Religious Syncretism and its Consequences in Mayan Society Essay

Religious Syncretism and its Consequences in Mayan Society Essay

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Religious Syncretism and its Consequences in Mayan Society

When Spaniards first set foot on Mesoamerican shores in the early sixteenth century, they encountered not the godless mass of natives they believed they found, but a people whose rich spiritual traditions shaped and sustained them for thousands of years. These diverse spiritual practices legitimized nearly every aspect of Mesoamerican daily life, from science and architecture to art and politics (Carmack 295), in many of the same ways Catholicism did in Spain. The collision of these cultures in the Great Encounter and the resulting Spanish colonial state mixed not solely two different peoples—Indian and Spanish—but thousands of variants: elites and slaves, peasant farmers and traders, priests and traders, organized and local spiritual customs, all with different degrees of diversity in their respective religious practices. This diversity set the stage for the syncretic religious traditions that emerged in Mayan society and remain a vital part of that culture today.

Syncretic refers to the "nature of ideas, deities, and practices that derive from historically distinct traditions that become reinterpreted and transformed in situations of a cultural encounter" (Carmack 303). The cultural encounter between Mesoamericans and the Catholic Church was a natural result of mutual needs. The Indians needed protection from the cruelties inflicted by Spanish colonists, and the Church in many ways fought for their basic human rights; the Church needed land and support for their missions, and the Indians provided provisions and labor in much the same fashion as they had been giving tribute to ruling elites for thousands of years (Fash). This arrangement gave missionaries access not only to the Indians’ bodies—in the form of sweat and labor—but also their hearts and souls.

The introduction of Christianity to native Mesoamericans, however, expressed itself in ways unexpected to the Catholic missionaries. For example, the concept of Jesus Christ—both in colonial Mesoamerica and today in thousands of Indian communities—became one of the several manifestations of the sun god (Carmack 304). The Virgin of Guadalupe, today the patron saint of Mexico, was and is embraced by Indians who interpreted her and the myth surrounding her 1531 appearance to Juan Diego in traditional spiritual custom: she is depicted as a d...

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...storical documents such as Altar Q at Copán and the codexes.

Other religious practices that resulted from the blending of ancient Mesoamerican and Catholic cultures in the diversity of colonial life include: the construction of churches and cathedrals on or near ancient temple sites; the ritual use of a fermented drink in spiritual practices (pulque and wine); public worship; incense; bundle cults; and many other "little traditions" (Carmack 304).

Myriad syncretic spiritual forms evolved during the era of colonial Mesoamerica, expressing both public devotional practices and private household rituals that many times were veiled from Church scrutiny (Carmack 308). These rituals, born in indigenous culture and adapted to the drastically changed socio-economic and political landscape of colonial life, represent some of the few remaining links to the region’s spiritual and historical past.


Carlsen, Robert. The War for the Heart & Soul of a Highland Maya Town. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

Carmack, Robert, Janine Grasco, and Gary Gossen. The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

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