Precolumbian Maya Philosophy

Introduction

The philosophical thought of the Maya people of Central America in the period before Spanish contact in the 16th century is extremely rich.  With advances in the last 50 years in decipherment of the Classic Maya glyphs, it has become possible to reconstruct early Maya history, literature, and philosophy.  In addition to the glyphic texts of the codices and numerous stelae, carvings, and painted texts throughout the Maya region, Postcontact texts such as the Popol Vuh are important sources for Precolumbian Maya philosophy.  Because of the relative dearth of specifically philosophical Precolumbian glyphic texts, such Postcontact texts fill in important details, and can often be the best introductions to Precolumbian Maya thought.  For someone new to Maya philosophy, one suggestion for the best “way in” to this material is to begin with the Popol Vuh and Rabinal Achi (both K’iche’ Maya texts written in the Postcontact period but much of the content of which traces back to Precolumbian periods), move to material like the secondary literature discussed below, then perhaps to the Yucatec Chilam Balam texts, and then on to investigations of the glyphs and glyphic texts.

The Maya region is a swath of Central America extending from the Yucatan Peninsula southward to the Pacific shore, including current day southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and the western parts of Honduras and El Salvador.

While the Precolumbian Maya likely had a range of philosophical concerns, the central concerns we find in the extant texts are metaphysical.  This is likely due in part to the dominance of the ajaw (lords, rulers) and the ritual significance of the metaphysical systems in surviving Maya texts.  Despite this, there are some ethical issues also addressed in the tradition, specifically in the Postcontact Maya texts.  Precolumbian Maya texts were written in Classic Mayan rendered in glyphic script, a combination of logographic and phonetic elements.  The texts available to us today are of two primary kinds: books (or codices), and carved and painted glyphic texts on architecture, stelae, and pottery.  There are only four extant codices from the Precolumbian period—likely many more existed, but of these a number were destroyed in numerous incidents during the Spanish contact period.  Most infamously, Spanish friar Diego de Landa burned a number of texts at the town of Maní in 1562.  A number of other texts likely succumbed to decay in the tropical rainforest covering most of the Maya region, failing to be carefully kept after Spanish control. 

Key topics in Precolumbian Maya philosophy include time, personal identity, essence, stability and change, and the nature of being (though the way the Maya approach these issues is often very different than the way they are approached in other traditions).

Key texts

The four codices—Dresden, Madrid, Paris, Grolier

            The four extant Maya codices contain mainly astronomical and calendric information.  It is plausible that books containing more explicitly religious and philosophical content would have been objectionable to Spanish authorities during the Postcontact period and destroyed.  Both astronomy and calendrics were tied to religious ritual and the ajawob (plural of ajaw) for the Precolumbian Maya.

Popol Vuh
English translations:  Dennis Tedlock (1996) Allen Christenson (2007)

            The received Popol Vuh is a Postcontact text written in the K’iche’ Maya language in Latin script.  While there are certainly some innovations and influence of Christianity in parts of the text, the Popol Vuh contains a great deal of material of Precolumbian origin, verified by corresponding Classic Period artwork and text fragments.  If only one can be chosen, the Popol Vuh is probably the best primary source use for teaching Maya philosophy, as it covers such a wide range of topics of concern to the Precolumbian Maya.  The Popol Vuh contains creation stories, consideration of the role of sacrifice in the continual creation of the world, and reflection on the nature of identity and change.  Both translations mentioned here include additional material explaining the cultural and historical background. 

Rabinal Achi
English Translation: Dennis Tedlock (2005)

            Rabinal Achi (or “Man of Rabinal”) is a K’iche’ Maya play dating to the 15th century (Postclassic period), relying heavily on dance as symbolism and expression.  Dance had an important role for the Precolumbian Maya as it was one of the ways in which an individual could serve as the substitution (k’ex) of a god or other individual.  The Maya conception of substitution was one of what we might call “embedded identity”—the dancer substituting a deity became the deity—the individual dancer became a stage of the substituted entity.  Ch’ul, or essence, allowed for this substitution.  Death, communication with unseen aspects of the world (including the realm of ancestors), and change are major themes of the text.

Annals of the Cakchiquels
English Translation: Brinton (1885)

            A kind of Kaqchikel version of the Popol Vuh, written in 1571 (but like the Popol Vuh likely containing material of much earlier origin). Recounts the mythological and historical origins of the Maya and the Kaqchikel.

Chilam Balam texts (Chumayel, Mani, Tizimin, etc.) 
English Translations: Chumayel—Roys (1967), Gordon (1992)  Mani—Craine and Reindorp (1979), Roys (1949)  Tizimin—Roys (1949), Edmonson (2010).

            The various Chilam Balam (Jaguar Priest) texts are collections of traditions and collected knowledge that originated in the Yucatan.  The texts are connected to different Yucatan cities in which they were found, and there are nine known Chilam Balam texts.  Though the texts as we have them were written in the 17th century, the material dates back to the Precolumbian periods. They each purport to expound the knowledge of the (perhaps mythical) ‘Jaguar Priest’, and likely represent the store of knowledge expected of Maya priests in the Yucatan.  The best known Chilam Balam texts are the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, the Chilam Balam of Mani, and the Chilam Balam of Tizimin

Key concepts

A note the language: There are a number of complications here.  Classic Mayan languages were spoken and written differently in different parts of the Maya region (sometimes slightly, sometimes greatly).  We also do not know exactly how many of the words in Classic Mayan languages were spoken in their time—modern rendering of the glyphs in Latin script generally follow modern Mayan languages such as Ch’orti’, Yucatec, or K’iche’. Scholars believe that the most widely used Classic Mayan language was an early form of Ch’olan, of which Ch’orti is a modern variant.  Terms and names most widely used in the Yucatan, such as Itzamna and Kukulkan, are generally rendered in Yucatec, while figures better known from the K’iche’ Maya tradition, such as the hero twins Hunahpu and Xblanque, are rendered in K’iche’.  This can sometimes be the source of confusion, but here I render terms and names in all of their commonly found forms to reduce the difficulty.  Another complication is that there are numerous systems of Romanization of Maya terms found in different works on the Maya.  Thus, in some works one finds words like ‘ajaw’ rendered ‘ahau’, or the name K’iche’ rendered Quiche.

Ch’ulch’ul is understood to be the essence or vital spirit of a person, found in (but not identical with) the blood.  Blood sacrifices, including the drawing of one’s own blood by elites, was tied to manipulation of ch’ul in order to communicate with and render visible unseen aspects of the world. 

‘itz—a concept that can signify essence, power, or truth, and which pervades the cosmos.  Ch’ul is understood as a particular type of itz.  Itz is linked to knowledge, and has the potential to reveal unseen or hidden aspects of the world to humans, because it serves as a link between these various elements of the world, human and non-human, visible and esoteric.  It is in this way that the itzam (“sage”, “shaman”, one who manipulates itz) accesses the unseen world and makes it manifest to humans.

tz’ak—the general concept of an “ordering” which is also a creation.  This can apply to the ordering of people, rulers, or time.  The application of tz’ak to time is the most prominent use by Precolumbian Maya. A unique feature of the term tz’ak is that it can refer backward to the ordering of events or time periods in the past, but also projects forward to ordering of future events.  Markus Eberl argues that the ancient Maya used this concept to tie together privileged and particular orderings of known events with the present and future, in order to form a particular conception of an extended present period—to combine the significance and meaning of past figures and events with those of present and future, into what he calls “framing of a now moment”.

k’in—the “day” (or “sun”), a unit of time abstracted from larger units.  Miguel León-Portilla argues that k’in is the atomic component of time for the Maya.  Others, such as Alexus McLeod, argue that the Maya conception of time is informed by their other views of process. Broader processes, rather than the day units, were the focus and fundamental element of Maya thought concerning time. The k’in then be seen as a way of focusing one aspect of the larger continuum of time, rather than as a basic unit of time. 

k’ex—“substitution” or “impersonation”; the phenomenon of becoming or manifesting another thing through embedded identity.  Such substitution could happen through performance, either of a particular social role (performing the role of the ruler makes one identical with the previous ruler) or a role in a ritual, such as the performance of the Rabinal Achi, scenes from the Popol Vuh, or ritual sacrifice.  The term can also refer to ritual sacrifice in its various forms, including royal bloodletting ceremonies in which rulers drew a small amount of their own blood to facilitate access to ch’ul.

Ajaw— an ajaw was a ruler of a Maya city-state and primary guide to the unseen aspects of reality for the Maya by the Classic Period, during which the power of the ajawob seems to have reached its height.  .  The ajaw was seen as priest-ruler with divine aspects, wholly in charge of a city or region, and expressive of its nature.  The ajaw had contact with the unseen aspects of the world, and was identified with the spirit of his realm itself.  The “emblem glyphs” of Maya cities during this time (the use of which was a phenomenon that arose during the Classic Period) literally referred to the ruler of a particular city, but were used interchangeably as the sign for the city itself.  The ajaw and his polity came to be seen as one. 

Some Key Figures

The early Mesoamerican traditions for the most part did not concentrate on authorship, and thus we do not know the identities of most of the figures behind important texts and ideas.  Still, there are some well known figures in Maya intellectual and political history relevant to the discussion, including important deities and semi-mythical figures as well as historic persons.

Hun Ajaw/Hunahpu—one of the two “Hero Twins” of the K’iche’ Maya text Popol Vuh, the name roughly translates to “One Ruler”.  The character may be a figurative representation of the origin of the ruler-priest, and the Popol Vuh character is generally identified with an earlier deity representing the same ideas.  The ajaw (lord) in Precolumbian Maya thought had a shamanic role in addition to their role as head of government.  The ajaw was seen as conduit between the people and the unseen aspects of reality, such as the gods, the ancestors, sacrifice, and the underworld (Xibalba). 

Yax Balam/Xbalanque—the second of the famous “Hero Twins” of the Popol Vuh.

K’inich Janaab’ Pakal I of Palenque (reigned 615-683 CE)—this ajaw of Palenque features on one of the most famous artistic pieces of the Maya world, from his sarcophagus lid.  The image depicts Janaab’ Pakal descending into the underworld (Xibalba), with the World Tree representing the connection between the seen and unseen aspects of the world rising from the opening to Xibalba.

Kukulkan—the name of this deity, also known as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec, is often translated “Plumed Serpent” or “Feathered Serpent” in English.  The deity had great significance in the northern cities of the Yucatan in the Postclassic period.  The significance of Kukulkan in these regions may have been due to central Mexican influence.  The famous pyramid of Kukulkan (also known as “El Castillo”) at Chichen Itza was dedicated to the deity, representing his descent to earth in the rainy seasons of Yucatan.

Itzamna— The god Itzamna (in Yucatec Mayan), also referred to as “God D”, while accounted for in numerous regions of the Maya area, was the central god in the Yucatan, prized in importance over all the others. There is some controversy behind the meaning of name of the deity, as a number of views have been advanced.  An early view by scholars in the 1960s and 70s held that Itzamna should be translated as “lizard house”, with itzam meaning “lizard” or “iguana”. It is more likely, however, that itzam is meant in another sense, “sage” or “shaman”.  This sense of the word draws on the concept of itz, with the itzam being one who understands and can direct itz. Itzamna was associated with scribes and with knowledge, among other things, and can be understood as the first or quintessential scribe.  Like the other gods of the Maya, Itzamna included a variety of different aspects, and could be manifest in many ways, including as the serpent (associated with Kukulcan) and the Milky Way itself, which also represented the World Tree linking all aspects of the world to one another.  Itzamna, as chief god (in the Yucatan) was associated with the ruler as well.  And most interestingly for our purposes, Itzamna was associated with the ruler/shaman’s ability to see the unseen aspects of the world and to see into the future. 

Selected Secondary Works:

The following works contain overviews of Precolumbian Maya philosophical, religious, and political thought, as well as Maya history.

Astor-Aguilera, Miguel. The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 2011.

     An innovative exploration of Maya epistemology through a consideration of contemporary Maya practices dealing with the communicative ability of objects, and the origins of this in the Precolumbian periods.

Knowlton, Timothy.  Maya Creation Myths: Words and Worlds of the Chilam Balam. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2010.

     This study of the Chilam Balam texts offers an interpretation of creation myths in theses texts and numerous strands of thought represented in these texts.  An excellent companion volume to the Chilam Balam texts.

León-Portilla, Miguel.  Tiempo y realidad en el pensamiento maya. (English trans. Time and Reality in Maya Thought) Ciudad de Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónomica de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, 1968.

     An exploration of time and reality by one of the central scholars of Mesoamerican Philosophy (both in Aztec and Maya traditions).  Develops a controversial interpretation of Maya ontology as grounded in time, in particular the k’in (day).

McLeod, Alexus. Philosophy of the Ancient Maya: Lords of Time. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2017.

     An introduction to and interpretation of the central philosophical themes of Maya thought, including time, identity, essence and truth, creation, and change.  Comparative engagement with early Chinese Philosophy aids in the interpretation of Classic, Postclassic, and Postcontact Maya texts.

Pharo, Lars. The Ritual Practice of Time: Philosophy and Sociopolitics of Mesoamerican Calendars. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

     A careful and interesting consideration of Maya calendrics as tied to a conception of ritual and the construction of a number of categories in Maya thought, including politics, cosmology, and nature.

Schele, Linda, David Friedel, and Joy Parker.  Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path.  New York: William Morrow, 1993.

     A classic—the first and still deepest investigation into Precolumbian Maya religion and philosophy, by two legends of the field of Maya Studies.  Schele, Friedel, and Parker set the groundwork for all other studies in Maya thought to follow.

Sharer, Robert. The Ancient Maya, 6th ed. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2005.

     An extensive overview of scholarship on all aspects of Precolumbian Maya civilization, including religion and philosophy—the best available one volume source the Precolumbian Maya.

Vail, Gabrielle and Christine Hernandez. Re-Creating Primodial Time: Foundation Rituals and Mythology in the Postclassic Maya Codices. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2013.

     In their overarching argument for continuity between Classic, Postclassic, and Postconquest thought, Vail and Hernandez cover a wealth of information concerning gods and concepts in the Maya philosophical tradition.

Useful Online Tools

Mesoweb (www.mesoweb.com)- enormous collection of resources, including publications, dictionaries, and the “Encyclopedia Mesoamericana”, regularly updated.

FAMSI (www.famsi.org) - similar to mesoweb, a number of resources including dictionaries and resources for learning Mesoamerican languages.  Currently run by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Timeline

Preclassic Period (~2000 BCE- 250 CE)

I place the beginnings of this period in 2000 BCE rather than 1000 BCE, as seen in some sources, due to the increasingly different kinds of agriculture beginning around this period (at least that we have archaeological evidence for). Interactions between the Maya and the Isthmian peoples as well as people further inland and north such as the people of the powerful city of Teotihuacan, led to the development of new calendars, mathematical systems, writing systems, and forms of government and political organization.  This culminated in the rise of the Preclassic power centers in the southern highlands, such as Izapa, Kaminaljuyu, and El Mirador (in current day Guatemala), among others. This early period of urban development in the Maya world saw the development of urban centers with the specifically Maya features that would come to rise and dominate the tradition during the Classic Period.  The origins of Maya patterns of government and particularly rulership seem to have begun in this period, as well as the centralizing urbanization that would culminate in the great cities of the Classic and Postclassic.  The power centers of the Maya region were for the most part in the southern highlands.  The cities and culture here were likely influenced by that of the city of Teotihuacan, which was connected to the region through trade and other cultural affiliations.

Classic Period (250- 900 CE)

The most well-known period of Precolumbian Maya.  The beginning of this period is marked by the growth of the practice of erecting monumental stelae containing glyphic texts and “Long Count” dates in Maya cities.  The concept of the ajaw (ruler) developed to its height, the priest-ruler with divine aspects, in charge of a city or region and also expressive of its nature.  This period saw the rise of central lowlands cities such as Tikal (in current day Guatemala), Copan (in current day Honduras), and Palenque (in current day Chiapas state, Mexico).  Much of what we know of Maya philosophy comes from sources in this period. It is likely that the major focus on time as a central concept of Maya thought solidified during this period, even though there are certainly many indications that time was a major focus of Mesoamerican thought even as far back as the major developments of the Olmec and the people of Teotihuacan.

Postclassic Period (900-1535 CE)

The Postclassic period saw the shift of power in form of the central and dominant city-states to the northern lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula, and the rise and dominance of great cities like Chichen Itza, Coba, and other far northern cities along or near the Yucatan coast.  It is also during this period that we see influence of cultural elements of the central Mexican people of the time.  It is in northern cities like Chichen Itza that Maya astronomy and astronomical architecture reaches its pinnacle.  It is also from the Postclassic Yucatan that we have the only surviving Maya codices.  These texts likely contained ritual, history, religious hymns, astronomical data, and other philosophical content.

Postconquest/Postcontact (after 1535)

The Postclassic period came to an end in the period of Spanish contact in the 16th century, which inaugurated the modern period of Maya history, in which the Maya resisted Spanish rule and influence, created vibrant syntheses between Christianity and Maya thought, and struggled to retain their autonomy amidst the onslaught of Spanish colonialism.  Texts such as Popol Vuh and the Chilam Balam texts date to the early part of the Postconquest period, though the origin of much of the material in these texts dates to much earlier periods.  Despite the problematic nature of the name ‘Postconquest’ for this period, it is still in wide use, which is why I refer to it here.  Perhaps a better convention would be to use ‘Postcontact’, which is seen in some works.

Author Information

Alexus McLeod (University of Connecticut)