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An Introduction to Mayan Mythology

Belonging to the native Mesoamerican culture, the Maya lived before European explorers and conquerors started to explore the land that stretched across southern Mexico to Central America with a large population throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. In this article, you will learn some of the deities worshipped by the Maya, as well as other religious aspects of their past.

Background on the Mayans

The region that served as home for the Maya civilization became inhabited around the 10th century BCE , placing inhabitants living before the Mayan long-count calendar, which starts at 3114 BCE. The Mayan population enjoyed a boost during the Classic Period (250 to 900 CE), where quick growth contributed to urbanization. At this time, city-states comparable to the ancient Greeks began to organize.

However, towards the end of the Classic period, the Mayan culture faced a decline. Many historians disagree on the reason behind the collapse. After studying ancient pollen, lakebeds, and other details of the past, popular theories include overpopulation, revolt, war, disease and a drought that lasted 200 years. In later years, the cities were able to rebound and rebuild. For those living in the Yucatan Peninsula, they experienced unification in their people for a period of time.

The year 1511 marks the initial contact between the Spanish and the Maya. It would take the Spanish forty years to conquer the Mayan territory , in a similar manner that befell the Aztecs. During this time, Christianity becomes the leading religion in the region, which some choose to mix with some of their traditional Mayan values and beliefs.

When taking a look back at the cultures native to the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, it was the Mayans who succeeded in becoming the only group of people that established a fully developed written language. They were also able to spread their myths and other cultural ways onto other Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Aztecs, through their high level of communication and interaction.

Important Ancient Mayan Text

A great deal can be learned from studying the texts of ancient civilizations and for the Mayans, it is the Popol Vuh that illustrates a variety of myths. Representing the Mayan peoples of the K’iche’ Kingdom of Q’umarkaj (now known as Guatemala), the Popol Vul most importantly highlights the Mayan creation myth. With a small number of accounts that describe the myths that existed before the Spanish conquest, the Popul Vug is considered a significant text.

Dating back to the 18th century, the oldest surviving Popol Vuh manuscript was recorded by a Catholic priest named Francisco Ximénez. Debate surrounds the source of the manuscript with some believing he took down the text from oral dictation, while the majority of scholars feel he copied the text from a 16th-century script penned by a member of the K’iche’. Other tales included in the text involve the stories of Hunahpu and Xbalanqué (a set of heroic twins) and the mythical history of the K’iche’ Kingdom, which link the gods with their former rulers.