Culture, beliefs, and society: A look into the pre-Hispanic ideology of the Maya         

The Maya people were one of the most important pre-Hispanic civilizations in ancient Mexico. Furthermore, despite the passage of time, social changes and the evolution of generations, the Maya culture continues to permeate our present. There is evidence of this in their crafts, music, dances and even their language. However, there is something that perhaps escapes the naked eye but that remains with us: their very special way of looking at life. 

traditional embroidery

Every ideology, be it ancient or contemporary, has a certain level of complexity. To understand it better and in detail, it is important to take a look at what builds it from inside. Time has come to pay attention to the things that are an essential part of this pre-Hispanic civilization and the footprint they leave around us. For that, we must delve into the Maya culture to truly understand it.  

What we talk about when we talk about Maya culture 

In the strict sense, we refer to the civilization that spread throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, part of Tabasco and Chiapas, as well as Guatemala, Belize and even Honduras between the 3rd and 15th centuries. They soon became the residents of the rainforests of Mesoamerica and established themselves as one of the most amazing cultures in human history. Their knowledge covered different fields of which they were great exponents. Among them we can find examples of hieroglyphic writing, architecture, art, mathematics, astronomy and even the measurement of time. Let’s go step by step. 

authentic maya representation of warrior

Architecture  

The ancient Maya were organized within independent city-states where their center was made up of a religious capital, while the rural area was located in the surroundings. Inside, surprising buildings such as rectangular palaces, temples, ball games, fortifications and steam baths (temazcales) could be found.  

Although their architectural style varied depending on the area and the influence they were attached to, it is common to find traces that continue to impact us today. Its stepped stone pyramids with temples at the top are reason enough to leave us speechless, even in spite of having not seen them in their glory days.  

Some of the most important elements are those that leave us more information to understand their ways of life. That is why, over the years, researchers and historians have focused on their decorative paintings and the texts inscribed on their stelae. To date, many of them remain undeciphered, but that is something that only adds to the mysticism of this ancient culture.    

Read: All the archaeological sites you can visit in Cancun and Riviera Maya

kukulkan pyramid in chichen itza

Writing and scriptures 

As I began to mention earlier, the ancient Maya inscriptions are an essential part for a better understanding of its history. In addition, it leaves much to talk about, as it is considered one of the most complex writing systems of indigenous people of the pre-Hispanic era in Mexico.  

Among their most important writings are texts on medicine, botany, history, mathematics and astronomy collected in codices. Not only can we find value for them nowadays, but also during the time they were written, where they played a role of great importance. It was their way of sharing information, as well as preserving it for posterity. The most famous of the Maya culture include: 

  • Dresden Codex (divination and astronomy)  
  • Paris Codex (prophecies and divinations)  
  • Madrid Codex (horoscopes and almanacs)  
  • Grolier Codex (full calendar)    

Among one of their best-known legacies is its calendar. To date, it is considered one of the most accurate, according to what we currently use. It contained 365 days per year, with 18 months of 20 days each. In addition, it was the way to plan the day to day within their society. 

maya codez illustration

Social organization 

Although issues such as belonging to a certain lineage dictated many of their interpersonal relationships, ways of dressing and professions to choose from, there were very clear roles within the ancient Maya society.  

The social elite was made up of priests and nobles who resided in religious centers, while the rest of the peasants lived in rural areas. Their communities were made up of king-gods, priests, merchants, artisans, and peasants or farmers. Each one had an important role and had a reason for existing. However, there was always a greater force that governed them and explained things.  

yucatecan lady in tradition clothes

The Maya cosmogony 

The understanding of the daily life of the Maya people went beyond the earthly world. They thought that before our world, others had existed in the past. They thought that our universe was made up of three parts: heaven, earth, and the underworld; and that these were divided into layers. 

Everything had a reason for being, even if it was explained by some mystical factor. For this reason, they worshiped gods who, according to their cosmogony, acted on everyday things such as corn, honey, markets, as well as natural issues such as rain and drought. This is why they celebrated rituals and ceremonies motivated by these ideologies. 

However, for them, living in community was an essential factor for their functioning, but without neglecting their individual essence. That is why they gave so much importance to the concept of duality, that combined unity with collectivity, governing their thinking and behavior.  

maya warrior craft

Mayan culture phrases 

The way we communicate says a lot about who we are as people and where we belong. For this reason, there are famous phrases we quote from politicians, artists, writers, researchers and more, which allow us to take a look at past ideologies. In this way we find out what has changed in our way of life and what remains. Maya culture is no exception. Here are some phrases that help us to better understand their way to look at life: 

Don’t touch the animal you don’t know

Ba’alche’ ma’ a k’ajóole’e, ma’ a náajk’abtik  

Don’t touch the animal you don’t know 

The flower only blooms once

Juntéenili’ u xíitil nikte’e  

The flower only blooms once 

The heart doesn’t grow old, it’s the body that wrinkles

Puksi’ik’ale ma’ tu ch’íijil, leti’ le k’éewel ku yóots’olo’  

The heart doesn’t grow old, it’s the body that wrinkles 

To the fearful, even his shadow seems scary

 Sajlu’ume’ chéen u yoochel ja’asik yóol  

To the fearful, even his shadow seems scary 

When human values are respected, the cultural heritage never dies

Le k’iin ku chíinpolta’al bix u kuxtal wíinike’, mix bik’iin u kíimil miatsil p’aata’anto’on  

When human values are respected, the cultural heritage never dies 

Care for the path you take… because no matter where you go, you leave a mark

Ka náant a beel… tumen je’etu’uxak ka máanakeche’ táan a bin a p’atik a pe’echak’  

Care for the path you take… because no matter where you go, you leave a mark 

I am another you, as you are another me

In lak’ech, hala ken  

I am another you, as you are another me 

Listen to the wisdom of the elderly

U’uy u tsol-xikin a nuukilo’ob  

Listen to the wisdom of the elderly 

In yaakumech  

I love you 

There is no doubt that the legacy of the Maya culture transcends beyond the tangible. Although we can translate it into actions, we must understand that it is a different way of seeing life to appreciate what surrounds us. It’s for us to think about what our essence means for those around us, as well as theirs on us and, above all, the footprint that we leave in this world before moving on to others. It never hurts to reflect a little about it.    

What part of the Maya history interested you the most for an upcoming blog? Leave us your comment! 

MAYA CULTURE - A GOOD WAY TO LOOK AT LIFE BLOG