Mayan religion had a rich collection of rituals and festivals. One of the most important aspects of religion was Mayan sacrifice which was performed in various forms. This could include killing of animals, offering of food and material possessions, bloodletting by the members of royalty and in certain cases, human sacrifice. The Mayan sacrifice was performed during religious festivals and ceremonies and overlooked by the Mayan priests. Human sacrifice was less common in Mayan civilisations unlike the latter Aztecs who regularly performed it.
There aren’t any traces of human sacrifice found in the pre-classic period although sacrifice of other kinds cannot be ruled out. During the classic period of Mayan civilisation, which extended from 250AD to 900AD, examples are found of all kinds of sacrifice including human sacrifice. Clear examples of Mayan sacrifice are also found during the post-classic period which extended from 900AD to 1524AD. Evidence of multiple kinds of human sacrifice has been found from these periods.
Various customs and rituals revolved around Mayan sacrifice. A large numbers of festivals and rituals were performed on fixed days which involved sacrificing animals or bloodletting. The custom of bloodletting was particularly important and was present in almost all festivals and rituals. Priests performed the sacrifice using multiple methods, usually in the temples on top of the pyramids.
Mayan sacrifice was very important for the Mayan ruling class since their blood was considered sacred and hence had more value than ordinary blood. Bloodletting involved the people of royalty perforating different body parts including tongue, lips, and genitals. The collected blood could be buried or smeared on an idol and at some places smeared on maize and baked into sacred bread. Sacrifice was considered an essential element of relationship between humans and gods because according to Mayan mythology, gods sacrificed parts of their body to give life to humankind and sacrifice offered by human was a sign of gratitude.
The concept of Mayan sacrifice, including human sacrifice, was already widespread during the classic period of Mayan civilisation. The most common method of human sacrifice in this period was decapitation and sometimes the sacrifice also involved torture. However, sacrifice by extracting the heart was also performed in certain places. For heart sacrifice, the method use was to cut across the diaphragm immediately below the ribcage. Other than human sacrifice, sacrifice of animals, offering of material possessions, and bloodletting were also common throughout the period.
All kinds of Mayan sacrifice, including human sacrifice, were widespread during the post-classic period of Mayan civilisation. Various hieroglyphs illustrate human sacrifice by heart extraction, with the victim stretched over an arched stone, and other methods. In the highlands of present-day Guatemala, human sacrifice was performed to K’iche’ gods. During this kind of sacrifice, the victims were tied before the representation of the god and the priests opened the victim’s chest to cut open the heart. After the sacrifice, the severed head would often be put on the skull rack in front of the temple. The highest form of human sacrifice was that of the members of the royalty since their blood was considered sacred and hence of higher value.
The first contact of the Spaniards with Mayans had elements of human sacrifice. This happened in 1511 when the Spanish ship called Santa María de la Barca wrecked upon a reef off Jamaica. The survivors from the ship set sail in one of the boats and after a tortuous journey, were captured by Mayan Lord Halach Uinik. Some of the prisoners were eventually sacrificed, including the captain of the ship Pedro de Valdivia, and their meat was served at a feast. Sacrifice of captured Spaniards continued further during the initial contact between the Mayans and the Spaniards.
While the concept of human sacrifice was not as common among the Mayans as the latter Aztecs, they nonetheless performed it on certain occasions. Sacrifice by decapitation was the most common method during the classic period. The highest form was decapitation of an enemy king and involved ritual reenactment of the decapitation of Mayan maize god. Sacrifice by decapitation is also depicted in the art of Mayan classic period.
Sacrifice by heart extraction became the most common form of human sacrifice during the post-classic period. This in part was influenced by a similar practice of the contemporary Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. This sacrifice often took place in the court of a temple or top of a pyramid. The victim was placed on a convex stone with his chest pushed upwards. A sacrificial knife made of flint was cut into the victim’s ribs just below the left breast to extract the still-beating heart. The body of the victim was then used for ritual cannibalism.
Killing with bow and arrows was another common form of human sacrifice among the Mayans. The victim was tied to a stake surrounded by a ritual dance and blood was drawn from the genitals and smeared onto the image of a deity. A White symbol was then painted on the chest which was the target of the arrows. Multiple archers then aimed at it until the chest was filled with arrows. This kind of sacrifice existed in the classic as well as post-classic periods.
While the described sacrifice methods were the most widely used forms of Mayan sacrifice, there were also other less commonly used Mayan sacrifice methods. One such sacrifice involved tying the hands of the victim behind his head and disemboweling him. Evidence has also been found of burying people alive to accompany a deceased nobleman as an offering. Another form of sacrifice involved hurling humans into the cenote during the times of drought.
The practice of ritual sacrifice was central to Mayan religion and included various offering in the form of food and material possessions, bloodletting, and human sacrifice. The practice of human sacrifice was not as common among the Mayans as among the latter Aztecs, but it did exist and was performed on certain occasions. Different methods of human sacrifice were prevalent during different periods of Mayan civilisation.