Politics, Control and Legal Rules of the Maya Civilization as Defined by Pervasive Ideology, Providing Both Control of Maya Citizens and Resisting Unification into a Single Empire


Due to the Spanish Conquest relatively few sources provide a glimpse of the ancient Maya civilization. Two separate sources show different aspects of the Maya civilization politics and rule of law.  The intertwined nature of Maya political control and Maya ideology is primarily revealed though translations of stone-carved hieroglyphs of the Classical Period. “The Classic period (A.D. 300-900) is defined as the time when the Maya erected stelae, carved monuments with dates in the Maya long count” (McKillop 8). The stelae were erected in front of temples and palaces in the central areas of Classic period cities for public viewing, and the monuments re-counted significant events in a ruler’s life, notably birth, marriage, ascension to the throne, battles won, and death (Id).  


 In contrast, the day-to-day rule of law is revealed mainly through the Spanish conquest, centuries after the Classic Period. A particularly vital source, Friar Diego de Landa, in a grand gesture burned 27 rolls of hieroglyphs in 1562 (Landa v), and he is responsible for destroying “ninety-nine times as much knowledge of Maya history and sciences as he has given us in his book.” (Landa vi)


The Maya civilization was never a unified empire, and instead functioned as a diverse group of city states, united under one ideology (Foster 133). Despite this de-centralized power of the civilization, the Maya controlled a substantial area, and the general agreement is that “the territory defined culturally as the Maya Area consists basically of those parts of Mexico and Central America bounded on the west by the narrowing of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, on the north by the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean coastline, on the south by the Pacific shore, and on the east by the. . . the highlands of Honduras” (Hammond 67).


First, a puzzle that this arrangement presents is how the individual Maya city states subjected nearby areas and people to city state control, while simultaneously resisting unification or conquer into a centrally-ruled empire. One answer lies in the common ideology shared by the city states of the Maya empire, which consisted of deification of the ruling class through ritual, self sacrifice, cosmological order. Another is answer involved the deification and control of water, a particularly precious resource for the Maya area.  


Second, the same Maya ideology that subjected the Maya people to city state control while simultaneously resisting unification into a centrally-ruled empire also permeated the general, day-to-day rule of law as revealed through later Spanish conquest. First-hand accounts from the Spanish conquest in the 16th century show that, generally, unintentional offenses required monetary restitution while intentional and malicious offenses required blood sacrifice, which seems to conform to Classic Period Maya belief in cosmological balance and order.


I. Classic Period Maya politics and ideology was tightly intertwined, and pervasive beliefs of divine authority and cosmological order, reinforced by ritual including self-sacrifice, allowed Maya city states to exercise control over local Maya citizens and, concurrently, resist unification into a single empire. 


Maya political control and ideology is revealed through translation of stone hieroglyphs. During the Classic Period, hieroglyphs were carved on vertically set shafts of stone called stelae, on stone altars, stairways, benches, and lintels (Weaver 141). Others were worked in stucco or pained on pottery, or walls of temples and tombs, and in the books called codices, a kind of picture album (Id). City state rules erected these stone monuments with images of themselves and inscriptions listing their conquests and alliances, their ancestry and titles (Hammond 199). A key to understanding the city state domains and areas of control are emblem glyphs, which served as “place-names associated with specific sites or as names of lineage or families at those sites… They function as royal titles linking rulers or other high-ranking persons to a specific site” (Foster 284). These emblem glyphs therefore show a chronological distribution of city state power in the Maya area. Additionally, Maya hieroglyphs were discovered in codices (Weaver 142). Only four pre-Conquest codices are known at present of post Classic Period date, and one that dates to the Classic period (Id). Mainly, these contained astronomical and astrological information, as well as proscribing certain ceremonies for given a sequences of 20-year periods (Id at 143-144).


Stelae hieroglyphs reveal that the Maya Classis Period city states were far from isolated. Texts suggest that city states combined into regional confederations, but the local rulers were permitted to act as if their authority had not been compromised (Foster 133). Thus, the Maya area constituted a “confederacy of autonomous city-states. Any city-states autonomy, however, lasted only as long as the city-state cooperated with the confederation” (Id). The Stelae and emblem glyphs also show that the city states engaged in alliances and extra-city state politics, as well as extended periods of continuous warfare (Id at 136). Indeed, not all alliances were voluntary, nor were they between equal polities. For example, the small site of Pomona was not simply an ally of Palenque; it was also part of the Palenque kingdom (Id at 52). In another example, the territories Tikal and Calakmul were surrounded by extensive territories, at least  120 kilometers, in which no other city employed an emblem glyph (Id at 133). Their power may have originated from the vast territorial resources under their direct control, which included many bureaucratic tiers of other cities and towns. As such, they were independent city-states. The dynasties of these two great military states intermarried with dynasties of other states and forged networks of trade and tribute. In the process, these two states created large confederacies, or superstates (Id). The kingdoms rules by the capital cities of Tikal and Calakmul have been estimated at more than 400,000 (Id at 51). Thus, analysis of deciphering the Stelae provided a deep depiction of a diverse group of city states, varying in size and power, and involved in alliances and warfare. The key to the puzzle of how Maya city states exercised control over local Maya citizens and, concurrently, resisted unification into a single empire, is that a unified Maya ideology permeated the Maya area.  


a. The Maya ideology revolved around divine authority of rulers and a significant cosmological order of the world, and allowed the Maya city states to exercise control over local Maya citizens while, concurrently, resisting unification into a single empire. 


Maya rulers justified authority over citizens by divine lineage, and the pervasive Maya belief in a cosmological order likewise persuaded Maya citizens that dynastic rule was justified. This cosmological order that may have allowed the Maya rulers to resist unification into a single empire. First, in all its variations, the Maya creation myth was a central axiom of ancient Maya life, and demonstrated how extraordinary beings entered the underworld, outwitted the gods of death, came back to life, and went on to become divine kings (Sharer 730). City state rulers traced their lineage as reaching back in mythic time to creator gods and thus, the “rulers were sanctioned by the gods to rule” (Foster 135). The Maya belief that rulers and royal families had origins tracing to supernatural beings provided justification for a divine right to rule, and often this right to rule was maintained by real or fictive connections with illustrious ancestral king, or even a deity, who was seen as a dynastic founder (Sharer 297). Thus Maya kings became the holders of both supernatural authority – “‘divine kings’ who were the ultimate mediators between the gods and the rest of society” (Sharer 756). Thus, Maya city state rulers justified their as a dynasty of divine rights, and this seems similar to many ancient civilizations.


However, based on Maya ideology, a divine right to dynastic rule was reinforced by a belief in a significant and immutable cosmological order throughout all levels of Maya society.  The Maya held the belief that history was cyclical, and occurrences such as “migration, draught, privation, and occasionally good fortune are seen to recur” (Hammond 290). Indeed, “in the Maya view, time itself was sacred, each unit of time was also a deity” (Sharer 745). The cosmological order is exemplified by the Maya calendar, which was based on two recurring cycles of time. One, the sacred round, was a 260-day cycle primarily used for religious and divinatory purposes, and was consulted for guidance in daily affairs (Weaver 145). The other cycle was solar with 365 days, and together the calendars made up a period of 52 years called the Calendar Round (Id). These two cycles ran concurrently like “intermeshed cogwheels, and to return to a given date, 52 years would have to pass” (Id). This belief in historical recurrence seems to justify similarly recurring dynasty rule.


                  The cosmological order was upheld by all levels of Maya society. All Maya citizens “conceived of the divisions of time as burdens carried through all eternity by relays of divine bearers” (Hammond 285).

As such, both the ruler and the ruled shared common concepts about power and its application that allowed the state to be managed effectively (Sharer 297). The Maya worldview “considered kings responsible for the world order by engaging and appeasing the supernatural power that determined the destiny of the universe through time” (Id). In this way, ideology played the critical role in both backing the power of kings and continuing to motivate the citizens (Id).


So strong was the Maya belief of cosmological significance and rightness of their rulers, that, in a documented occurrence, when a particular ruler was captured and kept prisoner by an opposing faction, the people did not revolt or change allegiance, and instead waited more than 10 years for the death of their ruler before installing a new one from the same dynasty (Foster 135). Thus, each city had a ruler that fit into a cosmological order of things. Because this belief was common to all levels of society, it seems that rulers themselves may have been hesitant to disturb the cosmological order of their city state as it fits into the polities of the greater Maya area. The same way that Maya rulers believed their right to rule was required to appease supernatural powers that controlled time, they may have believe that the right of others to rule was also required to appease the greater powers. This may have provided ideological resistance at all levels of society from unification and central control of an empire.


b. Rituals such as self sacrifice and ball game reinforced divine authority and cosmological significance.


Maya rituals permeated all spheres of society and incorporated the Mayan belief in cosmological order. Rituals included self-sacrifice as well as an ancient ball game, and these rituals reinforced the right of rulers to control the population though divine authority and cosmological order.  At the highest level, the authority of Maya city state rulers “depended on their successful performance in ritual, warfare, and statecraft” (Sharer 714).  Ritual was not only fundamental to “the daily lives of the Maya, but also played a major role in political systems” (Lucero, Classic Lowlands, 227).


The cosmological order and appeasement of supernatural forces that control time placed affirmative duties on both rulers and citizens to provide blood sacrifice. In the Mayan cosmological order, “sacrifice was the prelude to rebirth (Sharer 730). At the highest level, the Mayan cosmology “sanctified blood sacrifice as an obligation of Maya kings to ensure the continuity of the world” (Id). One of the aims of Maya ritual was to offer sacred substances (k’uh) to nourish the gods and appease the supernatural forces that control time (Sharer 751). Offering or sacrifices of blood were important because this was seen as a powerful source of k’uh, the greatest source of k’uh was life itself, and by extension, the ultimate sacrifice was offering the life of a human being to the gods (Id). Thus, the “most important and meaningful rituals were sanctified by human sacrifices” (Id).


A common practice was blood-letting, from the tongue, lips, or penis. Classic Period carvings show that non-lethal self sacrifice was a common ritual for citizens to appease the supernatural forces that control time. For example, one of the finest lintels from the Classic Period depicts a “woman pulling a cord set with thorns through her tongue, the blood dripping on the bark paper in a dish beside her, the blood-splattered paper would then the offered to the gods” (Hammond 283). Another example is a vase now in the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia that shows a “line of squatting men, each with a decorated perforator which he is thrusting into his penis” (Id). These traditions were likewise in place during the Spanish conquest. As described by Frair Diego de Landa during the Spanish conquest of the 16th century, the Maya would at times sacrifice their own blood, cutting all around the ears in strips which they let remain as a sign, and at other times they perforated their cheeks or the lower lip, or pierced the tongue crossways and passed stalks through, causing extreme pain (Landa 47.)


An even greater sacrifice was that of a human life. The City states employed a “state cult, conducted with impressive public ceremonies” (Sharer 756).  Public ceremonies, demonstrating the divine authority and cosmological correctness of a ruler, involved human sacrifice, which was “rare but essential to especially significant rituals, such as the inauguration of a new ruler . . . or dedication of a new temple” (Id at 751). Indeed, elite captives of other Maya cities were prized for sacrifices (Id). Ritualistic sacrifice, while required on all levels of society to appease the cosmological forces that control time, reinforced the divine authority that Maya city state rulers exercised over the population. The requirement to provide blood and even life to the state undoubtedly solidified the authority and cosmological correctness of the state.


                  An interest aspect of Maya ritual common to all sphere of society involved an ancient Mesoamerican ball game. Throughout most of Mesoamerica, a ball game was “of great significance not only as a sport but also for its religious and ritual aspects” (Weaver 226). “The game was played as a sport, a wager, and a ritual. The game sometimes reenacted a myth in which the Sun God descends to the Underworld and is reborn as the Maize God, representing fertility. A ritual game might be played to hasten the rains and ensure fine crops. A high ranking captive might be forced to play a game in which he might lose his head” (Id at 227). The ball game also was perceived as having divine origins as “the arena for the confrontation between this world and [the underworld]” (Sharer 730). The ball court was the central place in most Maya cities and represented the threshold between this world and the underworld, and therefore many rituals were held in actual ball courts, or at symbolic ball courts. (Id). Indeed, in a major early Classic period city of El Tajin had twelve ball courts (Weaver 224).


The ball game had many variations. It generally took place in an ‘I’ shaped court, with stone rings in the center of the side walls, and well as designated areas where the ball could bounce or where the ball could not hit the floor (Weaver 224). “This was a rough game, played by two opposing teams, each numbering 2 to 11 men, using a heavy, solid, ball that measured approximately 6-8 inches in diameter” (Id).  According to the rules, the ball had to be kept in motion by using only the hips, knees, and elbows, but no hands or feet, and scoring involved markers and end zones (Id). If the ball happened to pass through the designated stone ring, a difficult and uncommon feat, the game was immediately terminated and to the winners belonged the spoils: any belonging of the spectators (Id at 226). Consequently, “upon seeing the ball pass through the ring, the public fled with the winning team in hot pursuit” (Id).


                  Therefore, the Classic Period Maya people were subject to powerful forces justifying subservience to city state rulers. Rituals of self sacrifice and ball game reinforced the Maya belief that their affirmative actions were required to hold cosmological balance. Further, self sacrifice and ball game may also explain how the Maya city states resisted unification into a single empire. If elite captives of other city states were prized for human sacrifice to appease supernatural forces, and if ball game victories also similarly appeased supernatural forces, then rulers would seem to be locked into a cycle of appeasement that did not factor in conquest of the entire area. The Maya incentives were radically different compared to, for example, European mercantilism, because they were based on other ideological factors aside from gathering territory and wealth.     


c. Classic Period city state governance was deeply bureaucratic, and, more importantly, that elite classes controlled the surrounding areas by exercising control over water, a significantly precious resource in the Maya area. 


                  Decipherment of Classic Period hieroglyphics revealed a multi-tiered political system, with titles of subservient governors and office holders, that suggests the existence of elite rulers with a supporting bureaucracy (Foster 134). The ruling elite of individual Classic Period city states and city state confederacies exercised control over the surrounding population by building reservoirs and providing distribution of water, “a critical administrative function during the dry season or times of draught” (Id). Further, this individualized control of water may have promoted efficient intra-city bargaining that resisted unification into an empire under a central authority. 


The Mata elite class was usually dynastic, as consistent with the Maya cosmology belief. The elites were defined by descent, such as membership in a group related by blood to a common ancestor, and many times traced their lineage to mythical origins apart from the remainder of society (Sharer 296). Other factors and findings such as burial practices, diet, and architecture type support the proposition of multi-tiered bureaucratic societies (Lucero, Classic Lowlands 228). By the Late Classic Period, it is hypothesized that “Maya society comprised multiple tiers of status and rank including the ruling family, the noble aristocracy (governors, administrators and elite craft specialists), the gentry (lacking noble rank, but maintaining blood ties through heredity to the nobility), a tiered middle class of landowners, merchants and artisans, and at least two ranks of commoners with different occupations, as well as serfs and slaves” (Emery 502).


The elite exercised control over the nearby population by controlling water, and “held a close relationship between the control of water and political power” (Lucero, Water Control, 814). This was vital because, in the general Classic Period Maya area “the hottest part of the year is also, unfortunately, the dry season…” (Hammond 75). The area experiences a four-month annual draught, from January to May (Lucero, water, 815). Thus, the “power of a city state center - exact tribute, or surplus labor and goods, from others - derived from a complex relationship among a number of factors, particularly the location of the center from where they ruled and its seasonal water supply (Id at 814). The city state ruling elite mobilized their resources for draining of swamps and raised fields, hillside terracing, and other agricultural intensification strategies (Fash 189). It is clear that the rulers of the Classic Period Maya city states were directing the construction and maintenance of agricultural works.


                  Besides direct control by distributing an essential resource, the Maya ideology reinforced and promulgated control of water. Maya rulers appropriated traditional water rituals to suit a political agenda (Lucero, Water Control, 816). For example, the “earliest rulers of Tikal, Caracol, Calakmul, and other centers organized the construction and maintenance of large artificial reservoirs in center cores next to temples and other monumental architecture (Id at 815). Maya rulers became responsible not only for providing enough potable water to last through the dry season by organizing the continual maintenance required to keep the reservoirs clean, but also for performing rites necessary to propitiate deities such as Chac, the rain god (Id). The continued supply of clean water must have meant to the local populations that rulers were successful in supplicating gods and ancestors and that rulers had special ties to the supernatural world (Id). Therefore, the areas surrounding Maya cities were dependent, both physically and ideologically, on the provision of water by the particular city. In addition to the ideological forces described above, the monopolization of water provided a means for Maya cities to control populations and create city states.


Finally, this deification and control of water seems to point to an economics argument that may explain why Maya city states never unified into a single empire. Clearly, strong state action was needed to construct the large water construction projects (Lucero, Classic Lowlands, 215). Indeed, population was much too high and subsistence stress too great not to require management from the top (Id). Thus, at first, a central control by one empire authority over the resources of all the Maya area seems to be a natural progression.


                  However, the city states may have engaged in political bargaining resembling Coase theory bargaining to reach an efficient result, which was not that of single rule over the entire area. Property rights were defined and entrenched in city states and supported by cosmological significance. Those cities with the ability to access water and with water infrastructure and distribution systems in place would therefore have the ability to bargain with areas without similar access, and mutually beneficial agreements may have been reached regardless of initial allocation of the water. Thus, different areas would annex to different cities and form city states as dictated by bargaining over water. This kind of Coase bargaining may have been preferable to outright attempts to conquer the entire area, especially considering the previously mentioned ideological beliefs shared by all people in the area. Therefore, deification through ritual and self sacrifice, cosmological significance, and control of water by city state rulers provide a possible explanation as to how the Maya city states retained control over their citizens and simultaneously resisted central unification into a unified empire.


II. General laws as revealed though Spanish conquest seem to fall in line with Maya cosmology.


The ideology of cosmological significance seems to be pervasive in Maya day-to-day rule of law. The belief in cosmological significance generally required that any intentional wrong must be offset to restore a cosmological balance or status quo. This is exemplified by rules regarding slavery and penalties for homicide, theft, and adultery. 


This picture is somewhat distorted because the accounts originate from the Spanish conquest, centuries after the Classic Period. Following Classic Period cosmology, “the Maya undoubtedly believed the threat of punishment from the gods was as real as the threat of punishment by the state and that the gods would retaliate against king and commoner alike if either committed transgressions. (Sharer 297). Upon arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, a similar picture emerges that the Maya “naturally knew when they had done wrong, and they believed that death, disease and torments would come on them because of evildoing and sin, and thus they had the custom of confessing to their priests when such was the case. In this way, when for sickness or other cause they found themselves in danger of death, they made confession of their sin; if they neglected it, their near relatives or friends reminded them of it…” (Landa 45).


First, the Maya used slavery as punishment, restitution, and ritual, in accordance with previously described beliefs of a cosmological balance or status quo. It is known from sixteenth-century accounts of the Maya that slavery existed in the Pre-Columbian Maya world, and that slaves were used in important labor projects and in ritual sacrifices, and that inter-city state raiding was often undertaken to obtain slaves (Sabloff 24). Slaves were created in several ways, including as punishment for stealing, by being war captives, and through purchase or trade (Sharer 711). A major documented example is that person’s caught stealing were bound over to the victim, and they remained slaves for life until they were able to make restitution (Sharer 711). This is consistent with the belief that the universe requires balance, and restitution to the victim is a form of returning to status quo in terms of cosmology.


Also, punishment for offenses such as theft, homicide, and adultery also demonstrate that a cosmological balance dictated rules at the broadest level. Inter-city state offenses were largely governed by the politics and any confederations between the city states. The ruler of the town required satisfaction to be made by the town of the aggressor; if this was refused it became the occasion of more trouble (Landa 39). In contrast, intra city state disputes were settled by judges, appointed by the elite of the particular city state, acting as arbiters to the dispute (Id).


Maya punishment seems to be centered around restitution, with varying levels of restitution required based on whether the particular offense was committed with intent or malice. For example,

The penalty for homicide was generally was death at the hands of the relatives (Landa 52). But, if the homicide was unintentional, the offender could make restitution if he paid himself off (Id). If an offender lacked the means for this, his parents or friends helped him out (Id at 39). Such cases that required restitution were essentially accidental and lacking certain intent. The offender had to make monetary amends in instances of involuntary homicide, the suicide of either husband or wife on the other's account, the accidental burning of houses, lands of inheritance, hives or granaries (Id).


In contrast, offenses committed with malice called for reparation through blood or blows (Landa 39), presumably because monetary restitution was not enough to restore the cosmological balance upset by the offenders intentional and malicious acts. A general pattern seems to be that where the damage was not accidental and caused by malice, the cosmological status quo required blood sacrifice of k’uh. In addition to intentional homicide, adultery also conformed to the same pattern. If a man was convicted by the appointed arbiter of adultery, he would be brought before the husband of the woman, and if the husband pardoned the adultery he would go free (Id at 51-52). This seems to show that, if the wronged husband forgave the offense, the cosmological balance remained intact. 


However, theft, as a clearly intentional offense, did not conform to this general pattern. A thief was enslaved to the victim until the offender made adequate restitution as a slave (Landa 52). If the thief was one of the city state elite, this was seen as a disservice to the supernatural forces that controlled time, and, presumably to restore the cosmological balance, the thief was scarred on both sides of his face from the beard to the forehead, which constitutes a major dishonor (Id at 51-52). If the wronged husband did not pardon the adulterer, he would kill the adulterer by dropping a large stone on his head from a height (Id). It is interesting to note that, for the adulterer woman, sufficient punishment was infamy (Id). Perhaps an explanation may be that the Maya perceived the adulterer male as the one more intentionally committing the offense. 


Therefore, although it unclear if these particular rules described first hand by Friar Diego de Landa apply to Classic Period Maya civilization, they seem to conform to the general ideology of cosmological order and balance as was prevalent throughout the Classic Period.














































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