The Ancient Maya Appeased Their Gods With Sacred Offerings

Blood-letting, offerings of various objects, and other rituals defined the life of the ancient Maya people, who worked to satisfy a reciprocal relationship with their gods.

By Joshua Rapp Learn
Jun 11, 2024 1:00 PM
Tikal Temple
(Credit: Diego Grandi/Shutterstock)

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Whether it was human sacrifice, treasure tossed into sacred sinkholes, or rituals surrounding resource extraction from the land, the ancient Maya had a rich worldview that involved a close reciprocal relationship with their gods.

But what did the ancient Maya have to do to avoid the inconvenience of an apocalyptic reset, or at least keep the gods happy enough to favor new temples or even small homes? According to archaeologists, it depended a lot on the time, place, and scale of the occasion.

Why Did the Maya Have to Please Their Gods?

One of the ancient Maya’s origin stories involves a tale chronicled in the Popol Vuh, a sacred text from the K’iche’ Maya people who still live in parts of southern Mexico and Central America. This text was first recorded in Spanish in the early 1700s by a priest of the Dominican order, though the narrative dates back centuries earlier.

According to the Popol Vuh, the gods made humans out of corn and gave them fire after failing several times. “[They] wanted to create beings that would recognize and worship them, who could speak and were knowledgeable—but not all-knowing,” says Elizabeth Paris, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary who studies the Maya.

This implies reciprocity in the views of many researchers. “If they do not hold up their end of the relationship, it is implied the gods might decide to destroy humans and try again,” Paris says. As a result, many kinds of ancient Maya ceremonies tied back to this spiritual relationship.


Read More: 7 Groundbreaking Ancient Civilizations That Influence Us Today


How the Maya Paid Back Their Gods

Much as the Aztecs did later on, repaying the gods sometimes involved human sacrifice for the Maya. The ball court at Chichen Itza, for example, has friezes that show how players were sacrificed. “The leader of one team has decapitated the leader of the other team because he is holding his head up,” says Kathryn Reese-Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary.

Human sacrifice was also conducted to please the gods in other contexts. There are burials with numerous skulls from presumably sacrificed people at Colha, an archaeological site in Belize. These date to a period of heavy warfare, Reese-Taylor says. There is also evidence for heart removal in places like El Tajin, a site in Veracruz, Mexico. Sometimes, even children may have been sacrificed.

“There’s a direct association between blood and fertility,” Reese-Taylor says.


Read More: The Maya Civilization's Religion Was More Than Just Ritual Sacrifices


Blood-letting for the Gods

Sacrifice didn’t always result in death. Among the Maya, it was more often practiced as a ritual blood-letting, where people would cut themselves in places like the earlobes, tongues, or even the foreskin of the penis to let blood to please the gods. “It looks pretty dramatic in some of the murals,” Reese-Taylor says, but it likely wasn’t always so gory.

There isn’t a ton of material evidence for this, as the Maya would often collect the blood on paper or cloth and then burn it—as a result, not much survives today in the archaeological record. While this was done for the gods, Reese-Taylor says that people would also let blood to dedicate to their ancestors.


Read More: Ancient Medical Treatments Still Used Today


Everyday Maya People

Not every kind of ceremony the Maya people had to please the gods came down to this larger sense of ensuring the continuation of their world. Many offerings operated toward specific requests that the Maya had.

For example, the Maya would often make offerings to gods when they built new structures. Leaders would leave these in ball courts to dedicate the outdoor sports arenas to different gods. Offerings such as axes made of jade or other green stones were also left at temples. Sometimes offerings were left in caves, or in the case of Chichen Itza, tossed into cenotes (sink holes).

People would make small offerings to dedicate newly built homes or other buildings in an effort to bring good will. “Lots of things can be ensouled by making offerings—this includes buildings, which is why a lot of buildings, from ordinary houses, to temples, to ball courts, have offerings that help to ensoul them,” Paris says.

Many homes also had altars for weekly or daily offerings. The offerings usually weren’t very elaborate, Reese-Taylor adds—most were perishable items like food, drink, or copal resin. We only have an idea that these kinds of offerings were made in the past based on the vessels that held the offerings, though similar offerings are still made today among modern Maya people in Mexico and Central America.


Read More: 5 Important Artifacts From Ancient Maya Civilization


Inanimate Versus Animate Offerings

In many cases, the offering of inanimate objects wasn’t that different in concept from human sacrifice or blood-letting. “Many Maya people see the world less in terms of inanimate versus animate, and instead believe that most things have a soul,” Paris says.

In other cases, Paris notes that sometimes people lose parts of their souls, which can be put back together again by ceremonial offering.

Some of these rituals still go on today in places like the hills of Chiapas in southern Mexico, where both gods and ancestors are appeased when they are thought to be upset. “People also have reciprocal relationships with regard to the use of forest resources, and there are specific beliefs regarding hunting shrines in Guatemala where hunters return the bones of the animals they have taken after the meat is eaten,” Paris says in summarizing findings from a 2008 study about the Maya's relationship with the forest.


Read More: Why Did the Maya Abandon Their Once-Bustling Cities?


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Joshua Rapp Learn is an award-winning D.C.-based science writer. An expat Albertan, he contributes to a number of science publications like National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, New Scientist, Hakai, and others.

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