Like the Aztec and Inca who came to power later, the Maya believed in a cyclical nature of time. The rituals and ceremonies were very closely
associated with hundreds (possibly thousands) of celestial/terrestrial cycles which they observed and inscribed as separate
calendars (all of infinite duration). The Maya shaman had the job of interpreting these cycles and giving a prophetic outlook on the future or past based on the number
relations of all their calendars. If the interpretations of the shamen spelled bad times to come, sacrifices would be performed
to change the moods of the gods.
Much of the Mayan religious tradition is still not understood by scholars, but it is known that the Maya, like
most pre-modern societies, believed that the cosmos has three major planes, the underworld, the sky, and the earth. The Mayan Underworld is reached through caves and ball courts. It was thought to be dominated by the aged Mayan gods of death and putrefaction. It was not considered a place of torture like the Christian hell. The Sun and Itzamna, both aged gods, dominated the Mayan idea of the sky. The night sky was considered a window
showing all supernatural doings. The Maya configured constellations of gods and places, saw the unfolding of narratives in their seasonal movements, and believed that the intersection
of all possible worlds was in the night sky.
Mayan gods were not discrete, separate entities like Greek gods. The gods had affinities and aspects that caused them to merge with one another in ways that seem unbounded. There
is a massive array of supernatural characters in the Mayan religious tradition only some of which recur with regularity. Good and evil traits are not permanent characteristics of Mayan gods, nor is only "good" admirable. What is inappropriate during
one season might come to pass in another since much of the Mayan religious tradition is based on cycles and not permanence.
The life-cycle of maize lies at the heart of Maya belief. This philosophy is demonstrated on the Mayan belief in the Maize God as a central
religious figure. The Maya bodily ideal is also based on the form of the young Maize God. This is demonstrated in their artwork.
The Maize God was also a model of courtly life for the Classical Maya.
The Maya believed that the universe was flat and square, but infinite in area. They also worshipped the circle,
which symbolised perfection or the balancing of forces. Among other religious symbols were the swastika and the perfect cross. Like other Mesoamerican peoples, the Maya assigned colors to each of the cardinal directions. For example, the east is red and the south is green or yellow. The Maya also recognized a fifth direction of center,
which existed everywhere. Just as there is always an "east" there is always a "center." The center was conceptualized by the
Maya as a giant ceiba tree, the trunk of which connected the different planes of existence.
It is sometimes believed that the multiple "gods" represented nothing more than a mathematical explanation of what
they observed. Each god was literally just a number or a explanation of the effects observed by a combination of numbers from
multiple calendars. Among the many types of Maya calendars which were maintained, the most important included a 260-day cycle (the tzolk'in), a 365-day cycle which approximated the solar year (the haab', or "vague year"), a cycle which recorded lunation periods of the Moon, and a cycle which tracked the synodic period of Venus. It is highly likely, but not conclusively demonstrated, that the orbits of other visible planets were also observed.
Philosophically, the Maya believed that knowing the past meant knowing the cyclical influences that create the
present, and by knowing the influences of the present one can see the cyclical influences of the future.
Maya rulers figured prominently in many religious rituals and often were required to practice bloodletting, such
as using sculpted bone or jade instruments to perforate their penises, or drawing thorn-studded ropes through their tongues.
Mayan rulers were also relied upon religiously to organize the building of temples and monuments.
- Main article: Maya mythology