The Ancient Maya and Human Sacrifice

Maya sculpture at Chichen Itza shows human sacrifice by decapitation

HJPD / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

For a long time, it was commonly held by Mayanist experts that the “pacific” Maya of Central America and southern Mexico did not practice human sacrifice. However, as more images and glyphs have come to light and been translated, it appears that the Maya frequently practiced human sacrifice in religious and political contexts.

Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization flourished in the rain forests and misty jungles of Central America and southern Mexico ca. B.C.E. 300 to 1520 C.E. The civilization peaked around 800 C.E. and mysteriously collapsed not long after. It survived into what is called the Maya Postclassic Period, and the center of Maya culture moved to the Yucatan Peninsula. Maya culture still existed when the Spanish arrived around 1524 C.E.; conquistador Pedro de Alvarado brought down the largest of the Maya city-states for the Spanish Crown. Even at its height, the Maya Empire was never unified politically. Instead, it was a series of powerful, warring city-states who shared language, religion, and other cultural characteristics.

Modern Conception of the Maya

Early scholars who studied the Maya believed them to be pacifists who rarely warred among themselves. These scholars were impressed by the intellectual achievements of the culture, which included extensive trade routes, a written language, advanced astronomy and mathematics, and an impressively accurate calendar. Recent research, however, shows that the Maya were, in fact, a tough, warlike people who frequently warred among themselves. It is quite likely that this constant warfare was an important factor in their sudden and mysterious decline. It is also now evident that, like their later neighbors the Aztecs, the Maya regularly practiced human sacrifice.

Beheading and Disemboweling

Far to the north, the Aztecs would become famous for holding their victims down on top of temples and cutting out their hearts, offering the still-beating organs to their gods. The Maya cut the hearts out of their victims, too, as can be seen in certain images surviving at the Piedras Negras historical site. However, it was much more common for them to decapitate or disembowel their sacrificial victims, or else tie them up and push them down the stone stairs of their temples. The methods had much to do with who was being sacrificed and for what purpose. Prisoners of war were usually disemboweled. When the sacrifice was religiously linked to the ball game, the prisoners were more likely to be decapitated or pushed down the stairs.

Meaning of Human Sacrifice

To the Maya, death and sacrifice were spiritually linked to the concepts of creation and rebirth. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, the hero twins Hunahpú and Xbalanque must journey to the underworld (i.e. die) before they can be reborn into the world above. In another section of the same book, the god Tohil asks for human sacrifice in exchange for fire. A series of glyphs deciphered at the Yaxchilán archaeological site links the concept of beheading to the notion of creation or "awakening." Sacrifices often marked the beginning of a new era: this could be the ascension of a new king or the beginning of a new calendar cycle. These sacrifices, meant to aid in the rebirth and renewal of the harvest and life cycles, were often carried out by priests and/or nobles, especially the king. Children were sometimes used as sacrificial victims at such times.

Sacrifice and the Ball Game

For the Maya, human sacrifices were associated with the ball game. The game, in which a hard rubber ball was knocked around by players mostly using their hips, often had religious, symbolic or spiritual meaning. Maya images show a clear connection between the ball and decapitated heads: the balls were even sometimes made from skulls. Sometimes, a ballgame would be a sort of continuation of a victorious battle. Captive warriors from the vanquished tribe or city-state would be forced to play and then sacrificed ​afterwards. A famous image carved in stone at Chichén Itzá shows a victorious ballplayer holding aloft the decapitated head of the opposing team leader.

Politics and Human Sacrifice

Captive kings and rulers were often highly prized sacrifices. In another carving from Yaxchilán, a local ruler, “Bird Jaguar IV,” plays the ball game in full gear while “Black Deer,” a captured rival chieftain, bounces down a nearby stairway in the form of a ball. It is likely that the captive was sacrificed by being tied up and pushed down the stairs of a temple as part of a ceremony involving the ball game. In 738 C.E., a war party from Quiriguá captured the king of rival city-state Copán: the captive king was ritually sacrificed.

Ritual Bloodletting

Another aspect of Maya blood sacrifice involved ritual bloodletting. In the Popol Vuh, the first Maya pierced their skin to offer blood to the gods Tohil, Avilix, and Hacavitz. Maya kings and lords would pierce their flesh—generally genitals, lips, ears, or tongues—with sharp objects such as stingray spines. Such spines are often found in tombs of Maya royalty. Maya nobles were considered semi-divine, and the blood of kings was an important part of certain Maya rituals, often those involving agriculture. Not only male nobles but females as well took part in ritual bloodletting. Royal blood offerings were smeared on idols or dripped onto bark paper which was then burned: the rising smoke could open a gateway of sorts between the worlds.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Ancient Maya and Human Sacrifice." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Minster, Christopher. (2023, April 5). The Ancient Maya and Human Sacrifice. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Ancient Maya and Human Sacrifice." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).