Notes on maya religion, social and economic organization
The social organization of the Maya
Around 800AD, there were over three million Maya . They were short people five feet and
under , robust and strong. They were broad – headed and as soon as a baby was born his head
was flattened still more by squeezing it gently between two boards. The Maya believed that this
gave them a noble appearance and their heads could accommodate loads better. They also
believed that being crossed eyed was a mark of beauty and distinction so at birth the mother
would hang a ball in front of the children so that they would focus on it an develop cross eyes.
Maya clothing kept them very comfortable in the hot tropical climate. Men wore loin cloths
called eesh which were wrapped several times around the waist and passed between the legs.
Over this they wore a mantle without sleeves. Sandals were tied to the feet with two thongs and
were called keul while women wore loose, simplesquare neck dresses down to their ankles
underneath they wore a petticoat. They wore no shoes.
The upper classes and nobility wore finer clothes decorated with embroidery and ornaments.
They wore headdresses of bright coloured feathers. However, only the ruler and outstanding
warriors were allowed to wear head dresses made from the sacred Quetzal bird feathers. They
also wore large amounts of jewellery.
Maya commoner houses were simple with one room no windows nor doors and very little
furniture. Cooking was done outside the house on three stones.
Childbearing started at an early age. A woman was supposed to produce many children. If she
were barren it was considered a disgrace. Girls got married from their early teens and took on
adult responsibilities .She supplied all of her family’s needs eg wove cloth ,prepared meals and
sewed garments. She also worked with other women in sewing the Quetzal feathered head dress
worn by the nobility.
Women were the major care givers for the family. They prepared the food which involved
grinding corn on a grinding stone or metate and making tortillas which were baked on clay
sheets. However they were considered inferior to men and girls were trained from childhood to
accept a subordinate place in Society. Women turned their backs and stepped aside when men
passed them on the street. They also looked down to the ground and never look directly in the
eyes of a man or laugh at him. To do this would be seen as disrespect or serious misconduct and
the woman was severely punished.
Maya mothers would pinch , rub pepper or beat their daughters if they refused to respect men .
No woman could inherit a man’s property., not even his mother. If a man dies, his son or son’s
brothers inherited everything.
They played a a sacred ball game pok-a-tok on huge ball courts constructed at the base of the
pyramids (eg Chichen Itza was 165 metres long and 70 metres wide.)where the object was to get
a solid rubber ball into a hoop 10 metres above the ground using only their hips or elbows. The
losers were sacrificed.
Leisure and recreation
Religious festivals provided great entertainment for the Maya. During each of the 18th
festival was held. There were dancing and feasts. Music was played in groups, percussion
instruments, no string instruments. The main rhythm came from a tunkul or large wooden drum.
Tortoise shells and gourd rattles, conch shells, horns,wood and clay trumpet and pottery drums.
Some dances included 800 performers wearing streamers and decorations.
They played a sacred game called pokatok. That resembled basketball. Huge specially designed
courts were designed for this game. The object of the game was to hit a ball through a stone ring
on the wall. The players could only hit the ball with their hips or elbows.
Maya Gender Roles
Women prepared meals, took care of the home and children and provide agricultural labour,
planting, weeding and reaping crops.
They made cotton garments and feathered headdress for the nobility
Men built the pyramids, roads ,canoes were warriors and traders. The rulers and nobility and
priests were all men.
Men were superior to women in all areas of life while women accepted being subordinate and
catered to the needs of the men.
The political organization / government of the Maya
The Maya society and government were made up of many classes of persons. There was no
central government that ruled the entire empire from a capital city but they lived in
independent city states which were governed by individual lords and noblemen.
The society of these independent states was strictly divided into rigid classes, each of which
had its own rights and duties, even from birth m state was ruled by a Halach Uinic which
means real man. This position was hereditary and descended from father to son. However,
if the sons of the dead ruler were not fit to rule one of his brothers became head of state.
The HALACH UINIC was a military and religious leader who studied the stars and told
farmers when to plant and reap the crops and in turn the farmers had to supply the priest
with every thing they need so as to keep favour with the Gods.. He had full power over all
councils and officials of his city states. These men dressed in expensive robes covered with
feathers and ornaments. Men and women wore cotton clothes dyed in many colours and
cloaks of feathers set with jade and other semi precious stones. These important men were
carried on litters and servants ad slaves cooled them down with fans and attended to all
After the ruler and nobles, came the Batabs who supervised smaller districts in the city
states. Each Batab had a staff of officials to help him in his tasks. They ensured that
everyone gave their portion of crops as taxes. They organized the division of land and work
and kept records of the citizens of the land.
There was also a special group of merchants called the ppolms who played an important
role in Mayan foreign affairs. Their duties included spying on other territories and report
suspicious military activities of threats to the ruler, they also traded a significant number of
goods. They carried on trade by sea and land. They lived according to their own laws, they
did not pay taxes or give personal service in agricultural labour as commoners did. They
worshipped their own God.
There was a war chief or Nacom who trained the villagers in the art of warfare and
organized battles. Their min weapons were spears and clubs edged with obsidian stone,
slings and a special spear called a atlatl as well as feathered shields.
After the rulers and nobles came the officers who organised the running of the city states.
These men ensured that that everyone gave their portion of crops as taxes organized the
division of labour and work and kept records of the citizens of the land. All these priests
and officials were of the upper class and were not taxed.
At the bottom of society were the Mayan villagers or commoners who were well dressed
and wore bone and semi precious stones, jade and topaz ornaments and tattooed their
bodies. However, they were not as extravagant as as the nobility.
Religion played a major role in the life of the Maya. They worshipped a number of Gods,
some from the underworld, some that walked the earth, and others who ruled the sky and
heavens. Religion influenced their entire lives. Like the other indigenous peoples they were
polytheistic as they worshipped over 166 Gods. They believed that all of life was a struggle
between good and evil. And there were good and evil Gods. The good Gods lived in 13
heavens and the evil ones in 9 hells. Some walked the earth and some were in the
underworld. The Bee keeper, corn-grower, comedian, merchant, fisherman and warrior
all had their own Gods. Statues were carved of most Gods and sacrifices of all sorts were
done and placed at special temples and given to priests who guarded the shrines. All Gods
had to be treated with respect because they ruled all forces and gifts of nature.
The priests knew when to observe special rituals and how these should be carried out.
Sacrifices of crops, animals and humans were carefully regulated by the priests. The Gods
had to be nourished so that they could fight off the evils of drought, diseases, or pests.
Blood was the most valuable sacrifice of all and particularly the offering of a throbbing
heart. There were many forms of human sacrifice but the tearing out of the heart was the
most important. The victim was placed on a sacred stone on his back in the temple and the
nacom or priest slashed open his chest and ripped his heart out and put it on a special stone
container on the image of the God that they wanted to satisfy. Blood was also drawn from
various parts of the body and smeared over the idols . Often worshippers would draw
blood from various parts of their own bodies.
Another form of sacrifice was made at the water wells where the victim was brought with
a great ceremony to the end of a cenote and thrown in after being weighed down with
ornaments and stones. This form of sacrifice only occurred during unusual times of
drought, epidemic or invasion. v
Many of the Maya great buildings were devoted to these religious activities and as a result
Maya cities were called “Temple States” or “Temple Cities”, since many of their buildings
were temples on top of high flat topped pyramids.
These pyramids were made with a core of dirt and rubble covered with cut limestone and
then cemented together with mortar made by burning limestone rock. Narrow steps led up
the sides to a dark windowless temple. The entrance to the temple was through a corbelled
arch. Only the priests who performed the ceremonies could enter the temple. The
worshippers remained outside in the plazas or courtyards surrounding the sacred
pyramids. From here they watched the ceremonies and took part in singing and dancing.
These gigantic stone pyramids were made with simple tools like stone chisels and stone
hammers since metal tools were unknown to the Maya at this time. It is estimated that it
would have taken over 25000 hours of hard labour to quarry enough stone to build ONE
of these pyramids.
Activity: Get a picture of a Mayan pyramid and use the notes to label it.
The economic organization of the Mayas
The economy was based on agriculture, craft and trading
The Maya created an effective agricultural economy that produced a massive surplus of
food for the population. There was also a complex network of trading and marketing that
assisted with the distribution of this food across this vast area. Agriculture was
communally done. Mayan farmer did not not own land separately but worked their fields
as one community.
Like the Tainos they practiced conuco farming, however this was organized intensive form
of agriculture where many crops were planted along with the rearing of domesticated
animals which made them self sufficient in agriculture.
The slash and burn method or Swidden system used where a patch of forest was cut and
cleared with stone axes and cultivated for 2-3 years before moving on to a new plot. The
farmers sed a digging stick or COA to break the ground to plant crops.
However, other advanced agricultural methods were used such as agricultural terracing
and raised fields cultivation especially in the Copa Valley where evidence was found of the
use of dry stone terrace walls and water controlled systems. Sophisticated drainage
systems, to remove excess rainfall and irrigation ditches and reservoirs were built to
control and carry water to the fields. They feared drought so much that they worshipped a
rain God Chac and held extravagant festivals to honour him. Fertilizers of ash and animal
droppings were also used.
Corn or maize was the main crop grown and was an important part of their Religion, art
and everyday life. It was such a sacred crop that prayers were offered to a young beautiful
corn God called Yum Kaax.
The whole family took part in weeding the fields and chasing away birds. When the corn
was harvested the farmers had to give a portion to the priests and noblemen as a form of
tax. The crop was stored in large underground storerooms or granaries called chultunes.
beans, squash, chili peppers ,sweet cassava and potatoes were grown in the corn fields
while paw paws, and avocado pears were grown around their houses. Cotton was grown in
large quantities and was woven into material. . Unlike the subsistent form of agriculture of
the Tainos they kept a surplus of their crops for times of drought.
The Maya used astronomical and calendrical calculations in their agriculture. They
observed the heavens and made predictions of the seasons that were best for planting
Crafts and trading
The Maya had huge city markets where trading in foodstuff, forest and sea products, jade
volcanic glass quetzal feathers, salt and finely decorated cotton, clothing, animals,
household implements, tools, feather costumes, basketry, rope making, axes, clay pots,
bowls and paintings were traded. Trading was carried on by merchants called ppolms.
These pploms acted as spies for the Halac Unic as the travelled and traded between city
states. Farmers as well as craftsmen also participated in trading. They di not have horses
or carriages so most of the goods were carried on their backs or on the river in dug out
canoes. They used no money. Cocoa beans were used as a form of exchange.
Cotton cloth was one of the most important item of trade. Women wove and dyed the
slender fibres on handlooms. Mineral and vegetable colours were used to make dyes.
The Maya women also developed the Art of making beautiful feather costumes for soldiers
and the nobility. Feathers were brought from birds ffrom all over the Yucatan. The most
highly treasured feathers were those from the sacred Quetzal bird. Which lived high in the
mountains. The quetzal had two bright green tail feathers which were of high value and
worn by the highest nobility of the land. The feathers were wove into patterns with
colourful plumes by twisting the feathers into cotton threads as they worked on their
looms. Feathers were attached to weapons and shields. Bright feather coats and costumes
were worn by the priests.
Basketry and rope making were also important to the Maya. Rope was used in the building
industry as men wrapped it around their waist an shoulders to pull huge rocks and mortar
A variety of baskets were made and traded.
Pottery was well developed, as numerous decorated pottery items were made and traded.
Their pottery was at an advanced level as decorated clay dishes with four legs, decorated
bowls and jars were produced on a large scale.
They also made models or figures of Mayan people from all strata of the Mayan society.
They painted pictures on the pots which depicted the lifestyle, myths and legends of the
The Maya artists also painted huge colourful frescoes on wet plaster. These also depicted
events of their everyday life.
All of the crops grown and crafts produced were traded between Mayan cities and other
people of the surrounding areas of the Caribbean. There were huge market places in the
Temple cities where people came together to trade. These cities were also religious centres
of the area and were the residence of the lords and noblemen of the state. Maya came from
all the surrounding farmland to take part in religious festivals and to trade . They were
well built roads to connect the states and cities.
The Maya had a very high and sophisticated level of technology, some believe even more
advanced than Europe at that time. In addition to their Art and Craft c
Craft culture, they constructed huge pyramids, ball courts ,large temples, built roads and
created a calendar of 365 days . and a sophisticated form of writing, and Mathematics. and
large temple cities.
The Maya built two types of pyramids; one that was mean to be climbed and those that
were not. Those to be climbed were used for sacrificial rituals while the other type was
sacred and could not be touched.
The steps on these pyramids were very steep and difficult to climb. And in some cases there
were doorways leading to nowhere.
During the rituals the priests would ascend the pyramid from the earth to the sky by
staircases. They believed that this brought them closer to the Gods. The stair cases led from
the ground level to the temple. The number of staircases of each temple varied but there
were usually two or four. There was a platform connecting the steps somewhere near the
middle of the pyramid so that the priest king could stop and do a part of his ritual before
continuing to the top. There were also burial chambers for high ranking officials.
Pyramids were built so high that their tops should be seen protruding out of the jungle and
as a result they were used for landmarks. The Mayans also believed that their towering
heights was a reminder that the Gods were ever present.
Pyramids were constructed with very simple tools. The soft limestone was quarries from an
area surrounding the city. The Maya chiseled away the stone around the block that they
wanted and then undercut it. The stones were then refined by chipping and flaking it to a
flat surface. wooden wedges which were driven into the cracks of the limestone and then
wetted. As the rock swelled the crack widened. Then the split stone was labouriously cut
out with stone hammers and chisels.
Mortar was also made and used in building pyramids. First limestone was burned in
avery technical and controlled process where they layered the limestone with wood and put
a cylinder or pipe up the middle of the stack and then burn the pile to make
mortar. The stones and mortar were placed in position by rope and manual labour. These
majestic structures were 79-feet eg Chichen Itza
to 200 feet high. With 365 steps with a ball
court at the base. Some pyramids had a circular building
at the top which was used as an observatory.
Mortar was very important material in Maya construction. Since the outside of the
buildings was more important than the inside, mortar was used to decorate the temple
roofs, finish the outside of the buildings, coat floors and make sculptures.
They built round observatories from which their priests observe the movement of the stars
and planets. Here they developed the calendars.
They built great concrete/mortar roadways called sacbeobs to encourage trade
between their various cities.
Astronomy was very important to them since it reflected order and God’s place in it. The
sky was used to measure passage of time. They believed that celestial events were indicative
of the communication with Gods so the movement of constellations and other stars across
the sky represented a connection between celestial events and human affairs.
Astronomy affected agriculture and the appearance of certain constellations or planets in
the sky herald the planting season. The sun , moon and venus were their important celestial
objects. They felt that the more they understood the sky that that they could predict time of
drought and they would not starve.
Maya priest or wise men studied the heavens and had much power since they predict the
future. They began their day at sunrise and recorded cosmology in codices, most of which
have been destroyed or never found.The Maya aligned their pyramids to various celestial
bodies. They regarded the sun as the prime life giver and accurately calculated when the
sun would rise and set and the calendar year. The God of the sun was Tonatiuth. They also
made accurate calculations of the lunar month (moon).
The Calendar and writing
The Maya believed in the order of time which regulated the lives of all Maya, so that there
was a time of the year for everything and dates had to be recorded to keep track of each
event. To do this the Maya created a complex calendar of three circles which kept track of
days , months and years. The haab year was made up of eighteen months or periods.. Each
month was 20 days long . This added up to 360 days, so there were five additional days
added to each year which were known as vayeb or the unlucky days. This made up a year of
365 days. There was also a sacred calendar day of 260 days. The third calendar recorded
the number of days since the beginning of the Mayan era which was about 3111 BC.
The priests used the calendar to record past eclipses of the moon and worked out when it
would happen again. They also note anniversaries and record the dates of hurricanes,
floods and other disasters since they believed that when certain dated came back around
that disasters would repeat themselves. Note carefully that the priests were among the few
persons who could explain times of the calendar to the farmers, fishermen, hunters and
builders and because of this added to the power and control over the people. Moreover,
The priests or ahkin were taught the sons of noblemen how to write and reckon the months
and the years.
The Maya developed an advanced form of writing using symbols called glyphs. Glyphs can
be recognized in in Mayan carvings, records and paintings but no one today can
understand what they mean. Symbols have been translated for Mayan months and the
names of cities but to date no one has been able to read a full sentence of Maya glyph
writing. Besides carving the glyphs on buildings, utensils and large stone monuments called
stelae they wrote on paper. They also made books of paper from the fig tree bark. Books
containing astronomical tables, information about religious ceremonies and calendars from
1100 to 1500 have been discovered.
Maya number system has been easily interpreted. The bar or ___ had a value of five and
the dot . These symbols were put together until the number twenty was reached. Twenty
was then represented by a shell with a dot over it. The shell by itself represented zero. To
consier and represent the zero at this time has been considered to be a great invention at
the time. They used 20 instead of 10 as in the decimal system. The maya used this system to
count everything, this was quite an achievement at that time.
1 Using the given number system write the numbers in Maya from 1 to 20
ds and created a calendar of 365 days . and a sophisticated form of writing, and
Mathematics. and large temple cities.
Taino and Kalinago leisure , recreation and Traditions
The Tainos lived very happy lives before the coming of the Spaniards. Life was easy and
their diet was sufficient and there was very little crime in their communities. They used
their leisure time for singing and dancing called arietos.