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History Client

The Maya and Religion

There are many factors contribute to building and holding together a culture. Some
cultures are formed and shaped by the geography in which they arose. Others might have
a certain situations or strategic locations that caused their formation. Few factors,
however, form and bond a culture or people group the way philosophy and religion do.
Religion allows the people in a culture to feel a sense of unity and identity that
distinguishes that culture from other far and near it. Religion can also influence a
cultures social structure, economics, government, and the individual persons daily life.
The effect and importance of religion is especially seen in ancient civilizations where
religion intimately affected every part of the society. The Maya culture, originating in
various parts of Central America, provides an excellent example of how religion shaped
the development and identity of a culture. Religion permeated Mayan life to the point
where its ideology, intellectual achievements, architecture and art reflected what they
believed. It can even be said that the Mayan civilizations drive to mastery was fueled by
its religion. Without the influence of its religion, would the Mayan civilization have
blossomed and accomplished all it did during the height of its existence? We look
towards historical and archeological evidence to answer this question.
Mayan religion grew out of the milpas agriculture which required accurate
predictions of time and accommodation to the cycles of life in the rain-forest. There is
one overwhelming aspect to Mayan religion: it is based on linking humanity to the cycles
of the universe. The universe functions in a logical, cyclical, and predictable way; human
beings can exploit that cyclical nature by accomodating themselves to these cycles. This

gave birth to the Mayan preoccupation with time. The Maya were consumed with the
notion of time to the point where every stela and alter was erected to mark the passage of
time and was dedicated at the end of a period (Thompson 137). The days of the Maya
were also deified and played a very important part in every Maya from peasant to prince.
The Maya conceived of the divisions of time as burdens carried through all eternity by
relays of divine bearers (Thompson 138). Each division of the Mayan calendar whether
days months or years were carried on the backs of these gods of time. Ultimately these
endeavors led the Maya to evolve a calendrical lore extending back millions of years
(Gallenkamp 71) quite a feat for a civilization of the old world! Because many of the
Mayan deities were shrouded in time, they put aside tremendous effort to its study and
divination. This led the Maya to one of their most outstanding achievements; the Long
Count or Initial Series. According to Charles Gallenkamp;
Generally considered to be the most accurate calendar ever devised in the ancient
world, it was surprisingly complex in structure and consisted of recurring cycles
of nine interrelated periods which made it possible to keep track of enormous time
spans in somewhat the same way as we compute decades, centuries, and
The Maya had other time counts such as the tun, a year of 360 days; the vague year of
365 days; the cycle of nine nights, and the sacred calendar which consisted of 260
In response to their calendrical calculations, the Maya had to develop a system of
mathematics which according to the historian Otto Neugebauer is one of the most
fertile inventions of humanity. Unlike our system adopted from the Hindus which is

decimal and increasing in value from right to left, the Maya was vigesimal and
increased from bottom to top in vertical columns (Coe 156). The Maya creatively
used a system of dots and bars to represent their numbers which allowed them to
apply calculations to their daily lives and astronomical calculations (see appendix).
This discovery was one of fundamental importance not an obvious one as shown by
the failure of many western civilizations to develop it. Even more compelling is the
fact that the elaborate multiplication tables and calculations using the Mayan cipher
and place notation that have survived show evidence of only being used on the
calendar and not on the things of daily life (Thompson). Again the Maya showed that
religious motivation allowed them to achieve astounding intellectual feats.
Despite their accomplishments in other fields, the Maya are most famously known
for their developments in astronomy. They are known as people with priest
astronomers who charted the movements of celestial bodies in ways that astound us
even today. According to Charles Gallenkamp they had meticulously plotted the
movements of the sun, the moon and Venus; there is some evidence they might have
probed Mars, Jupiter and Mercury (75). An even more impressive intellectual
achievement was the construction of tables for predicting when solar eclipses might
be visible in a book known as the Dresden Codex (Coe 161). These are a few of the
impressive achievements of the Mayan culture in astronomy which include the
accurate measurement of the orbital of the moon and other bodies. One must ask, did
Mayans achieve all they did in astronomy out of a quest for knowledge? or where
there other motivations? According to John S. Henderson in the Mayan religion the
important celestial bodies such as the moon, the sun and Venus were all powerful

deities (85). But even if they were powerful deities why would the Maya go through
the trouble of plotting there movement in the sky? In the effect the Mayans were more
interested in Astrology than astronomy. The historian Thompson gives us a clear
example when he stated that the Maya believed that the rising of Venus in the
morning was very dangerous and it was essential to know when it would happen so
the priests could take measures to save those in peril (148). Thompson also elaborates
by stating that he Mayans believed fearsome creatures descended to the earth at
eclipses and knowledge about when these eclipses occurred allowed the priests to
intervene to save mankind (149). Thus the Mayan quest to map the sky was steeped in
their belief in divination and astrology once again showing how their religion led to
their outstanding astronomical knowledge.