieroglyphics carved in temples, such as the one found at Palenque, Mexico shed light on the culture and religion of the Maya.

Worship of Gods

At the center of Maya worship was a collection of nature gods. Each of the deities had two sides – one that was considered good-natured and the other had a mean streak. The most significant deity of the Maya was Itzamma, who was looked at as the supreme god (or the creator god), who was also in charge of the fire and hearth. Another important deity was Kukulcan (known as the Feathered Serpent), who appears on many temples. The Toltecs and Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl later adopted Kukulcan as one of their own deities.

The god of rain and lightning with the hooked nose named Chac is another significant deity of the Maya. Mayan art also highlights another god named Bolon Tzacab, whose characteristics include a branching nose and is often seen on the scepters that rulers hold. This deity is often associated with being a god of royal descent.


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