Water is understood as a natural occurrence that has no emotion, thought, or life. It is commercialized for human consumption in two ways: drinking water to maintain bodily functions and agricultural growth for nourishment. This paper discusses the importance water had on Mesoamerican Mayans' religious, political and economic, and hydraulic infrastructural systems. I will be examining how Mayan Quiche beliefs valued water as an animate object manifested with deities for worshippers to entice them for rainfall through water rituals. This ventures into how rituals and controlling water were critical for the attainment of political power and social status in Mesoamerica.
Water is central to the sustainability of human life and agricultural fertility, allowing one to stay alive by consuming it. However, water can also be dangerous and menacing through natural disasters such as hurricanes. Based on ethnographic accounts and archaeological evidence, the importance of water was prominent to ancient Mesoamerican Mayans from the Preclassical to Early Postclassic period (300 B.C – A.D 1250) in the southern Peten region to the northern Yucatan region. In the context of ancient Mesoamerica, Mayans inhabited, cultivated, and survived in rain forests that were diverse in animals, food, plants, and climate. The rain forest varied between a semitropical to a tropical climate that either limited rainfall due to dry weather or produced an abundance of water that could damage agricultural systems. Therefore, hydraulic systems were developed to have control over storage and water flow; ultimately water is important in mythologies that aligned with Mayan cultural beliefs, to gain social and political power and how water was controlled in dry climatic regions.
Firstly, mythological narratives incorporated Quiche’s beliefs in the importance of water and how rituals were used to petition for rainfall. Mythologies have provided an insight into society’s cultural beliefs as they portray events that were important to their history, heroes, and ceremonies. A Mayan site, Aguateca, Guatemala, in the Late Classic period (AD 600-900), was discovered to inhabit a cave that is linked to the rain deity, Chaaks, as a supernatural entity (Ishihara 2008: 177). To understand these supernatural activities, there first needs to be an understanding of how Mayans viewed the environment. Mayans held a philosophy that caves, water, plants, and the earth were animate objects. In this sense, all-natural phenomena were beings with life that had meaning and purpose. Therefore, caves, hilltops, and other natural features were interconnected with rain and wind deities.
While the rainmaking god, Chaak, was able to bring forth water, Mayans had to perform rituals in important ceremonial sites such as caves, temples, or water reservoirs to entice them. Such rituals that were performed varied between the burning of offerings, playing music, and human offerings. In the Aguateca Mayan community, music had multiple purposes, one including, offering to petition for rainfall and a way of communicating with spirits (Ishihara 2008: 180). The incorporation of music as an offering demonstrates that Mayans had a different understanding of how to make requests from the earth. Instead of demanding that water be given to them, they tried to connect with the natural properties of the elements to work with them. Their need for water was significant as the climate fluctuated on its timeline and their agricultural fields desired to be fertile. There is an appreciation of cooperation that allowed them to thrive in their environment.
The fact that ancient Mayans also helped out water deities is significant as they used their own intellectual and spiritual relationship to the elements and beings around them to support their rain cause. The creation of these mythological rain deities and heroes demonstrates the cultural significance of water for ancient Mayans.
Furthermore, Chaak wasn’t the only rain deity believed to have existed in the vast Mayan community. In the Ch’orti’ Mayan community, there were three other categories of rainmaking gods. Rain deities weren’t solely supernatural gods, humans were able to bring about rainfall as well depending on their origins. For the Tojolab’al, some individuals were born with the power to transform themselves into lightning to produce rain. The Tz’utujil focused on an equestrian Saint, called Martin. Priests performed ceremonies such as dances within the smoke, alluring to the representation of clouds that would ascend into the sky and produce rain. Finally, the Ch’orti’ used rain priests to directly communicate with the rain deities through extensive prayer, food offerings, and acting out imitative rain magic (Braakhuis, Hull 2014: 450). Each Mayan rainmaker incorporated their methods in attaining water, indicating that while most were synonymous in their needs and respect for it, how they attained it was distinctive. Some were born with the power to metamorphosis, others used priests to invocate saints and rain deities. The fact that ancient Mayans also helped out water deities is significant as they used their own intellectual and spiritual relationship to the elements and beings around them to support their rain cause. The creation of these mythological rain deities and heroes demonstrates the cultural significance of water for ancient Mayans as they devotedly prayed, gave offerings, and created ceremonial rituals that ranged from dances, music, food offerings, and human offerings.
Secondly, water was not only beneficial for agricultural growth and as a fresh drinking source but also represented a means of gaining and demonstrating political and social power. Furthermore, rituals were also used as an important rite of the community that implicated a social and political hierarchy. Through ethnographic accounts, it is indicated that during the Classic period (AD 250-900), the Maya lowlands of the greater Yucatan Peninsula were a semi-tropical landscape with no natural water resources (Scarborough 1998: 135). In light of this, it was critical for Mayans to develop water sources and perform rain rituals. Specifically, in the Tikal region, as they relied on the collection of seasonal rainfall, complex architecture was established to store water. Such architectures developed were plazas, courtyards, and platforms that directed the rain into tanks. Other structures were made by altering limestone into a “water mountain” (Scarborough 1998: 141).
Elites were in charge of managing such construction of artificial water reservoirs as it expanded their political power. As stated before, the Yucatan Peninsula had a dry climate and no natural water sources, therefore rulers who manufactured artificial reservoirs would accumulate a larger populace. As rulers were interested in growing their population with more Maya farmers, the establishment of artificial reservoirs allowed for fresh drinking water and agricultural fertility (Lucero 2002: 815). Power, in this framework, can be understood as providing a necessity such as clean and reusable water, to individuals in the surrounding area with the intentions of luring in a large populace. In the Classic era, bearing a large population meant that there was a flow of commerce in trade. In this regard, clean water was vital in keeping elites in power that was resolved through the use of rituals.
Through ethnographic accounts and archeological evidence, exercising the practice of rain rituals was considered as a way to communicate with rain deities petitioning for water, and political prosperity. In this regard, as long as the water was clean, the course in which it was decontaminated was perceived as a success and established a norm in which rituals were effective. Furthermore, individuals who participated in rain rituals were considered of high social status. As stated earlier, there were multiple myths of rain gods, priests, and saints, who acted out performances or out of the sheer will to call forth water from the sky. Specifically, rain priests were at the top of the social hierarchy as they were in charge of the ceremony (Ishihara 2008: 183). Musicians were also rated at the top of the social hierarchy as they were able to produce sounds that were taken as offerings. As previously stated, music was a language utilized to communicate with spirits and elemental deities, therefore it would be inevitable for such artists to hold esteemed roles. The reason in which rain priests and musicians were able to attain such high social status was due to their connection with the Earth and elemental deities. Since the rain priests and musicians were presumably the only people with the skills and knowledge to express majority concerns and comprehend the replies of gods and ancestral spirits, their position was vital in the procurement of water for consumption and agricultural growth.
While it is unclear and unfathomable for industrial, neo-liberal societies today to function and sustain themselves in rainforests, for ancient Mayans it was a challenge they creatively managed through. The need to control water in the Maya lowlands was not fundamental in the abuse, devastation, and exploitation of the environment as it would betray Mayan core beliefs in respecting the Earth as a living, breathing organism.
Thirdly, to maintain control over water in the dry climate of the northern Maya lowlands during rainy weather, technological devices were invented. In this context, controlling water meant capturing and storing it. In the Late Classic – Early Postclassic (AD 600 – 1250), the Puuc region designed two hydro-technological systems, aguadas, and water cisterns, that collected and distributed rainfall (Isendahl 2011: 185). Aguadas were large, open still-water reservoirs, in which Mayans altered natural depressions to increase water storage capacity. While some find it difficult to perform topography with current technological advancement, ancient Mayans were able to execute this feat with their intelligence and methods.
Nevertheless, hurricanes, heavy seasonal rain, and overall dry weather were motivating realities that pushed Mayans to formulate systems and architectures that prolonged their subsistence. The development of aguadas validates the profound aptitude in arithmetic Mayan civilizations as they invented mechanisms and systems to survive in the diverse rainforest. As Maya mathematics of glyph, dot, bar, and shell were fundamental in constructing complex architecture and artificial water reservoirs, having a spiritual connection and respect for the environment created a path for prosperity. The establishment of water cisterns was not to capture rainwater but to distribute freshwater throughout each residential area.
The fact water management was under the control of the elite and was adamant about providing clean water through equitable redistribution shows a distinct contrast in how water is managed and respected to the U.S. Clean drinking water is a vital source for the continuation of all living creatures on Earth. Archaeologists and ecologists have interpreted the fall of the Maya civilization as their error and not to climate change, however, they fail to evaluate the reservoirs and hydraulic systems that allowed Mayans to thrive for a time (Demarest 2004: 124). While it is unclear and unfathomable for industrial, neo-liberal societies today to function and sustain themselves in rainforests, for ancient Mayans it was a challenge they creatively managed through. As the Maya interacted with the environment as an animate object, they worked with the ecosystem to fashion swallow holes that were sealed intentionally to control drainage and retain water in a reservoir (Demasrt 2004: 186). These artificial water reservoirs were detailed, intricate, and creative, implicating the Maya methodology as an essential quality for survival. There is a constant reminder of how important it is to listen to the earth, soil, plants, rivers, and all beings in the surrounding area. The need to control water in the Maya lowlands was not fundamental in the abuse, devastation, and exploitation of the environment as it would betray Mayan core beliefs in respecting the Earth as a living, breathing organism.
In conclusion, for the ancient Mayans of Mesoamerica in the Early-Late Post Classic period, water had multiple implications and values. Water for ancient Mayans meant ascending political and social power by developing artificial water reservoirs and managing them. The methods in managing water in the dry climate of the northern Yucatan Peninsula were effective in collecting and storing rainwater. In my opinion, the surprising factor was the importance of elite groups to distribute water directly to sections of neighborhoods in the center of the community since it is rather difficult to urge our government to do the same in Flint, Michigan.
Furthermore, it was refreshing to discover that there were societies that valued and respected water as an organism, instead of having the misperception that they own it. I interpreted the mythological accounts of water deities as ancestral narratives that were passed down through oral stories and ceramic vessels. The significance of this topic is that it contradicts colonial literature that undermines and misinterprets Mesoamerican natives as inferior. It is an indication that colonial writers, historians, and archeologists, fabricated a narrative in which Maya culture, traditions, language, and art were not worthy of recognition. Ancient Mayans were building complex societies with irrigation systems and artificial water reservoirs by using their mathematical method.
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