True Freedom for the Maya
WHO has not heard of the Maya? Every year thousands of tourists travel to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to marvel at the impressive pyramids, such as those at Chichén Itzá and Cobá. The Maya were remarkable not only for their ingenuity in engineering but also for their accomplishments in writing, mathematics, and astronomy. They developed a sophisticated system of hieroglyphic writing, the concept of the zero, and a 365-day calendar with corrections similar to the leap year.
When it comes to religion, however, we see quite a different picture. The Maya were polytheists; they worshipped gods of the sun, moon, rain, and corn, among many other things. Their priests were assiduous observers of the stars. Their worship included the use of incense and images, self-mutilation, ritual bloodletting, and the practice of human sacrifice—of prisoners, slaves, and children in particular.
The Arrival of the Spaniards
This was the complex civilization that the Spaniards found when they arrived in the early 16th century. The conquistadores, as the Spanish adventurers were called, had a twofold objective: the acquisition of new land and riches and the conversion of the Maya to Catholicism in order to free them from barbaric pagan practices. Did the Spanish conquest bring true freedom, religious or otherwise, to the Maya?
The Spaniards, including the clergy of the Catholic Church, seized the communal lands, which the Maya had used from time immemorial for their traditional slash-and-burn method of farming. This seizure resulted in great hardship and hostility. The colonists also took control of the cenotes, or deep sinkholes, that were practically the only source of water on the Yucatán Peninsula. Further hardship was caused when the church imposed a yearly head tax on the Maya—12 1/2 realsa for each man and 9 for each woman—in addition to the already burdensome state tax. The Spanish landowners exploited the situation by first paying the church tax for the Maya and then forcing them into peonage for what they owed, reducing them to little more than slaves.
The priests also charged for religious services, such as baptism, marriage, and burial. With the takeover of land, the head tax, and the fees, the church enriched itself at the expense of the Maya. The peasants were considered superstitious and ignorant by nature. Thus, the clergy and others in authority felt justified in whipping the Maya to enforce discipline and to rid them of superstition.
The Caste War
The Maya retaliated at first by withholding church taxes, taking their children out of church schools, shunning catechism classes, and refusing to work on the haciendas, or plantations. But that only brought more harsh treatment. The situation reached the boiling point in 1847—after some 300 years of Spanish domination. The Maya rose up against the “whites” in what is called the Caste War.
Rebel leaders used as a rallying point an oracle called the Speaking Cross, a cross through which a ventriloquist preached war to the death. The war was a disaster for the Maya. By the time it officially ended in 1853, some 40 percent of the Maya of the Yucatán had been killed. Still, hostilities continued on and off for 55 years. Finally, the Maya were able to free themselves from the yoke of the Spaniards, and land reform was instituted. What, though, about religious freedom?
No True Freedom
Neither the introduction of Catholicism by the Spanish conquest nor the Caste War brought the Maya true freedom. Today, there remains a kind of syncretic, or fusion, religion that combines pre-Hispanic native customs with Roman Catholic traditions.
Speaking of the present-day Maya, the book The Mayas—3000 Years of Civilization says: “The Mayas venerate their old gods of nature and their ancestors in fields, caves and mountains . . . and at the same time worship saints in church.” Thus, the god Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulcán, is equated with Jesus, and the moon goddess with the Virgin Mary. Furthermore, the worship of the sacred ceiba tree was replaced with the veneration of the cross, which the people still water as if it were a living tree. Instead of bearing representations of Jesus, crosses are decorated with ceiba blossoms.
True Freedom at Last!
In recent years, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mexico have undertaken a large-scale campaign of Bible education among the Maya. Bible literature, such as this magazine, has been made available to the Maya in their mother tongue to help them gain an understanding of God’s purpose for mankind. What have been the results? As of this writing, there are some 6,600 Maya-speaking proclaimers of the Kingdom good news associated with 241 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area. Has it been easy for the Maya to free themselves from their traditional beliefs in order to embrace Bible truth?
For many sincere Maya, it has been a struggle. Marcelino and his wife, Margarita, considered themselves zealous Catholics. Every year they paid homage to the cross by carrying it from the church to their home, where they would offer animal sacrifices and thereafter eat the sacrifices with relatives and friends. Then Jehovah’s Witnesses called and started to study the Bible with them. “We recognized that what we were learning was the truth,” they recall, “but we thought that if we abandoned our former beliefs, we would be attacked by the spirits.” Still, they continued their Bible study. “Little by little, Bible truth sank into our heart,” says Marcelino. “That gave us the courage to speak to our family and friends about what we had learned from the Bible. We are now happy to be free from the superstitious beliefs to which we had been enslaved. We are only sorry for not having started sooner. We want to make up for lost time by working hard to tell others about the wonderful truths in the Bible.”
Alfonso, aged 73, was a devout Catholic. In his town, he used to organize the religious festivals, which included Masses, dancing, and food and drink for all in attendance. There were also bullfights. “It was normal to expect these festivals to end up with drunken brawls,” he comments. “Although I enjoyed the festivals, I felt that something was lacking in my religion.” When Jehovah’s Witnesses preached to Alfonso, he accepted a Bible study. In spite of poor health, he began attending meetings at the Kingdom Hall. Now he has abandoned all his former religious practices and takes advantage of every opportunity to share his newfound beliefs with those who come to see him at his home.
These are just a few examples of the many sincere Maya who have come to experience true religious freedom. Yes, the descendants of the builders of the impressive pyramids in the Yucatán are still here. They still speak the same language. Many live much as their ancestors did, in palm-thatched homes made of wattle daubed with clay. They cultivate their corn and cotton using the same slash-and-burn method. But now the truth of God’s Word has liberated many of the Maya from the bondage of religious falsehood and superstition. They fully appreciate Jesus’ powerful words: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”—John 8:32.
a The real is a former Spanish monetary unit.
[Map on page 13]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Area under ancient Maya influence
Gulf of Mexico
[Picture on page 13]
Maya ruins, Chichén Itzá
[Picture on page 15]
Marcelino and his wife, Margarita, sharing the good news in the Yucatán