(redirected from Uaxactan)
Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.


, indigenous people of Mexico and Central America
Maya (mīˈə, Span. mäˈyä), indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, parts of El Salvador, and extreme western Honduras. Speaking a group of closely related languages (with an outlier, Huastec, spoken in the Pánuco basin of Mexico), the population of Maya today is over 4 million.

Maya Prehistory

Archaeologists divide the prehistory of the Maya region into the Preclassic (c.1500 B.C.–A.D. 300), Classic (300–900), and Postclassic (900–1500) periods, and concur that in most parts of this large region the most spectacular florescence occurred during the Classic period. This was followed, in much of the area with the exception of Yucatán, by a demographic collapse at the end of which (c.A.D. 1100) close to 90% of the population had been lost or migrated away and most of their great civic centers had been abandoned.

The Maya may derive from the Olmec, or they may have originated c.1000 B.C. among nomadic tribes in N central Petén, Guatemala, where there are evidences of a once-flourishing agricultural people. The earliest inhabitants may have been relatively few in number and practiced shifting cultivation, but a massive, relatively low (33–55 ft/10–15 m high) earthen structure was constructed at Aguada Fénix, Tabasco, Mex., near Guatemala, during this period. As populations increased, agriculture became more intensive. The Maya created huge canal systems to drain and raise wetland soil, producing arable lands sometimes called “floating gardens.” They also cut and cleared forestlands, for agriculture and for their urban centers.

Linked with this process, social organization became increasingly hierarchical, with increasing differentiations of wealth and status, shown primarily in the differential size and elaborateness of both residences and public buildings. Settlements in civic centers show a repeated pattern of arrangement of residences, pyramidal structures, and temples around courts or plazas, with buildings made of cut stone masonry, sculptured and stuccoed decorations, corbel-vault stone roofs, and paved plazas. Such groupings in small, poor rural settlements involve buildings of largely perishable materials and small size. Most of the elaborate carvings, relief and full-round, and the paintings, mural and ceramic, which are the hallmarks of Classic Maya art, come from the civic centers. These civic centers were numerous, including Copán in Honduras, El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal, and Uaxactún in the N central Petén region of Guatemala, and Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico.

Neither during the Classic period nor at any other time does there seem to have been any political unification of the area as a whole. Rather, political organization seems to have been described by a series of small, city-state-like polities, each characterized by its own internal differentiation of status and power. While much earlier literature refers to professional rulers and priests, the present view is that the higher-status individuals were more probably heads of patrilineages (see kinship), and that much of the religious complex was centered on ancestor worship rather than on universalist gods. In contrast to the civilizations of central Mexico, urbanization and occupational differentiation in the Mayan region were poorly developed, even during the Classic period. Most of the population, estimated at 14 million in the 8th cent., lived in suburban agricultural communities.

On the other hand, the Classic Maya are the undisputed masters of abstract knowledge among indigenous American cultures. They had a system of written hieroglyphic script, largely syllabic in nature, which, although once considered astronomical or religious in content, is now considered primarily dynastic and political. (Mayan writing, however, dates to the late Preclassic period.) Although the script now mainly survives on the stone structures of their civic centers, it was also used in written records that were almost entirely destroyed by the Spanish during their later conquest of the area. The Mayan system of mathematics was an achievement not equaled for centuries in Europe. A vigesimal (base 20) numerical system was used, notable in its development of the zero as placeholder. Several types of calendar reckonings were in simultaneous use, and the 365-day Mayan year was so divided as to be more accurate than that of the Gregorian calendar.

The period following A.D. 900 was one of rapid decline, and many of the major cities were abandoned. It has been hypothesized that recurring and persistent severe droughts that followed a period of a period of increased warfare and social and political instability may have led to the collapse, and a number of studies support this theory. Deforestation may also have contributed to the collapse. In the heartland of the lowland Maya, most major centers had been abandoned, probably more gradually than has been supposed, by around A.D. 1100. In the Yucatán highlands settlement persisted, with a probable colonization of the site of Chichén Itzá by Toltec warriors who had migrated from central Mexico and were ultimately absorbed by the Maya. Subsequently, Mayapán, which flourished from the 13th to 15th cent., was one of the last significant city-states. By the time of Spanish conquest, most Mayan populations were centered around small villages.

Colonial-Period Maya

The Spanish conquistadors found a number of small polities in northern Yucatán, but, on their march into Central America, encountered few inhabitants. The introduction of new diseases by the Spanish contributed to the decimation of Maya populations, leaving the region still more sparsely settled.

For the remaining groups, the Spanish conquest led to the imposition of Catholicism and the establishment of various European forms of political organization. Although this imposition was not completely effective, Spaniards either eliminated or incorporated the indigenous elite into the new colonial system, leaving the Maya-speaking population a relatively undifferentiated mass of rural peasants. Administrative centers, inhabited largely by Spaniards, were established in the 16th cent. at Mérida in Yucatán, San Cristobal in Chiapas, and Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala. The latter was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 18th cent., prompting Spaniards to move the administrative center to Guatemala City.

For the most part, the Maya region was peripheral to the Spanish-American colonies because the lack of mineral wealth, the relatively sparse population, and the lack of land suitable for the cultivation of export crops. Taxes were collected through church tithes and through the encomienda system. Only in a few coastal regions of Guatemala and Chiapas were plantations established for the cultivation of coffee and sugar. But even these were difficult to maintain, owing to the prevalence of malaria and other tropical diseases in lowland areas and the difficulties involved in extracting labor from adjacent highland areas, where slowly increasing numbers of Maya led relatively autonomous lives.

Independence Period

Beginning in the late 18th cent., demand for cordage and fibers on the world market stimulated the formation of enormous henequen plantations throughout the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Previously, villagers in the region needed only to pay relatively modest taxes and submit to occasional labor drafts in order to be left alone by colonial authorities. By the end of the 18th cent., however, village lands were suddenly subject to expropriation by Spaniards. As the plantations grew in size and number, labor drafts became increasingly onerous, particularly among groups whose lands had been expropriated. This combination of pressures led to a widespread rebellion (1847), known as the caste wars, in which the explicit goal was to drive all European populations off the Yucatán Peninsula, a goal that was nearly realized. The conflagration was not fully suppressed until the early 1900s, leaving isolated areas outside the plantation zone beyond effective governmental control throughout the late 19th cent.

The Twentieth Century

In the first half of the 20th cent., most of the Maya region looked much as it had centuries earlier. Society was divided between a commercial and administrative elite group of Spanish-speaking whites and ladinos, who resided in the larger towns, and a much larger group of Maya-speaking agriculturists, who resided in rural villages. In few areas of Latin America was a racial divide so clearly demarcated, with castelike divisions separating ladinos from the indigenous population. Although the political division between Mexico and Guatemala occurred early in the 19th cent., there were few discernible consequences prior to the years following the Mexican revolution (1910–17). At this time a land redistribution program, together with a set of legal guarantees preventing the expropriation of village lands, were applied to rural populations throughout Mexico; in contrast, no such guarantees were respected with regard to the Guatemalan population.

Demographic growth among Maya-speaking populations increasingly led to pressure on available resources, leading to widespread deforestation and erosion and forcing many groups to adopt commercial specializations to supplement income derived from agriculture. Among the better-known examples of the latter are the colorful cotton textiles produced in the Guatemalan highlands, marketed both locally and in industrialized countries. Also in Guatemala, seasonal labor on the growing number of coffee plantations along the Pacific coast became increasingly important throughout the first half of the 20th cent. Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, improved communications throughout the Maya region opened many new and often local economic opportunities for wage employment and commercial activity.

As Maya populations have become more tightly integrated into national economies, their distinctive ethnic markers, including dress, language, and religious practices, have often been abandoned, leaving increasing numbers culturally indistinguishable from the ladino population. Conversely, economically autonomous communities have used the same ethnic markers as a means of preserving the integrity of group boundaries and corporately held resources. Partly for this reason, the Guatemalan military unleashed a campaign of terror beginning in the mid-1970s, specifically targeting the indigenous population. All markers of traditional ethnic identity, including distinctive dress, language, and even Catholicism, became targets of military repression. Village lands were subject to widespread seizure, and government-sponsored resettlement programs were widely applied. In the 1970s and 80s there were tens of thousands of deaths and “disappearances” and an exodus of many hundreds of thousands, most from Maya-speaking regions, seeking sanctuary primarily in Mexico and the United States. In Mexico, the Zapatista movement that began with a 1994 uprising in Chiapas drew much of its strength from the support of Mayan peasants.


See K. Warren, Symbols of Subordination (1979); N. M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1984); M. Coe, The Maya, (4th ed. 1987); G. D. Jones, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (1989); N. Hammond, Ancient Maya Civilization (1990); S. Martin and N. Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000); D. Webster, The Fall of the Ancient Maya (2002).


, in Hinduism
maya (mäˈyä), in Hinduism, term used in the Veda to mean magic or supernatural power. In Mahayana Buddhism it acquires the meaning of illusion or unreality. The term is pivotal in the Vedanta system of Shankara, where it signifies the world as a cosmic illusion and also the power that creates the world.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
Enlarge picture
Mayan pyramid, Kukulkan, at Chichen Itza, Mexico, photographed during the spring equinox when a shadow resembling a serpent moves down the side of the temple. Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Five hundred years before Abraham walked the deserts of the Middle East, or about 2500 BCE, the Mayan people were developing their own religious traditions in the rain forests of Guatemala. Their culture flourished all the way up to the Spanish invasion of the sixteenth century.

The Mayan lived in a world chock full of gods. Much of their average day was spent praying for health, rain, crops, luck, and fortune. But the central religious metaphor of Mayan religion was the ceiba tree, the tree of life. It existed in the three realms of earth, air, and atmosphere with its roots in the ground, trunk in the world, and branches in the heavens. Demonstrating its importance in the delicate climate of the rain forest, it literally exhaled the breath of Hunab K'U, the creative force. Gods and goddesses were associated with crops, especially corn, as well as rain, the sun, the moon, and stars, but the Maya knew that when the last tree was gone, people would perish from the earth.

There was a dark side to the religion. Powerful gods demanded powerful sacrifices to propitiate them (see Sacrifice). With great pomp and ceremony and before huge crowds, rituals were enacted during which humans were offered, with much shedding of blood, as tribute to gods who seemed to demand more and more each year. Pictures carved on stone altars often tell a gruesome story. Probably, though this is less certain, drugs were used to induce heightened states of spiritual awareness.

Such sacrificial ritual is a pattern common to many religious traditions. Perhaps because life was so mysterious they somehow felt the need to "pay the supreme sacrifice," or, more often, make someone else do it. It was central to Mayan religious life. But to judge the entire culture and religion on the grisly archaeology of one aspect of it is to miss the many positive attributes that informed an entire American civilization.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



an Indian people on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (population, 340,000 in 1970) and in Belize (13,000). Their language belongs to the Maya-Quiche family. Some Maya speak Spanish. They are nominally Catholics, but vestiges of pre-Christian beliefs remain among them. Farming is their chief occupation.

The Maya were the creators of one of America’s oldest civilizations, which existed on the territory of present-day southeastern Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. The rise of the Maya civilization was closely associated with the Olmec culture in Mexico. The ancient Maya engaged in slash-and-burn farming, cultivating maize (corn), beans, squash, tomatoes, root crops, and cotton; they raised turkeys and dogs, the meat of which was used for food, and they also engaged in hunting, fishing, and beekeeping. Cities with stone structures appeared in the first millennium A.D. There are more than 100 known cities, the largest of which are Tikal, Copán, Chichén Itzá, and Uxmal. In the ninth century, most of the Mayan cities fell into ruin, apparently as a result of the invasion of Indian tribes led by the Toltec. In the tenth century, a new Maya-Toltec state arose in Yucatan; it subsequently broke up into independent city-states.

The ruling class in Mayan society was made up of the military aristocracy and the priests (the priesthood had a complex hierarchy). The Maya retained vestiges of clan relations, and slavery was well developed. The inhabitants of the settlements that made up the community bore various obligations. Handicrafts were well-developed in the cities. There was a large merchant class. The Mayas created their own hieroglyphic writing system. They possessed scientific learning in mathematics, medicine, and astronomy (in particular, there existed an elaborate calendar, which was used for determining agricultural work periods). In their religion, the Maya especially revered the gods of rain and wind.

Because of the heroic resistance of the Maya, the Spanish conquest of Yucatán, which had begun in 1527, was prolonged for many decades. The Maya rebelled repeatedly, even after the establishment of Mexican independence (the largest uprisings took place in 1847-54 and 1904).

The ancient Mayan structures, set on stylobates, are stepped tetrahedral pyramids with truncated apexes on which small temples were constructed (for example, the Temple of the Sun in Palenque, second half of the seventh century), and also long, narrow buildings (residences of the rulers, the priesthood, and the aristocracy) grouped around closed courts, and courts for sacred games. Sculpture (first in wood, and later in limestone), represented by reliefs on temple walls and on stelae (highly stylized until the fourth century; more natural in the seventh and early eighth centuries), was particularly well developed in the second half of the eighth century and in the ninth century, when local schools were formed (Piedras Negras, Palenque, Copan, and Quirigua). During this period balanced, multifigured compositions appeared in which bas-relief was freely combined with high relief. Small plastic arts (terra-cotta figurines and articles made of semiprecious stones) reached perfection. Mayan painting is represented by wall murals (the brightly colored temple paintings in Bonampak, second half of the eighth century) and images on pottery vessels (mythological or historical subjects). The pictures in the Mayan hieroglyphic manuscripts are well known (the artistic level of the pictures in the Dresden Codex is outstanding). In the Maya-Toltec period, the major centers of art and architecture on the Yucatán Peninsula were the cities of Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Mayapán.


Landa, D. Soobshchenie o delakh v lukatane, 1556 g. Moscow-Leningrad, 1955. (Translated from Old Spanish.)
Narody Ameriki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1959.
Knorozov, Iu. V. Pis’mennost’ indeitsev maiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
Gallenkamp, C. Maiia. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from English.)
Kuz’mishchev, V. Taina zhretsov maiia. Moscow, 1968.
Kinzhalov, R. V. Iskusstvo drevnikh maiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1968.
Kinzhalov, R. V. Kul’tura drevnikh maiia. Leningrad, 1971. (Bibliography.)
Morley, S. G. The Ancient Maya, 3rd ed. Stanford [1956].
Coe, M. D. The Maya. New York-Washington, D. C. [1966].
Kidder, A., and C. Samayoa Chinchilla. The Art of the Ancient Maya. New York, 1959.
Martínez Parédes, D. Un continente y una cultura. Mexico City, 1960.
Wadepuhl, W. Die alien Maya und ihre Kultur. Leipzig, 1964.
Maya. [Fribourg] 1964.



the writing system of the Maya Indians, who inhabited the territory of present-day Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula), Guatemala, and Honduras; known from monuments of the early centuries of the Common Era and existed until its prohibition by the Spanish church in the 16th century. Three large manuscripts (“codices”) and numerous inscriptions on stone and ceramics have been preserved.

The nature of Maya has provoked controversy among specialists. According to the American scholar J. E. Thompson, it is purely ideographic in nature, and phonetic reading of the writing is supposedly impossible. However, the Soviet linguist Iu. V. Knorozov, who continued the research begun by the French scholar L. de Rosny and the American scholars C. Thomas and B. Whorf, succeeded in discovering among the Maya symbols many phonetic signs, indicating syllables and parts of syllables (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Some Maya syllabic symbols, deciphered by Iu. V. Knorozov (nos. 1-10), and examples of their use in the phonetic spelling of words (nos. 11-20)

Knorozov demonstrated that Maya consisted of ideographic symbols (for whole words and morphemes) and phonetic signs, and also radicals (determinatives). His decipherment is based on positional analysis of the words (positional determination of their grammatical class and syntactic function) and cross-verification of hypotheses on the sound of the phonetic signs in words having similar sound elements but different meanings (the meaning of phrases was often suggested by the pictures accompanying the text in the manuscripts). However, a uniform reading and understanding of the manuscripts and inscriptions has not been accomplished: this requires the analysis and reconstruction of the Maya literary language of the turn of the Common Era (the language in which the Maya texts were apparently written, which must have differed from the 16th century Maya language known to scholarship).


Knorozov, Iu. v. Sistema pis’ma drevnikh maiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1955.
Knorozov, Iu. V. Pis’mennost’ indeitsev maiia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1963.
Rosny, L. de. Essai sur le dechiffrement de l’écrilure hiératique de l’Amerique centrale, 2nd ed. Paris, 1884.
Thomas, C. Central American Hieroglyphic Writing. Washington, D.C., 1904.
Whorf, B. L. Decipherment of the Linguistic Portion of the Maya Hieroglyphs. Washington, D.C., 1942.
Zimmermann, G. Die Hieroglyphen der Maya-Handschriften. Hamburg, 1956.
Thompson, J. E. S. Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 2nd ed. Norman, Okla., 1960.
Thompson, J. E. S. A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs. Norman, Okla., 1962.




one of the most important and universal concepts of ancient and medieval Indian religion, philosophy, and culture. Originally, maya evidently signified the ability of a shaman, magician, or priest to transform things and events of the visible world into one another. Subsequently, the original mythical notion developed into three conceptions of maya, reflecting three aspects of its original meaning.

First, there is the “energetic” conception of maya—a divine creative force associated with the procreative female element (shakti), which serves as the necessary complement to the image of any Hindu divinity and as the means of his self-expression in the universe. Second, there is the “material” conception of maya —the “fabric” of all reality and the end product of all (not only divine) activity; it is thus similar to the concept of the “created universe” as opposed to the uncreated spiritual ultimate reality. Third, there is the “psychological” conception of maya—a synonym for the play of psychological forces (khrida or Hid), the illusoriness of all that is perceived and thought, a screen concealing from human view the higher essence of reality and the true meaning of daily existence.

In the philosophical interpretation of Advaita-Vedanta (doctrine of the maya-vada), maya appears as a capacity that is intermediate between absolute reality (brahman) and absolute unreality (“the round square”). It is neither created nor destructible. The juxtaposition of brahman as the absolute reality and maya as the phenomenological world permitted Sankara, the founder of Advaita-Vedanta, to create a complete metaphysical system in which ontological, epistemological, and psychological antinomies and paradoxes are resolved by introducing the concept of the levels of reality forming the structure of maya.

In certain religious cults (particularly Sivaism), maya appears in anthropomorphic form as the spouse of Siva.


Shastri, P. D. The Doctrine of Maya in Vedanta. London, 1911.
Deutsch, E. Advaita-Vedanta. Honolulu, 1969.
Saccidanandamurti, K. Revelation and Reason in Advaita-Vedanta. Vizagapatam, 1959.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the Hindu goddess of illusion, the personification of the idea that the material world is illusory


1. a member of an American Indian people of Yucatan, Belize, and N Guatemala, having an ancient culture once characterized by outstanding achievements in architecture, astronomy, chronology, painting, and pottery
2. the language of this people
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


3D animation and visual effects software for Windows and IRIX workstations from Autodesk, Inc. Formerly owned by Alias Systems Corporation, Toronto, Maya is known for its special character animation capabilities that enable human characters to be simulated with flesh tones, wrinkles and folds in clothing. Maya uses the MEL (Maya Embedded Language) scripting language to define sequences. Most films nominated for best visual effects by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences use Maya and other Alias imaging software. Autodesk acquired Alias in 2006. See Maya screen saver.
Copyright © 1981-2019 by The Computer Language Company Inc. All Rights reserved. THIS DEFINITION IS FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. All other reproduction is strictly prohibited without permission from the publisher.