As an introvert, I live a lot of my life in my head. And as an avowed #historynerd, I think a lot about the past. I think about how 21st me would fair in various time periods. Would I survive? Would I thrive? For example, 21st century me does not like human sacrifice. The weather fascinates 21st century me, but not so much that I want to control it. 21st century me knows that I nor anyone else can make it rain on command. 21st century me like to build things and garden, but in fact does not offer human sacrifices to the deities in order to get rain. Evidently, I would not last long in Mayan society.
Did you know? I did my senior thesis project on Mayan Art and Architecture. In Spanish. So much of a #historynerd.
Large and in charge
Being in charge is no joke. Sometimes at work I’m forced into that position. I don’t like it, and it’s not a position I enjoy. It’s hard work being in charge. However, at least when I’m in charge I know there are things outside my control. Like admissions. Or orders.
In ancient Mayan society, rulers were responsible for governance, organization, warfare, keeping the calendar… Oh, and CONTROLLING THE WEATHER. By claiming divine descent and direct communication with the gods, the ruling elite was able to justify its power and obtain necessities like food, clothing, shelter, and status symbols from lower social classes in exchange for divine protection.
Long dead rulers, who were thought to be God-like themselves, continued ‘living’ in these amazingly intricate temples. Mayan offered ritualistic offerings to appeal to the gods.Mayas believed that their gods rewarded such sacrifices with blessings such as prosperity, fertility, and military success.
The God of rain and lightening
One of the most insatiable deities was Chac, the god of rain and lightning. Chac is a snake-shaped being with a reptilian face, large round eyes, a down-pointing snout, and fangs. He carries a lightning axe. Chichen Itza is often thought to be acoustically designed so that feet climbing the steps would mimic the pitter-patter of rain drops and please Chac– who in turn would cause real rain drops to fall. Not coincidentally, Chac is depicted all over the exterior of Chichen Itza.
On the Yucatán Peninsula, rain wasn’t a guarantee, but it was absolutely necessary for survival; rulers were even known as supreme rainmakers in honor of their most important job. Rituals involved feasts, ceremonious smashing and burning of ceramic vessels, and even mass public bloodletting with stingray spines. Temples were also important divine pathways, and construction was often punctuated with rituals that left artifacts within the building’s structure itself.
No rain for YEARS
During droughts, however, regular rituals just didn’t cut it. During droughts, human sacrifice was a common practice. Young kids served as the sacrificees. Kids represent growth and development. Such things were needed for growing crops. On the Yucatan peninsula, archaeologists have recovered the hearts of young boys. Their hearts were ripped out of their body and thrown in the area cenotes. [Side note curiosity: How were hearts discovered? Who discovered them? Hearts do not contain bones, and water accelerated decomposition. Unless frozen. And it’s way too warm on the Yucatan to freeze.] In the southern highlands, priests dropped infants in cenotes and they drowned.
Imagine being a Mayan parent. The elites select your kid for sacrifice. 21st century me can not get on board that train, but 800s meso-american me, I can see the value of sacrifice one for the good of all. In, fact, that’s a common historical occurrence that the selfishness of the 21st century seems to forget. But I digress. My kid for the survival of all of us. Ummm, OK, but Chaac, my harvest better be extra bountiful for the next few years, and I better be able to get pregnant again.
The Crystal Maiden
A sacrificial human skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden was found in the dark zone of a cave and dated back to the ninth century, a dry and turbulent era for the Maya. The god Chaac lived at the bottom of caves, cenotes, and other dark places, with his pet serpents guarding the water. Archeologists discovered human remains dating from the Early Classic period at cave entrances. However as times got more difficult, priests ventured further and further in the caves. By the 8th and 9th centuries, Mayans have not seen predictable rain for many years. Times are increasingly more difficult, and priests advanced to the rear of the caves to offer sacrifices like the Crystal Maiden. Times were hard. Priests and the elite grew desperate to satisfy both Chaac and an angry populace.
Unfortunately for the elite, no rain came. Humans sacrificed increased in quantity and the community worked at a frantic pace to construct a new, more pleasing to Chaac temple. However, infighting increased. Kingdoms collapsed. The peasant class shifted blame to its rulers. Many elites were killed for failing to allow rain. The established social hierarchy deteriorated until the population collapsed. But it didn’t die out completely.
Modern Mayans still worship Chaac, sending offerings into the cenotes he dwells in. At least today, kids aren’t sacrificed. More importantly, beating hearts remain encased in bodies. And infants see their first birthdays.
Shout out to Blind Melon’s No Rain for this post’s title