Mayan Civilisation thrived in the Mesoamerican region for thousands of years after which it collapsed and declined. However, the Mayan culture and its adherents continue to practice various aspects of Mayan social and spiritual living. The Mayans were deeply religious people and religious ceremonies and festivals were an essential part of Mayan society. Mayan ceremonies were not always religious in nature but nonetheless, most of them aimed at honouring the gods and seeking their blessings. Mayans performed various rituals during these ceremonies which had a separate set of customs associated with them. Religious ceremonies were often lead by the priests, shamans, and rulers. Even in the present day, a variety of Mayan ceremonies continue to be performed.
The history of Mayan ceremonies can be traced back to the Pre-Classic Period when the foundations of Mayan culture and spiritual philosophy were laid down. It was during this time that Mayans developed the basic concepts of their religion and this also included various sorts of Mayan ceremonies. For instance, the ceremonies of bloodletting and offering sacrifice to the gods were started in the Pre-Classic Period. Similarly, the rituals surrounding around the ascension of a new king or the funeral of a deceased king also existed since the Pre-Classic Period, although some of them were not as developed as in the Classic Period
In ancient Mayan, bloodletting ceremonies took place often and it was common for a member of the royalty to spill blood during a religious ceremony. This was because the blood of the members of royalty was considered sacred and their offering of blood was a sacrifice to the gods. Due to this importance of royal blood, it was thought that its offering could establish a relation between the mortals and the gods and royal ancestors. Set dates were reserved for the bloodletting ceremonies, such as beginning or ending of a calendar cycle. Such ceremonies could also be held at important occasions such as ascension of a king etc.
One of the most common Mayan ceremonies is called Saka which is a sacred ceremony offered to the thirteen Mayan levels and spheres of life. During the ceremony, Mayan gods are called upon to be honoured and their blessings are respectfully requested. The sacred Mayan beverage called Saka, made of maize and wild honey, is prepared by the priest before the ceremony. The sacred drink, after being offered to the Mayan gods, is shared among the participants of the ceremony. This ceremony of gratitude is generally performed for good fortune and healthy crops.
Mayan ceremonies are usually led by the high priests. For instance, the ceremony of Ya’axche’ is one of the most sacred Mayan ceremonies and is performed by highly qualified priests. Ya’axche’, in Mayan mythology, represents the centre of life on earth, the connection between heaven, earth, and the underworld. This symbol of life and of the planet earth has its roots in all the levels of the underworld, with its branches reaching to heavens. In other words, this is one of the most important cosmic concepts in Mayan spirituality and thus the ceremony associated with it is highly regarded.
There were various ways of performing Mayan ceremonies involving human sacrifice. The most common way was decapitating the victim in a ritual enactment of the decapitation of Mayan maize god. There are examples of Mayan rulers being decapitated in this manner. For instance, Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil of Copán was captured by his vassal king K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat of Quiriguá and then decapitated during a ceremony in 738AD. Another way of offering human sacrifice during a Mayan ceremony was heart removal. This became the most common way during the Post-Classic Period and usually took place in the courtyard of a temple atop a pyramid accompanied by various rituals.
Mayan ceremonies involving human sacrifice could also take other forms. For instance, in some ritual Mayan ceremonies, the sacrifice involved the victim being killed with bow and arrows. During this ceremony, the victim was stripped and painted blue. A symbol was painted on the victim’s heart where the archers would then shoot arrows. This, just like other Mayan ceremonies, was accompanied by singing and dancing. Mayan ceremonies involving human sacrifice could also take other forms such as disemboweling the victims or entombing them alive etc.
Different kinds of sacred fire ceremonies are prevalent among the Mayans since the ancient times. These Mayan ceremonies usually last for hours and can have quite a powerful impact. The ceremony begins with the invocation of fire cardinal directions which have religious significance for the Mayans, along with invocation of ancestors, Maya clans, and various places and elements of nature. The ingredients of the sacred fire are generally all handmade and carefully tied together with little strings. Colour-coded candles are used to represent the four directions and the ancestors. The ceremony also involves use of several different types of incense. The ceremony does not end until the last embers of fire have extinguished.
There are various other Mayan ceremonies that are performed throughout the Maya communities. For instance, Taa’jche’ is a Mayan sacred ceremony of the new fire which is celebrated during the equinox afternoons every year at Chichen Itza. There is a rain-making ceremony called Ch’a Chaac in the honour of Mayan god Junab K’uj and the rain god, Chaack. Among Mayan family ceremonies, U Janal Pixan is an important ceremony in the commemoration of the deceased and their ancestors. Like other Mayan ceremonies, singing and sometimes dancing is part of this Mayan ceremony as well.
Mayan culture developed over thousands of years during which the Mayans developed a rich cultural and religious philosophy, giving rise to a variety of ceremonies. Among the most important ceremonies performed in ancient Maya, we can include the Mayan ceremonies of bloodletting and human sacrifice which could be performed in various ways. In modern times, a variety of Mayan ceremonies are performed among various Mayan communities. These ceremonies are designed to honour the gods and nature in addition to remembering deceased people and their ancestors.