Understanding Mayan Human Sacrifice

Tajín Sacrifice Sculpture

WIkimedia Commons

Why did the Maya perform human sacrifices? That the Mayan people practiced human sacrifice is not in doubt, but providing motives is part speculation. The word sacrifice is from the Latin and it is associated with the word sacred—human sacrifices, like many other rituals in the Maya and other civilizations, were part of a sacred ritual, an act of appeasing or paying homage to the gods.

Grappling With the World

Like all human societies, the Maya grappled with uncertainty in the world, erratic weather patterns which brought drought and storms, the anger and violence of enemies, the occurrence of disease, and the inevitability of death. Their pantheon of gods provided some perceived control over their world, but they needed to communicate with those gods and to perform deeds showing that they were worthy of good luck and good weather.

The Maya performed human sacrifices during particular societal events. Human sacrifices were conducted at specific festivals in their annual calendar, at times of crisis, at dedications of buildings, at the ends or beginnings of warfare, at the accession to the throne of a new ruler, and at the time of that ruler's death. Sacrifices at each of these events likely had different meanings to the people who conducted the sacrifices.

Valuing Life

The Maya valued life highly, and according to their religion, there was an afterlife so human sacrifice of people they cared for—such as children—was not perceived as murder but rather placing that individual's life into the hands of the deities. Even so, the highest cost to an individual was to lose their children thus child sacrifice was a truly holy act, conducted at times of crisis or times of new beginnings.

At times of war and at ruler's accessions, human sacrifices may have had a political meaning in that the ruler was indicating his ability to control others. Scholars have suggested that public sacrifice of captives was to display that ability and to reassure the people that he was doing everything he could to stay in communication with the gods. However, Inomata (2016) has suggested that the Maya may never have evaluated or discussed the "legitimacy" of a ruler: sacrifice was simply an expected part of the accession.

Other Sacrifices

Maya priests and rulers also made personal sacrifice, using obsidian knives, stingray spines, and knotted cords to draw blood from their own bodies as offerings to gods. If a ruler lost a battle, he himself was tortured and sacrificed. Luxury goods and other items were placed in sacred locations such as the Great Cenote at Chichen Itza and in rulers' burials along with the human sacrifices.

When people in modern societies try to come up with the purpose of human sacrifice in the past, we are prone to put our own concepts about how people think about themselves as individuals and members of society, how authority is established in our world, and how much control we believe our gods have over the world. It makes it difficult if not impossible to parse out what the reality might have been for the Maya, but no less fascinating for us to learn about ourselves in the process.


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Gill, N.S. "Understanding Mayan Human Sacrifice." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/why-the-maya-performed-human-sacrifices-117936. Gill, N.S. (2020, August 27). Understanding Mayan Human Sacrifice. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-the-maya-performed-human-sacrifices-117936 Gill, N.S. "Understanding Mayan Human Sacrifice." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-the-maya-performed-human-sacrifices-117936 (accessed March 30, 2023).