Mayan Religion and Beliefs

by Maria DiCesare

The Maya culture extended through very diverse terrain from Mexico to Honduras, in what is known as Mesoamerica. The foundation of their culture was their strong religious beliefs, which influenced everything in their daily lives, and was a complex belief system. While they practiced prayer, worship and polytheism like many other civilizations, human sacrifice and an obsession with time set them apart. Time, astronomy, cosmology and nature were the building blocks of the Mayan belief system.


The Mayans were very obsessed with time, and it heavily influenced their religion. The act of keeping a calendar was a form of divination for them. Their obsession with time came from their need to be able to predict the cycles of the universe. By doing this they could predict the best growing seasons for their milpas agriculture, which produced very important crops like maize, beans and squash that could help their society prosper. Their success with this allowed them to please their gods and fulfill them spiritually.

Portrayal of a Mayan calendar
In order to have a correct estimate of time, the Mayans developed a system of calendars which also acted as almanacs. The most important calendar was the tzolkin, which contained 20 day signs in a combination with the numbers 1 to 13, which made a 260 day cycle. The 13 numbers symbolize the number of days it takes the moon to transform from new to full. The 260 day cycle is also associated with a woman’s birth period, which is a full tzolkin. (1)

There was also a solar year calendar consisting of 365 days, known as the haab. It consisted of 18 months with 20 days in each. The last 5 days of this calendar were called the wayeb and they were considered very unlucky. They believed that the gates to the underworld opened up during these five days, and anyone could be sucked in. To prevent that from happening, the Mayans would not leave their houses. (1)

The cycle of these calendars repeats itself every 52 haab years, which is known as the calendar round. The end of a calendar round was a period of bad luck for the Mayan because they were waiting to see if the gods would grant them another 52 years. (6)


The sun was very important to the Mayans. They designed and positioned their architecture to best reflect the suns rays on Mesoamerica. Most Mayan cities were built below the summer solstice point, which was a latitude line of 23 and 1/3 north. They built their cities below the line so that twice a year on solstice days they could observe the sun perfectly. By noon during the day, the sun did not cast a shadow. This helped the Mayans to develop their calendar. The Mayans also believed that the universe was divided into thirteen layers, and each layer had its own god. They studied the sky very intensely, and could predict future eclipses as well as other astronomical events. (7)
Mayan Ball Court

The Mayans also participated in ball games that are believed to be religiously and astronomically affiliated. The games were conducted in ancient ball courts and it is believed that the ball represented the sun, and the act of the game symbolized its orbit around the earth. The goal of the game was to not let it touch your hands and to pass it through rings in the middle of the court. The winners of the game became instant heroes, and the losers faced a harsh punishment and often faced human sacrificing. High nobility and priests attended the games and other religious events occurred there as well. The games attracted many people and there are still courts throughout Mesoamerica today. (7)

Gods and the Popul Vuh

The Maya had many sacred texts, and perhaps the most famous of these is the Popol Vuh. It was written in Quiché, which was a highland Maya language but was later translated into Spanish, and now there are many English versions. The text explains the creation of man, a list of kings, the acts of the gods and a history about the Quiché people. The text is regarded as containing important religious rituals and knowledge but it isn’t considered the direct word from God, like the Bible is. There were four different creation attempts in the Popul Vuh. The first was that the people were created from animals, the second was creation from wet clay, then wood and finally a creation out of maize. Maize was a Mesoamerican staple crop and a symbol of their civilization. (2)

The Maya were polytheistic, meaning they worshiped multiple gods. There were at least nineteen major deities that they worshiped, as well as many animal spirits. Nature was a very important aspect of Mayan life and their gods reflected this. The acts of nature helped for their civilization to thrive, so it was obvious that their gods would reflect this. Each god had a benevolent side and a malevolent side. (3)

Kukulcán, the feathered serpent god
of the main gods were:
Statues of rain and fertility gods on a Mayan temple

Chaac the rain god, the god of lighting
Itzamná the creator god, the god of fire and hearth
Bolon Tzacab the god of royal descent

Kukulcán the feathered serpent god
Ah Puch the god of death
Ixtab the suicide goddess (3)

Many temples and pyramids throughout Mesoamerica were built for the gods. El Castillo in Chichen- Itza was built for Kukulcán, and it is perfectly aligned so that during the spring and autumn equinox, the shadow of a serpent appears, in honor of the god. The architecture of the Mayans was built in association to the stars and the planets. Astronomy played a large role in the construction because it allowed for the sun to become part of the architecture by casting shadows and bringing sunlight at specific times of the year. This also helped play a part in the development of the calendars. (3)

For more on religious architecture, see Maya Architecture.


Mayan priests were extremely important in their culture and they had many duties. They acted as mediums between common people and their rulers, as well as between gods and elites. This means that any offerings made to the gods had to go through a priest. They were also expected to be well educated in astrology and astronomy, and it was their job to predict unlucky days. By predicting these days, they could better advise rulers when to prepare for war or to harvest crops. Priests also performed many rituals, assisted in births, and led human sacrifices. Their main goal was to do anything to please their gods. Priests ultimately decided when people could get married, who could participate in sacrifices and when the proper planting time was. (3)

Priests were considered an elite class and they lived in very elaborate palaces. They were the only ones who were allowed in temples. Like many cultures, priests in the Maya area led strict lives that included fasting and sometimes even self-sacrifice. (3)


The Mayans practiced human sacrifices as a way to restore cosmic energy and renew the energy of life on the earth. They believed that their gods had given their lives and their blood in order to keep human life going and for the cycles of the earth to continue. No one was spared because men, women and children were used for sacrifices, but frequently virgins were used. Human sacrificing was considered the core of the Mayan religion. (8)

Bloodletting was a major part of human sacrifice. It was performed by the elite class and was a way to keep cultural and political order in Mayan society. They would pierce a soft body part, such as a penis, earlobe or a tongue, and collect the blood on to paper, which was then burned. By burning the paper with the blood on it, they Mayans believed that it was transformed in the smoke and then offered to the gods. Usually the part of the body that was cut symbolized what god they were making an offering to. So by cutting a genital region, they were making an offering for fertility or for r
Sacrificial removing of a heart
ebirth. (8)

Aside from bloodletting, decapitation, removal of the heart, and stabbing by bows and arrows were methods of human sacrifices. Many drawings on caves and stelas depict sacrifice rituals, including one where a man is bound to a stake and disemboweled. There have also been skulls of men, women and children found at the bottom of wells and they all appear to be sacrificial victims. Suicides were also believed to automatically transport someone to heaven, and they were common among depressed people. (8)

Since it was a major part of religion, all human sacrifice practices were elaborate ritual events. They were typically performed at the peaks of high elevations or pyramids and there were always open areas down below where the public could gather and watch the event. The massive pyramids we see throughout Mexico today were used as pillars for sacrifice. This higher the peak, the close to the gods, and the more people that could watch from below. (8)

2012 Prophecies and Controversies

Lately there have been concerns over the Mayan calendar and the supposed end of the world. The cycle of the Mayan calendar is scheduled to end on December 21st, 2012, which is the winter equinox. On this date there is predicted to either be the dawn of a new golden age, or the end of the world. Anthropologists argue that the calendar is only scheduled to repeat itself again. Scientists have predicted that there will be a new alignment of the planets on this date that could cause some concern, but the end of the world should not be a major concern. The media has embellished a lot with this story and caused panic among many people. The speculation and concern over this only proves how advanced the Mayans were with their predictions and calendar systems. (6)

The religious beliefs and practices of the Maya can be considered unique in my opinion. Like European and Asian civilizations, they were polytheistic and their beliefs are reflected in their architecture and texts. The practices of human sacrifice can be seen in other societies as well. It is their obsession with time and astronomy that set the Maya apart. Cosmology was everything to them and they made sure that their society would be remembered for it.

1. "The Mayas." Washington State University - Pullman, Washington. Web. 22 Nov. 2009. <>.
2. "The Popol Vuh - The Creation Story of the Maya." The Creation Story of the Maya. Web. 22 Nov. 2009. <>.
3. "Mayan Religion - ReligionFacts." Religion, World Religions, Comparative Religion - Just the facts on the world's religions. Web. 14 Nov. 2009. <>.
4. Tedlock, Dennis. Popol Vuh The Definitive Edition Of The Mayan Book Of The Dawn Of Life And The Glories Of. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Print.
5. Ferguson, Diana. Tales of the plumed serpent Aztec, Inca, and Mayan myths. London: Collins & Brown, Sterling Pub. Co. [distributor], 2000. Print.
6. Benedict, Gerald. The Mayan Prophecies for 2012. Baird, Duncan, 2008. Print.
7. "The Mayan Ball Game: A Deadly Sport." Social Studies for Kids. Web. 07 Dec. 2009. <>.
8. Sugiyama, Saburo. Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan (New Studies in Archaeology). New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.