The Mayas have been the topic of many recent discussions because of their supposed prophecy about the end of the world, that should occur on 21st December of this year; there are many different opinions about this, but I’m not going to consider them because I’d like to concentrate on the history, the traditions, the religion and the language of their great and incredibly advanced culture.
The Mayas were a native Mesoamerican population that settled in a large area including the Yucatán Peninsula, Honduras, El Salvador ,Belize and Guatemala; their history can be divided into three periods: the Preclassic (1500 BC-317 BC), the Classic (317 BC-987 AD) and the Post Classic period ( from 987 AD onwards).
The Mayan civilization reached its peak around the second period: their first cities, in fact, are dated back to 300 BC; but towards 900 BC these peoples left the great southern urban centres and moved to the Yucatán Peninsula (in Mexico); for the Mayas , it’s the beginning of a long period of crisis that scholars attribute to the effects of frequent natural calamities, of pestilences and of the wars with the neighbouring peoples.
Around the 16th century, the Spanish colonizers that took possession of Central and South America caused the death of a large part of Natives (that passed from 8 to one million people!) by spreading European diseases among the natives; the survivors were made slaves and employed to work in the plantations and in the mines, where they had to suffer terrible conditions of life; in addition to this, the identity of this population was completely destroyed as the Spanish imposed not only their institutions and laws, but also their language and the Catholic religion; every attempt of the Mayas to rebel against their colonizers was violently suppressed; it was only in 1821 that the colonies were declared independent from Spain and, in 1823, Central America was annexed to Mexico; nowadays about 6 millions descendants of the original Maya population live in the south of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala; they’re more or less integrated with the societies of the nations where they dwell (some of them are still tied to their ancient traditions and speak Mayan languages); in 1992, Rigoberta Menchú, an activist figure from the Quichè ethnic group, who fought for the rights of the Mayan populations living in Guatemala, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The studies of archeologists and other scholars describe the culture of the Mayas as characterized by a profound spirituality; according to them, the universe was the result of the contrast between good (identified with rain and fertility) and evil (represented by wars, drought and storms ).
Their polytheistic religion was based on the worship of several natural gods; among them, the most important are Itzmnà, the creator and the god of sun, Kukulcán, the Feathered Serpent and Chac, the god of rain and lightning; these deities were considered the intermediaries between humans and a distant divine entity; furthermore, according to Mayas’ religious beliefs, these gods used to reveal their presence through atmospherical events, through animals and the images produced by men, that , during the religious ceremonies, led to the “materialization of the sacred energies”; this was a way for gods to receive gifts from humans.
Every aspect of Mayan life revolved almost totally around religion, which influenced even the social order: the Mayas were organized into independent state-cities, each of them governed by a ruler, that was also the main religious authority. In this way, spiritual and political power were in the hands of the same person. These priests celebrated all religious rites and were considered as intermediaries between gods and men, so as semi-divine beings, and for this reason they were buried in rich tombs; the nobles followed in the social order: they owned the lands which were cultivated by the remaining part of population: economy, in fact, was mainly based on the production of corn (considered sacred food), cotton, manioc and cocoa.
Linguistically speaking, the Mayas elaborated a complex system of hieroglyphics (comprehensible only to the priests) which were carved or painted on stone or even written in the form of books; they told about religious rituals, astronomy, divination but also about climatic events, agriculture, medicine and hunting; Hieroglyphics were translated only in the second part of 20th century because of the few texts available to scholars: during the Spanish conquest of America, in fact, a Dominican friar, Diego de Landa, had ordered to burn the books written by the Natives because of their pagan content; what survives today are the three texts known as the Dresden, the Madrid, and the Paris codices (from the name of the cities where they’re currently kept.
But perhaps what has fascinated most about the Mayas is their advanced scientific knowledge in the fields of mathematics, where they introduced a vigesimal system and the zero, and above all of astronomy, which was linked to divination (for example, the priests had to interpret which were the lucky periods to start a war, to grow food, and so on): they were able to predict eclipses and were well acquainted with the movements of the Moon and of Venus; therefore, they elaborated a sophisticated calendar made up of 18 months of 20 days each and among them they identified 5 “unlucky” days, during which people had to remain home.
Associated to religion is also the edification of pyramidal buildings made of stone, often decorated with sculptures, mosaic works, stuccoes representing deities and painted with bright colours.
These men had not only a sophisticated culture and a huge scientific knowledge, but also an clear “sense of beauty”: this should make us reflect about the huge, precious heritage that these people have left us.