The Meso-American Religious Rites of Passage

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  • 0:01 Mayan & Aztecs
  • 0:45 Mayan Birth & Puberty
  • 1:53 Aztec Manhood & Marriage
  • 3:16 Death
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the Mesoamerican rites of passage. In doing this, it will explore the ancient cultures and ceremonial practices of the Mayan and Aztec people of Mexico and Central America.

Mayans & Aztecs

Throughout Mesoamerica, rites of passage were celebrated to mark a person's movement through life. Although everyday life was seen as sacred to these highly mystic people, certain milestones were given special honor. These included things like birth, puberty, marriage and even death.

Today as we study these rites of passage, we'll use the Mayan and Aztec cultures as our case studies. The Mayans and the Aztecs were primitive people of Mexico and Central America. Because the Mayans predated the Aztecs and existed in such close proximity, many of their rites of passage seem to overlap. For example, both of these cultures put a huge emphasis on the concept of time.

Mayan Birth & Puberty

For the Mayans, each stage of their lives was dominated by the Mayan calendar. Taking this to an extreme, some Mayan cultures even named their children after the day on which they were born.

However, it was more common for the birth rite of passage to include babies being taken to the priest who would then declare the babies' horoscope of sorts. Adding to this, the birth rite of passage usually incorporated the rather brutal practice of strapping boards to the baby's head. This was done in order to create the desirable flattened forehead.

As children moved into what we would call the pre-school years, boys would have a white bead placed in their hair while girls would have a red shell tied around their waists. This symbolized their female virginity.

At puberty, these objects would be removed in a baptismal-like ceremony known as The Descent of the Gods. After this ceremony, boys would move into the house of unmarried men. Girls, however, stayed with their families but were considered ready for marriage.

Aztec Manhood & Marriage

Like many of the other Mesoamerican cultures, the Aztec culture put great emphasis on war during the passage into manhood. At around the age of 17, Aztec male teens entered formal training for war. In order to be considered a full-fledged adult, a young warrior had to make his first enemy capture. The more enemies they were able to capture, the higher their status would be.

For girls in the Aztec culture, there was no such hope for greatness. Like their Mayan counterparts, Aztec women were relegated to second class citizenry. Seen mainly as baby producers, they were instructed in matters of the home and usually married by 16. In a rather odd marriage rite of passage, an elderly Aztec woman, serving as the matchmaker, would actually carry new brides on their backs to the grooms. They would then tie articles of clothing together to bind the marriage. In other words, they actually tied the knot!

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