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Traditional Ways

Many of the Mopan and Q´eqchi´ Maya practice the traditional ways that have been in existence for many generations. A sampling of these practices is described on this page. For a comprehensive examination of the traditional lifestyle of the Maya, order The Living Maya.

Connection To the Earth

What does it mean to have a spiritual connection to the land? For the Maya it means that they think about their natural environment in a certain way, they interact with nature in a certain way, and they engage in rituals that offer respect to the forces of nature. The Maya are one of many indigenous cultures around the world that engages in what is known as a nature-based religion.

When the Spanish arrived in Central America they forced the Maya to become Christians. The Maya were called pagans and mistreated if they did not adhere to the Christian doctrine that Spanish friars required them to follow. As the Maya converted to Christianity, they developed a blend of beliefs that included the Roman Catholic Church and their ancient religion. With the exception of the Maya who are part of the Protestant denominations that were brought into the area in the 1970s, many of the ancient beliefs and rituals are still practiced today.

Spiritual significance is found in all living things. The Maya revere each animal and plant. One tree - the ceiba or cottonwood tree - holds special significance as the Maya use it as a symbol of the power of nature. Symbolically, the branches hold up the sky and the roots keep the earth together. The copal tree is sacred as well, as it produces the resin and the bark that are burned in censers during spiritual ceremonies.

mayan compass The "four corners of the earth" or the earth's cardinal points are also important to the Maya; they are even associated with specific colors. The colors of blue and green are also important as they signify the sky and the environment.

The four corners are important when praying; for example, a man may look to or turn to all four corners as he prays in his milpa prior to planting his corn.


The Maya are sustained by their use of the land for agriculture. The land where their sustenance is cultivated begins right outside their front door and expands over a very broad area of their village. Herbs used in cooking are often grown in pots next to their homes. Orchards of oranges and fruit trees may be close to the residence or closer to farmland. Farmland begins outside the center of the village and may be as far away as a two-hour walk.

There are several types of farmland that involve different crops and cultivation methods. A milpa is a plantation that has been cut from the bush and burned before it is planted, a technique known as slash-and-burn. The fire releases nutrients back into the soil.

For the Maya, agriculture represents a cultural connection to the land as important as traditional languages, arts, and ceremonies. Key to that connection is corn.

The cultivation of corn is connected ecologically, socially, and spiritually to Mayan culture. Sacred spiritual rituals specifically concerning the burning of a milpa, selection and use of seeds, and the actual planting of the corn have existed since the time of the ancient Maya.

corn milpa
Corn milpa
There is also a cultural significance to the cacao (cocoa) bean. In ancient times cacao beans were used as currency. Today the drink made from the ground bean is served regularly during family and community gatherings. Finally, cacao trees are of such importance that they are passed from one generation to the next as part of a family's inheritance.

Cultural and Community Events

Cultural events are part of the traditional way of life for the Mopan and Q´eqchi´ Maya. These activities can be categorized into festivals and dances, religious observances, and family/community celebrations. It is common for events in any of these categories to be related in some manner to the Maya's spiritual or religious beliefs.

Dances and festivals are taken very seriously by the Maya. There is a great commitment to engaging in these cultural celebrations in an authentic manner. Each costume, mask, and the dance looks the same as it did many years ago. The spiritual essence of events has also been kept intact over the years.

Rituals of blessing items associated with the dances and personal activities of those who are part of the dance, such as abstinence from intimate personal relations on the part of dance participants, is strictly followed as it has been for many generations.
Deer dancers

Elders teach other interested family and community members how to perform the same dances or play the same musical scores that they were taught in their youth. It is a wonderful example of how cultural knowledge is passed through the generations in the Mayaland. In addition, musical instruments are not only played but also made by local craftsmen.

Religious, family, and community events are plentiful in villages.

Religion - Catholic Maya, rather than evangelical Maya Christians, are more involved with events considered traditional. These events include celebrations of their village's patron saint and All Soul's Day.

Family - Events that include all aspects of the lifecycle are celebrated through family gatherings that sometimes involve music and dancing.

Community - Communal activities involve the larger "village family" in celebrations, such as wedding feasts as well as events, such as fajinas and village meetings.

Spiritual Practices

There are specific rituals attached to the planting and harvesting of corn, hunting and fishing, the blessing of a structure, and the use of ceremonial items. During these spiritual occasions the Maya may be:

requesting permission to engage in an activity that will in some way effect the environment. (planting, hunting, fishing)

expressing a special favor they need from the spirits

asking that the spirits are benevolent to them; that no harm comes to those who engage in a certain activity or reside/work in a new structure

expressing their reverence for the spirit that lives in an object such as a ceremonial mask, a musical instrument, or a residence

Spiritual activities are solemn and filled with ritual. Each generation of Maya has passed to the next the specific way that spiritual practices are to be carried out. Rituals may involve a certain order of activities, the voicing of specific prayers, and the involvement of particular people in the ceremony.

Spiritual activities may last for several minutes, hours, or days depending on the ritual that is being performed. One family, a small group, or a whole village may be included in the activities. A time of reflection or meditation may be involved as well as a period of abstinence from physical intimacy.

There are elements of a spiritual ritual that are common. Most spiritual ceremonies involve prayer, burning of copal incense in a censer, and the burning of candles. If the spirit of an item is being revered then in addition to actions noted above, the item may be given some food, the blood of an animal, or cacao drink.

For example, when a house is built, prior to the placing the main structural posts in the ground, a chicken may be killed and its blood dripped into the holes where the poles will be placed. After the structure is built the house may be "fed" once again by sprinkling blood on the rafters or main structural poles. In addition, food or drink and candles may be placed next to ceremonial masks, or blood dripped on masks, while a group prays and moves the censer back and forth over the items.
Mayan woman with incense censure
After some spiritual rituals there may be a designated time of celebration where food and alcoholic beverages are served. Music may also be part of a spiritual ceremony. After some ceremonies, however, an activity, such as hunting, fishing, or planting simply begins.

Mayan elders have always respected the land. They conserve natural resources not out of fear or lack, but rather out of respect for the land and the spirits that inhabit every living element. They understand their connection to the land. In fact, they see themselves as being part of the natural environment. To hurt the land would be to hurt themselves.

The conservation of natural resources is the traditional approach used by villagers as they interact with the land. The wisdom of village elders is an important aspect to consider when discussing conservation in a historical context because elders grew up with respect for their environment and the spirits connected to the natural elements. According to their spiritual beliefs, theirs is a partnership with the land and the spirits, as opposed to a need to have control over these elements.

The act of conserving natural resources is an outgrowth of who the Maya are and what they believe. Their prayers ask permission to plant "on the back" of the land or hunt "the animals of the gods." Their celebrations focus on giving thanks for their harvests and hunting bounties. Out of respect, they take only what they need and no more. The concept of environmental waste is not part of their lives. If it is taken, it is used. Conservation is therefore a natural and ongoing process. hills near San Miguel
Mayan Herbalist sign Healing traditionally includes spiritual practice. This practice connects the person who is sick, the healer, and the spirits of nature. Healers feel that cures will not work unless both the healer and the patient are "thinking as one." Very few traditional healers simply grow herbs and dispense them to friends and family without there being a spiritual element involved.

Most individuals come to traditional healers for problems they themselves cannot cure. Most village elders have a working knowledge of the herbs for common health problems they have experienced over the years. A trip to a traditional healer - commonly called a bush doctor - occurs when a family member does not get well after a period of time.

A healer is usually one who:

has the knowledge of how to use herbs to effect positive change in the body

has a deep reverence for nature and practices traditional spiritual rituals

apprenticed with a village elder in his younger years

Traditional healers spend time gathering herbs that grow wild in the rainforest. Some herbs grow near rivers and streams while others grow near hilly areas. A traditional healer has a keen eye for the plants he intends to gather. Prior to cutting the plant he says a prayer requesting permission for the plant to be cut.

A traditional healer may use several diagnostic techniques, including investigating an individual's symptoms, prayer, and using a stone - a sastun - at which the healer gazes during a period of meditation. The most famous contemporary Mayan healer in Belize, Elijio Panti of the Cayo District, also used a patient's pulse to form a diagnosis. Treatments include the use of herbs in either a tea or a poultice, instructions to engage in a particular behavior (such as staying inside or saying certain prayers), or a combination of the two.

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