The Mayan ball game, we were told by our guide, often replaced warfare. Instead of battles, the contending societies used the game to settle disputes, with the losing team, or perhaps only the captain, sacrificed. We saw some of the results. We passed a wall of skulls to enter the ball court.

The plate or bowl on the chak mool statue’s tummy, we were told, held the remains of sacrifices, including human ones. The heart is usually mentioned. These sacrifices were to the gods, perhaps as part of regular rituals, such as on an equinox, or as a special pleading as, for example, for rain.

Human sacrifice. That always seems to get the attention, and perhaps the most frequent takeaway from Chichen Itza is that the Mayans sacrificed humans. Our guide, a Mayan, however, quickly and frequently maintained that it was only late in the history of Chichen Itza, which, for mysterious reasons, was abandoned in the 13th century B.C.E., that human sacrifice was instituted. He said that Mayans adopted the practices from the Toltecs, who had come from the north.

The modern reaction to human sacrifice frequently is: How barbaric! How primitive! Really? Are wars that kill and thousands better than a ball game for deciding disputes? Aren’t we moderns more barbaric in this regard?

The guide maintained that the chak mool sacrificees gave themselves up willingly. They believed in the religion that asked for their deaths and believed that they would end up in paradise as a result. The reaction again might be about the barbarism and superstition of the Mayan religion, but how many Christian or Jewish or Muslim martyrs have you been told about? Are these martyrs really so different from the willing Mayan sacrificees? And how much different is it when people volunteer for war or a “suicide” mission in a war? We “civilized” people regularly honor martyrs for various causes. Shouldn’t those Mayans be regarded as martyrs for their religion and society as we honor war heroes and Christian martyrs?

But as I wondered if we modern people were less superstitious or less barbaric than the Mayans, I also wondered about modern American religious claims. Proponents of religious “freedom” often contend that religious people must be exempt from various duties that society imposes on the general populace because following the duty conflicts with their religious principles. An employer, for example, may contend that he does not have to provide birth control coverage for his employees, even though the law mandates such coverage, because his religious principles ban birth control. If these assertions of religious rights become established, must we accept as religious freedom human sacrifice as part of a religion if the sacrificee is willing? Why not? (The United States Supreme Court in 1993 found unconstitutional a Florida ordinance, aimed at Santeria church, which banned religious animal sacrifice. Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye v. Hialeah.)

But as we looked at the Mayan sites, I wondered how much we really know about the Mayan culture. Knowledge has come from deciphering surviving hieroglyphs carved into stones, but much we might have known about the Mayans has been lost because of religion—not the Mayan religion, but the Christian one. Diego de Landa was the bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatan is the sixteenth century. Much of what we know about the Mayan peoples, culture, religion, and writing comes from a book de Landa wrote about the Mayans in about 1566. The original is lost, but abridgements were found in the nineteenth century that were valuable in deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs. But de Landa is widely seen as a villain today in Yucatan. He instituted an inquisition during which many Mayans were brutally tortured, and he destroyed much Mayan culture.

The Mayans had produced many books on paper made from bark. We don’t know the number of these Mayan codices, but Bishop de Landa built a pyre and burned every one he could find. He said, “We found many books with these letters, and because they contained nothing that was free from superstition and the devil’s trickery, we burnt them, which the Indians greatly lamented.” Today only three codices remain. They are in European museums. A fourth, the authenticity of which is in some dispute and is only a fragment, is in a Mexico City museum.

And with that fire ordered by de Landa, much of what we might know about the Mayans became ashes blowing in the wind. We often say that one person can make a difference. Bishop de Landa did make a difference. And he did it in the name of the “one true religion.” And the Mayans were regarded as barbaric primitives?!?

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