An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs/Chapter 1

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Chapter I. THE MAYA


Broadly speaking, the Maya were a lowland people, inhabiting the Atlantic coast plains of southern Mexico and northern Central America. (See pl. 1.) The southern part of this region is abundantly watered by a network of streams, many of which have their rise in the Cordillera, while the northern part, comprising the peninsula of Yucatan, is entirely lacking in water courses and, were it not for natural wells (cenotes) here and there, would be uninhabitable. This condition in the north is due to the geologic formation of the peninsula, a vast plain underlaid by limestone through which water quickly percolates to subterranean channels.

In the south the country is densely forested, though occasional savannas break the monotony of the tropical jungles. The rolling surface is traversed in places by ranges of hills, the most important of which are the Cockscomb Mountains of British Honduras; these attain an elevation of 3,700 feet. In Yucatan the nature of the soil and the water-supply not being favorable to the growth of a luxuriant vegetation, this region is covered with a smaller forest growth and a sparser bush than the area farther southward.

The climate of the region occupied by the Maya is tropical; there are two seasons, the rainy and the dry. The former lasts from May or June until January or February, there being considerable local variation not only in the length of this season but also in the time of its beginning.

Deer, tapirs, peccaries, jaguars, and game of many other kinds abound throughout the entire region, and doubtless formed a large part of the food supply in ancient times, though formerly corn was the staple, as it is now.

There are at present upward of twenty tribes speaking various dialects of the Maya language, perhaps half a million people in all. These live in the same general region their ancestors occupied, but under greatly changed conditions. Formerly the Maya were the van of civilization in the New World,[1] but to-day they are a dwindling race, their once remarkable civilization is a thing of the past, and its manners and customs are forgotten.


The ancient Maya, with whom this volume deals, emerged from barbarism probably during the first or second century of the Christian Era; at least their earliest dated monument can not be ascribed with safety to a more remote period.[2] How long a time had been required for the development of their complex calendar and hieroglyphic system to the point of graphic record, it is impossible to say, and any estimate can be only conjectural. It is certain, however, that a long interval must have elapsed from the first crude and unrelated scratches of savagery to the elaborate and involved hieroglyphs found on the earliest monuments, which represent not only the work of highly skilled sculptors, but also the thought of intensively developed minds. That this period was measured by centuries rather than by decades seems probable; the achievement was far too great to have been performed in a single generation or even in five or ten.

It seems safe to assume, therefore, that by the end of the second century of the Christian Era the Maya civilization was fairly on its feet. There then began an extraordinary development all along the line. City after city sprang into prominence throughout the southern part of the Maya territory,[3] each contributing its share to the general progress and art of the time. With accomplishment came confidence and a quickening of pace. All activities doubtless shared in the general uplift which followed, though little more than the material evidences of architecture and sculpture have survived the ravages of the destructive environment in which this culture flourished; and it is chiefly from these remnants of ancient Maya art that the record of progress has been partially reconstructed.

This period of development, which lasted upward of 400 years, or until about the close of the sixth century, may be called perhaps the "Golden Age of the Maya"; at least it was the first great epoch in their history, and so far as sculpture is concerned, the one best comparable to the classic period of Greek art. While sculpture among the Maya never again reached so high a degree of perfection, architecture steadily developed, almost to the last. Judging from the dates inscribed upon their monuments, all the great cities of the south flourished during this period: Palenque and Yaxchilan in what is now southern Mexico; Piedras Negras, Seibal, Tikal, Naranjo, and Quirigua in the present Guatemala; and Copan in the present Honduras. All these cities rose to greatness and sank again into insignificance, if not indeed into oblivion, before the close of this Golden Age.

The causes which led to the decline of civilization in the south are unknown. It has been conjectured that the Maya were driven from their southern homes by stronger peoples pushing in from farther south and from the west, or again, that the Maya civilization, having run its natural course, collapsed through sheer lack of inherent power to advance. Which, if either, of these hypotheses be true, matters little, since in any event one all-important fact remains: Just after the close of Cycle 9 of Maya chronology, toward the end of the sixth century, there is a sudden and final cessation of dates in all the southern cities, apparently indicating that they were abandoned about this time.

Still another condition doubtless hastened the general decline if indeed it did no more. There is strong documentary evidence[4] that about the middle or close of the fifth century the southern part of Yucatan was discovered and colonized. In the century following, the southern cities one by one sank into decay; at least none of their monuments bear later dates, and coincidently Chichen Itza, the first great city of the north, was founded and rose to prominence. In the absence of reliable contemporaneous records it is impossible to establish the absolute accuracy of any theory relating to times so remote as those here under consideration; but it seems not improbable that after the discovery of Yucatan and the subsequent opening up of that vast region, the southern cities commenced to decline. As the new country waxed the old waned, so that by the end of the sixth century the rise of the one and the fall of the other had occurred.

The occupation and colonization of Yucatan marked the dawn of a new era for the Maya although their Renaissance did not take place at once. Under pressure of the new environment, at best a parched and waterless land, the Maya civilization doubtless underwent important modification.[5] The period of colonization, with the strenuous labor by which it was marked, was not conducive to progress in the arts. At first the struggle for bare existence must have absorbed in a large measure the energies of all, and not until their foothold was secure could much time have been available for the cultivation of the gentler pursuits. Then, too, at first there seems to have been a feeling of unrest in the new land, a shifting of homes and a testing of localities, all of which retarded the development of architecture, sculpture, and other arts. Bakhalal (see pl. 1), the first settlement in the north, was occupied for only 60 years. Chichen Itza, the next location, although occupied for more than a century, was finally abandoned and the search for a new home resumed. Moving westward from Chichen Itza, Chakanputun was seized and occupied at the beginning of the eighth century. Here the Maya are said to have lived for 260 years, until the destruction of Chakanputun by fire about 960 A. D. again set them wandering. By this time, however, some four centuries had elapsed since the first colonization of the country, and they doubtless felt themselves fully competent to cope with any problems arising from their environment. Once more their energies had begun to find outlet in artistic expression. The Transitional Period was at an end, and The Maya Renaissance, if the term may be used, was fully under way.

The opening of the eleventh century witnessed important and far-reaching political changes in Yucatan. After the destruction of Chakanputun the horizon of Maya activity expanded. Some of the fugitives from Chakanputun reoccupied Chichen Itza while others established themselves at a new site called Mayapan. About this time also the city of Uxmal seems to have been founded. In the year 1000 these three cities—Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan—formed a confederacy,[6] in which each was to share equally in the government of the country. Under the peaceful conditions which followed the formation of this confederacy for the next 200 years the arts blossomed forth anew.

This was the second and last great Maya epoch. It was their Age of Architecture as the first period had been their Age of Sculpture. As a separate art sculpture languished; but as an adjunct, an embellishment to architecture, it lived again. The one had become handmaiden to the other. Façades were treated with a sculptural decoration, which for intricacy and elaboration has rarely been equaled by any people at any time; and yet this result was accomplished without sacrifice of beauty or dignity. During this period probably there arose the many cities which to-day are crumbling in decay throughout the length and breadth of Yucatan, their very names forgotten. When these were in their prime, the country must have been one great beehive of activity, for only a large population could have left remains so extensive.

This era of universal peace was abruptly terminated about 1200 A. D. by an event which shook the body politic to its foundations and disrupted the Triple Alliance under whose beneficent rule the land had grown so prosperous. The ruler of Chichen Itza, Chac Xib Chac, seems to have plotted against his colleague of Mayapan, one Hunnac Ceel, and in the disastrous war which followed, the latter, with the aid of Nahua allies,[7] utterly routed his opponent and drove him from his city. The conquest of Chichen Itza seems to have been followed during the thirteenth century by attempted reprisals on the part of the vanquished Itza, which plunged the country into civil war; and this struggle in turn paved the way for the final eclipse of Maya supremacy in the fifteenth century.

After the dissolution of the Triple Alliance a readjustment of power became necessary. It was only natural that the victors in the late war should assume the chief direction of affairs, and there is strong evidence that Mayapan became the most important city in the land. It is not improbable also that as a result of this war Chichen Itza was turned over to Hunnac Ceel's Nahua allies, perhaps in recognition of their timely assistance, or as their share in the spoils of war. It is certain that sometime during its history Chichen Itza came under a strong Nahua influence. One group of buildings in particular[8] shows in its architecture and bas-reliefs that it was undoubtedly inspired by Nahua rather than by Maya ideals.

According to Spanish historians, the fourteenth century was characterized by increasing arrogance and oppression on the part of the rulers of Mayapan, who found it necessary to surround themselves with Nahua allies in order to keep the rising discontent of their subjects in check.[9] This unrest finally reached its culmination about the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Maya nobility, unable longer to endure such tyranny, banded themselves together under the leadership of the lord of Uxmal, sacked Mayapan, and slew its ruler.

All authorities, native as well as Spanish, agree that the destruction of Mayapan marked the end of strongly centralized government in Yucatan. Indeed there can be but little doubt that this event also sounded the death knell of Maya civilization. As one of the native chronicles tersely puts it, "The chiefs of the country lost their power." With the destruction of Mayapan the country split into a number of warring factions, each bent on the downfall of the others. Ancient jealousies and feuds, no longer held in leash by the restraining hand of Mayapan, doubtless revived, and soon the land was rent with strife. Presently to the horrors of civil war were added those of famine and pestilence, each of which visited the peninsula in turn, carrying off great numbers of people.

These several calamities, however, were but harbingers of worse soon to come. In 1517 Francisco de Cordoba landed the first Spanish expedition[10] on the shores of Yucatan. The natives were so hostile, however, that he returned to Cuba, having accomplished little more than the discovery of the country. In the following year Juan de Grijalva descended on the peninsula, but he, too, met with so determined a resistance that he sailed away, having gained little more than hard knocks for his pains. In the following year (1519) Hernando Cortez landed on the northeast coast but reembarked in a few days for Mexico, again leaving the courageous natives to themselves. Seven years later, however, in 1526, Francisco Montejo, having been granted the title of Adelantado of Yucatan, set about the conquest of the country in earnest. Having obtained the necessary "sinews of war" through his marriage to a wealthy widow of Seville, he sailed with 3 ships and 500 men for Yucatan. He first landed on the island of Cozumel, off the northeast coast, but soon proceeded to the mainland and took formal possession of the country in the name of the King of Spain. This empty ceremony soon proved to be but the prelude to a sanguinary struggle, which broke out almost immediately and continued with extraordinary ferocity for many years, the Maya fighting desperately in defense of their homes. Indeed, it was not until 14 years later, on June 11, 1541 (old style), that, the Spaniards having defeated a coalition of Maya chieftains near the city of Ichcanzihoo, the conquest was finally brought to a close and the pacification of the country accomplished. With this event ends the independent history of the Maya.

Manners and Customs

According to Bishop Landa,[11] who wrote his remarkable history of Yucatan in 1565, the Maya of that day were a tall race, active and strong. In childhood the forehead was artificially flattened and the ears and nose were pierced for the insertion of earrings and nose-ornaments, of which the people were very fond. Squint-eye was considered a mark of beauty, and mothers strove to disfigure their children in this way by suspending pellets of wax between their eyes in order to make them squint, thus securing the desired effect. The faces of the younger boys were scalded by the application of hot cloths, to prevent the growth of the beard, which was not popular. Both men and women wore their hair long. The former had a large spot burned on the back of the head, where the hair always remained short. With the exception of a small queue, which hung down behind, the hair was gathered around the head in a braid. The women wore a more beautiful coiffure divided into two braids. The faces of both sexes were much disfigured as a result of their religious beliefs, which led to the practice of scarification. Tattooing also was common to both sexes, and there were persons in almost every community who were especially proficient in this art. Both men and women painted themselves red, the former decorating their entire bodies, and the latter all except their faces, which modesty decreed should be left unpainted. The women also anointed themselves very freely with fragrant gums and perfumes. They filed their teeth to sharp points, a practice which was thought to enhance their beauty.

The clothing of the men was simple. They wore a breechclout wrapped several times around the loins and tied in such a way that one end fell in front between the legs and the other in the corresponding position behind. These breechclouts were carefully embroidered by the women and decorated with featherwork. A large square cape hung from the shoulders, and sandals of hemp or leather completed the costume. For persons of high rank the apparel was much more elaborate, the humble breechclout and cape of the laboring man giving place to panaches of gorgeously colored feathers hanging from wooden helmets, rich mantles of tiger skins, and finely wrought ornaments of gold and jade.

The women sometimes wore a simple petticoat, and a cloth covering the breasts and passing under the arms. More often their costume consisted of a single loose sacklike garment called the hipil, which reached to the feet and had slits for the arms. This garment, with the addition of a cloth or scarf wrapped around the shoulders, constituted the women's clothing a thousand years ago, just as it does to-day.

In ancient times the women were very chaste and modest. When they passed men on the road, they stepped to one side, turning their backs and hiding their faces. The age of marriage was about 20, although children were frequently affianced when very young. When boys arrived at a marriageable age their fathers consulted the professional matchmakers of the community, to whom arrangements for marriage were ordinarily intrusted, it being considered vulgar for parents or their sons to take an active part in arranging these affairs. Having sought out the girl's parents, the matchmaker arranged with them the matter of the dowry, which the young man's father paid, his wife at the same time giving the necessary clothing for her son and prospective daughter-in-law. On the day of the wedding the relatives and guests assembled at the house of the young man's parents, where a great feast had been prepared. Having satisfied himself that the young couple had sufficiently considered the grave step they were about to take, the priest gave the bride to her husband. The ceremony closed with a feast in which all participated. Immediately after the wedding the young husband went to the home of his wife's parents, where he was obliged to work five or six years for his board. If he refused to comply with this custom he was driven from the house, and the marriage presumably was annulled. This step seems rarely to have been necessary, however, and the mother-in-law on her part saw to it that her daughter fed the young husband regularly, a practice which betokened their recognition of the marriage rite.

Widowers and widows married without ceremony, it being considered sufficient for a widower to call on his prospective wife and eat in her house. Marriage between people of the same name was considered an evil practice, possibly in deference to some former exogamic law. It was thought improper to marry a mother-in-law or an aunt by marriage, or a sister-in-law; otherwise a man could marry whom he would, even his first cousin.

The Maya were of a very jealous nature and divorces were frequent. These were effected merely by the desertion of the husband or wife, as the case might be. The parents tried to bring the couple together and effect a reconciliation, but if their efforts proved unsuccessful both parties were at liberty to remarry. If there were young children the mother kept them; if the children were of age the sons followed the father, the daughters remaining with their mother. Although divorce was of common occurrence, it was condemned by the more respectable members of the community. It is interesting to note that polygamy was unknown among the Maya.

Agriculture was the chief pursuit, corn and other grains being extensively cultivated, and stored against time of need in well-appointed granaries. Labor was largely communal; all hands joined to do one another's work. Bands of twenty or more each, passing from field to field throughout the community, quickly finished sowing or harvesting. This communal idea was carried to the chase, fifty or more men frequently going out together to hunt. At the conclusion of these expeditions the meat was roasted and then carried back to town. First, the lord of the district was given his share, after which the remainder was distributed among the hunters and their friends. Communal fishing parties are also mentioned.

Another occupation in high favor was that of trade or commerce. Salt, cloth, and slaves were the chief articles of barter; these were carried as far as Tabasco. Cocoa, stone counters, and highly prized red shells of a peculiar kind were the media of exchange. These were accepted in return for all the products of the country, even including the finely worked stones, jades possibly, with which the chiefs adorned themselves at their fetes. Credit was asked and given, all debts were honestly paid, and no usury was exacted.

The sense of justice among the Maya was highly developed. If a man committed an offense against one of another village, the former's lord caused satisfaction to be rendered, otherwise the communities would come to blows. Troubles between men of the same village were taken to a judge, who having heard both sides, fixed appropriate damages. If the malefactor could not pay these, the obligation extended to his wife and relatives. Crimes which could be satisfied by the payment of an indemnity were accidental killings, quarrels between man and wife, and the accidental destruction of property by fire. Malicious mischief could be atoned for only by blows and the shedding of blood. The punishment of murder was left in the hands of the deceased's relatives, who were at liberty to exact an indemnity or the murderer's life as they pleased. The thief was obliged to make good whatever he had stolen, no matter how little; in event of failure to do so he was reduced to slavery. Adultery was punishable by death. The adulterer was led into the courtyard of the chief's house, where all had assembled, and after being tied to a stake, was turned over to the mercies of the outraged husband, who either pardoned him or crushed his head with a heavy rock. As for the guilty woman, her infamy was deemed sufficient punishment for her, though usually her husband abandoned her.

The Maya were a very hospitable people, always offering food and drink to the stranger within their gates, and sharing with him to the last crumb. They were much given to conviviality, particularly the lords, who frequently entertained one another with elaborate feasts, accompanied by music and dancing, expending at times on a single occasion the proceeds of many days' accumulation. They usually sat down to eat by twos or fours. The meal, which consisted of vegetable stews, roast meats, corn cakes, and cocoa (to mention only a few of the viands) was spread upon mats laid on the ground. After the repast was finished beautiful young girls acting as cupbearers passed among the guests, plying them industriously with wine until all were drunk. Before departing each guest was presented with a handsome vase and pedestal, with a cloth cover therefor. At these orgies drinking was frequently carried to such excess that the wives of the guests were obliged to come for their besotted husbands and drag them home. Each of the guests at such a banquet was required to give one in return, and not even death could stay the payment of a debt of this kind, since the obligation descended to the recipient's heirs. The poor entertained less lavishly, as became their means. Guests at the humbler feasts, moreover, were not obliged to return them in kind.

The chief amusements of the Maya were comedies and dances, in both of which they exhibited much skill and ingenuity. There was a variety of musical instruments—drums of several kinds, rattles, reed flutes, wooden horns, and bone whistles. Their music is described as having been sad, owing perhaps to the melancholy sound of the instruments which produced it.

The frequent wars which darken the final pages of Maya history doubtless developed the military organization to a high degree of efficiency. At the head of the army stood two generals, one hereditary and the other elective (nacon), the latter serving for three years. In each village throughout the country certain men (holcanes) were chosen to act as soldiers; these constituted a kind of a standing army, thoroughly trained in the art of war. They were supported by the community, and in times of peace caused much disturbance, continuing the tumult of war after war had ceased. In times of great stress when it became necessary to call on all able-bodied men for military service, the holcanes mustered all those available in their respective districts and trained them in the use of arms. There were but few weapons: Wooden bows strung with hemp cords, and arrows tipped with obsidian or bone; long lances with sharp flint points; and metal (probably copper) axes, provided with wooden handles. The defensive armor consisted of round wicker shields strengthened with deer hide, and quilted cotton coats, which were said to have extraordinary resisting power against the native weapons. The highest chiefs wore wooden helmets decorated with brilliant plumes, and cloaks of "tiger" (jaguar) skin, thrown over their shoulders.

With a great banner at their head the troops silently stole out of the city, and moved against the enemy, hoping thus to surprise them. When the enemies' position had been ascertained, they fell on them suddenly with extraordinary ferocity, uttering loud cries. Barricades of trees, brush, and stone were used in defense, behind which archers stood, who endeavored to repulse the attack. After a battle the victors mutilated the bodies of the slain, cutting out the jawbones and cleaning them of flesh. These were worn as bracelets after the flesh had been removed. At the conclusion of their wars the spoils were offered in sacrifice. If by chance some leader or chief had been captured, he was sacrificed as an offering particularly acceptable to the gods. Other prisoners became the slaves of those who had captured them.

The Maya entertained an excessive and constant fear of death, many of their religious practices having no other end in view than that of warding off the dread visitor. After death there followed a prolonged period of sadness in the bereaved family, the days being given over to fasting, and the more restrained indulgence in grief, and the nights to dolorous cries and lamentations, most pitiful to hear. Among the common people the dead were wrapped in shrouds; their mouths were filled with ground corn and bits of worked stone so that they should not lack for food and money in the life to come. The Maya buried their dead inside the houses[12] or behind them, putting into the tomb idols, and objects indicating the profession of the deceased—if a priest, some of his sacred books; if a seer, some of his divinatory paraphernalia. A house was commonly abandoned after a death therein, unless enough remained in the household to dispel the fear which always followed such an occurrence.

In the higher walks of life the mortuary customs were more elaborate. The bodies of chiefs and others of high estate were burned and their ashes placed in large pottery vessels. These were buried in the ground and temples erected over them.[13] When the deceased was of very high rank the pottery sarcophagus took the form of a human statue. A variant of the above procedure was to burn only a part of the body, inclosing the ashes in the hollow head of a wooden statue, and sealing them in with a piece of skin taken from the back of the dead man's skull. The rest of the body was buried. Such statues were jealously preserved among the figures of the gods, being held in deep veneration.

The lords of Mayapan had still another mortuary practice. After death the head was severed from the body and cooked in order to remove all flesh. It was then sawed in half from side to side, care being taken to preserve the jaw, nose, eyes, and forehead in one piece. Upon this as a form the features of the dead man were filled in with a kind of a gum. Such was their extraordinary skill in this peculiar work that the finished mask is said to have appeared exactly like the countenance in life. The carefully prepared faces, together with the statues containing the ashes of the dead, were deposited with their idols. Every feast day meats were set before them so they should lack for nothing in that other world whither they had gone.

Very little is known about the governmental organization of the southern Maya, and it seems best, therefore, first to examine conditions in the north, concerning which the early authorities, native as well as Spanish, have much to say. The northern Maya lived in settlements, some of very considerable extent, under the rule of hereditary chiefs called halach uinicil, or "real men," who were, in fact as well as name, the actual rulers of the country. The settlements tributary to each halach uinic were doubtless connected by tribal ties, based on real or fancied blood relationship.

During the period of the Triple Alliance (1000-1200 A. D.) there were probably only three of these embryonic nations: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan, among which the country seems to have been apportioned. After the conquest of Chichen Itza, however, the halach uinic of Mayapan probably attempted to establish a more autocratic form of government, arrogating to himself still greater power. The Spanish authorities relate that the chiefs of the country assembled at Mayapan, acknowledged the ruler of that city as their overlord, and finally agreed to live there, each binding himself at the same time to conduct the affairs of his own domain through a deputy.

This attempt to unite the country under one head and bring about a further centralization of power ultimately failed, as has been seen, through the tyranny of the Cocom family, in which the office of halach uinic of Mayapan was vested. This tyranny led to the overthrow of the Cocoms and the destruction of centralized government, so that when the Spaniards arrived they found a number of petty chieftains, acknowledging no overlord, and the country in chaos.

The powers of the halach uinic are not clearly understood. He seems to have stood at the apex of the governmental organization, and doubtless his will prevailed just so far as he had sufficient strength to enforce it. The batabs, or underchiefs, were obliged to visit him and render him their homage. They also accompanied him in his tours about the country, which always gave rise to feasting back and forth. Finally they advised him on all important matters. The office would seem to have been no stronger in any case than its incumbent, since we hear of the halach uinic of Mayapan being obliged to surround himself with foreign troops in order to hold his people in check.

Each batab governed the territory of which he was the hereditary ruler, instructing his heir in the duties of the position, and counseling that he treat the poor with benevolence and maintain peace and encourage industry, so that all might live in plenty. He settled all lawsuits, and through trusted lieutenants ordered and adjusted the various affairs of his domain. When he went abroad from his city or even from his house a great crowd accompanied him. He often visited his underchiefs, holding court in their houses, and meeting at night in council to discuss matters touching the common good. The batabs frequently entertained one another with dancing, hunting, and feasting. The people as a community tilled the batab's fields, reaped his corn, and supplied his wants in general. The underchiefs were similarly provided for, each according to his rank and needs.

The ahkulel, the next highest official in each district, acted as the batab's deputy or representative; he carried a short thick baton in token of his office. He had charge of the localities subject to his master's rule as well as of the officers immediately over them. He kept these assistants informed as to what was needed in the batab's house, as birds, game, fish, corn, honey, salt, and cloth, which they supplied when called on. The ahkulel was, in short, a chief steward, and his house was the batab's business office.

Another important position was that of the nacon, or war-chief. In times of war this functionary was second only to the hereditary chief, or batab, and was greatly venerated by all. His office was elective, the term being three years, during which he was obliged to refrain from intercourse with women, and to hold himself aloof from all.

An important civil position was that held by the ahholpop, in whose keeping was the tunkul, or wooden drum, used in summoning people to the dances and public meetings, or as a tocsin in case of war. He had charge also of the "town hall" in which all public business was transacted.

The question of succession is important. Bishop Landa distinctly states in one passage "That when the lord died, although his oldest son succeeded him, the others were always loved and served and even regarded as lords." This would seem to indicate definitely that descent was by primogeniture. However, another passage suggests that the oldest son did not always succeed his father: "The lords were the governors and confirmed their sons in their offices if they [the sons] were acceptable." This suggests the possibility, at least, that primogeniture could sometimes be set aside, particularly when the first-born lacked the necessary qualifications for leadership. In a somewhat drawn-out statement the same authority discusses the question of "princely succession" among the Maya:

If the children were too young to be intrusted with the management of their own affairs, these were turned over to a guardian, the nearest relation. He gave the children to their mothers to bring up, because according to their usage the mother has no power of her own. When the guardian was the brother of the deceased [the children's paternal uncle] they take the children from their mother. These guardians give what was intrusted to them to the heirs when they come of age, and not to do so was considered a great dishonesty and was the cause of much contention.... If when the lord died there were no sons [ready, i. e., of age] to rule and he had brothers, the oldest or most capable of his brothers ruled, and they [the guardians] showed the heir the customs and fetes of his people until he should be a man, and these brothers, although the heir were [ready] to rule, commanded all their lives, and, if there were no brothers the priests and principal people selected a man suitable for the position.[14]

The foregoing would seem to imply that the rulers were succeeded by their eldest sons if the latter were of age and otherwise generally acceptable; and that, if they were minors when their fathers died, their paternal uncles, if any, or otherwise some capable man selected by the priests, took the reins of government, instructing the heir in the duties of the position which he was to occupy some day; and finally that the regent did not lay down his authority until death, even though the heir had previously attained his majority. This custom is so unusual that its existence may well be doubted, and it is not at all improbable that Bishop Landa's statement to the contrary may have arisen from some misapprehension. Primogeniture was not confined to the executive succession alone, since Bishop Landa states further that the high priest Ahau can mai was succeeded in his dignity by his sons, or those next of kin.

Nepotism doubtless prevailed extensively, all the higher offices of the priesthood as well as the executive offices being hereditary, and in all probability filled with members of the halach uinic's family.

The priests instructed the younger sons of the ruling family as well as their own, in the priestly duties and learning; in the computation of years, months, and days; in unlucky times; in fetes and ceremonies; in the administration of the sacraments; in the practices of prophecy and divination; in treating the sick; in their ancient history; and finally in the art of reading and writing their hieroglyphics, which was taught only to those of high degree. Genealogies were carefully preserved, the term meaning "of noble birth" being ah kaba, "he who has a name." The elaborate attention given to the subject of lineage, and the exclusive right of the ah kaba to the benefits of education, show that in the northern part of the Maya territory at least government rested on the principle of hereditary succession. The accounts of native as well as of Spanish writers leave the impression that a system not unlike a modified form of feudalism prevailed.




In attempting to gain an approximate understanding of the form of government which existed in the southern part of the Maya territory it is necessary in the absence of all documentary information to interpret the southern chronology, architecture, and sculpture—practically all that remains of the older culture—in the light of the known conditions in the north. The chronology of the several southern cities (see pl. 2) indicates that many of them were contemporaneous, and that a few, namely, Tikal, Naranjo, Palenque, and Copan were occupied approximately 200 years, a much longer period than any of the others.[15] These four would seem to have been centers of population for a long time, and at least three of them, Tikal, Palenque, and Copan, attained considerable size. Indeed they may well have been, like Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan, at a later epoch in the north, the seats of halach uincil, or overlords, to whom all the surrounding chiefs were tributary. Geographically considered, the country was well apportioned among these cities: Tikal dominating the north, Palenque, the west, and Copan, the south.

The architecture, sculpture, and hieroglyphic writing of all the southern centers is practically identical, even to the borrowing of unessential details, a condition which indicates a homogeneity only to be accounted for by long-continued and frequent intercourse. This characteristic of the culture, together with the location and contemporaneity of its largest centers, suggests that originally the southern territory was divided into several extensive political divisions, all in close intercourse with one another, and possibly united in a league similar to that which later united the principal cities of the north. The unmistakable priestly or religious character of the sculptures in the southern area clearly indicates the peaceful temper of the people, and the conspicuous absence of warlike subjects points strongly to the fact that the government was a theocracy, the highest official in the priesthood being at the same time, by virtue of his sacerdotal rank, the highest civil authority. Whether the principle of hereditary succession determined or even influenced the selection of rulers in the south is impossible to say. However, since the highest offices, both executive and priestly, in the north were thus filled, it may be assumed that similar conditions prevailed in the south, particularly as the northern civilization was but an outgrowth of the southern. There is some ground for believing that the highest office in the south may have been elective, the term being a hotun[16] (1,800 days), and the choice restricted to the members of a certain family. The existence of this restriction, which closely parallels the Aztec procedure in selecting rulers,[17] rests on very slender evidence, however, so far as the Maya are concerned and is mentioned here simply by way of suggestion.

Fig. 1. Itzamna, chief deity of the Maya Pantheon (note his name glyphs, below).

Fig. 1. Itzamna, chief deity of the Maya Pantheon (note his name glyphs, below).

The religion of the ancient Maya was polytheistic, its pantheon containing about a dozen major deities and a host of lesser ones. At its head stood Itzamna, the father of the gods and creator of mankind, the Mayan Zeus or Jupiter. He was the personification of the East, the rising sun, and, by association, of light, life, and knowledge. He was the founder of the Maya civilization, the first priest of the Maya religion, the inventor of writing and books, and the great healer. Whether Itzamna has been identified with any of the deities in the ancient Maya picture-writings is uncertain, though there are strong reasons for believing that this deity is the god represented in figure 1. His characteristics here are: The aged face, Roman nose, and sunken toothless mouth.

Fig. 2. Kukulcan, God of Learning (note his name glyph, below).

Fig. 2. Kukulcan, God of Learning (note his name glyph, below).

Scarcely less important was the great god Kukulcan, or Feathered Serpent, the personification of the West. It is related of him that he came into Yucatan from the west and settled at Chichen Itza, where he ruled for many years and built a great temple. During his sojourn he is said to have founded the city of Mayapan, which later became so important. Finally, having brought the country out of war and dissension to peace and prosperity, he left by the same way he had entered, tarrying only at Chakanputun on the west coast to build a splendid temple as an everlasting memorial of his residence among the people. After his departure he was worshipped as a god because of what he had done for the public good. Kukulcan was the Maya counterpart of the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican god of light, learning, and culture. In the Maya pantheon he was regarded as having been the great organizer, the founder of cities, the framer of laws, and the teacher of their new calendar. Indeed, his attributes and life history are so human that it is not improbable he may have been an actual historical character, some great lawgiver and organizer, the memory of whose benefactions lingered long after death, and whose personality was eventually deified. The episodes of his life suggest he may have been the recolonizer of Chichen Itza after the destruction of Chakanputun. Kukulcan has been identified by some as the "old god" of the picture-writings (fig. 2), whose characteristics are: Two deformed teeth, one protruding from the front and one from the back part of his mouth, and the long tapering nose. He is to be distinguished further by his peculiar headdress.

Fig. 3. Ahpuch, God of Death (note his name glyphs, below).

Fig. 3. Ahpuch, God of Death (note his name glyphs, below).

The most feared and hated of all the Maya deities was Ahpuch, the Lord of Death, God "Barebones" as an early manuscript calls him, from whom evil and especially death were thought to come. He is frequently represented in the picture-writings (fig. 3), usually in connection with the idea of death. He is associated with human sacrifice, suicide by hanging, death in childbirth, and the beheaded captive. His characteristics are typical and unmistakable. His head is the fleshless skull, showing the truncated nose, the grinning teeth, and fleshless lower jaw, sometimes even the cranial sutures are portrayed. In some places the ribs and vertebrae are shown, in others the body is spotted black as if to suggest the discoloration of death. A very constant symbol is the stiff feather collar with small bells attached. These bells also appear as ornaments on the head, arms, and ankles. The to us familiar crossbones were also another Maya death symbol. Even the hieroglyph of this god (fig. 3) suggests the dread idea for which he stood. Note the eye closed in death.

Fig. 4. The God of War (note his name glyph, below).

Fig. 4. The God of War (note his name glyph, below).

Closely associated with the God of Death is the God of War, who probably stood as well for the larger idea of death by violence. He is characterized (fig. 4) by a black line painted on his face, sometimes curving, sometimes straight, supposed to be symbolical of war paint, or, according to others, of his gaping wounds. He appears in the picture-writings as the Death God's companion. He presides with him over the body of a sacrificial victim, and again follows him applying torch and knife to the habitations of man. His hieroglyph shows as its characteristic the line of black paint (fig. 4).

Another unpropitious deity was Ek Ahau, the Black Captain, also a war god, being represented (fig. 5) in the picture-writings as armed with a spear or an ax. It was said of him that he was a very great and very cruel warrior, who commanded a band of seven blackamoors like himself. He is characterized by his black color, his drooping lower lip, and the two curved lines at the right of his eye. His hieroglyph is a black eye (fig. 5).

Fig. 5. Ek Ahau, the Black Captain, war deity (note his name glyph, below).

Fig. 5. Ek Ahau, the Black Captain, war deity (note his name glyph, below).

Contrasted with these gods of death, violence, and destruction was the Maize God, Yum Kaax, Lord of the Harvest Fields (fig. 6). Here we have one of the most important figures in the whole Maya pantheon, the god of husbandry and the fruits of the earth, of fertility and prosperity, of growth and plenty. The Maize God was as well disposed toward mankind as Ahpuch and his companions were unpropitious. In many of the picture-writings Yum Kaax is represented as engaged in agricultural pursuits. He is portrayed as having for his head-dress a sprouting ear of corn surrounded by leaves, symbolic of growth, for which he stands. Even the hieroglyph of this deity (fig. 6) embodies the same idea, the god's head merging into the conventionalized ear of corn surrounded by leaves.

Fig. 6. Yum Kaax, Lord of the Harvest (note his name glyph, below).

Fig. 6. Yum Kaax, Lord of the Harvest (note his name glyph, below).

Another important deity about whom little or nothing is known was Xaman Ek, the North Star. He is spoken of as the "guide of the merchants," and in keeping with that character is associated in the picture-writings with symbols of peace and plenty. His one characteristic seems to be his curious head, which also serves as his name hieroglyph (fig. 7).

Other Maya deities were: Ixchel, the Rainbow, consort of Itzamna and goddess of childbirth and medicine; Ixtab, patroness of hunting and hanging; Ixtubtun, protectress of jade cutters; Ixchebelyax, the inventress of painting and color designing as applied to fabrics.

Although the deities above described represent only a small fraction of the Maya pantheon, they include, beyond all doubt, its most important members, the truly great, who held the powers of life and death, peace and war, plenty and famine—who were, in short, the arbiters of human destiny.

The Maya conceived the earth to be a cube, which supported the celestial vase resting on its four legs, the four cardinal points. Out of this grew the Tree of Life, the flowers of which were the immortal principle of man, the soul. Above hung heavy clouds, the fructifying waters upon which all growth and life depend. The religion was dualistic in spirit, a constant struggle between the powers of light and of darkness. On one side were arrayed the gods of plenty, peace, and life; on the other those of want, war, and destruction; and between these two there waged an unending strife for the control of man. This struggle between the powers of light and darkness is graphically portrayed in the picture-writings. Where the God of Life plants the tree, Death breaks it in twain (fig. 8); where the former offers food, the latter raises an empty vase symbolizing famine; where one builds, the other destroys. The contrast is complete, the conflict eternal.

Fig. 7. Xaman Ek, the North Star God (note his name glyph, below).

Fig. 7. Xaman Ek, the North Star God (note his name glyph, below).

The Maya believed in the immortality of the soul and in a spiritual life hereafter. As a man lived in this world so he was rewarded in the next. The good and righteous went to a heaven of material delights, a place where rich foods never failed and pain and sorrow were unknown. The wicked were consigned to a hell called Mitnal, over which ruled the archdemon Hunhau and his minions; and here in hunger, cold, and exhaustion they suffered everlasting torment. The materialism of the Maya heaven and hell need not surprise, nor lower our estimate of their civilization. Similar realistic conceptions of the hereafter have been entertained by peoples much higher in the cultural scale than the Maya.

Fig. 8. Conflict between the Gods of Life and Death (Kukulcan and Ahpuch).

Fig. 8. Conflict between the Gods of Life and Death (Kukulcan and Ahpuch).

Worship doubtless was the most important feature of the Maya scheme of existence, and an endless succession of rites and ceremonies was considered necessary to retain the sympathies of the good gods and to propitiate the malevolent ones. Bishop Landa says that the aim and object of all Maya ceremonies were to secure three things only: Health, life, and sustenance; modest enough requests to ask of any faith. The first step in all Maya religious rites was the expulsion of the evil spirits from the midst of the worshipers. This was accomplished sometimes by prayers and benedictions, set formulæ of proven efficacy, and sometimes by special sacrifices and offerings.

It would take us too far afield to describe here even the more important ceremonies of the Maya religion. Their number was literally legion, and they answered almost every contingency within the range of human experience. First of all were the ceremonies dedicated to special gods, as Itzamna, Kukulcan, and Ixchel. Probably every deity in the pantheon, even the most insignificant, had at least one rite a year addressed to it alone, and the aggregate must have made a very considerable number. In addition there were the annual feasts of the ritualistic year brought around by the ever-recurring seasons. Here may be mentioned the numerous ceremonies incident to the beginning of the new year and the end of the old, as the renewal of household utensils and the general renovation of all articles, which took place at this tine; the feasts of the various trades and occupations—the hunters, fishers, and apiarists, the farmers, carpenters, and potters, the stonecutters, wood carvers, and metal workers—each guild having its own patron deity, whose services formed another large group of ceremonials. A third class comprised the rites of a more personal nature, those connected with baptism, confession, marriage, setting out on journeys, and the like. Finally, there was a fourth group of ceremonies, held much less frequently than the others, but of far greater importance. Herein fall the ceremonies held on extraordinary occasions, as famine, drought, pestilence, victory, or defeat, which were probably solemnized by rites of human sacrifice.

The direction of so elaborate a system of worship necessitated a numerous and highly organized priesthood. At the head of the hierarchy stood the hereditary high priest, or ahaucan mai, a functionary of very considerable power. Although he had no actual share in the government, his influence was none the less far-reaching, since the highest lords sought his advice, and deferred to his judgment in the administration of their affairs. They questioned him concerning the will of the gods on various points, and he in response framed the divine replies, a duty which gave him tremendous power and authority. In the ahuacan mai was vested also the exclusive right to fill vacancies in the priesthood. He examined candidates on their knowledge of the priestly services and ceremonies, and after their appointment directed them in the discharge of their duties. He rarely officiated at sacrifices except on occasions of the greatest importance, as at the principal feasts or in times of general need. His office was maintained by presents from the lords and enforced contributions from the priesthood throughout the country.

The priesthood included within its ranks women as well as men. The duties were highly specialized and there were many different ranks and grades in the hierarchy. The chilan was one of the most important. This priest was carried upon the shoulders of the people when he appeared in public. He taught their sciences, appointed the holy days, healed the sick, offered sacrifices, and most important of all, gave the responses of the gods to petitioners. The ahuai chac was a priest who brought the rains on which the prosperity of the country was wholly dependent. The ah macik conjured the winds; the ahpul caused sickness and induced sleep; the ahuai xibalba communed with the dead. At the bottom of the ladder seems to have stood the nacon, whose duty it was to open the breasts of the sacrificed victims. An important elective office in each community was that held by the chac, or priest's assistant. These officials, of which there were four, were elected from the nucteelob, or village wise men. They served for a term of one year and could never be reelected. They aided the priest in the various ceremonies of the year, officiating in minor capacities. Their duties seem to have been not unlike those of the sacristan in the Roman Catholic Church of to-day.

In closing this introduction nothing could be more appropriate than to call attention once more to the supreme importance of religion in the life of the ancient Maya. Religion was indeed the very fountain-head of their civilization, and on its rites and observances they lavished a devotion rarely equaled in the annals of man. To its great uplifting force was due the conception and evolution of the hieroglyphic writing and calendar, alike the invention and the exclusive property of the priesthood. To its need for sanctuary may be attributed the origin of Maya architecture; to its desire for expression, the rise of Maya sculpture. All activities reflected its powerful influence and all were more or less dominated by its needs and teachings. In short, religion was the foundation upon which the structure of the Maya civilization was reared.


  1. All things considered, the Maya may be regarded as having developed probably the highest aboriginal civilization in the Western Hemisphere, although it should be borne in mind that they were surpassed in many lines of endeavor by other races. The Inca, for example, excelled them in the arts of weaving and dyeing, the Chiriqui in metal working, and the Aztec in military proficiency.
  2. The correlation of Maya and Christian chronology herein followed is that suggested by the writer in "The Correlation of Maya and Christian Chronology" (Papers of the School of American Archæology, No. 11). See Morley, 1910 b, cited in Bibliography, pp. XV, XVI. There are at least six other systems of correlation, however, on which the student must pass judgment. Although no two of these agree, all are based on data derived from the same source, namely, the Books of Chilan Balam (see p. 3, footnote 1). The differences among them are due to the varying interpretations of the material therein presented. Some of the systems of correlation which have been proposed, besides that of the writer, are: 1. That of Mr. C. P. Bowditch (1901 a), found in his pamphlet entitled "Memoranda on the Maya Calendars used in The Books of Chilan Balam." 2. That of Prof. Eduard Seler (1902-1908: I, pp. 588-599). See also Bulletin 28, p. 330. 3. That of Mr. J. T. Goodman (1905). 4. That of Pio Perez, in Stephen's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843: I, pp. 434-459; II, pp. 465-469) and in Landa, 1864: pp. 366-429. As before noted, these correlations differ greatly from one another, Professor Seler assigning the most remote dates to the southern cities and Mr. Goodman the most recent. The correlations of Mr. Bowditch and the writer are within 260 years of each other. Before accepting any one of the systems of correlation above mentioned, the student is strongly urged to examine with care The Books of Chilan Balam.
  3. It is probable that at this early date Yucatan had not been discovered, or at least not colonized.
  4. This evidence is presented by The Books of Chilan Balam, "which were copied or compiled in Yucatan by natives during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, from much older manuscripts now lost or destroyed. They are written in the Maya language in Latin characters, and treat, in part at least, of the history of the country before the Spanish Conquest. Each town seems to have had its own book of Chilan Balam, distinguished from others by the addition of the name of the place where it was written, as: The Book of Chilan Balam of Mani, The Book of Chilan Balam of Tizimia, and so on. Although much of the material presented in these manuscripts is apparently contradictory and obscure, their importance as original historical sources can not be overestimated, since they constitute the only native accounts of the early history of the Maya race which have survived the vandalism of the Spanish Conquerors. Of the sixteen Books of Chilan Balam now extant, only three, those of the towns of Mani, Tizimin, and Chumayel, contain historical matter. These have been translated into English, and published by Dr. D. G. Brinton [1882 b] under the title of "The Maya Chronicles." This translation with a few corrections has been freely consulted in the following discussion."—Morley, 1910 b: p. 193. Although The Books of Chilan Balam are in all probability authentic sources for the reconstruction of Maya history, they can hardly be considered contemporaneous since, as above explained, they emanate from post-Conquest times. The most that can be claimed for them in this connection is that the documents from which they were copied were probably aboriginal, and contemporaneous, or approximately so, with the later periods of the history which they record.
  5. As will appear later, on the calendric side the old system of counting time and of recording events gave place to a more abbreviated though less accurate chronology. In architecture and art also the change of environment made itself felt, and in other lines as well the new land cast a strong influence over Maya thought and achievement. In his work entitled "A Study of Maya Art, its Subject Matter and Historical Development" (1913), to which students are referred for further information, Dr. H. J. Spinden has treated this subject extensively.
  6. The confederation of these three Maya cities may have served as a model for the three Nahua cities, Tenochtitlan, Tezcuco, and Tlacopan, when they entered into a similar alliance some four centuries later.
  7. By Nahua is here meant the peoples who inhabited the valley of Mexico and adjacent territory at this time.
  8. The Ball Court, a characteristically Nahua development.
  9. One authority (Landa, 1864: p. 48) says in this connection: "The governor, Cocom—the ruler of Mayapan—began to covet riches; and for this purpose he treated with the people of the garrison, which the kings of Mexico had in Tabasco and Xicalango, that he should deliver his city [i. e. Mayapan] to them; and thus he brought the Mexican people to Mayapan and he oppressed the poor and made many slaves, and the lords would have killed him if they had not been afraid of the Mexicans."
  10. The first appearance of the Spaniards in Yucatan was six years earlier (in 1511), when the caravel of Valdivia, returning from the Isthmus of Darien to Hispaniola, foundered near Jamaica. About 10 survivors in an open boat were driven upon the coast of Yucatan near the Island of Cozumel. Here they were made prisoners by the Maya and five, including Valdivia himself, were sacrificed. The remainder escaped only to die of starvation and hardship, with the exception of two, Geronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. Both of these men had risen to considerable prominence in the country by the time Cortez arrived eight years later. Guerrero had married a chief's daughter and had himself become a chief. Later Aguilar became an interpreter for Cortez. This handful of Spaniards can hardly be called an expedition, however.
  11. Diego de Landa, second bishop of Merida, whose remarkable book entitled "Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan" is the chief authority for the facts presented in the following discussion of the manners and customs of the Maya, was born in Cifuentes de l'Alcarria, Spain, in 1524. At the age of 17 he joined the Franciscan order. He came to Yucatan during the decade following the close of the Conquest, in 1549, where he was one of the most zealous of the early missionaries. In 1573 he was appointed bishop of Merida, which position he held until his death in 1579. His priceless Relacion, written about 1565, was not printed until three centuries later, when it was discovered by the indefatigable Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg in the library of the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, and published by him in 1864. The Relacion is the standard authority for the customs prevalent in Yucatan at the time of the Conquest, and is an invaluable aid to the student of Maya archeology. What little we know of the Maya calendar has been derived directly from the pages of this book, or by developing the material therein presented.
  12. The excavations of Mr. E. H. Thompson at Labna, Yucatan, and of Dr. Merwin at Holmul, Guatemala, have confirmed Bishop Landa's statement concerning the disposal of the dead. At Labna bodies were found buried beneath the floors of the buildings, and at Holmul not only beneath the floors but also lying on them.
  13. Examples of this type of burial have been found at Chichen Itza and Mayapan in Yucatan. At the former site Mr. E. H. Thompson found in the center of a large pyramid a stone-lined shaft running from the summit into the ground. This was filled with burials and funeral objects—pearls, coral, and jade, which from their precious nature indicated the remains of important personages. At Mayapan, burials were found in a shaft of similar construction and location in one of the pyramids.
  14. Landa, 1864: p. 137.
  15. As the result of a trip to the Maya field in the winter of 1914, the writer made important discoveries in the chronology of Tikal, Naranjo, Piedras Negras, Altar de Sacrificios, Quirigua, and Seibal. The occupancy of Tikal and Seibal was found to have extended to; of Piedras Negras to; of Naranjo to; and of Altar de Sacrificios to (This new material is not embodied in pl. 2.)
  16. As will be explained in chapter V, the writer has suggested the name hotun for the 5 tun, or 1,800 day, period.
  17. Succession in the Aztec royal house was not determined by primogeniture, though the supreme office, the tlahtouani, as well as the other high offices of state, was hereditary in one family. On the death of the tlahtouani the electors (four in number) seem to have selected his successor from among his brothers, or, these failing, from among his nephews. Except as limiting the succession to one family, primogeniture does not seem to have obtained; for example, Moctezoma (Montezuma) was chosen tlahtouani over the heads of several of his older brothers because he was thought to have the best qualifications for that exalted office. The situation may be summarized by the statement that while the supreme ruler among the Aztec had to be of the "blood royal," his selection was determined by personal merit rather than by primogeniture.