Ancient Maya society was no different than any other society around the World during this time period.
Their society was broken into a class structure, which followed how other civilizations were. You had the ruling class, the nobility (“almehenob”), the priesthood (“ahkinob”) and often scribes would be at this level as well, the common folk (“ah chembal uinieol”), and of course, the slaves (“pencatob”).
The most powerful of the ruling elite was known as the “halach uinic” or “true man,” which makes a fifth class in some cases.
The halach uinic (Chief or King) was a hereditary position that was typically passed from father to eldest son. Really no different than the customs practiced in Europe and Asia. However, when no suitable heir was available, a council of lords would elect a successor from the noble families.
The halach uinic (king) was a despotic position and it held ultimate political authority over the entire city-state they ruled. The halach uinic also saw to civil affairs and relations with neighboring city-states. So revered was the halach uinic, that a cloth was held in front of his face to prevent anyone from speaking to him directly.
It was the wealthy Maya aristocracy that made up the nobility. Of this class of nobles, the ‘halach uinic’ would select provincial managers or governors that were known as “batabs.” These batabs assisted the ruling halach uinic with local governments and would see to the required payment of tributes (taxes) to the ruler(s).
During the Maya Classic Period, the typical small kingdom (ajawil, ajawlel, ajawlil) was ruled by a hereditary ruler called an “Ajaw” (later “k’uhul Ajaw”). An Ajaw or Ahau (‘Lord’) is a political title attested from the epigraphic inscriptions of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization.
Ajaw is also the 20th named day on the tzolk’in (divinatory calendar) when an Ajaw’s (ruler) was required to fulfill the k’atun-ending rituals. These rituals fell upon the leader and required ritualistic self sacrifice, usually in the form of bloodletting.
The use and meaning of “Ajaw” was used generically for “lord”, “ruler”, “king” or “leader”, which meant any of the leading or ruling class of nobles. However, it was not limited to a single individual, as rule of a given was sometimes shared. Additionally, because the Ajaw performed religious activities, the title was not only given to the ruler, but also to a designated member of the locality or city-state’s priesthood.
The variation of ajaw is the “kuhul ajaw,” (“divine lord”) which is the title for a sovereign leader of a given kingdom or city-state. Even though the extent of the territory that was controlled by an ajaw varied considerably and the title could also be for individuals, who in theory, recognized the lordship over another person, dynasty, kingdom, or city-state. Ajaw was used by the Maya as Lord was used by the Europeans as a title for anyone that had any kind of authority over you.
The title of Ajaw was also given to women, although it was generally prefixed with the sign “Ix” (“woman”) to indicate gender, such as: Ix ajaw.
In the Maya hieroglyphics writing system, the representation of the word “ajaw” could be as either a character or symbol, or it could be spelled-out using syllables (A-jaw).
The term Ajaw (or Ahau) appears in many early Colonial texts where writers used it as a generic synonym when they were referring to rulers and their domains. It was used when referring to the rulers or leaders that were Aztec, Maya, or Spanish without any discrimination of culture.
Another reference for leader used in many of the writings during the Spanish colonization were the words ‘tlatoani’ and ‘tlahtocayotl.’ These words came from the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. Nevertheless, some of Spanish chroniclers used them interchangeably when referring to the Maya and any other Mesoamerica rulers.
The word Tlatoani (which literally means “speaker”) was the Nahuatl term for the ruler of an altepetl, which was an Aztec state before the Spanish Conquistadors. Similar to the Mayan language adding the prefix Ix to Ajaw, the Aztec Nahuatl language added a prefix signifying female gender, using cihuā-tlàtoāni for a female ruler or queen. The term ‘cuauh-tlatoani’ refered to a provisional, interim, or a non-dynastic ruler. The ruler’s lands were called ‘tlahtohcātlālli’ and the ruler’s house was called ‘tlahtohcācalli.’
Such petty kingdoms were usually nothing more than small city-states made up of a main capital and some surrounding villages or towns. Although the Maya were not an empire like the Aztecs, but instead a collection a small city-state like kingdoms like the Greeks; there were some very large entities that controlled larger territories and subjugated smaller kingdoms under their rule. An example of such larger and more extensive political systems would be like those controlled by the kingdoms of Tikal and Caracol.
Most kingdoms subjugated under another kingdom often remained intact as a political entity as well. Withstanding the constant warfare and occasional shifts in regional power, most kingdoms never disappeared from the political landscape until the collapse of the whole system in the 9th century AD.
Classic Maya societies put an emphasis on the centrality of the royal household, especially towards the ruler of that household. Most kingdoms were built around the ruling house. Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements of Yucatán and Guatemala areas as being dispersed collections of dwellings that were grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty or nobles.
Some researchers argue that Maya cities were structured in such a way that were not actually meant be urban centers; but more to meet the needs of the enormous royal households when they conducted their administrative and ritual activities in the royal courts. These courts held the priesthood as well as the nobility, as their court functions often went hand in hand.
Scribes also held a prominent position in Maya royal courts. They even had their own patron deities, such as the Howler Monkey Gods and Maya maize god.
Considered a prestigious position, most scribes are likely to have come from families of the aristocracy. But writing was not practiced exclusively by scribes. Maya art often depicts rulers as having pen bundles in their headdresses or having some other writing tool, such as a shell or clay ink-pot. This indicated that they were either scribes or at least able to read and write.
Maya priests also held a very high position in society. They not only performed their religious duties, but priests also acted as administrators, scholars, astronomers, and mathematicians. The priesthood carried as much prestige, power, and influence over the Maya people as the noble class. Priests were both feared and respected for their knowledge and position before the gods. Like in all other religions, opportunistic priests were able to extort the superstitions of the people for their own advantage and gain.
The Maya priesthood also provided high status positions for those descendants of nobility who were not able to obtain a political office or position. If one could not achieve power through the throne, they definitely could through the sacrificial altar.
Maya priests were usually the sons of priests or the second sons of nobles and were usually trained through an apprentice system which consisted of a hierarchy of professional priests who served as intermediaries between the kingdom’s population and the deities. This was when an apprentice priest would learn basic skills, such as the art of reading and writing.
The priesthood as a whole were the keepers of knowledge concerning the beliefs and practices. This included their calendars and astrological calculations, divination, prophecies. They also kept the knowledge to interpret spiritual omens that would predict future events. In addition, the Maya priests were experts in historiography and maintained the genealogical records.
Among the duties of the priesthood was human sacrifice. This was a rite performed by a priest who was called the “nacom.” or “ah nakom.” The status of this priest was relatively low and it was a position which meant for life. It was the nacom whose duty it was to cut the hearts out of the sacrificial victims during human sacrificial ceremonies and rituals. This is in contrast to the film “Apocalypto” where the nacom was portrayed as being the high priest.
The Maya high priests were called “ahau can mai” or simply as “ah kin mai.” The end word of their title after ‘ahau can’ or ‘Ah kin’ being either their own family name (‘mai”) or that of a functional designation within larger kingdoms.
The town priests were called the “ah k’in,” which basically translates as: ‘diviner.’ With the “k’in” in the priest’s title “ah k’in” meaning ‘sun’ or ‘day’, essentially means loosely as, ‘diviners of the sun’.
The local ‘ah k’in’ had the responsibility of conducting public and private rituals within individual towns throughout the province. They preached about the ancestors and deities to the masses and published the festival days that needed to be observed. It was also their job to determine the appropriate rituals and sacrifices that needed to be administered.
These ah k’in, or town priests, were also usually assisted by four old men who were called ‘chac’. The priests who had a very influential role in their duties were the oracles known as “chilan” or “chilam.” It is said that the chilan may have used mind-altering substances to assist them in making their prophecies.
Maya priestly functions were often fulfilled by nobles and not by a professional class of priests. The sovereignty was considered a religious institution and the temple’s service was the sacred duty of the sovereign. During certain intervals of the sacred calendars, Maya rulers would often abstain from intercourse while they fasted, prayed, and burnt offerings, pleading to the gods for the sun’s light and for the lives of their vassals and servants.
The highest Maya nobility is stated to have served continually in the temple, whereas there is no regular priest mentioned. It was possibly the chiefs and kings who performed the priestly functions themselves in many cases. The Yucatec king was called the “halach uinic” (‘true man’), is characterized as being both ‘ruler’ and ‘high priest.’
During the Classic period, the Maya ruler was most of a priestly king, often assuming the priesthood as a whole. Notwithstanding the existence of a separate priesthood, which indeed existed in most kingdom’s courts, towns, and local villages.
While the ruling nobility and priesthood sat comfortably at the top of the Maya social class system, the commoners and slaves sat at the bottom. These were the masses who were subjects under the rule of the nobles and priests. These were the common people who spent their lives as hunters, farmers, sand builders. These were the subjugated commoners who toiled to support not only themselves but also those above them.
The lowest class of people in Maya society were the slaves. The source of Maya slaves most oftenly came from prisoners of war, orphans, and the children of slaves. The Maya also made slaves out of criminals, such as those who were caught stealing or committing any other crime not punishable by death.
Slavery was not always a permanent predicament, as the Maya would often follow a custom which allowed for the possibility of paying a ransom for the release of a slave.
Nevertheless, as it was the common way which was practiced by the rest of the world, a slave was considered property and their fate was at the mercy of their owners.
Read more about Maya Culture in: The Maya by Njord Kane
This article is an excerpt from the book: Kane, Njord. “Chapter 12 – Ancient Maya Arithmetic.” The Maya : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2016. ISBN: 978-1943066032 Used by permission from the author and publisher exclusively for use on readicon.com only.
- Kane, Njord. The Maya : The Story of a People. 2nd Edition. Spangenhelm Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 978-1943066032
Maya logogram of calendric Tzolkin Day20:Ajaw. Image created by CJLL Wright.
Lockhart, James (2001). Nahuatl as Written: Lessons in Older Written Nahuatl, with Copious Examples and Texts. UCLA Latin American studies, vol. 88; Nahuatl studies series, no. 6. Stanford and Los Angeles: Stanford University Press and UCLA Latin American Center Publications. ISBN 0-8047-4282-0.
Howler monkey statue, temple 11, World Heritage Site of Copan (13 May 2009). Adalberto Hernandez Vega from Copan Ruinas, Honduras.
- featured image from “Apocalypto” (2006) film by Mel Gibson.
written by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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