Ancient Mayans: Unusual Facts About Their Political Structure

Mayan political structure was just as fascinating as it was complex. It is, of course, impossible to list all the amazing facts about a civilisation in an article, but I hope that you find the facts listed below at least somewhat interesting!


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Accession ceremony involved human sacrifices

Ritual human sacrifice

Ritual human sacrifice, Credits: Wikimedia

Kings were incredibly important figures in the Mayan culture, and their accession ceremonies were the most important political events. They had to coincide with lunar cycles – we all know how much the Mayans valued their calendar. And an essential element of the ceremony was the human sacrifice in honour of the new king. He had to capture the victim himself.

As you can probably imagine, the Mayans were quite religious, and their religion involved a lot of rituals. Not only did a person have to be sacrificed before a king was crowned, the king himself had to draw blood when a potential heir was born.

Kings were thought to be demigods

Seated Mayan king with two subordinates, Ancient Cancuén

Seated Mayan king with two subordinates, Ancient Cancuén, Credits: Wikimedia

Religion was, as I said earlier, a very big part of the Mayan society, and they believed that the rulers of their society were chosen and given permission by the gods to rule over them because they were god-like – demigods of sorts. In fact, one of the major duties of a ruler was to exercise his godlike powers over the people. The kings had the power of religion and prestige behind them, which should made it quite easy for them to rule the Mayans. However, ruling Maya wasn’t as simple as one might believe.

Maya wasn’t a unified state

The Mutal emblem glyph shared by Dos Pilas and Tikal

The Mutal emblem glyph shared by Dos Pilas and Tikal, Credits: Wikimedia

What we today know as “The Mayan Civilisation” was actually a trio of city-states that never became a unified empire. Tikal, Dos Pilas and Copan each had a single god-like ruler. This could serve as one possible explanation as to why they never became a single state – we all remember the mythical disputes between various Greek gods and Egyptian deities! That’s not to say, though, that the city-states weren’t isolated from each other. All three had solid, albeit tumultuous trading relationships with each other that extended to kings kidnapping potential human sacrifices from neighbouring provinces.

Priests had a lot of influence – second only to the King’s

Drawing of a Mayan Priest

Drawing of a Mayan Priest , via imgarcade.com

Mayan government was quite hierarchical and by this point, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that priests were incredibly important people in the Mayan government – second only to kings. Kings often spent time with priests to listen to their advice about a present conflict, either with another Mayan city-state or some other land, or to generally discuss the future. The king, priests and members of nobility were, most often, the only members of the Mayan society that could read and write.

Kings were also warriors

Maya standing male warrior, Island of Jaina, Campeche, Mexico, Late Classic Period, c. 550-950 C.E

Maya standing male warrior, Island of Jaina, Campeche, Mexico, Late Classic Period, c. 550-950 C.E, Credits: Wikimedia

The saying “with great power comes great responsibility” could truly be applied to the Mayan kings. Not only were they expected to exercise their divine powers on a daily basis (sometimes up to 6 hours a day), but they also had to fight in wars. While there were no standing armies as such, the relationships between the three city-states were riddled with frequent military conflicts, and the kings were fully expected to lead and fight battles.

Women could be Queens

Depiction of a Mayan Queen

Depiction of a Mayan Queen, via historicalhoney.com

Yes, there was nothing in the Mayan laws that prevented women from having godlike powers of Mayan rulers. In fact, there were quite a few successful queens of Mayan city-states. Since the godlike powers usually ran in the family, a woman was crowned when there was no male heir available, when the king was away fighting in a battle, when the heir was too young to rule, and in various other scenarios. We don’t know for sure if there were any female warrior rulers, though.

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