The ancient Mayan community has long been a fascination for many scholars throughout the world. The nature and symbolism of warfare are aspects of the Mayan community that have been considered in parts of studies but have not been collectively looked at or focused on for interpretation. In this essay, I have gathered information from various sources that discuss different facets of warfare within the Late Classic to Post-Classic Mayan community. I specifically will be analyzing what weapons were used by the Mayan communities at the time, how the warfare took place, and the symbolism that is held in their communities.
Many archaeologists have uncovered Mayan artifacts for ages, but there is a deficit in papers that organize and explain how warfare took place, as well as what weapons were used. In this paper, I will be focusing on the Late Classic to Post Classic Mayan community. I will be analyzing artifacts and archaeological sites to reveal the true nature of warfare, weapons, and their symbolism in the Mayan community during the Late Classic to Post Classic periods. The main points I will be analyzing are what weapons were used by the Late Classic to Post Classic Mayans, how the warfare took place and the symbolism that is held in their communities. In analyzing the weapons used by the Mayans during these periods, I will consider Spears, blades, and projectiles.
The Mayans had various weapons made from specific materials that served various purposes. While some of these weapons were more commonly used for hunting, it is important to acknowledge their uses in self-defense and how they were used in the context of war. When looking at how the warfare took place, I will be focusing on common reasons that caused the warfare, the strategies used during warfare, and the culture of warfare (how it was declared, did their armies line up? unspoken rules? etc.). Lastly, I will cover the symbolism of warfare and warriors in Mayan society. This will include an analysis of how they relate to any rituals that are associated with warfare. I will also investigate “war gods” and their roles in Mayan beliefs.
When looking into the weapons and tools used for war, I investigated the different types of weapons and the materials required to craft them. Some of my findings included that the Maya used atlatls for war (Slater 2011). Atlatls are a projectile weapon that can be considered a “dart thrower” and a “dart” is what is thrown. The “dart thrower” was made of wood and at times had two holes in the bottom to insert your fingers to prevent atlatl elbow and have better grip. According to Slater, the atlatl’s dimensions, “is approximately 60 cm in length (Johnson 1971:191) with a diameter of roughly 2.5–5 cm” (Slater 2011). The atlatl was crafted as a handhold weapon that only required one hand to launch. Despite only needing one hand, the power in this weapon was not compromised the atlatl is capable of throwing “darts” at speeds around 160 km/h (Slater 2011). It was this force that was fabled to have been capable of piercing the Spanish armor. The “darts'' themselves were several feet long and often depicted being used with obsidian tips (Slater 2011). On the other hand, most archaeological findings demonstrate that the material used to make tips for darts, spears, arrows, or even to make blades were obsidian or chert (Aoyama 2005). Materials used varied on geographic location, and most communities had used more chert than obsidian because it was easier and cheaper to procure than obsidian, which was mined elsewhere (Aoyama 2005).
We can deduce that the main reasons to go to war were to establish a tributary system where the losing region is indebted to the victor and to provide a means of getting people to sacrifice (Helmke 2020). This was different from other societies because the reasons for war were not primarily to establish superior status, or to conquer and exploit the natural resources.
Even though it was more convenient to acquire chert for tips, obsidian was generally preferred because it leaves the victim with a more severe injury. Bows were initially predominantly used for hunting, but over time they were incorporated into warfare (Aoyama 2005). The use of bows in Mayan warfare is debated for when it was incorporated specifically for warfare because it was initially used for hunting, but on some sites like Aguateca and Copan, the use of bows was evident since the Classic Period (Aoyama 2005). In these sites, the obsidian points found were mostly for arrow tips (Aoyama 2005). I hypothesize that spears were primarily used as melee weapons rather than a projectile because the use of an atlatl defeats the purpose of throwing spears by hand. After all, the atlatl was far more powerful and accurate. Spears differed from atlatl darts because they were much stiffer, but they had similar tips (Aoyama 2005). This was because atlatl darts need to be able to flail in the air to be effective. Despite the fatal weapons crafted by the Mayans, the goal in the war was not solely to murder.
Mayan warfare during the Late Classic and Post- Classic was much different than the typical warfare that one would think of today. Reasons for the initiation of war varied from the typical reasons to spiritual ones. Some of the typical reasons for war according to Helmke were, “to maintain the borders of a given territory, to exploit peripheral areas, to control lucrative trade routes, and to impose tribute on conquered peoples” (Helmke 2020). These reasons for war are recognized to apply universally and are not unique to the Mayan civilization. Even though these were some reasons for war, it does not mean that these were the primary reasons for the initiation of wars in this period. It is also important to recognize (even if it was not a primary reason for war) that some wars were also used to solve inter-polity conflicts between Mayan communities (Helmke 2020).
The main reasons for war were not to gain territory but to have a community pay tribute to the victor. After winning a war, Mayans would leave the local systems in place but would establish a tributary system that forced indebtedness to them (Helmke 2020). The spiritual reason for war in the Mayan community was to acquire captives that were brought back to the society alive for human sacrifice (Helmke 2020). This made warriors an essential part of society because they were responsible for procuring humans for sacrifice. We can deduce that the main reasons to go to war were to establish a tributary system where the losing region is indebted to the victor and to provide a means of getting people to sacrifice (Helmke 2020). This was different from other societies because the reasons for war were not primarily to establish superior status, or to conquer and exploit the natural resources.
The way wars took place in the Mayan region during the Late Classic to Post- Classic was not the traditional form of wars that consists of two armies facing each other on open land, nor was it done in a fashion that incorporated declaration of war before attacking. Wars that took place during this time were started with raids. Considering the terrain, it would have been hard to find a battlefield amid dense jungle and varying topography, so it makes sense that these raids were what most Mayan warfare looked like. There is even evidence that city/state societies conducted headhunting and raids, despite having a more “complex” society than chiefdoms and bands (Helmke 2020). Raids often consisted of traveling to societies, and according to the article, “Why Were the Maya Such Excellent Warriors?” “The Maya did not have horses or any other pack bearing animals, the warriors would usually have to go on 5k runs or longer just to attack a city”. Due to the trek that was required of the warriors to execute the raid, it was essential that the weapons used were light and that the warriors themselves maintained the proper diet, and body type to be successful.
Moreover, the article also states that the proper diet of extreme carbohydrates provided the proper nutrients needed to produce an efficient warrior and the typical body type of the Mayan warrior. The body type of Mayan warriors was slender because of the excessive cardio required to run to a distant territory and after, win a physically demanding battle. I hypothesize that the food providing the heavy amounts of carbohydrates to the warriors was manioc and corn/maize based on the common Mayan diet. When a raid was beginning to take place, the element of surprise was an advantage for the warriors who had made the journey to conduct this raid. The army being attacked does their best to defend their society, usually having some warriors run around the territory to train for long journeys (Daily History 2018). I imagine that there were warriors who ran around their community to keep an eye out for an attack. The defeated army is taken as captives and later sacrificed as an offering to their gods (Helmke 2020).
Warfare during this period seems to be vital to the Mayan community due to the demand for captives for their rituals. The symbolism behind the importance of captives is explained by the belief that their gods were pleased to receive human blood, and more importantly, human sacrifice (Daily History 2018). Even though live captives were preferred, the circumstances of war led to the deaths of many warriors, so their body parts were harvested and used for ceremonies/rituals (Helmke 2020). The need for human body parts applied to virtually any part of the body because of their uses in rituals (Helmke 2020) One of the body parts deemed related to rituals were teeth. This assumption is backed because, “the word koj, ‘teeth’ is homonymous with seed, maize kernel” (Helmke 2020).
Furthermore, it is believed that this relationship came about because of how human teeth resemble maize kernels. This was then interpreted to be used in a ritual where the teeth were planted to promote the population’s prosperity in reproduction as well as a fertile harvest (Helmke 2020). This belief may come from the story of human creation, the Popol Vuh. The story describes corn as the material used by the gods to make humans. Furthermore, Helmke interprets, “among the ancient Maya, the decapitation of an adversary finds its mythic origin in the decapitation of the Maize God and was tied to rites of fertility and reincarnation.” This can be backed by the story of the Hunahpu in the Popol Vuh where his decapitated head spits on Blood Moon and impregnates her. The importance of the human head is evident due to its depictions which place the human head at the same level as the jaguar, which was the symbol of a warrior and was considered a sacred animal (Helmke 2020).
Due to the importance of a supply of captives and human body parts in the Mayan society, those who provided the sacrifices (the warriors) to the community were highly praised. Warriors often kept count of their kills and captives as a way to establish status in their society (Helmke 2020). When Mayan warriors brought captives, they would receive praise from Nobles and be given valuable materials (Helmke 2020). The more captives that a warrior provided meant they received more valuable goods. It is important to note that it was most honorable to die via sacrifice, this implies a normalization to sacrifice if it was for their gods (Daily History 2018). The recording of kills and captives established different levels of status among the Mayan army and certain rites of passage a warrior needed to execute to be deemed a successful warrior (Helmke 2020). The symbolism of war and success affected the roles of certain warriors in society. Since in some societies, it was a requirement to procure at least one captive to achieve the right to get married and to validate their courage in the eyes of the community (Helmke 2020). Lastly, I would like to note that the Mayan God of war is Buluc-Chabtan (Mark 2020). This god was considered an antagonist who should be avoided, so it was not a god that was sacrificed to (Cline). Buluc-Chabtan represented wars, pillaging, and arson. The nature of avoiding this god may be interpreted as how Mayans felt about war and its tragedies.
My compilation of analysis on Late Classic to Post- Classic Mayan warfare presents an overview of the Mayan definition of warfare in terms of the weapons used, what warfare consisted of, and what it meant to the community. In my findings, it was evident that warfare was important to the Maya during this period because of the demand for captives to incorporate into rituals and the desire to establish tributaries. This contrasts contemporary reasons for war that include power over a region, exploitation of natural resources, or exploitation of labor force (not to say there weren’t wars over these issues). Despite a need for captives to sacrifice, the Mayans did not have a God of war they praised. I interpret the negative connotation with the God of war “Buluc Chabtan” as the representation and acknowledgment of the horrible truth that battles and war consisted of. Despite the evidence presented, there are many aspects of war that are assumptions based on limited evidence, so more research needs to be done to get a clearer image of what warfare was like, and what it meant to the Maya community.
Aoyama, Kazuo. “CLASSIC MAYA WARFARE AND WEAPONS: Spear, Dart, and Arrow Points of Aguateca and Copan.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 16, no. 2, 2005, pp. 291–304.
Cline, Austin. “Buluc Chabtan: Mayan God of War.” Learn Religions.
Helmke, Christophe. “TACTICS, TROPHIES, AND TITLES: A COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE ON ANCIENT MAYA RAIDING.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 31, no. 1, 2020, pp. 29–46.
Mark, Joshua J. “The Mayan Pantheon: The Many Gods of the Maya.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 6 Dec. 2020.
Slater, Donald A. “POWER MATERIALIZED: THE DART-THROWER AS A PAN-MESOAMERICAN STATUS MARKER.” Ancient Mesoamerica, vol. 22, no. 2, 2011, pp. 371–388.