National Day of the Mayan Culture


In 2014, the Senate of Mexico officially declared December 21 as the National Day of the Mayan Culture because, randomly, the Mayan calendars end their count on that day in 2012. This curious fact put the Mayan culture in the world’s spotlight because some gurus, shamans and astrologers interpreted it as the end of the world.

Curiously, this anecdote had the opposite effect and today more and more people come to the Yucatan Peninsula to witness the cultural and historical greatness of this civilization, which is more alive than ever.

Historical, Cultural and Traditional Wealth of the Mayans

The Mayan culture originated in Mesoamerica, one of the six cradles of civilization in the world. Its origin is uncertain, although everything seems to indicate that it emerged around the year 2000 BC as a cultural extension of the Olmecs, the oldest civilization in Mesoamerica. At its peak it covered more than 115,83 square miles in what now are the states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco and Chiapas in Mexico, as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Although there is often talk of a “Mayan Empire,” the truth is that the Mayan culture always functioned as a series of independent city-states, with their own authorities in each one, and that they constantly fought among themselves, so the prominence of each one was changing throughout history. Even so, these city-states managed to maintain a cultural cohesion that allowed them to develop a sophisticated writing system, complex calendars, and impressive art that includes monumental architecture.

It is worth highlighting the extensive knowledge of mathematics and astronomy that they achieved. In fact, it was the first culture in the world to use the concept of explicit zero. Furthermore, and even now, their judicious use of natural resources is admirable, taking into account that most of the Mayan territory does not have surface rivers and agriculture is strictly seasonal.

Mayan Art


Mayan Art

Mayan art is the art of the aristocracy and stands out for the extensive use of blue and green colors, both in stones of those colors, present in body inlays and in funerary masks, as well as in painting and textiles. For its part, Mayan stone sculpture emerged as a fully developed skill, suggesting that it may have evolved from wood sculpture, and served to record historical milestones and to finish off buildings strikingly.

Ceramics are the most common Mayan art in the archaeological record and it is worth mentioning that they did not know the potter’s wheel; the pieces were made with the modeling technique with the fingers or with the help of simple tools. Mayan pottery had a fine finish produced by burnishing and was painted with a clay bath mixed with colorful minerals and clays. The ceramic cooking techniques of the ancient Mayans have not yet been replicated.

Mayan architecture is characterized by soaring pyramidal temples and ornate palaces. Because the Mayans lived in independent city-states there are regional variations in architectural styles, but almost all buildings were constructed with precise attention to position and layout, so that one general style prevails.


Mayan Cosmogony

The Mayans had a very structured vision of the cosmos. They believed that there were thirteen levels in heaven, nine levels in the underworld, and that the mortal world occupied a position between heaven and the underworld. Each level had four cardinal points that were associated with a different color.

The main gods had attributes characteristic of these directions: north was white, east was red, south was yellow, and west was black. Furthermore, each god had dichotomous manifestations such as day-night and life-death.

Although Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, is by far the most famous god, he was not the most important. That one perhaps was Itzamná, the creator god who also embodied the cosmos. He was both a solar god K’inich Ahau, creator of the day, but he also had the appearance of a jaguar, creator of the night, representing the Sun on its journey through the underworld. Other important gods are Chaac, god of rain, and Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility.

Surviving Religious Rituals


Surviving Religious Rituals

The Mayans resorted to rituals to seek the favor of the gods, although currently most of them are mixed with Christian traditions. The best known is the Hanal Pixan, a ritual in which food is prepared for the dead.

Hanal Pixan consists of digging a hole in the ground called “pib” and which will serve as an oven, filling it with charcoal and stones. Next, a type of tamales are introduced, known as “mukbil pollo”, large, round, filled with a stew and wrapped in a banana leaves. Then, the hole is covered with herbs and a metal sheet so that the tamales can cook for two hours. Tamales are placed as an offering on the altar on the Day of the Dead.

The Sacred Mayan Journey is a journey that commemorates the greatness of the Itza peoples as the Great Witches of Water who established important commercial routes by water. In this ritual, paddlers get into their canoes and go to Cozumel to pay tribute to Ixchel, goddess of fertility and the moon. There they place offerings, seek the advice and wisdom of the goddess through her oracle, and then make the return trip and bring the good news to their communities.