Spanish Colonization for Maya Religious Beliefs

The Maya are one of the native tribes of The Meso-American people. Before the Spanish arrived, they had developed one of the most sosphicated religion and culture. Their religion was anchored on worshipping and paying reverence to nature gods such as the god of corn, the god of rain, and the god of sun; a class of priests; Construction of pyramid-shaped temples. Astrology and astronomy were also key features of their religion (Hart, 2008 ).The Spanish colonization led to conversion of most Mayans into Christianity. However, the religion still survives as some Mayans practice their traditional religions alongside Catholicism.

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The Mayan Civilization, which historians believe was influenced by the Olmecs, can be traced to the year 250 AD in Meso-America. It continued to thrive and flourish until The Spanish conquered the region. Most Mayans practiced Agriculture and lived in villages s farmers. In modern day, Mayans who survived the Spanish conquest are found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Southern Mexico. The Spanish categorized the Mayan Religion as pagan and destroyed the codices that contained information relating to The Mayan Religion. The codes that survived are found in the city of Paris, Dresden, and Madrid and are named after the specific cities (Demarest, 2004, P.36).

The texts contain critical information regarding the Mayan religion, its practices, deities, and rituals. Chronicles regarding the story of how man was created, the roles of the various gods and the kings of The Mayan People can be found in the Popol Vuh.Matters related to religious imagery. Chants, invocations, and charms are found in The Ritual of The Bacabs while the Books of Chilam Balam contains information relating to prophecy, foresight, divination, allegory, and myths (Sharer, 1996).

Each of The Mayan gods had a compassionate and a wicked side. The supreme deity was known as itzamna.Itzamana was the god of creation, the god of the fireside, and the god of fire. The second god in rank was known as kukulcan who was symbolized as a serpent and appeared on temple walls. Chac was the god of thunder, lighting, and rain; he was symbolized as having a nose. The god of the descendants of the royal family was known as Bolon Tzacab. He was symbolized as having a nose that branched and kings and other rulers had to hold him in their symbols as a sign of respect to him (Cook, 1997, p.23).

The Kings of the Mayan people served as the intermediaries between the people and the gods. They were therefore reveled and were accorded semi-divine status in the eyes of lay people. They had designated special tombs that were filled with gifts and sacrifices during burial ceremonies(Galenkamp,1981 ).The Maya people believed in the after-life whereby the soul would embark on a journey to a world under the surface which was populated by evil g and spirits. Most of the Mayans and the kings went to this place. Heaven was thought to be a special place and the only people who could go there were those who had been sacrificed in childhood or died of other causes when they were still children (Molesky, 2008).

The Maya believed that there was no separate line between science and religion. They developed astronomical charts and mathematical concepts that were directly related to their religious rites. They were able to formulate a solar year and even accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses (Gallenkamp, 1981, p.84).Due to their reverence for religion, the duty of predicting blessed and doomed days was bestowed upon priests. On blessed days, they could advise people to plant, harvest or advise the rulers to go to war. On doomed days, they would restrict the performance of any activity (Sharer, 1996).

Sacrifice of human beings featured prominently in The Mayan religion. It served the purpose of improving fertility, showing piousness, and devotion to the gods; and appeasing the gods when they were angry. The gods were thought to feed on human blood. The only way to interact with them was therefore seen as shedding of human blood. These rituals were believed to be so fundamental, that if they failed to form, anarchy and disorder would ensure in the outer-space and disintegrate their calendar and activities (Hart, 2008, p.54).

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The person to be sacrificed was placed on the top of a pyramid. An ordained priest would then proceed to cut through the rib-cage and take out the heart with his bare hands. Burning of the heart would then follow so as to satisfy the gods. Slaves and captives were the ones who were targeted for sacrifices. However, members of the royal family would sometimes undergo the ritual. Since they were considered to be the intermediaries between the people and the gods, they were expected to shed more blood. The process therefore did not include mere ripping of the heart; their ears and penises and tongues were poked with thorns and spikes until all blood was shed (Cook, 1997).

Some anthropologists believe that even before the onslaught of The Spanish the Maya were already on a steadfast decline both in the religious and cultural context (Lawry & Pugh, 2009). It is speculated that the decline could have been as a result of being overwhelmed by religious rites on sites for performing them, famine and war. There were similarities and differences between the Mayan and Spanish religions, but rather than appreciate the variety and diversity, The Spaniards were hell-bent on annihilating and obliterating The Maya religion.

The kings were at the top of the hierarchy of the Maya society. The royal family, priests, farmers, peasants followed them, and slaves in respective order (Prufer & Brady, 2000, p.71).The Spanish hierarchy was almost similar to that of The Maya. Rather than leave the Maya to observe their culture, the Spanish subjugated them to the leadership of a Spanish King. The consequence was imposition of Spanish priests on the Maya.The priests advocated for Christianity through practices such as salvation and in the process exterminated Mayan Culture and religion by portraying it as unholy in the eyes of God.

Paying tribute to their Spanish oppressor rather than their own king frustrated most of the Maya people. They were tortured and degraded to the level of animals. When they sought comfort in their religion in vain since he Spanish had completely destroyed it. Lack of hope ensued and many of them committed suicide (Gallenkamp, 1981). This is because to the Maya people, religion defined their role and purpose in life.Wthout religious guidance, life had no meaning.

The Spanish introduced Roman Catholicism to the Mayans; Catholicism and the Maya religion had many things in common. They had practices that were in writing and some that were performed orally. They encompassed belief in the after-life.

Both included the aspect of sacrifice and they shared practices such as fasting; blood-letting for penance purposes; and the burning of incense (Hart, 2008, p,74 ).The Spanish priests and Missionaries taught The Maya how to read and write in the Spanish language. The main purpose of this was to enable The Maya to read and understand Catholic practices and theology. The Maya took advantage of their newly acquired knowledge to preserve their culture and heritage (Molesky, 2008).

The Spanish missionaries also wrote books on the Maya religion, culture, and history. They also documented the Spanish conquest and colonization of The Maya.The were warned strictly to preserve The Mayan History only for the sake of anthropology but not for the sake of religion (Thompson& Jay, 1970). Its practices like these that ensured the survival of The Maya religion after the Spanish Colonization. The Popol Vuh, also known as The Mayan Bible, is believed to have been written by The Quiche Maya while they were n a pilgrim in the coast of The Atlantic.

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The original book was written in hieroglyphics so that the Spanish could not understand it and destroy it. The knowledge could not be lost because even after being tortured by The Spanish Castilians the Mayans refused to translate the language (Restall & Asselberg,2007).The whereabouts of the original book that was done in hieroglyphics is still unknown up to this day. A Spanish priest did the Spanish translation of The Popol Vul in the 1700s. It is apparent that some members of the Castilian clergy treated the May culture with dignity and put a lot of effort towards its preservation (Demarest, 2004, p.55).

Overzealous missionaries and church leaders destroyed and burned most of the writings that The Mayans had prepared. This was because they wanted to honor directives by their king and they believed that God would honor them. According to both the Bible and The Popol Vuh, man was the last creature to be created. In contrast to The Catholic Bible, which purports that man was superior to all other things, The Popol Vuh asserts that man is equal to both animal and plants. This is attributed to the great respect that the Mayan religion bestows on nature (Demarest, 2004). According to the Mayan Religion, human beings were created out of corn, which was brought, by the parrot, the fox, the crow, and the coyote (Lawry & Pugh, 2009).

On the other hand, according to The Bible man was created in God’s image, and was instructed to dominate and subdue everything. He was thus given the mandate to dominate and exploit the environment (Demarest, 2004, p.57). Due to this aspect of the Christian religion, the Spanish colonizers did not respect nature the way that The Mayans did. They also did not respect The Mayan people and their environment.

To this day the relationship between The Mayan people, the super-natural world and the environment is still tri-dimensional; All days are holy and they must be at harmony with the surroundings at all times (Hart, 2008).Their religion was thus eco-centric. The Spanish beliefs on the other hands were anthropocentric; rather than interact with nature they were keen on exploiting it (Gallenkamp, 1981).

The Mayan religion is polytheistic in that it involves the worship of many gods. Even though modern day Mayans have converted to Christianity, they still worship the same gods that their ancestors used to worship. They also observe the traditional practices that have been preserved. Catholics was and still is a monotheistic religion since Catholics believe in the existence of one god. The Spanish were keen on imposing the concept of one god on The Mayans. They believed it was acceptable to revert to using force to make this happen for the sake of salvation from evil and redemption from the ways of Satan. The Spanish church was second in command to the King in Spain thus it was wealthy and commanded a lot of influence (Cook, 1997, p.79).

To the Spanish clergy, the Mayans were savages an infidels who needed immediate instillation of Christian values (Hart, 2008).The annihilation of The Mayan religion involved destruction of shrines, temples and idles; The Mayan priests were either imprisoned or killed. The Mayans who resisted conversion were whipped, burned, beaten and mutilated. The population of some Mayan tribes is said to have been reduced b 75%-90% during the period of the conquest (Hart,2008).

The Spanish mostly targeted the, the priests, and other influential people so as to scare the peasants and slaves into submission. This is because they had to exert control and at the same time retain economic benefit. Profits could not be made without free supply of labour.Many of those who converted from The Maya Religion to Catholicism did so to preserve their lives but worshipped their gods in secret since to them religion was a way of life (Galenkamp, 1981, p.59).

Some of the liberal Spanish clergy allowed The Mayans who lived in far-away villages to combine aspects of both their traditional religion; and Catholicism. This led to survival of some of The Mayans religious beliefs. Modern Mayans constitute of Catholics and Costumbristas (People who practice a mixture of Christianity and Mayan religious practices known as Costumbre). Costumbre practitioners are keen on reviving and re-enacting the practices, which their ancestors engaged in (Hart, 2008). Practitioners have to devote time and money towards practice of The Mayan religious rituals at certain sacred locations. They also engage in traditional festivals and dances whereby animal spirits possess the performers (Molesky, 2008).

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Costumbristas believe in the blending of The Mayan and the Christian religion. They strongly oppose changing of the Mayan traditions since they believe that the traditions and rituals are the tenets of their existence. Change is only acceptable if it aims at keeping Mayan tradition as intact as possible (Prufer & Brady, 2000). Mayans who have converted into full Christianity, whether catholic or protestant, criticize the Costumbre religion as pagan due to practice of animism, polytheism, and treatment of ancestors like deities or gods.

At the extreme end are a group of Mayan nationalists who believe in strict adherence to Mayan traditions and religious practices known as Maya Spirituality (Sharer, 1996, p. 101).They perceive the Costumbre religion as impure and unholy because it ”pollutes” Mayan religion with aspects of Catholicism, such as the concept of Jesus, saints and observing the Catholic(Gregorian) Calendar. The nationalists rely on written literature to ensure that the Mayan religion is purified from Catholic and Spanish influences (Lawry & Pugh, 2009). For instance, they reject the use of candles in performance of rites because The Spanish introduced candles. They also do not use Spanish incarnations and invocations in ceremonies referring to use the original Mayan dialects.

Mayan Christianity has also been on the rise and is embraced by Protestants and Pentecostals. Followers of Mayan Christianity condemn traditional Mayan practices and castigate the god and spirits of the Costumbristas as evil demons that require to be exorcised. However, some of these Pentecostal and protestant churches have adopted the traditional organization and leadership of The Mayan traditional society (Hart, 2008).

The Maya-Spirituality believes in astrology and also study the astronomy. They also use the Mayan Bible as a guide in their day to day lives. They also engage in divination and prophecy preserving most of the traditional religious Mayan Practices. It is therefore beyond reasonable dot that the Spanish colonization failed to annihilate The Mayan religion and the surviving Mayan people are organizing and reconstituting their indigenous religious and cultural practices as they seek an identity. The Spanish were therefore able to change some aspects of The Mayan religion but were not able to completely eradicate it.


Cook, G. (1997). Crosscurrents in indigenous spirituality: Interface of Maya, Catholic, and Protestant worldviews. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Demarest, A. A. (2004). Ancient Maya: The rise and fall of a rainforest civilization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gallenkamp, C., (1981). Maya: the riddle and rediscovery of a lost civilization. (2nd Ed.). New York: Penguin.

Hart, T. (2008). The ancient spirituality of the modern Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Lawry. G., & Pugh, T. W. (2009). Maya worldviews at conquest. Boulder, Colo: University Press of Colorado. Texas Press.

Molesky-Poz, J. (2006). Contemporary Maya spirituality: The ancient ways are not lost. Austin: University of Cecil.

Prufer, K. M., & Brady, J. E. (2005). Stone houses and earth lords: Maya religion in the cave context. Boulder, Colo: University Press of Colorado.

Restall, M., & Asselbergs, F. G. L. (2007). Invading Guatemala: Spanish, Nahua, and Maya accounts of the conquest wars. University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Sharer, R., (1996). Daily life in Maya civilization. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Thompson, J. E. S., & Jay I. Kislak Reference Collection (Library of Congress). (1970). Maya history and religion. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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