In the Mayan Jungle

The Maya1 jungle, as far as the eye can see, has swallowed up the ancient Maya cities and along with them, their ancient religion.


Nohoch Mul Temple at Coba Mayan archeological site

We explored four Maya archaeological sites in two days! Not to mention, swimming with sea turtles, exploring underground lakes and burning up in the oppressive Mexican sun. When we got to the top of the highest of the Maya temples that have been cleared of trees, our guide, of Maya descent, could point out the vast 80 km2 territory that was once the enormous Maya stone city of Coba.

1  see comment by Finkus Bellum below

Maya Jungle from top of Nohoch Mul Temple, Coba archaeological site




Temple at top of step pyramid of Chichen Itza archaeological site

Since the earliest of Maya1  culture, groups of Maya rulers formed dynastic houses. As with the earliest of civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the Mayan king’s power came from his claim to ancient families of divine origin. Each dynasty expanded their domain by wars and alliances with other cities.

1  see comment by Finkus Bellum below

The great Maya cities, monumental structures, temples, and civilization based on gods and kings resembles all ancient civilization and ancient religion. But the Maya civilizations continued on in their ancient form right up until the arrival of the European explorers in Mesoamerica in the 15th century.

This preservation of ancient civilization in the Americas gives us great insight into how religion was experienced and practiced throughout the rise of all early human civilizations.


Ceramic ceremonial container, the so-called ‘descending god’ of the Maya religion, Museo Maya de Cancun

One of our two guides, an ethnographer, taught us that the people we refer to as the ‘Maya’ were, and are, many different peoples related by a common language family. Even today, people use the term ‘Maya’ as North American colonists once used the term ‘indians’, to indicate all of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is often not clear who we are pointing to when use the term ‘Maya’.

Only four or five of the many indigenous peoples of central america and the Yucatan, developed and depended upon a writing system. The now famous Maya glyphs and Mayan languages are being resurrected in Mexican schools for the preservation of the history of the Maya people.


Captured Mayan slave or conquered king, Museo Maya de Cancun

Each community had their own gods, priests and rituals, but these were not entirely independent of each other. The later civilizations have direct connections to the cities and cultures that preceded them. Some gods and their cults are preserved across the many centuries of diverse Maya cities, and city-states.


Ek-Balam archaeological site, distant temples seen from the top of the ‘Acropolis’

Sacrifice to the gods was essential to Maya religion, just as it has been to all Ancient Religion. Animal sacrifice and blood-letting seem to have been the most common ways of pleasing their god, and of assuring the god of the cult’s sincerity.

The most valued sacrifice was the human sacrifice of a exceptional member of the community. Also, we know from the stone glyphs and other records that the sacrifice of a conquered king was high on the list of cherished and effective rituals.


Wall of the dead, Chichen Itza

In the late Chichen Itza civilization, the local heroes who were sacrificed on the altar before the temple, were later figured on the stone facade of the ‘house of the hero’. Each skull carved into the rock wall (shown above) is unique and has some personal characteristic of the sacrificed citizen it represents.

Maya ball court, detail, Coba archaeological site

Not much is known about the ubiquitous Maya Ball game, but it seems that in the Itza culture of the upper Yucatan, it was the winner of the ball game who was worthy of being sacrificed. Upon learning this, my nine year-old daughter turned to our guide and said, “Well, in that case, I wouldn’t mind losing.”



all photos taken with my iPad mini




Filed under Origins, Religious Literacy

4 responses to “In the Mayan Jungle

  1. Jess Hough

    Really interesting! Do you have any more photos of the site? I’m an illustrator and I’m trying to incorporate the influences of more ancient American (Maya, Aztec, Inca) art and architecture into my work. The stylization of their carvings are generally really interesting and the forms of the buildings are totally different from the European/ancient Roman cathedrals and temples I’m used to painting.


  2. Finkus Bellum

    Just a few corrections you might want to make.

    Maya is used to refer to the people, culture, glyphs, buildings, etc. It is both singular and plural.

    Mayan is used only when talking about the language family and nothing else.



    • Thank you Finkus,

      I’ll take your word for it. My adventures in the Yucatan were guided by specialists who speak Mayan, Spanish, French and English, and we did the whole thing in French. In the Museo Maya de Cancun, although most descriptions are only in Spanish, I did notice that the English descriptions employ terminology that included “Maya political system”, “fall of the Maya cities”, and “the Mayas never disappeared …” etc. Quite frankly, I thought is was bad translation. Thanks for clearing that up.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting, and thanks for the corrections.


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