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This lesson will explore the bygone religions of Meso-America, specifically the Mayan and Aztec belief systems.

In doing this, it will highlight their belief in animism, their sacred calendars, and the use of human sacrifice as a means of worship.

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Intro to Meso-America

In today’s lesson, we’re going to take a look at the religions of Meso-America, specifically the bygone faiths of the Mayan and Aztec people. As we do this, we’ll see how the faith of these people groups was at the cornerstone of their culture, shaping almost every aspect of their daily lives.To get things rolling, we’ll start with the Mayans.

Encompassing modern-day Southern Mexico and even parts of Central America, the ancient Mayan religion is usually characterized as an attempt to explain the forces of nature. From precipitation to climate to natural disaster, everything had a spiritual twist.

Mayan Sky Wanderers

For example, the Mayans deified the sun, moon and stars as Sky Wanderers. Perhaps a bit like today’s fisherman count on a full moon for a good catch, the Mayans believed these celestial objects were alive and actively manipulating their world. In fact, the Mayan calendar and prophesies are believed to be based on the predictable movements of their divine sky wanderers. Taking this a step further, it’s believed the Mayans felt the earth was in a continual cycle of being destroyed by flood, then being reborn, as if it was regularly being sacrificed.

Popol Vuh & Animism

Although this theory can’t be truly proven, the study of ancient Mayan pottery and artifacts has led many anthropologists to link this flood and sacrifice myth to the Mayan’s inclusion of human sacrifice in their worship.

Giving another glimpse into this, the Mayan Bible of sorts, known as the Popol Vuh, includes some of these ancient, violent rituals.Being highly spiritualized, the Mayans didn’t just look to the heavens for divine intervention. Known as animism, their spirituality was also manifested in the belief that all of nature is full of unseen spirits, which are to be worshipped. Practicing animism, the ancient Mayans believed that nature – from rocks to trees to water – had a spirit, known as anima.

Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly seen than in the Mayans veneration of the large ceiba tree as their sacred ‘Tree of Life.’Although the Mayans often worshipped the unseen, the vegetation or the heavens their deities also took on more animated forms. Usually, these forms were either zoomorphic, meaning in the shape of an animal, or anthropomorphic, meaning in the shape of a man. For instance, Mayan rulers were often believed to be the embodiment of a divine spirit.

This, perhaps more than anything else, gave them the authority to wage war, claim territory and even use captives of war for human sacrifice.

Aztec Deities

Like the Mayans, the Aztecs of modern-day central Mexico also used human sacrifice as a means to worship their gods. In fact, anthropologists believe that human sacrifice was even more central to the Aztec faith, with some of their gods even requiring human blood for nourishment.Unlike the Mayans, most of the Aztec’s deities took on an anthropomorphic form. These human-like gods were arranged hierarchically, with all of life being created by two original deities.

Aztec Calendar

To the Aztecs, religious rituals were systematically performed in an effort to appease their gods. So serious was the fear of destruction at their deities’ hands that every 52 years, a number very sacred to their calendar, the Aztec people would put out their fires and clean out their homes, actually throwing out all of their idols.

They would also then perform human sacrifices as an attempt to renew their universe and please their gods. Perhaps more than anything else, this cyclical concept of time and ritual was at the cornerstone of the Aztec’s ancient faith.

Lesson Summary

The bygone religions of the Mayan and Aztec people greatly impacted the ancient culture of Southern Mexico and Central America.For the Mayans, religion was used to explain the natural world. As a culture, the Mayans practiced what is today called animism, or the belief that all of nature is full of unseen spirits that are to be worshipped. Along with their belief in animism, the Mayans believed in tangible gods, taking on both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic form. To these gods, the Mayans offered human sacrifice in hopes to appease them.

Hints of this brutality are found in the Mayan Bible of sorts known as the Popol Vuh.Like the Mayans, the Aztec religion also required human sacrifice to appease their gods. However, unlike the Mayans, most of the Aztec deities took on anthropomorphic form. In the bygone religion of the Aztecs, the cyclical concept of time was at its cornerstone.

Believing strongly in the spirituality of their calendar, the Aztecs even went as far as to systematically and ritualistically uproot and then rebuild their homes every 52 years. Again, this was done in an effort to appease the ever foreboding entities of their Meso-American culture.

Learning Outcomes

Once you’ve completed this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Compare and contrast the Mayan and Aztec religious belief systems
  • Discuss the role of the Sky Wanderers in Mayan life
  • Define animism, zoomorphic, and anthropomorphic
  • Explain the significance of human sacrifice for both the Mayans and the Aztecs

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