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The Maya: What do we know about them, their understanding of the world and legacy for our time?

Lost in the jungles of Mesoamerica, remnants of this mysterious nation are found. Who were the Maya? What were these people like, where did they come from and what legacy did they leave behind for our modern times? These questions are asked today not only by scientists and researchers, but also by ordinary people who are fascinated by the approaching date of December 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. The Maya differed in many respects from our civilization of today. Unlike us, they had almost no personal belongings (possessing only what they needed to survive). They cultivated land and ate mainly corn, beans and jalapeños (hot peppers). They knew rubber, vanilla, coffee and cocoa. They had a structured society where rulers as well as farmers knew their place. Each of the Mayan cities was the centre of a small state controlled by its own dynasty. The rulers of the Mayan city states were not only ordinary rulers but also “sacred kings”, direct incarnations of the gods and, in the eyes of their subjects, embodiments of the universe as such. As symbols of spiritual power, the Mayan sacred kings were responsible for the recovery of the spirit of their people and land. The temple pyramids served in particular as stages: from the tops of them, they performed their rituals for their subjects assembled around them. Among the most frequent events, there was a ritual sacrifice of their own blood (see the rituals). In this manner, they were connected to their gods and received visions from them, on the basis of which they then decided on important events, such as when to wage war, when to sacrifice to the gods, etc. In addition to the ruling dynasty, there was an important class of priests, who were excellent mathematicians and astronomers as well. They were able to observe and record movements of the planets and stars with nearly perfect accuracy, although they did not have telescopes or any other specialized equipment. They were able to foresee eclipses of the sun, conjunction of planets, solstices and equinoxes, during which some structures provided mystic show, as in Chichén Itzá where a serpent is crawling down from the top of the pyramid. The Maya were the first people on earth to use the zero and were obviously the most advanced mathematicians of their time. They had the best writing system of the whole of Mesoamerica.

Although according to our criteria their civilization was “primitive” as they lacked what we have now (cars, computers, telephones, etc.), we could envy them in many aspects. They were able to develop their mental abilities to a degree difficult to image. For example, they used dreaming as a means of telling fortunes as well as understanding the present. They were extremely pious and believed in the necessity of bodily asceticism and self-sacrifice if they wished to gain access to the Heavens.

Scholars agree on one thing: the way to understanding their perception of the world leads through their calendar. The sacred calendar (as well as the Long Count) had a crucial importance for their spiritual and intellectual way of life. It is obvious that for our modern society, the astronomical aspects of the Mayan calendar are not as important as the spiritual consequences thereof. The Mayan calendar is not only used in the area where it originated, but thanks to an unusual level of interest around the world, it is experiencing a great comeback and efforts are being taken to reconstruct the time plan of the spiritual future of mankind. A great number of researchers believe that the Mayan ideology was closer to the truth than ours, and that the sacred Mayan calendar represents a key to the universe of sacred time. Detailed information on the sacred calendar is provided in the section “The world of the Maya”.

The Mayan hieroglyphics and their decipherment

The Mayan script resisted all attempts at its decipherment for a long time. Finally, Yuri Knorozov, a Russian researcher, found success. It was (as it usually is in the case of crucial inventions) a mere coincidence. In 1945, a Russian soldier was running out of the Berlin Library, holding a book which he managed to save. It was fated that the book held ancient Mayan codices written on bark paper. Knorozov was a linguist and was extremely interested in the mysterious nation from the jungle. In 1952 he succeeded in proving that the Mayan hieroglyphs contain both an ideographic* component and a component capable of forming a syllable. However, his work was published in Russian and remained unnoticed for a long time, as American and Mexican archaeologists did not know the language. Fortunately, a Russian emigrant, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, discovered in 1960 that the hieroglyphs in Piedras Negras (Guatemala) represent the names and dates of death of a royal dynasty. Proskouriakoff is regarded as a pathfinder in the area of Mayan texts. Interesting video record:


Recommendation: If you would like to get more authentic picture of Mayan civilization and try to understand their way of life try to visit Museum of Mayan Culture in the capital of Quintana Roo in Chetumal (close to the Belizian border)

*) “ideographic” refers to method of writing that uses characters to represent ideas (so-called ideograms)


Adrian Gilbert and Maurice Cotterell: “Mayan Prophecies”

Carl Johan Calleman: “Mayan Calendar”

Kenneth Johnson: “Jaguar Wisdom”



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