Religion was a very important part of the Mayan society. It pervaded most aspects of social life and involved frequent sacrifices. Most of the times, religious rituals involved offering animal sacrifices to the Mayan gods but in some cases, human sacrifices were offered as a rare tribute. Mayan sacrifices were usually carried out by Mayan priests atop pyramid-temples. Mayans believed that by offering animal and human sacrifices, they appeased the gods and in some cases, aided the gods so that the gods, in turn, helped them. Sports such as ballgames also culminated in ritual sacrifices.
In the early Mayan period prior to 200 A.D., there is little evidence to substantiate that human sacrifices took place although extant art does provide proof of animal sacrifices. However, as the Mayan cities rose to power and the Mayan civilisation entered its Classic Period, human sacrifices became a regular part of the religious rituals. During the period between 250 A.D. and 900 A.D., warfare was usually carried out to capture enough victims for ritual sacrifices. The practice continued all the way until the 16th century when the Spaniards invaded Mayan lands.
Mayans offered the sacrifice of human victims to their gods in different ways. Each method of sacrifice had its own significance. The stature and bravery of the sacrificed individual was also considered a key aspect of the value of the sacrifice. The braver and more honourable the captured victim, the higher was deemed the value of the sacrifice. A frequent method of offering human sacrifices was by beheading. This method was mostly applied to captured enemy rulers. In many cases, beheading was accompanied by ballgames.
This was by far the most popular method of sacrifice in all Mayan cities. Mayans believed the heart to be at the centre of human body and the most vital organ. Consequently, it was believed that the sacrifice of a still throbbing heart was the most precious kind of human sacrifice that could be offered to the gods. Sacrifices involving heart removal usually took place on top of a pyramid-temple. The victim was pinned to a large stone, his four limbs secured by the assistants of a priest. The priest then cut into the breast of the victim with a flint knife and ripped out the heart. The body of the victim was then flung down the stairs of the pyramid, making a trail of blood which was considered religiously significant.
A rather rare but extraordinary method of sacrifice used by the Mayans was by using bows and arrows. This was a more excruciating method for the victim. A white paint was used to mark the position of the victim’s heart who was then tied to a post. The Mayans would then dance around the victim and use bows and arrows to hit the heart. The sacrifice caused the slow death of the victim by excessive bleeding from numerous arrow wounds. Mayans believe that such a slow death was more valued by the gods.
Sacrifices of human victims was a very important part of the Mayan religion. It was related to ancient Mayan mythology which frequently involved the motifs of life and death. For Mayans, the tales such as that of the Hero Twins signified that the gods were pleased with sacrifices. Mayans also believed that by offering one or more individuals as sacrifices to the gods, they were able to secure the triumph of life of the Mayan citizens. This is why sacrifices were also considered festive occasions, fit for celebrations.
Ballgame was the favorite sport played in Mayan cities. It was more than a mere sport and carried a lot of religious significance. The sport was directly related to Mayan mythological saga of the Hero Twins. According to this saga, the Twins descended to the Mayan underworld, defeated the lords of the underworld in ballgames and finally subdued them. Mayans played the ballgame as a symbolic representation of the conflict between life and death. And at the end of the game, human sacrifices were offered as the triumph of life.
Apart from the aforementioned methods which were more commonplace, the Mayans also offered human sacrifices in many other ways. These other ways were less common and were used on rarer occasions. Human sacrifices by burying the victims alive was one such method. This was usually carried out at the death of a very distinguished nobleman. Another popular method of offering human sacrifices was to throw young males and females into the cenotes. This was usually offered as a sacrifice for the rain god and to ensure that the gods sent ample rainfall for annual harvest.
During the early exploratory expeditions of the Mayan regions, one of the Spanish ships called Santa Maria de la Barca wrecked near the Mayan coast. The crew of the ship was able to reach the coast safely with the help of smaller boats but upon reaching the coast, they were captured by a Mayan lord. Although two of the Spaniards were able to have their lives spared and agreed to serve the Mayan lord, the rest of them were sacrificed to the Mayan gods.
Sacrifices of both animals and humans was considered an important part of Mayan religion. Mayan usually offered human sacrifices on rarer occasions and it was considered among the highest tributes for the gods. Common methods of ritual sacrifice of humans included decapitation, heart removal and death by arrows. Mayans believed that the tribute of human sacrifices was valued by Mayan gods and kept them happy so that they, in turn, aided the Mayans. Less common methods involved sacrificing human victims by burying them alive or throwing them into cenotes. Human sacrifices became more common in the Mayan society during the Classic Period and continued unabated until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century.