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The Maya are probably the best-known of the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica. Originating in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C., they rose to prominence around A.D. 250 in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Building on the inherited inventions and ideas of earlier civilizations such as the Olmec, the Maya developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing. The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater. The Maya were equally skilled as weavers and potters, and cleared routes through jungles and swamps to foster extensive trade networks with distant peoples.
Around 300 B.C., the Maya adopted a hierarchical system of government with rule by nobles and kings. This civilization developed into highly structured kingdoms during the Classic period, A.D. 200-900. Their society consisted of many independent states, each with a rural farming community and large urban sites built around ceremonial centres. It started to decline around A.D. 900 when - for reasons which are still largely a mystery - the southern Maya abandoned their cities. When the northern Maya were integrated into the Toltec society by A.D. 1200, the Maya dynasty finally came to a close, although some peripheral centres continued to thrive until the Spanish Conquest in the early sixteenth century.
Maya history can be characterized as cycles of rise and fall: city-states rose in prominence and fell into decline, only to be replaced by others. It could also be described as one of continuity and change, guided by a religion that remains the foundation of their culture. For those who follow the ancient Maya traditions, the belief in the influence of the cosmos on human lives and the necessity of paying homage to the gods through rituals continues to find expression in a modern hybrid Christian-Maya faith.
Cosmology and Religion
The ancient Maya believed in recurring cycles of creation and destruction and thought in terms of eras lasting about 5,200 modern years. The current cycle is believed by the Maya to have begun in either 3114 B.C. or 3113 B.C. of our calendar, and is expected to end in either A.D. 2011 or 2012.
Maya cosmology is not easy to reconstruct from our current knowledge of their civilization. It seems apparent, however, that the Maya believed Earth to be flat and four-cornered. Each corner was located at a cardinal point and had a colour value: red for east, white for north, black for west, and yellow for south. At the centre was the colour green.
Some Maya also believed that the sky was multi-layered and that it was supported at the corners by four gods of immense physical strength called "Bacabs". Other Maya believed that the sky was supported by four trees of different colours and species, with the green ceiba, or silk-cotton tree, at the centre.
Earth in its flat form was thought by the Maya to be the back of a giant crocodile, resting in a pool of water lilies. The crocodile's counterpart in the sky was a double-headed serpent - a concept probably based on the fact that the Maya word for "sky" is similar to the word for "snake". In hieroglyphics, the body of the sky-serpent is marked not only with its own sign of crossed bands, but also those of the Sun, the Moon, Venus and other celestial bodies.
Heaven was believed to have 13 layers, and each layer had its own god. Uppermost was the muan bird, a kind of screech-owl. The Underworld had nine layers, with nine corresponding Lords of the Night. The Underworld was a cold, unhappy place and was believed to be the destination of most Maya after death. Heavenly bodies such as the Sun, the Moon, and Venus, were also thought to pass through the Underworld after they disappeared below the horizon every evening.
Very little is known about the Maya pantheon. The Maya had a bewildering number of gods, with at least 166 named deities. This is partly because each of the gods had many aspects. Some had more than one sex; others could be both young and old; and every god representing a heavenly body had a different Underworld face, which appeared when the god "died" in the evening