Residents of Merida, Mexico, many of whom trace their ancestry to the ancient Maya, say their forefathers’ religion does not predict an apocalypse this Friday, contrary to Internet rumor. Do people still practice the religion of the ancient Maya?
Sort of. In a modern Mayan religious ceremony, the faithful typically scatter the floor with pine needles and burn incense, filling the air with fragrance. A holy man—known as a “day keeper” for his knowledge of the significance of various days in the 260-day Mayan calendar—recites incantations to the gods of the earth and sky. Lay people do not typically participate in the recitation but stand or kneel around an altar. The faithful place a variety of offerings to the gods on an altar, including chocolate, candles, perfumes, and alcohol. At the end of the ceremony, participants usually pass around a container of corn- or sugar-based liquor.
Whether these rituals are authentically Mayan is debatable. A religious ceremony during the classical Mayan period, ending in the ninth century, would have looked different. During that era, thousands gathered around massive temples and a god-king presided. The offerings would have included chocolate but also the occasional sacrifice of a prisoner. Even more often, a member of the royal circle would have offered a sampling of his or her own blood to appease the gods. Archaeologists have uncovered paintings of women who raked spikes across their tongues and men who pierced the foreskin of their penises as blood offerings.
Although chicken sacrifices still occur, sacrifices of human blood have disappeared from Mayan religious practice—a change that represents more than evolving views on the value of human life. Many scholars believe that the Maya had a somewhat mechanistic view of their relationship with the gods: One could stave off death by offering a worthy substitute, but the gods didn’t care about your sincerity. Modern practice seems more interested in the ardor of prayer and a personal understanding between human and god, a development that may be attributed to the influence of Christianity.
The penetration of Catholicism into Meso-America has had other more noticeable impacts on traditional religious practices. In many modern rituals, the day-keeper will pray to not only the Mayan gods but also Jesus, Mary, and a list of Catholic saints. (Mayan religion has crept into Meso-American Catholicism as well: In some Christian churches, Nativity scenes include two babies, representing the two sons who brought the Mayan maize god back to life.) Christian monotheism may also have led to claims by modern Mayan theologists that their gods are all manifestation of a single deity, even though they have unique personalities and stories that resemble the pantheon of ancient Greece and Rome.
It’s important to note that Christian missionaries aren’t the only forces influencing modern Mayan religion. Scholars from the United States and Europe have descended on Guatemala and Mexico in droves in recent decades. When they decipher Mayan writings or uncover religious artifacts, they typically pass their findings along to locals, who add the lost traditions into their practice. It has become popular to use Mayan relics as altars, and day-keepers sometimes paint Mayan images onto rocks based on illustrations they received from archaeologists. Academics argue over whether the reincorporation of extinct traditions makes for a more authentic practice or interferes with the evolution that all religions experience.
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Explainer thanks Ramsey Tracy of Trinity College; Ted Fischer of Vanderbilt, who blogs at TedFischer.org; David Freidel of Washington University in St. Louis, co-author of Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path; and Stephen Houston of Brown University, co-author of The Classic Maya.