Lesson Plan: Maya Gods and Religious Beliefs

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A depiction of the maize god from the murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala

Maize

  • The Ancient Maya believed that people came from maize. See the creation story from the Popol Vuh.
  • Many Ancient Maya legend centre around maize crops and maize features on may artefacts, murals and glyphs.
  • Maize can be used as fuel e.g. for human consumption, to create fires.
  • Maize, squash and beans were often grown together as the “Three Sisters” due to their ability to support each other’s growth and nutritional benefits.
  • Maize represents the cycle of life: birth, death and regrowth.
  • The Ancient Maya depend on maize crops as a vital source of food.

The Maize God

The Popol Vuh (only existing text concerning creation beliefs) explains in Book 1 how the Gods tried and failed to make humans (something to worship them) out of mud and then wood, but both failed.

The gods created the world and all living things except humans. The animals could not speak or praise their gods, however, and so the gods declared, “we must make a provider and nurturer. How else can we be invoked and remembered on the face of the earth?” They try to create human beings but fail because the creatures “have no heart” and do not remember their makers. They try again, this time making people out of wood, but this also fails and the creatures are destroyed by a great flood. Those not destroyed by the deluge are set upon by their dogs, by their cooking pots and tortilla grinders, by all of the things of the earth they have misused and mistreated.

In Book 4, humans are finally made out of maize.

At first, the gods make out of maize four men who had the understanding of existence as the gods themselves.  This troubles the gods who understand that humans should not have the same gifts as their creators. They confer among themselves, saying, “Aren’t they merely ‘works’ and ‘designs’ in their very names? Yet they’ll become as great as gods unless they procreate, proliferate at the sowing, the dawning, unless they increase. Let it be this way: now we’ll take them apart just a little.” The gods introduce mortality to humanity and only let them understand things that were close to them.  The gods then provide the men with wives and “right away they were happy at heart again, because of their wives” and they forget that once they knew everything and were like the gods. The men and women content themselves with having children and planting crops and appreciating the gifts the gods have given them.

The Popul Vuh: A Maya creation story

The Popul Vuh was the sacred book of the Quiche Maya written in the middle of the sixteenth century.  It includes the famous myth of the the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who played a ballgame in the underworld.  These twins became great ballplayers and were summoned to a ballgame by the Underworld Lords.  In their first game, the lords tried to use a skull as a ball, to which the Hero Twins refused.  However, they had to undertake several trials in various Underworld houses, in which one, the ‘House of Bats’, Hunahpu was decapitated.  The lords hung his head over the ballcourt and announced that it would be used as the ball at the next match.  Yet, Xbalanque fashioned a temporary head for his brother’s body and persuaded a rabbit to impersonate the ball, so he could retrieve Hunahpu’s head and restore him whole.

Gods

  • The Maya religion is polytheistic and they worshipped around 10 gods.
  • Maya gods are linked to the cycles in the calendar. Whichever god is reigning can affect crops, wars, kingship etc.
  • Maya people’s birthdate is very important. Everyone has a Nahual (a spirit companion which shares your soul). Every King has a jaguar as their Nahual.
  • The Maya used their calendars and astronomical buildings to work out which gods needed appeasing and which to perform rituals for e.g. to ensure a bountiful harvest.

Download – Maya gods lesson plan

Download – Maya Religion lesson plan


Maya Day Ceremony

 

To read a teacher’s account of a modern Maya Day ceremony (illustrated above) – click here

To see how a Maya Day ceremony can be carried out with your class – click here

Learn about Maximón

 

Further Resources

Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya – This video portrays the myths included in this book.  This video is animated using actual Maya artwork found on pottery and murals.

The Maya Vase Database also includes a photographic essay on the Popul Vuh using Maya artefacts and paintings on vases.

 

 
 

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