Religious differences of the Maya and Olmecby Rit Nosotro
Compare the religious differences between the Maya and the Olmec, and how those differences influenced the other aspects of their culture.
During the pre-Columbian era, the Maya and Olmec were two predominant civilizations that occupied the Mesoamerican region. They accomplished great achievements and made significant discoveries. However, the Mayas and Olmec had their differences, both in the time period in which they existed, and in their religious belief system. Religion played a key role in the way these two nations functioned. Animals were strong symbols in the Olmec religion. They practiced the animistic religion of shamanism, the belief that all things, whether animate or imamate, had an animal spirit. Mayas believed that every aspect of nature was controlled by a separate god. They even believed that each day had its own god. 1 Because of this, Mayas strived to live a life that would follow the cycles of the universe, in conjunction with the cycles of time. 2 In this way, they hoped to please the "daily" gods.
The Olmec civilization flourished before the Maya, as the former provided the foundation for the structures and beliefs of many Mesoamerican nations. One of these structures was the calendar system which the Olmec developed. Their "calendar year" consisted of fifty-two years. However, the Olmec had three hundred and sixty days in their year, as opposed to the modern-day calendar of three hundred and sixty-five days. Because they had no writing system and much later, they used a few symbols to represent numbers. The belief system which practically all Mesoamerican nations would follow was the Olmec's polytheistic religion. Of the many gods that the Olmec worshiped, the principle god was the Earth god, who took form as a half-jaguar, half-serpent being. Because the jaguar appeared so often in their art, it is assumed that the Olmec worshipped the jaguar. This was part of their animistic religion, as they believed that the jaguar represented the Earth and the serpent represented water, which combined to symbolize life. 3
Religion united the Olmec civilization, as people would gather together to build huge centers. Their cities would revolve around these centers, where the Olmec would hold rituals in which they would offer blood sacrifices to the jaguar, among other gods. These ceremonies would include singing and rhythmic dancing, possibly to accompany the beating of drums. As they danced, men would wear masks and "crack whips to imitate the sound of thunder." 4 They were led by the shaman, who would communicate to their gods through witchcraft. 5 The shaman would chant an incantation to the jaguar deity, hoping that their god would be pleased with the performed rituals. Because he acted as the medium between the people and their gods, people treated the shaman with sincere reverence, as if he were a living god. In several Olmec statues, the shaman is shown posing in complicated positions. Over years, Olmec myths developed and eventually it was said that the shaman would somehow obtain supernatural powers from the jaguar.
One of the civilizations which built upon the Olmec traditions was the Mayas. Because their religion was so obsessed with time and following the cycles of nature, they quickly developed three calendar systems so that they could calculate the previously mentioned cycles of time with extreme accuracy. One calendar was comprised of 260 days, relating to the moon cycle. Another calendar, incorporated from the solar cycle, was made of eighteen months of twenty days, plus five extra days, which were considered unlucky. A third calendar was based on a fifty-two year solar cycle. 6 Combining these calendars would produce one of the most accurate calendars in the world, if not the most accurate. A Washington State University researcher stated that their calendars would reach "an accuracy of being one day off every 6000 years." 7 Although these calendars were rather complex, the sole purpose of their creation was to determine the proper dates for when they would perform rites and religious ceremonies.
These rituals would take place at a ceremonial center, where the priest would cut himself to produce blood, which would be presented to the gods. Certain animals, such as turkeys, dogs, squirrels, quail, and iguana, were also considered as acceptable sacrifices. 8 Like many other nations, the polytheistic Mayas believed that the only way the gods would be pleased was if the people continually performed such ceremonies. Although the Mayas never practiced mass human sacrifices, there was always the odd occasion when they believed the gods required a human victim. 9 In those cases, they would take prisoners, slaves, and orphaned children, and sacrifice them in one of three ways. In one method, the priests would tie the victim to a wooden pole and throw spears and arrows toward the victim's chest. Another method, likely introduced to the Mayas by the Toltec, would have the victim's heart cut out and presented to the gods. Other rites in the ceremonies would include burning of incense, dancing, and the ousting of evil spirits from the worshipers. 10
Sacrifice has been a part of worship ever since, "By faith Abel offered to God a better sacrifice than Cain." 11 The idea that a blood sacrifice was acceptable to God was carried through to Noah who sacrificed sheep after leaving the ark (also sacrificed in the Epic of Gilgamesh). After humanity was scattered from the tower of Babel, they spread over the earth. Arriving in Mesoamerica, ancestors of the Olmecs and Mayans still carried the idea that God was pleased with sacrifice. However, "they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped the creation rather than the Creator." 12 In contrast, Abraham worshiped the true Creator and, in a culture of human sacrifice, learned that God would provide a substitute for his only son Isaac with a Ram. 13 There was always this faith element that was required in each sacrifice, because God did not want it to become a mere ritual. 14
The ancient Hebrews also paid great attention to their calendar. Exactly 430 years after Israel entered Egypt and they now prepared to sacrifice the Passover lamb in preparation to leave slavery, Moses was told, "This month shall be your beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." 15 It was also on Passover that Jesus 16 was slain to set free 17 believers who were slaves to sin. 18 The remarkable event was God sacrificing himself for his creation. He initiated the calendar and its events as a sign to humanity.
This is in stark contrast to the Maya and Olmec priests. The religions of both these ancient peoples had focused their worship on animistic gods imagined to live on the earth or celestial deities. They believed ritual performance needed accurate calendar dates in order to please these gods. The priests calculated a calendar and devised events in order to worship the creation rather than the Creator. 19 Over the centuries, truth continued to be perverted as the Aztecs developed human sacrifice and cannibalism to abysmal proportions which finally ended with the scourge of small pox. Today's Mesoamerican descendents are hearing the truth that there was one sacrifice for sin 20, Jesus Christ. Paul warned the Galatians 21 against observing "days, and months, and seasons, and years". To obey out of faith is better than to sacrifice according to a calendar. 22
1 Stanton, Mar & Hyma, Albert. Streams of Civilization: Volume One. Life Publishers. 1992. Page 324. 10. Dec. 2003. Return
9 Stanton, Mar & Hyma, Albert. Streams of Civilization: Volume One. Life Publishers. 1992. Page 324. 10. Dec. 2003. Return
22 Specials thanks to Rit Nosotro, etc.
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