Maya mythology and its relationship to Christianity

In December 2012, I made a marvelous trip to Mexico, where I spent 10 days amid Maya (and “Toltec”) ruins in the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. The main archaeological site we visited repeatedly was Chichen Itza, a Maya site in the Late Classic period (c. 600-900 AD/CE) built over extensively during the later period of apparent Mexican influence that produced the merger between the serpent deities Kukulkan and Quetzalcoatl, the syncretized god whose worship became the central focus at Chichen. When we are discussing Mesoamerican culture, it is important to distinguish between the native Maya and the Mexicans, a distinction that became obvious to me during my journey. Another obvious distinction, of course, is that between the Maya and the even later Spanish conquerors.

I became acutely aware of the fact that, in addressing the Maya in their “own language” of Spanish, in fact we were using the tongue of the Conquistadores who had nearly sounded the death knell of Maya culture. Fortunately, all was not lost, and the Mayans are slowly regaining much of their original culture. In my presentation, I hoped to help them restore their roots, and I believe I was successful to a small but perhaps meaningful extent, as a Mayan elder who attended seemed very pleased with my emphasis of pre-Spanish Maya religion and mythology, with its focus on the “living cross,” at once a very earthy and cosmic concept.

I will be putting together a DVD of my presentation, so I will not go into great detail here. One of my main thrusts is to show the pre-Columbian religion and mythology, with emphasis on parallels between Mesoamerican and other religions and mythologies. I focused on the pre-Maya Olmecs and pre-Toltec, pre-Spanish Maya, revealing that these peoples possessed some very important religious and mythological concepts that can be found in Christianity, among others, including the abundant use of the cross. To the Maya, the cross represented a number of germane theological ideas, including as a solar symbol, as well as symbolizing the Milky Way and the primordial World Tree.

Toltec or Maya?

The Maya beliefs regarding the cross also predate apparent influence by the Mexican peoples, who evidently brought with them into the later amalgam a more violent cult than that of the native Maya. While the Maya engaged in human sacrifice, their religious violence was more measured and not as extensive as that of Mexicans from the north and northwestern regions, who included the Toltecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs and Aztecs. The physical differences between the Mexicans and Maya are striking, with the former resembling the more Modern Maya mannortherly Native American tribes such as the Navajo or Apache, while the Maya are shorter people with more heart-shaped or round heads with sloping profiles, features one can still see abundantly in the villages of the Yucatan and Quintana Roo.

The Mexicans also emphasized more warlike animals, apparently bringing with them from the northern mountainous regions the cult of the eagle, as well as a seemingly more aggressive version of the jaguar cult. In the “Toltec” imagery that covers much of the famous site of Chichen Itza, for example, one sees fang-bearing jaguars and sharp-beaked eagles devouring hearts, while there is also a platform of the skulls where sacred ballgame “losers” were depicted by the dozens. The Mexican “cult of death” with its emphasis on skulls is obvious here, and one can find many skull replicas for sale by the countless friendly Maya vendors at Chichen Itza, for instance, as one runs the “one dollar-almost free” gauntlet that surrounds the massive site.

As concerns the purported “Toltec” influence at Chichen Itza, Mesoamerican anthropologist Dr. John Hoopes kindly has read this article and advised that the Toltec domination theory presented by some Chichen guides is considered “outdated.” Although some scholars have abandoned the Toltec origin of the later facades at Chichen Itza, in their book Twin Tollans (262) art historians Drs. Jeff Karl Kowalski and Cynthia Kristan-Graham propose a “Tula-Chichen Itza collaboration” to explain the “Toltec” characteristics:

While many scholars now feel that the earlier Toltec conquest explanation for the correspondences between Chichen Itza and Tula is no longer persuasive, there is still compelling evidence that the Itza rulership of Chichen Itza did maintain ongoing elite-level contacts with the Toltec rulers of Tula at a time (the Terminal Classic through Early Postclassic periods) when both cities served as important regional capitals…. This Tula-Chichen Itza collaboration is reflected by their shared architectural, artistic and iconographic repertories, and by the probable introduction of new warrior orders and religious cults and ritual practices, particularly during the period after AD 900…

While it seems the Maya were not subjugated by the “Toltecs,” the former apparently incorporated various Mexican elements into their conglomerative religious effort at Chichen Itza. This sort of syncretism can be explained by either invasion/domination or deliberate incorporation, over a period of years to centuries. It is possible that both factors were at work here, but the current guides at the site are definitely explaining the facades as Toltec, possibly through the employment of Toltec architects and builders.

From Kukulkan to Quetzalcoatl

The emphasis on the War Snake Kukulkan, expressly said to represent also the Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, is an important factor in surmising a Maya-Toltec collaboration or confederation. This cooperation includes an obvious signal to the Mexicans that they were being accepted, with the “Vatican” of the Maya world incorporating the then highly important Quetzalcoatl as a central focus in their main religious center, which possessed the largest sacred ballcourt in the Maya world. This confederation seems so obvious to scholars like Belgian professor Dr. Annie Dorsinfang-Smets that she speaks of “toltéco-maya” in reference to Chichen Itza. (“Les aspects multiples de Quetzalcoatl.” Mélanges 3.48. ed. Armand Abel. Leiden: Brill, 1978)

In this regard, the rumors of Toltec influence appear in legends centuries old that depict a Toltec leader named Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, supposedly a more peaceful priest-king who stood against human sacrifice but who was opposed and left the land with a promise to return. Legend holds that this “peaceful” Quetzalcoatl migrated to the Chichen Itza area, but the facts indicate this purported era of Toltec influence was no improvement as concerns human sacrifice and violence. This tale of Quetzalcoatl’s return led to the uncritical acceptance of the Spanish leader Cortez, presumed to be the prophesied “second coming,” so to speak.

As concerns this puzzle of “Toltec” influence on the later edifices of Chichen Itza, Dr. Hoopes advises to look towards the massive pre-Classic and Early Classic Mexican site of Teotihuacan, where there is a “Feathered Serpent Pyramid” of the third century AD/CE that he states is “more similar to El Castillo than any other in Mesoamerica.” Hoopes also states:

I’m skeptical of a strong Tula-Chichen connection and actually suspect influence trended to both Tula and Chichen from Teotihuacan, emphasized by later reconstructions at the hands of enthusiastic archaeologists. Teotihuacan is the key, but it’s too often ignored. For ancient Mesoamerica, it was like Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca all rolled into one.

In any event, we do find this “Toltec” or Teotihuacano influence at a later period, overlaying strictly Maya edifices and artifacts. It is interesting to note that, while the Aztecs used the term “Toltec” to denote anything ancient, the article on Teotihuacan at Wikipedia states that the Nahuatl word “Toltec” means “craftsman of the highest level,” a term that in turn connotes a highly skilled mason.

Serpent and Turtle Cults

While, again, the Maya did engage in more limited religious violence such as human sacrifice and self-wounding, the Classic and pre-Classic Maya religion emphasized worldly and cosmic ideas outside of the human being. One such fascinating notion has to do with the esteem for serpents and turtles, the former of which, of course, can be fierce, like the jaguar and eagle, particularly as there are several poisonous species of snakes in the jungles of the Yucatan peninsula. (A jungle, by the way, that is very flat and extremely humid, two factors that likewise must be kept in mind when analyzing Maya culture.) One finds the serpent represented in many instances, both in the Maya and later Toltec/Aztec cultures, as it symbolizes, among other things, fertility, an all-important element of life to the ancients.

Maya maize god growing as World Tree through the earthy turtleThe turtle, however, is a far more peaceful creature, a delight of children everywhere, who rarely feel threatened by them, other than snapping turtles, naturally. In some instances, the turtle or tortoise – called áak in Maya and tortuga in Spanish – appears to have been combined with the serpent, possibly as at the great ballcourt at Chichen Itza. In traditional Maya cosmology, the turtle represents a sacred mound with a hole or crack in its shell, through which grows the World Tree. This motif connects the earth to the cosmos via the Milky Way. The First Father, Hun Hunahpu, also the solar maize god, is depicted as resurrecting through the turtle’s split shell, like a seed giving birth to the world tree, which was represented by the local ceiba tree.

The turtle platform at the site of Old Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico (Photo: AmericanEgypt.com)The turtle cult also apparently tied into the phallic cult, with the turtle’s tail and head possessing a phallic appearance and attributes. At the pre-Classic and Classic site of Old Chichen Itza, occupied before the Toltec influence or incorporation, the Maya elite lived in luxury and evidently practiced the old blood-letting and sacrificial ritual of piercing their penises with stingray spines. This latter violent religious practice was apparently foremost at Old Chichen, as there is also an unusual temple there covered with phallic imagery.

In contrast to the more earthy, less violent and roundly softer Maya artifacts, the apparently Toltec-influenced buildings and imagery at the larger site of Chichen Itza are more angular and violent, again with depictions of jaguars and eagles devouring hearts, and the main temple of Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl eventually becoming the site of tremendous carnage, with many thousands sacrificed upon its summit, their bodies thrown down its extraordinarily constructed and ordered sides.

Chichen Itza at Solstice 2012

In my journey with Power Places Tours, I spent several hours over a period of some days at Chichen Itza, including as one of only a few groups allowed on the site a couple of hours before the gates were opened to the public on December 21st, the day of the winter solstice. We were fortunate to be standing right below the south corner of the enormous Quetzalcoatl temple, also called “El Castillo,” as the sun rose at the temple’s eastern alignment. It was a glorious moment, as one imagined oneself to be on the same spot occupied by Mayans and Mexicans a thousand and more years ago, greeting the solar orb and sun god as he rose to bring his soothing light and life-giving rays to the world.

As we stood in front of the temple at 6:00 AM or so, with our arms raised or in other positions, we could hear entering the site a procession consisting of Mexican dancers in feathered costumes with drums and bells. This group, also wearing red headbands and various artifacts indicating animals such as eagles, jaguars and serpents, spent some hours dancing and singing, with many foreigners looking on and participating. What was very striking about this group of ritual dancers and musicians is that they were clearly not Maya; nor were their practices. They appeared to be the descendants of Toltecs or other Mexicans, originally from the north and northwest regions. They were much taller, with angular faces, and their costumes and music were similar to those of the Native American tribes of Navajos, Apaches, Comanches or others. While I thoroughly enjoyed this experience, I found it unfortunate that most tourists will come away with the impression that what they had witnessed and participated in was Maya, when it was not.

Maya Language

Moreover, there appeared to be no real Maya ceremony other than the relatively small one by the Maya elder who accompanied us, Hunbatz Men. I also found it disturbing that these ritual performers sang in Spanish, the language of the conquerors, this latter fact I had remarked upon to a taxi driver as I arrived initially in Cancun. Everywhere we turned, of course, including on the Mexican currency, we found Spanish, and I longed continually to hear and see more Maya. In this regard, whenever we were serenaded by Maya guitar-players and singers, I requested songs in Maya, with which our amicable hosts happily complied. In this way, and by virtue of the Mayan elder who accompanied us, as well as the numerous vendors at various sites, I learned a few germane bits of Maya, such as áak for “turtle,” pek for “dog,” balam for “jaguar,” ch’en for “spring” or “well,” ol for “heart” or “spirit,” uh for “moon,” malo-kim for “good morning” (lit. “good sun”), while I already knew that kin meant “sun” and that ek meant “star” and “Venus” but also apparently “darkness,” as in the starry night. It should be noted that there are several Maya dialects, and it is curious that the Yucatec word for “hole” is hool and interesting that the words for “bee” and “earth” are pronounced the same: chab or kab.

In any event, there is much more to this subject, a significant amount of which will be included in my forthcoming DVD.

Further Reading

Preclassic Maya Funerary Patterns in Northern Belize (e.g., cross imagery)
World Tree as Milky Way growing out of the back of a turtle
A Basic English-Yucatec Mayan Dictionary
Why do the Maya believe Christ is the sun?
Jesus as the Sun throughout History
2012: A New Beginning
Our Lord and Savior Quetzalcoatl
Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan and Christ
Maya watchtowers discovered to align with solstices and equinoxes
December 21, 2012 is coming – are we all going to die?
The Mayans and the Milky Way (radio program)
Astronomers catalogue 84 million stars from a new image of our Milky Way galaxy
The 2013 Astrotheology Calendar: The Wonders of the Milky Way
Parallels between Mesoamerican and Middle Eastern/Egyptian Religion and Mythology

9 Comments

  1. Maya 2012
    Thanks Acharya, I was so glad to be able to join this trip. A few things stood out for me, all connected to the Power Places theme of ‘transform at the source’.

    The similarity between Mayan mythology and Christianity that you explained in your talk is probably due to the hardwiring of the human brain, with comparable cultural circumstances giving rise to similar cults of the sun. So no need to speculate about the Mayans getting their ideas by diffusion from Europe or Africa or Asia, except over the very old migration across the Bering Strait during the ice age.

    The Maya temples have such a wow factor, looming out of the jungle to reveal a highly sophisticated and mysterious collapsed civilization. Visiting them and considering their myths including the long count should be treated as an act of cultural solidarity and respect for indigenous people today.

    The Mayans had a focus on how life on earth is naturally connected to the eternity of the surrounding cosmos. The end of the long count calendar is about restoring this natural connection to the cosmos as the basic principle of human spirit, recognising we are at the end of an old age where spirit is dangerously alienated from nature. Spirit and nature have to be reconciled to construct a new heaven and new earth, the transformative and liberating end of the world as we know it.

    And playing magic songs under the sacred ceiba tree in front of the Chichen Itza pyramid on the morning of the 2012 solstice was priceless.

    Best wishes, Robert

  2. Excellent summary, Robert. ‘Twas indeed a magical and special time, and your presence was important and appreciated.

    Thanks for the lessons on the Yucatan night sky and the thoughtful hours of conversation, as well as the delightful ditties at the site on solstice day!

    Next time in Greece?

    Acharya

  3. Mayan Warning: Religion,Technology.
    It was an honor to be in MayaLand with the incredibly intelligent author of the (above) article.

    Technology took me there.

    Took me where? Took me to the Mayan pyramids in Chichen Itza.

    What was the “technology” that took me there? An airplane.

    Two things destroyed the Mayan civilization:
    The Mayan’s Technology and their Religion.

    The Mayan’s fervor for their Religion caused them to use a particular (Technology) to enhance their Religion which, essentially, was their quest to survive and which, they thought, was brought about by the pleasing of their God.

    Unfortunately, the Mayans didn’t realize that it was their Religion that was causing them to self-destruct.

    What was the Mayan’s “technology” that I refer to? Their technology was the (magical cement) that held together the stones of their pyramids.

    Today, the magical cement that holds together the stones of their pyramids is still there, but the Mayan civilization, more-or-less, isn’t.

    Why was the Mayan’s magical cement a primary contributing factor to the destruction of their civilization? I know the answer but I’d rather have Acharya explain that in her upcoming DVD. She has a magnetic mind for details. Stay tuned for a professional in-depth answer.

    So much for the Mayan Technology.

    Now I’ll mention the one conclusive strike three, game-is-over coincidence that wrecked the Mayans and did them in.

    The Mayans used a “living cross” but it had no relationship to Christianity’s story of Jesus Christ.

    Remember that in Acharya’s (above) article, she mentions in paragraph #2 the Mayan’s “living cross.”

    (Acharya says, “…..pre-Spanish Maya religion and mythology, with its focus on the “living cross,” at once a very earthy and cosmic concept.”)

    When the European Spanish Conquistadores stepped off their ships onto the Mayan land, they carried the (Christian cross) in their hands. The sight of the Conquistadore’s Christian Cross, which was probably made of shining silver and gold, (fooled) the Mayan’s into thinking that the Conquistadore’s cross was related to the beliefs and God of their own “living cross.” In other words, the Christian cross made the Conquistadors (appear) to be friends and even Gods. Just the opposite was true.

    Enemies they were, those Spanish Conquistadors who are now the Mexican government.

    Today, although living together, the Mayans and Spanish are still enemies, as described to us by a Mayan tour guide speaking into a microphone as the bus drove us to the pyramids. The Mayan tour guide said in his microphoned speech that the Mayans (resent) that the Mexican government now requires the Mayans to register their guns (with) the Mexican government. That’s because the Mayans believe that their (real) New Age will occur when the Mayans drive the Spaniards off their ancient Mayan land.

    Today, I worry, that Christianity is doing the same to the indigenous people of Europe and North America. Christianity is fooling Europeans into welcoming the millions of Muslim enemies that are pouring into Europe. Soon the invading Muslims will do to the indigenous Europeans what the Spaniards did to the Mayans.

    Technology, in the form of Monsanto’s GMO foods, combined with just a few lines from Christianity’s Bible – love-your-neighbor, love-your-enemy – is enough to bring about the genocidal extinction of the indigenous Europeans in fifty years or less.

    Religion and Technology caused the Mayans to self-destruct. Europeans, I ask you to think about that!!!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_food_controversiesGenetically Modified Food Controversies

  4. A Living Myth
    To Acharya S. and My Friends and Family of Powerplace Tours,

    What makes this journey to Chichen Itza so special is the discovery of oneself amongst others who also participated in the immersion of “direct experience” from moment to moment of whatever it was we came into contact with. Getting this strong feeling of “we met met before” was the “kicker” for me. However, that being said, the research continues…

    My “Big Question” was…”Did there exist a “system” of martial art and/or a “philospical system” of martial art in the Mayan culture” ?
    Which now leads to another question of…”What were the preparations, if there were any, for the Mayan people, if there was to be an attack and/or invasion ?

    What gets me is, with all this knowledge the Mayan were able to acquire through astronomy, communication with the natural surroundings of their environment and the community of their peoples, that there would be some kind of system for “defending and protecting this knowlege and the people at large. You would think that there would be “some-thing(s)” used to protect all that has been perpetuated and accumulated over a period of several hundreds of years besides the oral tradition being passed on.

    My main question previously asked about systems of martial art also leads to what the Olmec, Toltec and Aztec peoples utilized in their martial prowess, however agressive and violent they might have been. Knowing the potential enemy had to have been a factor with all the tribes of this particular region as well as with the rest of the indigeonous world. There had to have been “Wisdom” knowing the differences between the “cooperative vs. competitive” aspects and whatever lies in the balances of these very distinct mindsets. We all know that the Mayans lived a harmonius way of life with their way of communing with nature and the cosmos as a whole. There had to have been an elimination as well as an accumulation of “gnosis” with what “worked” and what “did not work” as well. This leads to my overall question of, “How did the Mayan peoples evolve to become who they were at the “peak” of their civilization before the invasions to come from the neighboring Toltecs, Aztecs and eventually the Spanish Inquisition ?

    I believe, in a wishful way, that our approach to getting to know the martial culture first with the Mayan, the Olmec, then with the Toltec, followed by the Aztec and eventually the Spanish Conquistadors as well will help us a little bit better to understand the bigger picture. It seems to me that the archaelogical finds of different weapons used would clue us into knowing what was utilized by whom and what for.

    Ultimately, the foundation for my ever growing interest in Mayan Culture lies in the fertile world of Mayan spirituality and the preservation of what remains in this wonderful tradition that we are being introduced to, and also to what we were able to witness on a indivual level as well as on a collective level to the direct experiences of what took place before, during and after the Winter Solstice on December 21st 2012.

    I am so honored and glad to have found such an wonderful group of “souls” to share and to participate this experience with on this sacred journey. I will give credit to where credit is due to “My Sister ACHARYA S. for this would have not have been possible without her.

    I take a “knee” in salutation with gratitude to YOU Acharya !!!

    Kevin Lee Carmell

  5. Maya
    Great Blog A.S.

    One fabulous (Sun) symbolic Site not discussed much on this A.S. chat page (Google) “Angkor Wat Photographs” Cambodia. This place is mind blowing when viewed from high above. I believe all these structures are much older than science is willing to admit. A new civilization always comes next and builds upon (on top of) an older one. This includes the Mayan structures. I guess these Mayan Pyro’s at hundreds of thousands of years old. How do I guess? The Serpent being noticed around Mayan structures!

    The Sun God (Religion/Philosophy/Science) cults around the globe, are all (rellies) descendants of…”The Just ONE”…Cultures sailed the seven seas thousands and thousands of years ago. Look at the civilization stone structures under the sea.

  6. “Religion and Technology caused the Mayans to self-destruct”

    Don’t think so–is my opinion! This caused it below, as taught in certain circles. Once Education catches up with common sense, these dates (sea faring) etc. will be pushed back thousands of years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pralaya

  7. missed you by about 20 ft. 🙁
    My partner and I traveled to Chichen Itza specifically for the chance to meet Acharya S., who has been such a great influence in my life over the past 5 years. We could not afford the Power Places Tour so we planned our trip to Belize for that week and took a bus to the Yucatan in hopes of “running in to you.”

    We spent the entire day at Chichen Itza, and although very impressed and amazed by the wonderful site, I was disappointed in the missed opportunity.

    While there, we were sitting down for a moment and I looked up and commented to my partner that I thought I saw you walk by with one other person, but shrugged it off and obviously did not take the chance at saying something. It turns out, after seeing the picture of you by the main pyramid in your tie-dye shirt, IT WAS YOU! Dammit!

    Just thought you might enjoy this story. Upsetting and amusing at the same time for me. I’ll take this as a lesson to not be so timid when opportunities arise. Maybe next time:-)

    I look forward to the upcoming DVD and as always, thank you for all you do.

    Peace and Love,
    Jeremy W

    1. Hi Jeremy –

      Too bad I missed you and your partner! I was indeed wandering about the site for some hours after sunrise, often with friend Robert Tulip, who was happily playing a recorder for a while.

      Thanks for your enthusiasm and support! :cheer:

      Acharya

  8. Great article
    Love the article, Acharya, and looking forward to the DVD.

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