The Religions of Meso-America

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  • 0:01 Intro to Meso-America
  • 0:41 Mayan Sky Wanderers
  • 1:21 Popol Vuh & Animism
  • 2:50 Aztec Dieties
  • 3:24 Aztec Calendar
  • 4:05 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 explore the bygone religions of Meso-America, specifically the Mayan and Aztec belief systems. In doing this, it will highlight their belief in animism, their sacred calendars, and the use of human sacrifice as a means of worship.

Intro to Meso-America

In today's lesson, we're going to take a look at the religions of Meso-America, specifically the bygone faiths of the Mayan and Aztec people. As we do this, we'll see how the faith of these people groups was at the cornerstone of their culture, shaping almost every aspect of their daily lives.

To get things rolling, we'll start with the Mayans. Encompassing modern-day Southern Mexico and even parts of Central America, the ancient Mayan religion is usually characterized as an attempt to explain the forces of nature. From precipitation to climate to natural disaster, everything had a spiritual twist.

Mayan Sky Wanderers

For example, the Mayans deified the sun, moon and stars as Sky Wanderers. Perhaps a bit like today's fisherman count on a full moon for a good catch, the Mayans believed these celestial objects were alive and actively manipulating their world. In fact, the Mayan calendar and prophesies are believed to be based on the predictable movements of their divine sky wanderers. Taking this a step further, it's believed the Mayans felt the earth was in a continual cycle of being destroyed by flood, then being reborn, as if it was regularly being sacrificed.

Popol Vuh & Animism

Although this theory can't be truly proven, the study of ancient Mayan pottery and artifacts has led many anthropologists to link this flood and sacrifice myth to the Mayan's inclusion of human sacrifice in their worship. Giving another glimpse into this, the Mayan Bible of sorts, known as the Popol Vuh, includes some of these ancient, violent rituals.

Being highly spiritualized, the Mayans didn't just look to the heavens for divine intervention. Known as animism, their spirituality was also manifested in the belief that all of nature is full of unseen spirits, which are to be worshipped. Practicing animism, the ancient Mayans believed that nature - from rocks to trees to water - had a spirit, known as anima. Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly seen than in the Mayans veneration of the large ceiba tree as their sacred 'Tree of Life.'

Although the Mayans often worshipped the unseen, the vegetation or the heavens their deities also took on more animated forms. Usually, these forms were either zoomorphic, meaning in the shape of an animal, or anthropomorphic, meaning in the shape of a man. For instance, Mayan rulers were often believed to be the embodiment of a divine spirit. This, perhaps more than anything else, gave them the authority to wage war, claim territory and even use captives of war for human sacrifice.

Aztec Deities

Like the Mayans, the Aztecs of modern-day central Mexico also used human sacrifice as a means to worship their gods. In fact, anthropologists believe that human sacrifice was even more central to the Aztec faith, with some of their gods even requiring human blood for nourishment.

Unlike the Mayans, most of the Aztec's deities took on an anthropomorphic form. These human-like gods were arranged hierarchically, with all of life being created by two original deities.

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