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2003 MCPS Social Studies 103

Mikal looked at the sky anxiously. The dark clouds


had been building for hours. The heavy rains of the last
two weeks were certainly the work of the goddess Ix
Chel. Known as Lady Rainbow, she controlled floods
and heavy rains, and sent them to the Maya when she
was angry. Mikal hurried towards the temple grounds
in Tikal where he was an apprentice, or student, to the
priests. There he spent hours every day learning to read
the skies to determine the moods and wishes of the gods,
memorizing all their names and learning the stories about
them. There was so much to learn he often wondered if
he would ever become a priest himself one day!
Mikal worried about his family farming their crops of
squash and maize just a few miles outside of Tikal. Be-
cause there had been so much rain lately, their crops were
being ruined. As Mikal climbed the steep steps of the
main temple pyramid, he whispered a quick prayer to Ix
Chel, asking her to refrain from sending more rain. As
he neared the top of pyramid he looked up at the sky
again and stopped in amazement. In front of him shin-
ing brightly in the now clearing sky was a perfect rain-
bow. Breathing a sigh of relief and thanks, he hurried
on his way, thankful that the gods once again were tak-
ing care of him, his family, and Tikal.
T
H
E

M
A
Y
A

The Maya
LOCATION
Present Day Mexico and Guatemala
MAJ OR RELIGION
Polytheism
250 CE to 900 CE
500 CE 1000 CE 1500 CE 100 CE
OVERVIEW QUESTIONS
How do cultural ideas,
beliefs and traditions of a
society influence their
political, economic, and
social systems?
In what ways is the older
traditional culture still
seen in modern society
today?
T H E M A Y A
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Background
THE MAYA, LOCATED IN CEN-
TRAL AMERICA, were isolated
from the civilizations that had
developed in Africa, Asia and
Europe. The Maya did not know
about them, and they did not
know about the Maya. Isolation,
however, did not keep the Maya
from developing a complex civi-
lization. The Maya lived mostly
in the Yucatan peninsula of
Mexico, a thumb shaped region
jutting out into the Caribbean
Sea. Many small Maya villages
developed throughout this re-
gion. As farming practices im-
proved, the villages could sup-
port larger populations and eventually
have artisans, priests, merchants, and an upper
class that was supported by the work of the farm-
ers. The villages were no longer small commu-
nities, they were large city-states, some, like Tikal
(TEE kul), with nearly 40,000 people.
MAYA CITY STATES HAD A CENtral area with pal-
aces, temples, ball courts, and market areas. Ex-
tending for miles from the developed center were
farms and villages. Some of the most famous of
the Maya city-states were Tikal and Chichen Itza
(CHEE chin EET zah), although there were doz-
ens of others. While the urban center also was
the home of the Maya ruler and
center of government, its most
important role was as the center
of religious worship. Religion
was a part of all aspects of Maya
civilization.
Political System
Advice from the Gods
The Maya did not have a
government that ruled over all of
the city-states. Instead, each city-
state was run by its own ruler
who was both a political and a
religious leader. He ran the gov-
ernment, conducted war raids on
enemies, and most importantly,
performed the necessary rituals to
gain the help of the gods and seek
their advice.
Maya rulers were believed to have a special
connection to the gods so that rituals they per-
formed ensured the continued operation of both
earth and heaven. The gods also spoke to the ruler
through the rituals, giving him advice such as
whether or not to go to war. The advice from the
gods was usually gained through rituals that en-
abled the ruler to have visions. This might be
done by blood letting, having his blood flow onto
bark paper that was then burned to the gods to
reveal their advice, or by taking powerful medi-
cines to produce hallucinations and visions.
STELE FROM THE MAYAN CITY COPAN
Steles were covered in hieroglyphics and
often told of conquests and war raids.
Social System
Life from Death
One of the most important beliefs of the
Maya was that life and death were very
interconnected. They believed in a life after
death in heaven and that death makes possible
life for others. Because of this belief, when a
Maya lord died, he was buried in a huge
pyramid. The pyramid was filled with the
things he would need in the underworld, a place
of testing and trials before being allowed into
heaven. Human sacrifice also became an
extremely important ritual for the Maya
because of this belief in life coming from death.
Special events such as the dedication of a new
temple, or the birth of a new son for the ruler
would be accompanied by human sacrifice.
During times of distress, such as war or
earthquake, human sacrifice became a way to
obtain the favor of the gods. The victims of
human sacrifice were often nobles captured
during war with another city state. The blood
of nobles was considered more acceptable to
the gods than the blood of commoners.
T H E M A Y A
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Economic System
Pleasing the Gods of Nature
Most Maya were farmers. Since different
city states were located in different geographic
areas, farming methods differed as well. In
areas close to the Gulf of Mexico, farmers
created raised beds of soil for their crops to
prevent their fields from flooding. In the
highland areas, farmers built terraces, or
narrow, level fields, cut into the hillsides. The
Maya grew maize, squash, and beans as their
main food supply. They also grew cotton and
wove colorful fabrics with designs still used by
the Maya today. During the height of the Maya
civilization, trade flourished between many of
the city states and even with neighboring
civilizations.
Religion and economics were very con-
nected according to Maya beliefs. Because
farming was so important to the success of each
city-state, many of the gods represented differ-
ent forces of nature, such as lightening, rain,
and wind. Important rituals were conducted to
please these gods who had the power to prosper
their crops, or to destroy them.
THE JAGUAR GOD
A frequent decoration on temples and palaces, the
J aguar was a powerful god of the Maya.
PORTION OF A MAYAN VASE
Art often depicted the history of Mayan rulers and their relationship
to the gods using both pictures and hieroglyphics.
T H E M A Y A
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Contributions/Impact on the World
Astronomical Science and
Architecture
Religious beliefs resulted in much more
than human sacrifice however. It was a strong
religious belief that encouraged astronomical
discoveries, creation of the worlds most
accurate calendar, and impressive architectural
buildings.
Calendar. The Maya calendar was
extremely accurate and actually consisted of
two calendars. Each day included a pairing
from each calendar. Each combinations would
occur once every 52 years! Priests could tell
what kind of day it would be according to
which gods were assigned.
Astronomy. The Maya built observatories
for watching the skies, and their understanding
of the universe was very advanced and
accurate. They were particularly interested in
Venus since it was the brightest object in the
sky after the sun and moon. The Maya had
many religious stories to explain what they saw
in the sky. For instance, the Milky Way was
called the World Tree and was where all life
originated.
Architecture. The Maya constructed huge
temples and palaces of stone. They were
ornately carved and painted with hieroglyphics
and murals. Many of the temples were built so
that they perfectly faced north, south , east and
west.
Hieroglyphics. A complex writing system
used to record important events, describe the
family history of a ruler, and explain religious
myths and beliefs. Unlike Egyptian
hieroglyphics, archeologists havent fully
deciphered their structure or meaning.
The Maya Today
Although the Maya civilization no longer
exists as it once did, many Maya people still
live in small villages mostly in Guatemala and
Mexico. They continue to farm the land,
growing beans, maize and squash. Many Maya
converted to Christianity when they were
conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s. Some
Maya, however, still practice their traditional
religion and have combined some of their
beliefs with Christian beliefs. The Maya are
now a minority population in the lands they
have lived in for centuries. Despite the
challenges they have faced, however, the Maya
have remained a cultural presence in Central
America for over 2000 years.
MAYAN TEMPLE
Religious rituals performed here by rulers were thought to
ensure the continued cycles and order of the universe.