Rituals were a central part of everyday life for an ancient Mayan. For the Mayans, what we would consider “science” and “religion” or “mythology” were one and the same.
From their agricultural techniques to the calendar they followed, the Mayans meshed numerous customs, rituals, and traditions with their daily lives.
And Mayan rituals and ceremonies didn’t lose their importance just because someone had passed away. In fact, Mayan death rituals were some of the most important to the society as a whole. The Mayans held great respect for the dead, which is reflected in the culture’s ceremonial rites.
Although we don’t know everything about what life (and death) was like for an ancient Mayan, we do know about many of their death rituals, listed below.
1. Residential burials
Archeologists have determined that the Mayans practiced burial, as well as cremation. When it comes to burial, a Mayan could have an elaborate tomb or a simple burial plot.
But most often, a Mayan was buried beneath the floor of their own home. This is known as residential burial. They could also be buried nearby (but not underneath) their residential space or, alternatively, next to a ceremonial building such as a temple.
2. Mayan tombs
Most Mayans were buried in simple plots beneath their homes or near residential and ceremonial spaces. But important Mayan figures and rulers were buried in extravagant tombs, located within funerary pyramids.
Their bodies would be diligently wrapped and prepared, and their tombs would be arranged so that the ruler’s body (or bones) could face a desired direction. A ruler’s tomb would also contain offerings and valuables for the soul to use on its journey through the afterlife.
3. Body wrapping
The Mayans considered it important to wrap the body before burial. It’s thought that the practice of wrapping the body was a show of honor and respect.
It was especially essential to wrap the body of a ruler or important figure in high-quality textiles to avoid disrespecting the dead.
4. Burial position
Archeologists have discovered Mayans buried in a wide range of positions, from lying down to crouching. The preferred position is thought to have changed over time, according to the Mayans’ evolving religious beliefs.
Also important was the direction which the body faced in its burial plot or tomb. The cardinal directions were a key part of Mayan worship, including death rituals.
Most rulers were buried facing east, which is where the sun rises each day. East represented rebirth in Mayan culture, and it was one of the most important cardinal directions for the Mayans.
5. Spirit companions
A Mayan could be buried alone or with other individuals known as “spirit companions.” Important rulers in Mayan society were often buried with spirit companions, as well as plenty of pottery, food, minerals, masks, and other goods.
6. Food for the afterlife
The Mayans believed that a soul needed sustenance for its journey through the afterlife. Maize was a highly-valued crop in Mayan society, so it was a common choice.
Maize was also a symbol of rebirth, making it perfect for burial. Many Mayans had maize placed in their mouths before burial to help them on the journey through the afterlife.
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Just as the Mayans believed a soul needed nourishment in the afterlife, they also believed currency was useful on the soul’s journey.
Often, the Mayans place jade beads in the mouth of the deceased to help them on their way. They could also place more jade alongside the body, or include other valuable minerals.
Archeologists have also discovered masks with the remains of buried Mayans. The Mayans are thought to have placed a burial mask on the deceased to represent the person’s changing status: from a being of this life to one of the next. Burial masks were often made of jade, stucco, or wood.
Deceased Mayans were also often buried with stone or clay whistles, which they carved into the shapes of gods or animals. Some of these whistles create unique sounds similar to the animals they represent.
Some historians speculate that the whistles played a role in Mayan funerals themselves. They believe that the Mayans may have played music (using the whistles) during funeral ceremonies and burials. Others believe the whistles help deceased souls on their journey through the afterlife.
10. Burial phases
Today, we usually think of burial as a one-step process. But for the Mayans, burial rituals weren’t complete after the body was in the ground.
Whether a body was buried in a simple residential grave or within an ornate tomb, the Mayans often recovered the body years later. They would wait until only a skeleton remained. That began the second phase of burial, in which the Mayans reburied the remains with additional offerings.
11. Painted bones
Once the Mayans recovered a person’s bones, years after the initial burial, they often painted the bones bright red. This was especially common for key Mayan figures and rulers.
To paint the bones, the Mayans used a red mineral called cinnabar. The Mayans also used this substance to cover and mark gravesites and paint burial masks and other offerings.
As mentioned, not every Mayan was buried straight away. Some Mayans underwent cremation, first. Cremated Mayans were typically buried in decorative ceramic urns.
Some cremated remains in urns have been found underneath residences, as well as temples.
Another Mayan ritual related to death is the well-known practice of ritual sacrifice.
The Mayans regularly sacrificed animals and precious items to honor the gods, but they also sacrificed humans. Although they sometimes chose captives from other villages, most sacrifices were local Mayans.
It was considered an honor to travel to the afterlife via sacrifice to communicate with the gods. Human sacrifice was reserved for only the most momentous occasions, which might have included the death of a beloved ruler.
Although human sacrifice was an important part of Mayan death rituals, and Mayan religion in general, it wasn’t as common as some might think. A far more common method of ritual “sacrifice” was the practice of bloodletting.
Bloodletting, in the Mayan world, was a similar but less intensive way to honor the gods and ancestors. The practice of bloodletting was a highly-ritualistic affair with precise rules, tools, and timing. The Mayans limited the honor of bloodletting to the royal bloodlines, believing that this would please the gods.
While sacrifice took place only on major occasions, bloodletting was often used to commemorate and sanctify important events. Those events include births, ascents to the throne, key anniversaries, and some deaths.
To commemorate a ruler’s death, other royal figures might perform bloodletting. They usually used ornately-adorned tools made of stingray spines to draw blood from different parts of the body. They performed the practice at religious locations, such as tombs and temples.
Pok-a-Tok was a popular ball game, but it was also an act of sacrifice to the gods, who enjoyed watching the game just as the people did. The “sacred ball game” is thought to symbolize the struggle between life and death and between darkness and the light.
To play Pok-a-Tok, two teams of seven attempted to pass a rubber ball through a hoop, which was attached sideways to a wall. The hoop was sometimes as high as twenty feet up in the air. The players weren’t allowed to use their hands or their feet to score points; they could only use their heads, shoulders, elbows, knees, hips, and sometimes wrists.
Scoring even a single point in Pok-a-Tok was so difficult that a game could last for days. And there was no such thing as a “foul” in Pok-a-Tok: gameplay was so rough that participants often died over the course of a game. The Mayans sometimes forced prisoners of war to play the sacred ball game as a sacrifice to the gods.
The ancient Mayans thought of the afterlife as the soul’s journey toward paradise. But they also believed that journey was one fraught with danger. There was no guarantee, according to ancient Mayan legend, that a soul would ever reach “paradise” in the afterlife.
First, a soul had to pass through an underworld called Xibalba, which was a terrifying place inhabited and guarded by frightening deities. Those deities had names like Bloody Teeth, Flying Scab, and Bloody Claw, to name a few.
The only people exempt from making this journey before entering paradise were victims of sacrifice, women who died in childbirth, those killed in warfare, suicides, and people who died playing the game Pok-a-Tok. With such a frightful adventure waiting for you after death, it’s easy to see why the Mayans placed such importance on death rituals and ceremonies.
But the Mayans also held a strong belief that everything was cyclical: from the seasons to the procession of life and death, Mayans saw life as an eternal, neverending cycle.
- Mark, Joshua J. “Maya Religion: The Light That Came From Beside The Sea.” The Ancient Encyclopedia. 9 July 2012. https://www.ancient.eu/article/414/maya-religion-the-light-that-came-from-beside-the-/
- Noa, Yurina Fernández. “The Maya: Funeral Rituals.” Yucatan Today. http://yucatantoday.com/mayas-funeral-rituals/?lang=en
- Cheng, Cindy. Human Sacrifice in Maya Culture. Anthropological Perspectives on Death (Emory). 23 February 2017. https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/gravematters/2017/02/23/human-sacrifice-in-mayan-culture/
- Gomez, Maria C. “Maya Religion.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. 29 July 2015 https://www.ancient.eu/Maya_Religion/