The Mayan World of Guatemala
Long before the Spaniards discovered or conquered the Old World of Central America there was already a large, local empire thriving in its midst – the world of the Maya. The Mayan empire was thriving between 250 and 900 A.D. but its origins go back much farther – reaching as far back as 2600 B.C.! The Mayan empire was a complex culture, and despite the discoveries that are made almost daily, it is still surrounded by a great deal of mystery. And the biggest mystery seems to be the factors that led to the brilliant culture’s downfall.
The Mayan Monarchy and Rule
Despite the image that many people have of the Mayan empire, the Mayan people were not living under a single unified government or emperor. Instead, the Mayan civilization was very much like ancient Greece, where the religion and art were shared throughout the land, but the government was comprised by individually run “city-states”. And in the world of the Mayan government, there were two major players – the priesthood and the rulers. The priesthood had control of the Mayan Calendar and religious ceremonies and held a power over nearly every aspect of daily life. The rulers were kings, and the line continued on through the male line. Once an heir was born, the ruling king would offer a blood sacrifice (surprisingly, of his own blood) to his ancestors. Blood was an integral part of the ruling government, and when the heir would later become king, it was ushered in by way of a human sacrifice. The sacrificial victim was a captive of war, and this accession ceremony was the most important ritual in the king’s life. It established and affirmed his right to rule, and kept the people at ease, since the Mayan religion maintained that the kingship was integral not only for the continuation of the Mayan culture, but of the entire Universe!
A Glimpse into the Life of the Ancient Mayan World
The family life of the Mayan culture was built around ceremony, religious rituals and the local economy. The typical Mayan family would have between 5 and 7 members, and all of them would be awake well before dawn. The morning would start over a steaming cup of hot chocolate or perhaps atole, a hot corn drink and a plate of tortillas or tamales while nestled in the warmth and comfort of their one room huts constructed of interwoven poles and dried mud. During the growing season men would be busy working the fields and women would stay at home, weaving, sewing or preparing foods like corn, squash, and beans along with the occasional turkey or rabbit. When the growing season was over, there was still plenty of work to be done building monuments, pyramids and temples for the edification of the rulers. It was also during this time that the common people could look forward to attending royal marriages and special ceremonies. At the end of the day, you’d be able to find the family reunited once again inside the home, where the head of household would perform a quick bloodletting. This was a central ritual for piety and would be completed with prayers and chants to their ancestors. After the evening meal, it would soon be time to go back to bed and prepare for the following day.
A Unique Beauty
The concept of Mayan beauty was a bit different than our modern concept of what is attractive and it required a bit more work, too. Starting at birth, Mayan parents took careful steps to ensure that their children would prove to be quite striking. One of the most attractive features of the ancient Maya was to be slightly cross-eyed. This was accomplished from hanging beads over the noses of small children, training the muscles of the eyes to focus slightly inward. Another mark of beauty centered on the shape of the skull. Modification would begin quite early – in infanthood, in fact – and the goal was a resulting flattened or cone shaped skull. Other body modifications that led to beauty included filing the teeth (either in a “T” shape or into sharpened little points), ritual tattooing, scarification and other forms of body modification. I imagine there is an old Mayan proverb along the lines of today’s “No pain, no gain!”
A Modern Mystery
The Mayan culture was a pioneer when it came to many “modern” advances including the accurate solar calendar, a strong economy, an intricate understanding of astronomy and a strong grasp on the importance of ceremonial and ritual religion. The Mayan calendar is one of the most accurate of all calendars and is the basis for the modern method. It is surrounded by a lot of prophecy and mystery and is commonly mentioned amongst groups of people discussing the end of the world. According to the Mayan calendar, the earth will end it’s current age (which they’ve been tracking since August of 3114 B.C.) in the year 2012!
They were an incredibly advanced society, with large metropolitan areas that often boasted as many as a quarter of a million people. But, eventually, the Mayan Empire seems to have been abandoned though there are still over 5 million Mayan people spread throughout the land of Central America. One of the biggest mysteries that greet historians and archeologists is what caused this mass exodus and metropolitan downfall. But, the general consensus is that several factors led to this dissipation. These factors include:
- The several city-states that comprised the Mayan empire eventually experienced such enormous growth that not only did they contend with external conflicts, but plenty of interior conflicts too. All of this warring, of both the civil external sort, eventually led to a level of violence, death and destruction that didn’t take long to get way out of control!
- Due to this explosive growth, the Mayans experienced an exponential growth in their need for natural resources. In an effort to supply their needs, their fragile rainforest ecosystem was quickly depleted.
- The loss of the vital rainforest most likely prompted climactic changes and led to eventual droughts. These droughts would have dried out the Mayan’s extensive and sophisticated irrigation system making farming and daily life almost impossible.
- This, in turn, contributed to over population in a land that could hardly continue to support as many as 200 people per every square kilometer. Overpopulation would lead to eventual malnutrition and social upset, which led to the abandonment of their extensive, magnificent cities and monuments.
Gone, but Not Gone
Although the ancient Mayan cities have long been abandoned and reclaimed by the surrounding jungle, the Maya people are still thriving throughout the lands of Central America. It is estimated that there are as many as 7 million Maya living from the Yucatan peninsula and into Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They are a tough and hardy people who have been the victims of many cultures, from other indigenous people to the conquistadors and missionaries who arrived from Spain. They’ve witnessed the destruction of their culture, artifacts and writings, and have fallen prey to many diseases brought by the White Man that threatened to completely decimate their population. It is estimated that not very long after their discovery by the Spaniards, the Mayan population was drastically reduced by as much as 1/4’s of its original size by massacre, famine, disease and oppression. However, despite their nearly constant hardship, the Mayan people have managed to preserve the pieces of their culture and heritage and share it with the rest of the world today. Different sects of the Maya have maintained their own languages, rituals, handicrafts and traditions all across Central America.
Throughout the many countries of the Mayan World, you can find ruins, monuments, pyramids and plazas left behind by the magnificent culture of opulence, education and religious insight and waiting to be rediscovered today. So, as you visit the wonderful world of Guatemala, be sure to take the time to immerse yourself in an ancient land, full of secrets, mystery and beauty.