Compare and contrast Mayan society with that of Teotihuacan. To what extent did each represent a common religious and cultural outlook in Mesoamerica at different times?

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It is clear that the Maya and the Aztecs interacted throughout the late Classical Period. Archeological evidence of trade and conquest is abundant from this period. The extent to which they influenced one another is less clear. Let us examine some of the commonalities between the two civilizations.

Social Structure:


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It is clear that the Maya and the Aztecs interacted throughout the late Classical Period. Archeological evidence of trade and conquest is abundant from this period. The extent to which they influenced one another is less clear. Let us examine some of the commonalities between the two civilizations.

Social Structure:

Both the Aztecs and the Maya practiced a strict and well-defined social hierarchy. Political authority stemmed from a ruler and his nobles and priests down through a warrior class, followed by artisans and merchants. Peasant farmers and slaves made up the base of the social pyramid. They had few rights in both civilizations. The major difference between the two groups is that the Aztecs had a centralized civilization with a king ruling from the capital of Tenochtitlan. The Maya, on the other hand, were never a unified people. Instead, local kings ruled their spheres of influence from a number of different city-states.


In terms of religious practices, both the Aztec and Maya spiritual life focused on the importance of calendar cycles. The various Mesoamerican calendars and zodiacs were interpreted by priests from both civilizations to determine the dates for important events. These could include the date for planting and harvesting, when to go to war, or when to perform a marriage.

The cosmology of both civilizations also specified distinct worldly and spiritual planes in which the gods, spirits, and earthly beings could reside and interact. The world lay at the center of this cosmic universe with six cardinal directions emanating out of it.

The pantheon of the Aztecs and Maya were composed of many higher and lower deities. Some gods were considered quite ancient, such as the sun and moon, while others were newer, younger gods. The younger gods were gods that they adopted from other groups, notably the Toltecs.

Predestination was a common belief of both groups too. This was the belief that one's fate was already determined by the gods. It was a person's duty to live according to the design of the gods in order to fulfill their destiny.

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Historical records confirm that the Mayans have had interactions with Teotihuacan society since the early Classical period (AD 250-450). However, experts disagree as to the basis for interactions between the two cultures. The externalist perspective claims that the Teotihuacans were an ambitious people who overwhelmed Mayan society with impositions of their own cultural heritage. The internalist perspective claims that both cultures demonstrated open dialogue and exchange of ideas.

However, in the perusal of archaeological artifacts, the internalist perspective seems to struggle for preeminence. Evidence points to the gradual but sure Teotihuacan influence in Mayan architecture. If the externalist perspective was true, it would appear that a Teotihuacan military invasion would hasten rather than occasion a gradual incorporation of Teotihuacan architectural elements into Mayan architecture. A case in point is the building of Mayan pyramid temples which incorporated the Teotihuacan talud-tablero structure. Initial mounds of the pyramid temples included a talud (inclined slope) but not the typical tablero (horizontal rise). However, the finished version of the Mayan pyramid temple did include the tablero on all sides. Yet, when we look at the final version, we see a hybrid style temple with elements of both Teotihuacan and Mayan architecture in harmonious symmetry.

During the Middle Classic period (AD 450-600), Teotihuacan society flourished as a result of its trade relationship with Mayan society. Merchants were able to ply Teotihuacan goods in Mayan markets as well as obtain exotic commodities such as stingray spines, cayman skins, and even jaguar pelts.

Sources: The relationship of the Maya and Teotihuacan: A Mesoamerican Mystery.

Archaeology of the Mexican Gulf Lowlands.

Gender roles in both societies during these different periods.

In Teotihuacan society, gender roles were militantly preserved. In fact, gender roles were incorporated into the very fabric of Teotihuacan creation theology. The female spider, with its prolific womb, was viewed as a diligent weaver; this image became associated with any women who must bear the pangs of childbirth to welcome the next generation to life. Additionally, each woman's sons may become future warriors and so, her labor was a transcending experience denoting her personal battle for the good of society. Her likely skills with embroidery (the image of the weaver) was also associated with her ability to produce the robes that warriors must wear.

On the other hand, masculine vitality and potency was symbolized by the unlikely butterfly. Warriors wore cloaks fastened with butterfly pins; the butterfly motif was inscribed on censers and the talud-tablero architecture of Teotihuacan buildings and temples. Everywhere, men were reminded of their obligation to defend and to protect. Both men and women were promised great rewards in the after-world for fulfilling their gender roles to their utmost ability.

In Mayan society, gender roles were equally illuminated in the iconography on stelae (a slab of stone generally used for funereal or commemorative purposes) and other architectural monuments. While most Mayan iconography portrayed powerful male characters in their prime, a surprising number of stelae portrayed Mayan female rulers, of which Lady Kanal-Ikal and Lady Zac-Kuc count among their number.

Various gender-fluid characters were also portrayed such as deities of mixed gender or those with hermaphrodite qualities; depictions of heterosexual attraction between older women and younger men were also uncovered. Indeed, with the discovery of gendered spaces at certain Mayan sites, where areas were partitioned for the activities of men and women, such depictions of non-traditional gender mores raises interesting questions about the unconventional in both cultures.

As with Teotihuacan society, various archaeological digs at Mayan historical sites have produced evidence of ceramics, figurines, and artifacts imbued with images of fertility goddesses amidst weaving and spinning craft. Both cultures strenuously reinforced the role of the domestic arts in the lives of its women.

For more, please refer to:

Sources: The Teotihuacan Trinity

Gender roles in Mayan society

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One of the most fascinating aspects of both Teotihuacan and Mayan society is the ritualistic practices common to both. Take for example, the veneration for caves as sacred spaces.

The place of caves in sacred worship.

In both Mayan and Teotihuacan society, caves were deeply associated with the underworld and with the deeply venerated practice of ancestor worship. As caves were viewed as ambiguous sacred areas (the province of both good and evil spirit influences), populist ancestral and religious rites were often performed there to placate the necessary deities and spirits.

Caves were provinces of revered gods and goddesses, especially those associated with water, clouds, and fertility. Take for example the Teotihuacan Water Goddess. Her realm of influence centered on surrounding lakes, rivers, and seas. The cave, with its womb-like appearance, was a symbol of her jurisdiction over fertility in all areas of life, human as well as agricultural. As we focus on the Mesoamerican reverence for caves as areas of sacred fertility, it is worth noting that the four caves in Guerrero, Mexico also held four giant deities who presided over the rain and winds of the four corners of the earth and who watched over the maize of many colors stored in them. Similar corresponding caves existed in Teotihuacan society.

The pre-Colombian Pyramid of the Sun (Teotihuacan site in the valley of Mexico) housed, at its base, six chambers or caves containing natural springs. Water in such caves were considered to be sacred, with supernatural, curative qualities. Again, as with the imagery of the Water Goddess, the water also symbolized the life-giving waters of the maternal womb. The Mayan rain god, Chac, was also thought to dwell in a cave. In these caves, rain or storm rituals performed by religious leaders were thought to placate the whims of important deities. So, Mayan and Teotihuacan caves were also places of power, where leaders wielded great influence over unseen forces.

Interestingly, the Mayans utilized both familial as well as community caves. Familial caves were used for worship of one's ancestors, while community caves often held religious significance for a whole community. In such communal caves, ceremonial pottery, and various obsidian and jade objects of sacred value have been discovered. Apart from the sacred feminine, the Teotihuacan and Mayan Storm Gods represented the sacred symbol of the masculine in Mesoamerican culture. Corresponding to the strict gender roles in both Teotihuacan and Mayan society, the incarnation of the sacred masculine encompassed the arts of war, politics, and world dominion. Therefore, human sacrifices were often performed in caves. One cave in Mexico-Tenochtitlan boasted an array of dried human skins, formerly belonging to flayed victims of conquests. It was also not unknown for virgins to be sacrificed in such caves.


Sources: Mayan Caves

The Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan: An experiment in living.

An Interpretation of the Cave under the Pyramid of the Sun.

Rites in the underworld.


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