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Human Sacrifice and the Maya

Appeasing the ancient gods

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Chichén Itzá Sacrifice at the Ball Game.

Chichén Itzá Sacrifice at the Ball Game.

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We forbid and place strict sanctions on cannibalism, incest, and human sacrifice, considering they epitomize savage or barbarian behavior. Not everyone or every civilized group has shared our sensibilities.

Many groups of people have performed human sacrifices as a way of pleasing or appeasing their gods. The Maya were no different in this regard. Inscribed stones bear witness to the Maya practice of human sacrifice. Precious feathers appear where blood would be expected coming from the wounds in some depictions of Maya human sacrifice ritual. Perhaps this symbolizes how valuable the life-giving fluid is to the gods. In the accompanying illustration [see larger image], instead of spurting blood, there are serpents.

The common method for human sacrifice seems to have been for the "ah nacom" (a functionary) to extract the heart quickly, while 4 people associated with Chac, the rain/lightning god, held the struggling victim's limbs. Human sacrifices seem to have been made, as well, with arrows, by flaying, decapitation, hurling from a precipice, and throwing the victim into a limestone sinkhole.

Warfare was one source of human sacrificial victims. It is thought that losers in the ballgames may also have sometimes been victims, and sacrifice appears to have been connected mainly with ballgames, festivals, and the assumption of power by a new king.

Besides humans, the following objects were offered as sacrifices: manatees, jaguars, opposums, parrots, quail, owls, turtles, pumas, crocodiles, squirrels, insects, feathers, dogs, deer, iguanas, turkeys, rubber, cacao, maize, squash seeds, flowers, bark, pine boughs and needles, honey, wax, jade, obsidian, virgin water from caves, shells, and iron pyrite mirrors.

Why did the Maya Practice Human Sacrifice?

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Sources: "Archaeology and Religion: A Comparison of the Zapotec and Maya," by Joyce Marcus. World Archaeology, Vol. 10, No. 2, Archaeology and Religion (Oct., 1978), pp. 172-191.

"Procedures in Human Heart Extraction and Ritual Meaning: A Taphonomic Assessment of Anthropogenic Marks in Classic Maya Skeletons Procedures in Human Heart Extraction and Ritual Meaning: A Taphonomic Assessment of Anthropogenic Marks in Classic Maya Skeletons," by Vera Tiesler, Andrea Cucina. Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec., 2006), pp. 493-510.

Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan, by John M. Ingham. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jul., 1984), pp. 379-400.

Gordon R. Willey and American Archaeology, by Jeremy A. Sabloff, William Leonard Fash

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