Maya: The Beliefs of the Land of Yellow and Corn

I believe it is to everyone’s knowledge that according to the Maya calendar the world should end this year in December. Many have the fear this might be true, others use and abuse the subject to make money out of it. Others think it is just non-sense or even a conspiracy created by, you know, “Them”, to makes us all panic and so, control us at their will. So I decided that while everyone else seems to end this year with the fear towards this amazing civilization, I would start 2012 with a tribute to them, and their interesting believes. However, before I start I would like to inform these people led by paranoia and terror about a couple of things about the Mayan calendar.

First of all, you should know that their calendar had two different circles that combined formed their astronomical way of “counting days”. This cycle was called Tzolkin, it contained numbers and names that formed a ritual cycle of 260 days, and something called haab that was the everyday use cycle of 365 days. These two elements formed their almanac. Also, the first one was mainly used to determine the life of an individual within the community. The two cycles formed together a longer one of 18980 days (52 haabs of 365/73 tzolkin of 260). To even make the situation more complicated, they also brung to consideration the lunar cycle. In addition, some experts have also explain that the Maya might have worked as well the cycles of some start, especially Venus, that would have affected all this astronomical year-like-system. The importance of Venus is remarkable as it was associated with war, and war was one fo their engines of gaining power, land and resources. So…If someone knowing this has the courage to do the calculations of these 4 cycles and even so conclude 2012 is the year the world ends…Well, I will grant this person an applause, and then get impressed by the surrealism of how 4 different calendars combined together, at the end of all of their cycles doom us all…Anyway, that was just a note, and I shall get now to my actual business.

The case with sources about the Maya civilization is the same that in many other European ones: original documents got lost, but there was a later re-write of those. Our example here would be the Popol Vuh, which was written around 1550 but refers to ancient tradition creation myths, deities and believes. According to these myths there were several attempts to create mankind according to the Maya. First the gods made people out of mud, but they collapsed easily. Then they made people out of wood, but as these had no souls, they were not people per se, and so they got left out to be animals. Finally, the gods made people out of corn and corn meal, and as these pleased them, the corn people became the ancestors of the Maya. (Interesting note in here, corn was one of the most basic resources for food in the lands of the Maya, hence the importance of this plant as a vital element). Also, we know they believe in an Earth creation myth that consisted on the gods yelling the word Earth, and this one would have materialised out of darkness and water.

The Maya cosmology counted with a world tree. Pretty much in the same way the Vikings had Yggdrasil, they counted with Ceiba, which was the centre of the world and connected it with the 13 layers of heaven and 9 areas of the underworld. For them , the world was in the centre of the universe and it was blue and green. Then the universe expanded following the directions of a compass. Each direction had a symbolic colour; north=white, east=red, south=yellow, west=black. About the two mystical spheres of their universe, we know that the heavens were the home for the gods, supervising Earth from above. Down in the underworld 12 demons known as the lords of Xibalba controlled the fate of the dead people. It was believed that with death, one would go to the underworld and suffer though six magical houses full of traps at least for a while before getting into heaven. Nonetheless, some people had direct access to the land of the gods: people who committed suicide, victims of sacrifices and women who died in childbirth.(This is very interesting as many other believes did not reserve any sort of salvation for these deviants…Perhaps the influence of Christianity in the East produces such an effect…Or maybe the Maya had a different consideration and understanding of these members of society)

About the deities of the Maya, there are many parallelisms that can be found. There were three main ones, and they were related with the natural elements of earth, water and air. These were Chaac, Huracán and Itzamná. The were all configured pretty much in the old fashion of powerful, superior and to an extent frightening beings. Chaac was in charge of agriculture, rain and fertility. Huracán was conceived as the god of wind, fire and lightning. His role was so important for them that it is because of him that we have words like hurricane, or huracán in Spanish, which are directly associated with his role of storm creator. Itzamná was the god that lived up on the skies, and he was considered to be the deity for priests and medicines. He also gave the Maya the cacao trees that became a key element for their diet, trade and medicine.

So, as it usually happens with these cultures, one can easily see that their believes were closely related to their lifestyle; one mainly based on agriculture. Even their very elaborated calendar seems to fit well with the rhythm and needs of the society. It is interesting to notice that there are many similarities between the Mayas and other cultures from overseas in what concerns religion. Perhaps this justifies the idea that a religious believe is developed to fulfil a specific function in society which is always the same; to provide shelter, explanations and salvation. Perhaps it might be all a massive coincidence that all these cultures thought in similar trends because of almighty gods that wanted so. Either way, I suggest we move our focus to the understanding of this civilizations rather than to the somehow ridiculous superstitions that emanate from them.

I hope I manage to make some of you interesting in a wonderful civilization that is the Maya, and not in the supposed end of the world this year. And for those that are still going on about the same topic…Perhaps you should consider that to understand the end of something, whatever it is, you need first to know the origins of such a thing. Either way introducing yourselves to a bit of Mayan knowledge will do you no harm.

And there goes my tribute not to end, but origin, believes, and therefore hope..

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