The Maya Religion
The Maya religion was founded in about 250 AD. It was polytheistic and worshipped the gods of nature, such as the gods of Sun, Venus and Maize. The Maya priests had a large impact on Maya daily life, for example, deciding when crops were to be planted and when individuals were to marry. Furthermore, human sacrifice was a central Maya religious practice which was believed to encourage fertility, demonstrate piety, and propitiate the gods. Animism, a belief that all things had a soul, was also central to the Maya religion. It included animals, plants, and the weather. Unfortunately, many of the Maya texts, which described rituals, astronomy, and divination, were destroyed by Spanish settlers because of their “pagan” religious content. Moreover, Catholic churches were often built on top of ancient Mayan sites during the Spanish colonisation.
Fire ceremonies continue to be a Maya religious practice. These often involve the offering of flowers, incense, food, tobacco, and alcohol as gifts to the Gods. They also often involve candles of varying colours and meanings. For example, the white candle represents the North, purity, light, love, calm and tranquillity. Yellow represents the South, the energy of life, health and protection. Black represents the West, pushing away bad energy, negativity and illness. Red represents the East, love, passion and energy. When you hold the candles, you put your thoughts, prayers, and intentions into them, and when the candles are placed into the fire, these are released to the heavens to be received by the gods.
Today, the constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their religion. However, some Mayan religious sites can only be accessed with the cost of an entrance fee. This is only waivered if the individual is registered with the central government as official Mayan spiritual practitioners. Around 40,000 to 100,000 persons out of the 17 million population of Guatemala are full believers in Mayan religion without syncretism with another religion.
Catholicism was the established religion during the colonial era (1519–1821) at which time the Maya were conquered by the Spanish and converted. Catholicism was re-established as the religion of Guatemala under the Concordat of 1854 until the fall of Vicente Cerna y Cerna in 1871. Furthermore, in the mid-twentieth century, the Vatican in Rome sent several Catholic priests and missionaries to Latin America in response to Protestant missionary efforts. Whilst the constitution of Guatemala establishes the freedom of religion, the Catholic Church is recognised as “a distinct legal personality”. Thus, Catholicism is exempt from having to apply with the government to receive recognition and tax-exempt status, unlike other religions. Today, Catholics account for 45% of the Guatemalan population.
It is common for traditional Mayan practices to be incorporated into Catholic ceremonies and worship. The fusion of Christianity and the Mayan religion is known as inculturation. Inculturation can be found in churches where the outside walls can be found adorned with maize, an important symbol to the Mayan people representing agriculture, the region’s main source of economy. Furthermore, sculptures depicting Jesus are often of darker skin colour.
Alfombras are another example of inculturation. These are displays laid out on public roads during periods of celebration. They are arranged using stencils and coloured sawdust. They are usually three meters wide and can sometimes stretch for miles. They often depict ecclesiastical symbols such as the cross, or butterflies of flowers to reflect the Maya’s love of nature.
Protestantism has become an increasingly popular choice of religion over the past few decades. This trend dates to the aftermath of the 1975 earthquake, which destroyed several villages throughout the highlands. Several international aid agencies which travelled to the region were overtly Christian and gained many grateful converts, particularly Evangelical Christianity. Furthermore, during the civil war of the 1980s, many Guatemalans were attracted to the comforting Evangelical Christian belief in a better life despite the hardships of the present. Other factors making Evangelical Christianity attractive to Guatemalans include vibrant expressions of faith and a lack of a hierarchy, providing greater access to spiritual leaders. Today, approximately 40% of the population is protestant, chiefly independent Evangelicals or Pentecostals, which is greater than in any other Latin American country.