Religious Practices of the Mayans & Aztecs

by Kathleen March
Pre-Columbian Chac-Mool

Pre-Columbian Chac-Mool

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The Mayan and Aztec religions are part of Meso-American beliefs. Along with the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, Mayans and Aztecs believed in a vital force that distinguished living matter from non-living, or animate vs. inanimate. Mayans worshiped nature deities, had a priest class, valued astronomy and astrology, and practiced human sacrifice. Both Mayans and Aztecs gave religious practices high priority in daily life, as evidenced by their elaborate mythologies and ceremonies.

Mayan Beliefs

In Mayan mythology, the deities experienced birth, growth, rites of passage, transformations, death and, finally, rebirth. They created planted corn and harvested it, fought battles, created alliances and intermarried. These activities formed a hierarchy whose members had overlapping responsibilities. The deities were a model for human conduct and justified elite status for some in a social and political structure. Mayan elite mortals often wore the apparel of deities, and masks with the face of a god. When wearing this regalia, they were considered to be transformed into that god. The Popol Vuh, the Mayans' sacred book, states that the first humans were made of maize. Rituals included sacrifice and bloodletting. The monarchs' blood, taken from the genital area, was burned to call forth ancestral spirits. Hallucinogens were used to create trances for divination, and preparation for ceremonies included purification through fasting and abstinence. The ceremonies were completed by feats and drinking.

Aztec Religion Practices

The Aztec religion also included bloodletting and human sacrifice, including the offering of living hearts to the deities. The higher the ranking of the donor, the more effective the offering. For some deities, the sacrifice included fire as well as blood. Like the Mayans, the Aztecs carried out their rituals in order to recreate the divine, and they had a close connection to the calendar and astronomy.

Mesoamerican Mythology

The indigenous groups of Mexico and Central America shared religious beliefs and practices, because some were passed down from one group to another. Rituals were directed to large pantheons or groups of deities; their myths were considered historical events and reenacted. Gods had three functions: creator, preserver, destroyer. Numbers, cycles, time, calendric measurement were part of the religious practices, as were designated spaces such as mountains or water sources.

Syncretism

Because Mayan, Aztec and other Mesoamerican religious practices included offerings and sacrifices, purification, pilgrimages, fasting and abstinence, not to mention a range of religious authorities, it was not so hard to import Christianity. Catholic priests adapted many practices and sites to Catholicism in a syncretic (fused or melded) practice of veneration in the Americas.

About the Author

Kathleen March has been a writer for 40 years. A professor and translator of Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician, she has studied several languages and uses them for travel and research. She enjoys medieval architecture and avant-garde poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous critical journals in the U.S. and Spain.

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