The Ancient Maya in Time and Space

This lesson was reported from:

Adapted in part from open sources.

The Maya World

  1. What is a cenote and why was it so important to many Maya cities?
  2. Describe the Maya’s sense of their place in the world and their relationship with the gods.
  3. Why did the Maya perform sacrifice and other forms of bloodletting?  Is this shocking to you?  Can you think of any analogous performances in your own society?
A carved limestone turtle from the city of Uxmal, perhaps evocative of the turtle that the Maya envisioned as carrying the earth upon her shell. (Merida, Mexico, 2017.)

The Maya imagined the world as a giant turtle or crocodile floating on an infinite sea.  Maize and cacao – two of the Maya’s most invaluable crops – were pictured as sprouting from the back of this floating creature.  Considering that much of their territory lay atop porous limestone and was bounded by the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Pacific Ocean, this image is fitting.  In the sea beyond, the Maya pictured great sharks that would on occasion be speared by the gods, spurting forth blood in tremendous spouts.

Cenotes were the only reliable source of freshwater in parts of the Maya world and consequently became a sacred place, a home of the god Chaac. Today, tourists to the Yucatan Peninsula value them as an opportunity for recreational swimming. This is Cenote Kankirixche near the village of Abala, Mexico. (Abala, Mexico, 2017.)

In most parts of the world, cities have historically been founded by rivers, lakes, or springs – life-giving sources of freshwater.  Due to the porous limestone bedrock of the Maya homeland, such geographic features are rare.  Water seeps below the surface rapidly, and is accessible only through a cenote (sea-note-tay) – a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.  As a result, at least in the vast, low-lying Yucatan, many Maya cities were founded near one of these vital freshwater sources.  It isn’t hard to see why cenotes – and caves in general – came to occupy a sacred space in the Maya cosmos, imagined as the home of Chaac, the rain god.  The city’s water supply would be drain from these sacred spaces, and at least at Chichen Itza, many sacrifices – of gold, jade, animals, and humans – were cast into a sacred cenote in honor of Chaac, to ensure that rain would continue to fall for yet another season.

sacred cenote
The sacred cenote, located to the north of Chichen Itza’s civic precinct, to which it is connected by a 300-meter (980 ft) sacbe, or raised and paved pathway. According to post-Conquest sources (Maya and Spanish), pre-Columbian Maya sacrificed objects and human beings into the cenote as a form of worship to the Maya rain god Chaac. (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2017.)

The Maya viewed their lives as a complex set of such covenants – sacred agreements – with many gods who governed different aspects of their lives.  One of the few Maya books to survive the Spanish conquest is called the Popol Vuh, which tells the story of the creation of mankind.  The Maya believed that earliest incarnations of humanity were made from mud and sticks, but these primordial humans disrespected the gods, and were thus wiped off the face of the Earth.  Modern humans, they believed, were created out of maize dough, like the Maya’s favorite food, tortillas.  Humans could live their temporary lives, but just as a tortilla would one day be consumed, so too would human beings be returned to a ravenous earth from which they had come.

And the Progenitors, Creators, and Makers said… “The time has come for dawn, for the work to be completed, for those who must give us sustenance and feed us to appear, illuminated offspring, civilized vassals; let man appear, humanity, on the face of the earth.”

—Popol Vuh

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Two Maya priests sacrifice a parrot.

There are overlapping levels of symbolism here, but they point to the sacred nature of maize, of human flesh, and of the Maya sense of place in the cosmic pecking order.  Unlike Christians, the Maya were not given dominion over the Earth and its creatures by their creator; the Maya felt the need to repay their creation through worship and sacrifice.  Payment could be deferred by ritual substitutes like incense, animals, or prayer, but only temporarily.

Blood was viewed as a potent source of nourishment for the Maya deities, and the sacrifice of a living creature was a powerful blood offering.  This might come in the form of a ritual bloodletting – depicted in Maya artwork as coming from the mouth, the penis, or the ears.  The sacrifice of a human life was the ultimate offering of blood to the gods, and the most important Maya rituals culminated in human sacrifice. 

Engraving in the great ball court at Chichen Itza depicting sacrifice by decapitation. On the bottom left, note the severed head of the figure on right. His torso spouts blood in the form of serpents from his neck. (Chichen Itza, Mexico, 2017.)

Important rituals such as the dedication of major building projects or the enthronement of a new ruler required a human offering.  The sacrifice of an enemy king was the most prized offering, and such a sacrifice involved decapitation of the captive ruler in a ritual reenactment of the decapitation of the Maya maize god by the Maya death gods.  In AD 738, the vassal king K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá captured his overlord, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil of Copán and a few days later he ritually decapitated him.  Sacrifice by decapitation is depicted in Classic period Maya art, and sometimes took place after the victim was tortured, being variously beaten, scalped, burnt or disemboweled.

Classic period Maya vessel with a scene of human sacrifice.

Depending upon the exact ritual, sometimes the corpse would be skinned by assistant priests, except for the hands and feet. The officiating priest would then remove his ritual attire and dress himself in the skin of the sacrificial victim before performing a ritual dance that symbolized the rebirth of life.

The world moved not through human appetites alone, but by those of the gods.

How the Maya Understood Time

  1. How were the two Maya calendars different in form and function?  
  2. What was wayeb’?  As a culture almost obsessed with order and patterns, why do you think the Maya regarded it was such discomfort?
  3. The Maya calendar, rooted in their spiritual understanding of time, can seen overly complex to someone more accustomed to the Gregorian calendar (the one you are most familiar with).  Do a little research and explain the origins of your own calendar.

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Understanding time – the cycle of things – was as important to the Maya view of the world as was coaxing Chaac from a cenote to water the maize crop.  Solar and lunar eclipses were considered to be especially dangerous events that could bring catastrophe upon the world. In the Dresden Codex, a solar eclipse is represented by a serpent devouring the k’in (“day”) hieroglyph. Eclipses were interpreted as the sun or moon being bitten, and lunar tables were recorded in order that the Maya might be able to predict them, and perform the appropriate ceremonies to ward off disaster.

The Maya developed a complex, circular calendar system, recording lunar and solar cycles, eclipses and movements of planets with great accuracy.  In some cases, the Maya calculations were more accurate than equivalent calculations in the Old World; for example, the Maya solar year was calculated to greater accuracy than the Julian year. The Maya calendar was intrinsically tied to Maya ritual, and it was central to Maya religious practices.

The calendar combined a non-repeating Long Count with three interlocking cycles, each measuring a progressively larger period. These were the 260-day tzolk’in, the 365-day haab’, and the 52-year Calendar Round, calculated from the combination of the tzolk’in with the haab’.

The Tzolk’in

The 260-day tzolk’in provided the basic cycle of Maya ceremony, and the foundations of Maya prophecy. No astronomical basis for this count has been proved, and it may be that the 260-day count is based on the human gestation period – since 260 days is roughly equal to nine months. This is reinforced by the use of the tzolk’in to record dates of birth, and provide corresponding prophecy. The tzolk’in calendar combines twenty day names with the thirteen day numbers to produce 260 unique days. It is used to determine the time of religious and ceremonial events and for divination. Each successive day is numbered from 1 up to 13 and then starting again at 1. Separately from this, every day is given a name in sequence from a list of 20 day names:


The Haab’

The haab’ was made up of eighteen months of twenty days each plus a period of five days (“nameless days”) at the end of the year known as wayeb’. The five days of wayeb’ were thought to be a dangerous time. Foster (2002) writes, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” To ward off these evil spirits, the Maya had customs and rituals they practiced during wayeb’. For example, people avoided leaving their houses and washing or combing their hair.

haabThe Calendar Round and the Long Count

A Calendar Round date is a date that gives both the tzolk’in and haab’.

Arithmetically, the duration of the Calendar Round is the least common multiple of 260 and 365; 18,980 is 73 × 260 tzolk’in days and 52 × 365 haab’ days.

Since each day in the tzolk’in had a name and number (e.g. 8 Ajaw), this would interlock with the haab’, producing an additional number and name, to give any day a more complete designation, for example 8 Ajaw 13 Keh. 

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The Maya calendar consists of several cycles or counts of different lengths. The 260-day count is known to scholars as the Tzolkin, or Tzolk’in. The Tzolkin was combined with a 365-day vague solar year known as the Haab’ to form a synchronized cycle lasting for 52 Haab’, called the Calendar Round.
The Maya wrote their creation date of 13 baktuns, 0 katuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals, 0 kins, 4 Ahau 8 Cumku like this.

Since Calendar Round dates repeat every 18,980 days, approximately 52 solar years, the cycle repeats roughly once each lifetime, so a more refined method of dating was needed if history was to be recorded accurately. To specify dates over periods longer than 52 years, Mesoamericans used the Long Count calendar.

The Long Count calendar identifies a date by counting the number of days from the Mayan creation date 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk’u (August 11, 3114 BC in the Western Calendar).

The Maya name for a day was k’in. Twenty of these k’ins are known as a winal or uinal. Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k’atun. Twenty k’atuns make a b’ak’tun.

Since the Long Count dates are unambiguous, the Long Count was particularly well suited to use on monuments. The monumental inscriptions would not only include the 5 digits of the Long Count, but would also include the two tzolk’in characters followed by the two haab’ characters.

Misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar was the basis for a popular belief that a cataclysm would take place on December 21, 2012. December 21, 2012 was simply the day that the calendar went to the next b’ak’tun, at Long Count The date on which the calendar will go to the next piktun (a complete series of 20 b’ak’tuns), at Long Count, will be on October 13, 4772.

The Maya Long Count Calendar
Long Count
Long Count
Days Approximate
Solar Years
1 K’in 1
1 Winal 20 K’in 20
1 Tun 18 Winal 360 1
1 K’atun 20 Tun 7,200 20
1 B’ak’tun 20 K’atun 144,000 394

Religion and Deities

  1. Compare and contrast your culture’s treatment of the dead with that of the Maya.
  2. What religious role did the Maya king fulfill?
  3. Why were specialists and experts – priests – so important to the observation and performance of Maya religion?

The Maya may not have had a specific idea about the end of time, but as we have noted, they did believe that humanity originated at a very specific point in time from the hands of a god.  The Maya remained playthings in the hands of their gods, but with enough freewill to offend and suffer the consequences.  Supernatural forces pervaded Maya life, and influenced every aspect of it from the simplest day-to-day activities such as food preparation, to trade, politics, and elite activities.

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Modern Maya recreate an ancient rite.

At the core of Maya religious practice was the worship of deceased ancestors, who would act as go-betweens for their living descendants in dealings with the denizens of the supernatural realm. The earliest intermediaries between humans and the supernatural realm were shamans. As the Maya civilization developed, the ruling elite codified the general concepts held by Maya society, and developed them into religious cults that justified their right to rule.

In the Late Preclassic, the pinnacle of this process was the combination of ultimate political and religious power in the divine king, the k’uhul ajaw. Although it is difficult to reconstruct the belief system through archaeology, some indicators of ritual practice do leave physical traces.  These include dedicatory caches and other ritual deposits, shrines, and burials and their associated funerary offerings. In addition, Maya art, architecture, and writing all assist in the reconstruction of ancient Maya beliefs; these can be combined with ethnographic sources, including records of Maya religious practices made by the Spanish during the conquest.  

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A Maya funerary urn.

Maya households interred their dead underneath the floors of their houses, with offerings appropriate to the social status of the family. There the dead could act as protective ancestors. Maya lineages were patrilineal, so the worship of a prominent male ancestor would be emphasized, often with a household shrine. As Maya society developed, and the elite became more powerful, Maya royalty developed their household shrines into great pyramids that held the tombs of their ancestors.

The Maya priesthood was a closed group, drawing its members from the established elite; by the Early Classic they were recording increasingly complex ritual information in their hieroglyphic books, including astronomical observations, calendrical cycles, history and mythology. The priests performed public ceremonies that incorporated feasting, bloodletting, incense burning, music, ritual dance, and, on certain occasions, human sacrifice. During the Classic period, the Maya ruler was the high priest, and the direct conduit between mortals and the gods. It is highly likely that, among commoners, shamanism continued in parallel to state religion. By the Postclassic, religious emphasis had changed; there was an increase in worship of the images of deities, and more frequent recourse to human sacrifice.

ek balam
After his death, the Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ – Ajaw (King) of the Maya city of Ek Balam was placed inside this gaping jaguar’s maw some forty feet up the side of a great pyramid which overlooked his kingdom. He was accompanied by rich offerings and human sacrifices. The entire building was sealed and covered with sascab (powdered limestone) and stones, so carefully that the stucco facade was preserved intact, such that no restoration was required when it was uncovered in 20th century. (Ek Balam, Mexico, 2017.)

The Maya viewed the cosmos as highly structured; there were thirteen levels in the heavens, and nine levels in the underworld; the mortal world occupied a position between the heavens and the underworld. Each level had four cardinal directions associated with a different color.  Major deities had aspects associated with these directions and colors; north was white, east was red, south was yellow, and west was black.

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The Maya concept of the world included many layers and gods, each with their own distinct symbols, attributes, and domains.

The Maya interpretation of deities was intrinsically tied to the calendar, astronomy, and their cosmovision.  The importance of a deity, its characteristics, and its associations varied according to the movement of celestial bodies. The priestly interpretation of astronomical records and books was therefore crucial, since the priest would understand which deity required ritual propitiation, when the correct ceremonies should be performed, and what would be an appropriate offering. Each deity had four manifestations, associated with the cardinal directions, each identified with a different color. They also had a dual day-night/life-death aspect.

Itzamna was the creator god, but he also embodied the cosmos, and was simultaneously a sun god; K’inich Ahau, the day sun, was one of his aspects. Maya kings frequently identified themselves with K’inich Ahau. Itzamna also had a night sun aspect, the Night Jaguar, representing the sun in its journey through the underworld.

The four Pawatuns supported the corners of the mortal realm; in the heavens, the Bacabs performed the same function. As well as their four main aspects, the Bakabs had dozens of other aspects that are not well understood.

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Chaac as he appears at the Maya city of Uxmal. (Uxmal, Mexico, 2017.)

The four Chaacs were storm gods, controlling thunder, lightning, and the rains.

In common with other Mesoamerican cultures, the Maya worshiped feathered serpent deities. Such worship was rare during the Classic period, but by the Postclassic the feathered serpent had spread to both the Yucatán Peninsula and the Guatemalan Highlands. In Yucatán, the feathered serpent deity was Kukulkan.  The cult of Kukulkan was heavily influenced by the Quetzalcoatl cult of central Mexico.

Read more on this subject -> The Basics of Ancient Maya Civilization  ◦ The Ancient Maya in Time and Space  ◦  Ancient Maya Society  ◦  The Maya City  ◦  The Written Language of the Maya


  1. Use this dictionary to write a short poem in the Maya script, using at least a dozen glyphs.  Does composing in Mayan effect the experience of writing and reading?
  2. The Popol Vuh is one of the few remaining Maya stories dating to before the Spanish conquest.  It was originally preserved through oral tradition throughout the Maya world until approximately 1550 when it was written down.  The Popol Vuh includes the Mayan creation myth, beginning with the exploits of the Hero Twins Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.  Read some of an English translation of the Popol Vuh, then choose a scene to reenact in a 3-5 minute skit or video in front of your class.
  3. Write an essay that compares and contrasts the 16th century Spanish conquistadors and the 21st century Taliban.
  4. Research the Caste War of Yucatán, which occurred in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in the nineteenth century.  Take inspiration from the form and style of the Dresden Codex to tell the story of this late period Maya resistance.
  5. Choose any section from this unit and develop a lesson – in the form of a presentation, a storybook, or a worksheet – that teaches younger students about the Maya.  Make sure the material is age appropriate in content and approach, and create some simple questions to check your audience’s understanding.

Further Reading

The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe.

Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


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Time has passed, but life is thriving in the Yucatan, one of the safest, most fascinating parts of Mexico for foreigners to visit. (Merida, Mexico, 2017.)

You can actually visit parts of the world featured in this lesson:

A Guided Tour of Maya Mexico, 2017 – Explore the ruins of Ek’ Balam, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza, scramble through streets of colonial Merida, and sample the cuisine and culture of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Supplementary photos and information on the Yucatan, past and present.