The ancestors of the Maya were a nomadic people of Central America who can be traced to around 3000 BC. They began to cultivate crops such as maize around 1000 BC and to build in stone about 500 BC with the earliest inscriptions being dated to the C1st BC. The Mayan civilisation occupied much of what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras before the Spanish conquest of the C16th.
Tikal and Uaxactum were two of the most important sites of the Maya's Classic Period. Like the other Maya cities they seem to have been primarily cult centres around temple pyramids of which many remain, unexcavated, in the forests of Central America. Mayan politics were originally based around independent city states, each with a hereditary ruler, a war chief elected every three years and an influential caste of hereditary priests. The various peoples shared a similar religion and culture and spoke connected languages which led to several alliances between states during the Classic Period (AD 300-925). Colonists were sent out to found new sites, particularly during the great periods of expansion AD 534-633 and AD 731-90 but this declined after around 850 and eventually stopped altogether when society reverted, for unclear reasons, to a lower cultural level in the C10th.
In about AD 930, the Itza people (who had founded Chichen Itza in Yucatan before moving to the west coast) began to move back, accompanied by a warlike tribe of Indians from central Mexico, and to found new cities. These included Uxmal in 1007 and Mayapan which became the last great Mayan capital. Their 'New Empire' returned to the high civilisation of the Classic period until the civil war between Mayas of Chichen Itza and the Mayapan Indians who were helped to victory by mercenaries from their original homeland in the central plateau.
There were about 250 years of relative peace until the subject peoples revolted, killing their ruler and sacking Mayapan in 1441 and Yucatan disintegrated into separate little city states which were constantly at war. The Itza people moved again, to Tayasal, near Tikal, which they had left in the C9th.
Although the Spanish first arrived in Yucatan (which actually means 'I don't understand' presumably the reply to a Spaniard's question as to what the Maya called their country), in 1511 they were more interested in the richer cities of Mexico and the conquest did not begin until 1527-8. Despite the disunity of the city states, the Spanish under Hernando Cortes took several decades to subdue them due to determined resistance and the use of guerilla tactics by the Maya.
Many of the native peoples actually hated each other more than the Spaniards who they were prepared to help against their old enemies, thus contributing to their own subjugation. This happened in Guatemala under Pedro de Alvarado and in Honduras under Cristobal de Olid, both companions of Cortes. De Olid had tried to set himself up as king in Honduras but Cortes, with only a small number of Spaniards and some Mexican auxiliaries, marched across the unknown interior of Yucatan to put down the rebellion.
Cortes then sent Francisco de Montejo to conquer the remaining Mayan tribes of Yucatan and the cities of the north. His army was unsuccessful and so was a fleet sent around the other side of the peninsula which was driven from its base at Chetumal to Ulua in Honduras with the Maya remaining in control by 1535. Montejo's son began a new campaign in 1542, also helped by feuds amongst the Maya. The northern cities were subdued by 1546 with tremendous slaughter and half a million Mayas were sold as slaves, leaving only the Itza in their small independent state which fell to Martin de Ursaa in 1697.
The six million Maya remaining in the area today are mostly Catholics due to Spanish influence but they still speak various Maya languages. There are about 30 of these, some closely related, of which the major division is between Cholan to the west and Yucatec in the Yucatan peninsula. They have been able to retain a distinct culture despite persistent oppression by the governments of the countries they live in. (A Mayan woman, Rigoberta Menchu, won the Nobel peace prize in 1992. Many of her family members had been killed by death squads).
The modern Maya generally have Spanish names. They can no longer read the glyphs of the ancient inscriptions in the great Maya cities but their linguistic knowledge has contributed to their deciphering and added to knowledge of the Maya civilization.
Genealogy was very important to the Maya who recorded both paternal and maternal ancestry. Property and clan affiliation were inherited from the father's side but the mother's side seems to have involved marriage taboos. A man could not marry someone with the same matrilineal name as him even if they were not related but could marry someone who was quite closely related as long as she had a different surname. Early Spanish chronicles indicate that there were only around 250 patrilinear family names in Yucatan at the time of the conquest.
Babies were named on auspicious days chosen by the priests. Everybody had four names. The first, or private name, was given at the naming ceremony, beginning with 'Ah' for a boy and 'Ix' for a girl. The private name was only known to a few people, possibly to preserve its power. Next came the father's, then the mother's, family name or a combination of the two, and lastly a nickname by which one would generally be identified. On marriage, a new name, combining elements from the husband's and wife's names, was adopted.
One Spanish record lists 166 gods, many of which were probably Mexican imports or alternative names for the same god. The Otherworld consisted of horizontal layers, of which thirteen were the sky (like Heaven) and nine were underground (like Hell). Entrance did not depend on behaviour but on class and occupation. Four gods, the Bacabs, held up the sky, each associated with a direction and a colour with a tree and bird of the same colour. There was a fifth, green, tree in the centre. In some areas they are replaced by the four Chiccans who were giant snakes living in lakes at the four cardinal points. There were also many minor Chiccans of springs, streams and lakes. Each zone of Heaven and Hell had its own god and as there were 13 of them it is possible that they were the same gods who were the patrons of the 13 katun or 20 year periods of the Maya calendar.
|North white||West black||South yellow||East red|
|Hunab Ku||supreme god|
|Itzamna||night and day, writing, food||old man with lizard/iguana body||son of Hunab Ku, Ixchel|
|Kukulkan/Quetzlcoatl||quetzal, plumed serpent|
|Ah Kin/Kinich Ahau||sun|
|Ah Uincir Dz'acar||herbal medicines|
|Ek Chuah||war, cacao, merchants, Underworld, death||dark, evil figure|
|Ah Puch||death||skeleton with dog, owl|
|Hobnil||bees, chief Bacab|
|Yum Kaax||maize||young, held pot of maize|
|Ixchel||moon pregnancy medicine/weaving||old woman||Itzamna|
|Ixchup||Young moon goddess||Ah Kinchil|
|Ixchab||suicide (an honour)||rope around neck|
There were 18 months or uinals of 20 days, followed by the five days of Uayeb which were unlucky days devoted to New Year ceremonies, to make up the 365 day 'vague' year. The extra quarter of a day was ignored, so each date would only be repeated every 52 years.
This was considered sacred and consisted of 20 months of 13 days giving a 260 day year. It is helpful to think of the numbers and days as interlocking wheels with the days revolving in an anticlockwise direction and the numbers clockwise. (1 Eb would be followed by 2 Ben).
In order to distinguish between recurring dates, the Maya used the 'Long Counter' or Great Cycle of Time. It was based on the Haab starting with one Haab year as a unit called the tun. The current Great Cycle began with 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (given the number 0.0.0.0.0) which was 13th August 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar. Dates were written as a series of numbers, starting with the largest cycles, and ending with the 'vague year' count.
|20 kin||days||1 uinal|
|18 uinal||months||1 tun|
|20 tun||7200 days||1 katun|
|20 katun||144 000 days||1 baktun|
|20 baktun||2 880 000 days||1 piktun|
|20 piktun||57 600 000 days||1 kalabtun|
|20 kalabtun||1 520 000 000 days||1 kinchiltun|
|20 kinchiltun||23 040 000 000 days||1 alautun|
Other calendars were those dealing with the moon and Venus. 65 Venusian years were equal to 104 Haab years and 146 Tzolkin years.
x = sh
u before vowel = w
c always hard
accent on last syllable
|Halach Uinic leader/king||Ah Kin high priest||Nacom military commander|
|Chac elder||Chilan medium||Ah men soothsayer|
|Al holpop militia officer|
This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.
Copies may be made for personal use only.
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