The Mesoamerican religion encompasses the beliefs, practices, and rituals of the Central America and Mexico people before the Spanish came to the region. The civilizations based their religious beliefs and practices on an annual calendar which had an accompanying ritual cycle to appease the gods and preserve life on earth. They associated the calendar with different deities representing various aspects of the cosmos. The major civilizations included the Olmec, Aztec, and Mayan.
The Olmec civilization heavily influenced the Mesoamerican culture both in the social development and in the mythological world. Researchers believe the culture to be the foundation of all the other Mesoamerican civilizations (Diehl 2). To date, various aspects of the Olmec culture are still a mystery mainly because their society went into decline a long time ago. Despite this, archaeologists have used various techniques to understand the working of the religion. Some of the common techniques include comparison with pre-Columbian cultures which had better documentations, comparison with native American cultures, and analyzing art and iconography of the Olmec people.
According to Richard Diehl, there are five foundations of the Olmec religion: cosmos, supernatural beings, a shaman, rituals and sacred sites (Diehl 4). The cosmos provided a means for man to interact with the gods whom they considered as divine and having control of the universe. The shaman was an intermediary between the people and the gods. The people considered them to have a special relationship with the gods and thus had the mandate to perform religious ceremonies. They performed various rituals in sacred sites to appease the gods and strengthen the cosmos (Diehl 23). These sacred sites were both natural and man-made and included rivers, caves, mountain tops, springs, ball courts, temples, and plazas. The presence of human bones in the region indicated that human sacrifice was an important aspect of the religion (Diehl 24). Currently, there is little information about the roles of the gods in the Olmec society or how people worshiped them.
Religion was among the most important aspects of the life of the Aztec people. They believed in the existence of many supernatural beings with each ruling one or more aspects of nature or human activities. The religion consisted of various religious festivals including human sacrifices that the people held according to patterns dictated by the Aztec calendar (Hassig 74). The priests acted as intermediaries between the people and the gods and were the ones to carry out the rituals and ceremonies.
The religion had an ever increasing pantheon as the Aztecs adopted deities of other geographical regions into their religious practice. They believed that the world consisted of upper and nether parts with each having an association with a set of supernatural beings and astronomical objects (Hassig 107). Among the most important things in the religion were the Sun, Moon, and Venus which had various religious and symbolic meanings. They were also believed to be connected to the deities and some geographical places.
The Aztec religion had various rituals and ceremonies to appease the gods. One of them was bloodletting and human sacrifices. Some of the rituals included them offering a living heart to the gods. They believed that the higher the ranking of a person, then the greater the amount of blood needed and that the offering will be more effective in appeasing the deities (Hassig 123). The rituals and ceremonies had a close connection to astronomy and the calendar. Therefore, they had to be performed at specific times and places.
The Mayan civilization was heavily influenced by the religion and culture of the Olmecs. The main idea of their religious beliefs was to define the relationship between humanity and nature (Astor-Aguilera 2). The religion expressed the concept of a vital force separating non-living and living matter in the form of breath, wind or life. The Maya worshiped many gods with each of them having a kind and evil side. The supreme god Itzamna was the most important and was the creator, the god of fire and the hearth (Astor-Aguilera 7). To interact with the gods, the people had to use rulers as intermediaries. Due to this, the rulers were considered semi-divine and would be buried in highly structured tombs filled with valuable offerings.
Just as the Olmec and the Aztec people, sacrifice was a central religious practice among the Mayans and primarily involved animal killing. They believed that it demonstrated piety, encouraged fertility and proprieted the gods. Usually, they did not sacrifice humans, but they commonly practiced bloodletting as a means of nourishing the gods. They saw ritual bloodletting as the only means of making contact with the gods, and that failure to perform them would result in cosmic chaos and disorder (Astor-Aguilera 149). Apart from sacrifices, the Mayans also performed death rituals. They believed that people who died from sacrifice, during childbirth, battle, or suicide went straight to heaven. They would use the ashes of the dead in building idols and bring food to them during festivals (Astor-Aguilera 153). Other religious rituals of the Mayans included prayers, ball games, competition, dancing and dramatic performances.
The Mesoamerican religious beliefs and practices had many things in common because some were passed down from one civilization to another. They directed their rituals to groups of deities who were responsible for the creation, preservation, and destruction. The purpose of the rituals was to appease the gods so that they can preserve life on earth. They were performed in sacred places and depended on factors such as time, numbers, cycles and calendars. All of the religions aimed to ensure a balance between nature and humanity so that there may be the preservation of life.
Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel. The Maya World of Communicating Objects. University of New Mexico Press, 2010. Print.
Diehl, Richard A. The Olmecs: America's first civilization. Thames & Hudson, 2004. Print.
Hassig, Ross. Time, History, and Belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico. University of Texas Press, 2013. Print.
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