Ancient American history is full of many fascinating peoples of whom much is unknown. The two great empires of the Mayans and Aztecs thrived in very different time periods. We will begin by highlighting the different historical periods in which these civilizations existed.
When the Mayans Lived
The first Mayan settlements appeared around 1800 BC. It was during this period that small villages began to grow into larger cities. But it was between the years 250-800 AD that the Mayans reached their ‘golden age.’ This was the age in which, through great skill and craftsmanship, they built their famous cities and temples.
In the 9th century AD, however, a large part of the Mayan culture suffered major political decline, which resulted in the abandonment of many cities and the collapse of major dynasties. Historians have yet to explains this collapse, but it likely due to a combination of drought, internal warfare, and overpopulation that brought about drastic environmental deterioration.
From around 950 AD to the time of the Spanish arrival, the Mayan civilization was subjected to a stream of internal revolts, battles, and wars between their different city-states. Although this did not completely put an end to the Mayan empire, it was profoundly disruptive and effectively dissolved their dominance as a world power. Upon the arrival and conquest of the Spanish in 1511 they were able to put up a considerable resistance against the conquistadors, but they were eventually subdued.
A shipwrecked Spanish caravel in the Caribbean brought approximately a dozen Castilian survivors into captivity at the hands of Mayan warriors on the shores of Yucatan. All but two of the survivors were sacrificed to Mayan gods. Between 1517 and 1519, Spanish explorers from three separate expeditions exploring the Yucatan coast engaged in battle with the Mayans. These battles would continue from 1523 to 1697 when the last independent Mayan city fell to the conquistadors.
When the Aztecs Lived
The Aztecs came on the scene much later than the Mayans in Mesoamerican history. The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the 12th century and ascended to become the reigning Mesoamerican empire. By the time the Aztecs came to power, the Mayan civilization was almost extinct due to infighting between their various city-states.
The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on a large island in the waters of Lake Texcoco. The Aztecs had created an empire which demanded tribute from the city-states of the surrounding cultures. Similar to other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztecs were a fiercely religious society who practiced regular human sacrifice to their many gods.
In the end, at the peak of their power, the Aztecs were destroyed in 1521 by Hernan Cortes and the Spanish conquistadors. Modern-day Mexico City was built upon the ruins of the destroyed Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Aztec and Mayan Locations
The Aztecs built their capital city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) on the central highlands plateau in the Valley of Mexico. Tenochtitlán expanded to include the territories of Teotihuacán in the northeast, and in the south, they reached as far as Palenque. Of the civilizations that were located in Mesoamerica, The Aztecs’ empire expanded the most.
Unlike the Aztecs, the Mayans were located in the southern part of Mexico, where Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and northern El Salvador are located today. Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and Copán were their most important Mayan city-states.
Because of the distance between these two civilizations, contact between them was rare. However, we know that they engaged in some trade with each other. Occasionally the Aztecs went so far as to wage battles against the Maya to obtain prisoners of war for slaves. However, the Aztecs did not have the ability to subdue a civilization that was so far outside their center of power.
Mayan and Aztec Social Organization
Although religion played a crucial role in both the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, and both were rigidly hierarchical, there are distinct differences between the social structure of the two great cultures.
Mayan Social Structure
We know that within Mayan families marriage took the form of monogamy and patriarchy. Outside the family, the Mayans were divided into four very well-defined social groups, each with their own class and responsibilities.
- Nobility. These were the state officials who acted as chiefs of the different villages.
- Priests. In addition to officiating the worship of their gods, priests were the ones who were educated in the disciplines of art, science, writing, and cosmology.
- Villagers. These consisted of peasants, workers, craftsmen, and merchants.
- Slaves. These were prisoners of war or persons who had committed a crime, in addition to any children born to slaves.
Aztec Social Structure
Unlike the Mayans, the Aztecs were divided into clans known as calpulli. Each clan owned separate portions of land, which they were required to work and defend. Within each clan, there would be the following hierarchy:
- Nobility. These were the only ones who could carry out activities related to government, religion, or war.
- Merchants. Apart from carrying out their trade and transporting goods, they were used as spies within other cultures in times of war, posing simply as merchants. According to the surviving ancient Aztec codices, merchants had their own law code and commercial zones within the city.
- Peasants. They were the ones who worked the land of the calpulli (clans). This group also included artisans and craftsmen. Like the merchants, peasants were required to pay taxes to the state.
- Slaves. There were two types of slaves in Aztec culture: prisoners of war who were prepared for sacrifices as well as being used as labor on large construction sites; and those who were bondservants to other free men, bound to their masters until they had paid their debts and then returned to freedom. Since this second group was generally native Aztecs, as opposed to prisoners of war, they were treated better and were considered more like citizens.
Differences Within Mayan and Aztec Religions
We know that the Mayan and Aztec civilizations were both polytheistic and, although their gods had different names, they were equivalent in terms of how they governed the earth, the weather, and the heavens.
According to surviving Mayan codices, we know that they believed in a trial after death, therefore, death was not the end of life, but was a transition to the next life. One of their religious customs was to deform their skulls by binding the heads of newborns with bandages. They also practiced the custom of tattooing their bodies.
Conversely, the Aztecs historically were more bloodthirsty than the Mayans. The Aztecs practiced sacrificial offerings in honor of the gods, and some of their gods required more severe sacrifices than others. For this reason, various battles were waged against the neighboring peoples, in order to obtain prisoners of war.
Cultures that were already subjected to Aztec rule were required to provide slaves for sacrifices. On some occasions, however, even Aztec nobles were sacrificed. This was considered an honor to be sacrificed in some of the celebrations, as this affected their joining with the gods.
Important Mayan Gods
Many ancient cultures accounted for the inexplicable events in their lives by attributing it to the activity of the gods. The Maya explained, among other things, the creation of the cosmos, meteorological phenomena, life, death and the afterlife, through the belief that all creation was linked to their gods through a repeating cycle of creation and destruction. The Maya believed that life had been destroyed 4 times and created 5 times, which is why, through their sacrifices to the gods, they maintained the balance of life and seasons.
For the Maya, the gods were able to manifest themselves in their daily lives, and in different forms such as animals, natural phenomena, plants, and even as intervening humans. It is also important to note that throughout the existence of the Mayan culture, the names of gods sometimes changed and different spheres of influence were attributed to them. What follows is a list of the most prominent of Mayan gods.
Hunab Ku, Creator of the World
Hunab Ku was the Mayan god who created the world, also known as Hunab-Ku or Hunab. The name given to this god means “One God“. It was believed that this god not only created the world but also created human beings from a corn cob. For this reason, he was considered the father of all, both humans and other Mesoamerican deities.
Hunab Ku was also the lord of the day and of the heavens, which were considered the center of the universe. The Maya believed that Hunab-Ku was the god who created the world three out of the five times it has been created. The first time Hunab created the world he inhabited it with sages. The second time he filled it with a race called the Dzolob, dark and violent beings who he created before he created humans, but destroyed them due to their evil nature. The third and last time this god created the world, it was to create the Mayan people.
Itzamná, God of Heaven
Itzamná or Itzam Na was the Mayan god of the sky, and was in charge of protecting the sciences, especially writing and astrology, in which the Maya were very proficient. Itzam-Na, also called Zamná, is believed to have helped the Maya invent their writing and their calendar.
The Maya who inhabited the Yucatan peninsula considered the god Izamná as the supreme god because he was the creator of everything. He was considered the god and lord of the sky, the sun, day and night, which made him a powerful god in the Mayan pantheon. He was seen as the Mayan deity symbolizing the energy created by water and the Yucatecans also attributed to him the inventions of writing, the calendar, medicine, and agriculture. In the Mayan scriptures, Zamná is very often related to the god Chaac, since both personify water.
Itzam-Na can be seen in the different codices, in Dresden, Madrid, and Paris. He is depicted as a two-headed winged dragon that poured water onto the earth from the sky, but he can also be seen as a bird with snake-like features. Itzamná was often also depicted in his human form as an old man without teeth, with sunken cheekbones, large, rectangular eyes, a large, curved nose and a beard.
Ixchel, Goddess of the Moon
Ixchel or Ix Chel was one of the most important female deities among the gods of the Maya. In addition to being the goddess of the moon, she was also the goddess of the art of weaving, medicine, pregnancy, and childbirth. She was also believed to represent water in its most destructive form, such as floods and other water-related natural disasters. Ix Chel was the wife of the god Itzam-Na. In this way, the goddess of the moon was the consort of the sun god to the Yucatecan Maya. Just as her husband was only seen in the daylight hours, the goddess Ixchel was only seen at night when the moon rose.
The Maya believed that man has two shadows: a warm shadow that is the daughter of the sun and the cold shadow that is the daughter of the moon and goddess Ix Chel. It was also believed that the shadow daughter of the god Itzamná, was mute, while the shadow daughter of the goddess Ixchel could speak, but only with the help of Mayan magicians. For the Mayans, the relationship of a human being with his shadow was very important because they believed that if they separated from it, or if the shadow grew dim, the human was close to death. This is why, at times, their magicians tried to communicate with the cold shadow.
The Mayan goddess of the moon was depicted as an elderly woman with symbols related to death, like a twisted snake on her head or crossed bones on her skirt. She is also seen in the codices as an old woman who empties a pitcher of water onto the ground or with a loom tied around her waist.
Yum Kaax, God of Corn
Yum Kaax is the Mayan god of corn, also known by other names such as Itzam Na Kuil, Kauil, Ah Uaxac Yokauil, Ah Nun and Ah Mun, his main name, Yum Kaax, means “Lord of the Forest”. He was not only the god of the forests and of corn but also of agriculture. As he was considered a very benevolent god and it was forbidden in Mayan culture to say words related to death in front of Yum Kaax. This god was vital for the Mayans as their food was based mainly on corn, so it was very important for them to properly honor this god who they considered to be one of the main gods of the Mayans.
Yum Kaax or Ah Mun was depicted as a strong, handsome, young man wearing a corn cob usually on his head or with corn leaves coming out of his head. He was also depicted holding a pot containing three ears of corn.
Other Important Mayan Deities
Other important deities among the Mayan gods include the following:
Yum Cimil, also known as Yum Kimil or Kizin, is the god of death and lives in the underworld. His mission is to shelter all the dead except those who have been chosen and his wife was the goddess Xtabay or Xtabai. For the Yucatecan Maya, this god was known as Ah Puch, meaning, “The Fleshless God.” He was the patron of the day of death known as “cimi“. He was depicted with a skull as a head and a few ribs in the air.
Kinich-Ahau, also called Kinich Ajaw or Ahau Kin, was the Mayan god of the sun. He was related to life, prosperity, and fertility of the earth. He was depicted as an old man with crossed, somewhat square eyes, with a four-petalled flower and worn incisor teeth. In his animal form, he was seen as Kinich Kakmó, an anthropomorphic macaw with a torch in his hand.
Chaac, (also written as Chac), was the Mayan deity of rain, prosperity, and fertility. It was believed that when it rained Chaac was descending to Earth to visit the Mayans. Sometimes he was depicted as a male and sometimes as a female, but always with the appearance of a reptile. Chaac was also identified with the four cardinal compass directions.
Kukulkán was the Mayan god of the wind and was also known as “the feathered serpent”. It was believed that it always preceded the god Chaac as there is usually wind before it begins to rain and thus, the rains that fell to the earth was water that had been cleansed by the wind of Kukulkan.
Buluc Chabtan was the Mayan god of war, destruction, and human sacrifices, as well as violent and sudden death. He was depicted with a line of black dots on his eyes and cheeks as a mask. This god was also known by the name Achuykaak and, in the Mayan codex, was closely related to the god of death, Yum Cimil or Ah Puch.
Ixtab. The name Ixtab means “Woman Who Uses Rope”. Also known as Xtabay, this female deity was the Mayan goddess of suicide. It protected those who committed suicide by hanging and related it to life in paradise since the Mayan believed that anyone who committed suicide went immediately to paradise. She was depicted as a woman hanging from a rope wrapped around her neck and falling from the sky, with a black circle on her cheek and with her eyes closed.
Important Aztec Gods
The Aztec civilization has always been one of the most enigmatic populations of Mesoamerica, their religion being considered by many historians to be a consolidation of many ancestral beliefs of other Mesoamerican tribes. Below is a list of names of the most important Aztec gods.
Coatlicue, “Goddess of the Snake Skirt”
She is the goddess of the earth and mother of the sun, therefore she is the creator of the pantheon.
Huitzilopochtli, “Left-Handed Hummingbird”
Huitzilopochtli is one of the most representative gods of the Aztec, as he was the god of war. Every time the Aztecs obtained a victory over another, victims were dedicated to this patron god. Huitzilopochtli is also of great importance within Aztec mythology as he was the guide who directed the Aztec people to the valley of Mexico where they would settle and eventually create their empire.
Tezcatlipoca, “Smoking Black Mirror”
As one of the four main gods of the Aztec pantheon, Tezcatlipoca was the guardian of slaves. Consequently, when a slave was chosen to be sacrificed in his honor, that slave would be dressed in the garb of the god, Tezcatlipoca, and would be treated as a god for an entire year before being sacrificed.
Quetzalcoatl “Serpent of Precious Feathers”
Quetzalcoatl is arguably the best known of the Aztec gods. It was this god that was assimilated into the Spanish culture upon their arrival in the lands of the Aztecs, and who believed they were an advance party sent by the same god to pave the way for their arrival. It is one of the creator gods and among its attributes are the arts and the growth of cities.
Tlaloc “God of Rain”
He was known as the god of fertility and of water. Tlaloc was the one who brought the rain, so he was vital to the crops. He was also a cruel god who asked for bloody sacrifices in the form of children, men, and other animals.
Tlaloc is commonly depicted as a blue figure with jaguar fangs. Often he is shown wearing a net of clouds, a crown of heron feather, and foam sandals. He is also shown carrying rattles to create thunder.
Mixcoatl “Cloud Snake”
Mixcoatl was the god of storms. To appease his fury many sacrifices were needed. It was said that the thunder and lightning came from the beats he made with his drum.
Tonatiuh “Sun God”
He was the main God in all the Aztec Pantheon and was the 5th and current sun god in Aztec mythology. His name can be translated as, “He Who Goes Forth Shining”. Aztecs believed that four suns had existed in the prior four ages. Tonatiuh was the fifth sun god and this current age belonged to him. Tonatiuh was lord of the Aztec notion of paradise, called Tollan. Only women who died in childbirth and dead warriors and could enter into Tollan.
Tonatiuh was believed to be responsible for maintaining the universe. To prevent the end of the world, Aztecs nourished and strengthened this Sun god by offering him human sacrifices.
Xiuhtecuhtli “God of Fire”
Xiuhtecuhtli was worshipped by many Mesoamerican cultures and was often depicted He was as an elderly man in a seated position, or as a hunchbacked man, with a hump on top of which he carried lit fire. The who were sacrificed to Xiuhtecuhtli were among the most fortunate since for their offerings they were first anesthetized with drugs before they were thrown alive into a fire, in which their bodies were consumed.
In Aztec mythology, each time the world was destroyed, the gods had to sacrifice themselves so that creation could be reborn. The Aztec would make offerings to their creators in the form of human lives. It was taught in their culture that to die in a sacrifice was an honor for the Aztec people.
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