Cosmology and Religion

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The Maya perceived their universe as being quadripartite, with a four-sided earth that, like a crocodile or turtle, floated in the primordial sea.

Each cardinal direction was associated with a colour: north was white, south yellow, east red and west black. Vertically their universe had three levels.  Above were the heavens, home of various gods and sky deities.  In the middle was earth with four bacabs at its corners and the sacred Ceiba (Yaxche) tree of life at its center.  Below was the watery underworld.  Known as Xibalba or Metnal, the underworld was home of the rain god Chac, and also a place filled with evil gods, diseases, and the spirits of dead ancestors.  The sacred Ceiba transcended all levels because its branches held up the heavens, its stem was planted on earth and its roots descended into the underworld.

They believed that the world had been created and destroyed several times.  Humans too had been created thrice.  In the first creation they were made from clay, in the second from sticks and in the third from corn.  The last creation dated to 3114 B.C. and was expected to end in the year 2012.

Maya religion was animatistic.  In other words, objects that we consider to be inanimate, to them had spirit.  They believed in a pantheon (numerous) of gods that were dualistic in nature.  For example, a benevolent Chac (rain god) brought rain to nourish crops; a malevolent Chac brought hurricanes, hailstorms and floods.  Their supreme deity was known as Hunab Ku and because he was incorporeal, they never produced effigies or other graphic representations of him.  Most of their other important gods were associated with agricultural fertility.  The four Chacs controlled the corners of the world and resided deep within the underworld.  In times of drought important rituals that included offerings of agricultural products, plants, and the sacrifice of men, women and particularly children were made to the rain god deep within caves.  Kinich Ahau was the sun god who rose in the east and withdrew into the underworld every evening.  Itzam Na, one of the most important deities, was the provider of all things to the Maya people.  Ixchel was the goddess of healing and Yum Cimil or Kisin was god of death and ruler of the underworld.

Maya life was closely guided by the many gods in their pantheon.  Every ceremony had its prescribed ritual which generally included the burning of copal incense, votive offerings and, every so often, autosacrifices, human sacrifices, or ritual bloodletting.  One of their most important ceremonies was the ritual ballgame.  The number of players was generally influenced by the size of the court.  The game was played with a hard rubber ball that was directed from one side of the court to the other by use of one’s legs, hips and shoulder.  The bouncing ball was synonymous with the movements of the sun from its birth in the east to its death in the west.  Games that followed the capture of important elite warriors traditionally ended with the symbolic defeat of the enemy and the sacrifice of the captured noble.  Another important ceremony was the Cha Chac ritual.  This event was predominantly celebrated at the start of the agricultural cycle and its main purpose was to petition the rain gods to bring needed rain at the end of the dry season.  For this ceremony people would gather around a wooden altar placed near the entrance of caves or cenotes.  Offerings of atole (corn porridge), beans, tamales, tobacco and other goods were then presented to the Chac by one or more priests and their assistants.


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