Mayans were a deeply religious people and their beliefs permeated all aspects of their life. Since Mayan deities were primarily associated with nature, natural phenomenon, and the cosmos, Mayans also believed they controlled the seasons as well as the outcomes of wars. So Mayans offered the gods frequent sacrifices as tributes to appease them and in return expected favours from them. Two main classes of Mayan rituals including bloodletting rituals, which included human sacrifices, and death rituals which involved the burial of Mayan people in such a way as to help them go through the underworld successfully and ascend to the heavenly realm. The rituals were carried out and overlooked by Mayan priests at pyramid-temples, cenotes and other places which Mayans held sacred.
Mayans performed many different rituals involving bloodletting. In some cases, they would sacrificed animals but in rarer cases, human sacrifices were offered to the gods. The braver and more important the person who was being sacrificed, the more important was the tribute considered. During the Classic period of the Mayan civilisation, it was common among the Mayan rulers to decapitate an enemy ruler if they were successful in capturing it. The sacrifice of an enemy ruler was the highest form of human sacrifice according to the Mayans. The decapitation of such a human sacrifice was typically accompanied by ritual ballgames.
Removing the heart of a human victim in ritual sacrifice was the most common type of Mayan bloodletting ritual. The ritual was usually carried out either on top of a pyramid-temple or inside the premises of a temple if it had a courtyard. Before the sacrifice could take place, the victim was painted blue. He was then laid over a large stone, his four limbs held tight by four assistants of the priests, representing the four Chaacs. The priest would then use a flint knife to cut open the breast of the victim and rip out the heart. It was often a part of the ritual to fling the body of the sacrificed individual down the steps of the pyramid. If the sacrificed individual was a warrior, his body was usually eaten by the Mayans.
Sacrificing a human victim using a bow and an arrow was also a common ritual among the Mayans. It typically involved painting the victim blue and propping up of well-decorated headdresses on top of his head. First the Mayans danced around the victim and mutilated the genitals. Then white paint was used to mark the exact position of the heart on the chest, so that archers could spot it from a distance. Then the Mayans began shooting arrows at the victim’s chest until many arrows had pierced through it and the victim was dead. Usually the aim of this ritual was to sacrifice the victim slowly so as to make the most of this tribute to the gods.
Blood-letting rituals had a very important part in the Mayan belief systems. Mayan mythology frequently mentions death, sacrifice and rebirth of life. Mayans believed that one way to ensure the continuity of the life of the society at large was to offer frequent sacrifices to the gods. In the eyes of the Mayans, the sacrifices pleased the gods because they were a way of connecting the underworld with the living world, and then triumph over the underworld. The same motifs are expressed in the Mayan mythological saga of the Hero Twins. The sacrifices were carried with careful deliberation and were seen as an essential part of religion. Typically, brave warriors were chosen for human sacrifice rituals because the Mayans believed that a braver and more able warrior was more valued as a tribute by the gods. Mayan ballgame was also considered a religious ritual of sorts.
In the Mayan mythological saga of the Hero Twins, the two heroes descend the Mayan underworld called Xibalba. There, the lords of Xibalba engaged the twins in a number of ballgame matches. Ultimately, the Hero Twins defeated the lords at the ballgame, killed the lords and then ascended to the heavens to become the Sun and the Moon. Mayans played ballgame religiously, considering it primarily as a religious ritual in imitation of the Hero Twins. They believed the game to be a contest between life and death. At the end of the game, human sacrifice was carried out as a celebration of the triumph over the underworld and the victory of life. So human sacrifice in Mayan society was usually seen as a celebration of life.
Mayans had many elaborate burial rituals which usually applied only to the Mayan elites and nobility. When a Mayan lord was buried, many religiously significant objects were placed next to him. These included the seeds of maize, sometimes maize was placed in his mouth. Other objects accompanying the deceased lord included jade beads and the corpse was wrapped in cotton mantles. It was believed that a deceased person first had to the descend to the Mayan underworld. And after he was able to make his way through the underworld, he would finally ascend to the heavenly realm.
Mayans carried out a number of rituals in association with the tombs of major lords. Sometimes, entire pyramids were constructed as the tombs and vaults of the rulers. The steps of such pyramids, their construction and the overall structure depicted the Mayan underworld. Mayan tombs were also often constructed in a fashion as to reflect the Mayan cosmology. Most of these tombs were filled with pottery objects made of wood, stone and jade. Some rulers were buried with cocoa beans which the Mayans believed to be the food of the gods. It was believed that the rulers would be able to bribe the underworld lords with cocoa beans should the need arise.
Mayans performed many different rituals as part of their belief system. Most common among these were the bloodletting rituals involving human sacrifices. Mayan sacrificed human victims in such rituals as an affirmation and celebration of life. Mayans also had many burial rituals which usually required helping the deceased in crossing the underworld by placing relevant objects such as maize and cocoa beans next to him.