An education in all things Maya

Before starting this trip I knew next to nothing about the Maya, save the fact that they a) lived a long time ago in Mexico and b) Mel Gibson made a movie about them. Given I hadn’t even seen the movie, that really left me with just point a). And even that isn’t strictly correct.


If you believe the textbook stereotypes, the Maya were a violent race who followed many bloodthirsty traditions involving human sacrifice. But once you learn about this warrior race, it’s hard not to develop an appreciation and even an admiration for them. Their feats of architecture and engineering, for example, easily rival that of the ancient Egyptians. Wandering around and climbing on the ruins of Palenque and Chichen Itza in particular, I could only marvel at the immense temples, plazas, palaces and “ball game” arenas. Though they are just ruins today, it does not take a great leap of imagination to picture what they would have looked like centuries ago. Painted in shades of red, yellow and blue, decorated by row after row of fearsome-looking stone carvings, these structures would have been nothing short of awe-inspiring.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Not only were they impressive architects, the Maya were also amazing astronomers and mathematicians. The Mayan calendar tracks a cycle of more than 5000 years – 5126 to be exact – and within this includes a series of intricate sub-calendars that track the sun, the moon, other planets, crop cycles, and a whole host of events that have practical and cultural significance. The calendar was in turn used to design buildings – Chichen Itza, for example, is a perfect testament to this calendar. It’s complexity is astounding and I personally can’t even begin to fathom how they came up with this. But then maths was never my forte.
The Mayan calendar does in fact “run out” on December 21, 2012 which has obviously led to various wild predictions of the end of the world, and of course, several bad Hollywood movies. If any of you are a bit nervous, let me reassure you that Hollywood is wrong. I have it on good authority that the only thing that happens is the cycle starts again. So don’t worry, there’s no need to cancel Christmas.
I can’t write a blog about the Maya without mentioning their ball game. Played by elite athletes, this game involved two teams, and the aim was to get a heavy rubber ball of about 30cm in diameter through a stone ring that was about 35cm in diameter and several metres off the ground – without using your hands. Feet, knees, chest and elbows only. Today’s soccer players have nothing on these guys. At the end of each game there was a sacrifice to the Gods, and depending on which city you lived, that sacrifice might be the winners or the losers. At Chichen Itza it was the winners who were sacrificed, as it was believed their “strong blood” would please the Gods and ensure a good harvest. I was fairly convinced that such a “reward” would see lots of athletes throwing the game, but no, apparently to be sacrificed was the greatest honour you could recieve. Still, I’m a bit sceptical.
As a side note, though I am lauding their intelligence, there was one theory that our guide told us about why Chichen Itza was abandoned that did make me pause. This city was supplied with water by a series of underground streams, which were linked to the Sagrado Cenote, a massive sinkhole. Often the bodies of human sacrifices were thrown into this cenote, to please the Gods. Except at some point, the water started going bad….and the Mayans took this to mean the Gods were displeased with them…and felt the only way to remedy this was to sacrifice even more humans and throw them into the cenote. Unsurprisingly, the water eventually went so bad that they had to abandon Chichen Itza, or so the theory goes. Where is a good public health officer when you need one, eh?
It is obviously impossible for me to describe everything I have learned about the Maya. They were artists, performers, linguists, engineers, farmers, town planners, mathematicians, astronomers, and yes, warriors. They were both fearsome and beautiful, which makes their decline at the hands of the Spanish all the more tragic.

1 thought on “An education in all things Maya

  1. Pingback: Mmmm….chocolate…. | leavetheheelsathome

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s