Christine O’Connell

November 5, 2013

Legal Systems Very Different from Ours

Prof. David Friedman

First Draft

The Legal System of the Ancient Maya




I.      Introduction.......................................................................................................................2


II.    Background........................................................................................................................3


III.  Ancient Mayan Society.....................................................................................................4

A.    Trade and Economy..............................................................................................4

B.    Caste System..........................................................................................................5

                                              i.     Elites...........................................................................................................5

                                            ii.     Commoners................................................................................................6

                                          iii.     Slaves..........................................................................................................6

C.   Religious and Cosmological Beliefs.....................................................................6

                                              i.     Cosmology..................................................................................................7

                                            ii.     Rituals and Sacrifice.................................................................................9


IV.  Political and Legal Structure.........................................................................................12

A.    Maya Rulers.........................................................................................................13

                                              i.     Kings, Nobles and the Royal Court.......................................................14

                                            ii.     Local Government: the Maya Chieftains. ............................................17


B.    The Maya Legal System.....................................................................................19

                                              i.     Sources of Law and the Legal Process..................................................19

                                            ii.     Property, Contract and Estate Law......................................................20

                                          iii.     Criminal Law..........................................................................................22

a.     Homicide and Other Serious Crimes........................................22

b.     Theft.............................................................................................23

c.     Adultery.......................................................................................23

                                            iv.     Family Law and Marriage Customs.....................................................24

                                              v.     Foreign Law and Warfare.....................................................................25


V.    Conclusion......................................................................................................................27








The Legal System of the Ancient Maya


This is the account of when all is still silent and placid.  All is silent and calm.  Hushed and empty is

the womb of the sky.

These, then, are the first words, the first speech.  There is no yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest.  All alone the sky exists.  The face of the earth has not yet appeared.  Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of the sky.  There is not yet anything gathered together.  All is rest.  Nothing stirs.  All is languid, at rest in the sky.  There is not yet anything standing erect.  Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone.  There is not yet anything that might exist.  All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.

All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons.  Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers.  Thus they are called Quetzal Serpent.  In their essence, they are great sages, great possessors of knowledge.  Thus surely there is the sky.  There is also Heart of Sky, which is said to be the name of the god.

                                    Tr. Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh, Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People, (2003).


I.      Introduction


“These are the words of my ancient fathers?” asked an awe-struck elder village member, clutching the unbound pages of the manuscript copy after they were read to him by Allen J. Christenson.[[1]]  “Do you know what you have done for them?”[[2]]  “You make them live again by speaking their words.”[[3]] 

The power of the written word to preserve a people may be taken for granted by the many of us who often feel inundated with too many words, but the Quiché Maya of today would never take this for granted.  Today, these people, whose lineage and ancestry has been so important to them for thousands of years, cannot even read the words of their great ancestors.  Today, these are a people of oral tradition who cling to their wooden idols and trinkets that house the k’ux, or heart of their ancestors, who were stripped of their literacy five hundred years ago when zealous Spanish Conquistadors systematically rooted out and destroyed their scribes and priests, the keepers of the books and the educators of the people.  Recently, intensive efforts have begun to decipher the hieroglyphs within the meticulously maintained texts and temples that survived, in the hopes that these people may one day know their ancestors again.



II.    Background


The Mayan civilization dates back further than that of even the Aztecs, to 2,600 B.C.[[1]] and would continue for more than 2,000 years until the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century left their sacred texts slashed and burned, most of the traces of their culture purged from the records of history in the name of Christianity and greed.[[4]]  By 250 A.D. the Mayan civilization spanned the whole of modern Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador to Guatamala, Belize and Yucatán.[[5]]  The conquistadors marveled at the glory of their cities and the complexity of their society until they witnessed in horror the ritual bloodletting and human sacrifice practiced by Mayan elites.[[6]] Executing their priests, banning their divine rituals, burning their books and the idols of their “heathen” gods the Spanish drove them into the highlands and deep within the forests, converting those who remained.[[7]] Buried beneath the ruins left by Cortéz and his conquistadors, hidden within the dense forests and jungles of the Central Americas the ancient Mayan civilization lay until efforts, only recently have been able to discover the secrets of their hieroglyphic texts and temple murals, bringing to life the ways of this great and terrifying civilization.  Once puzzling in their haunting glory, these massive edifices, together with the few sacred texts and oral tradition that survived in the descendants of the ancient exodus provide the key to unlocking the rich complexity of the Ancient Mayan civilization. 

The history of the Mayans, like much of history, doesn’t follow a straight path; many cities and regions advanced and fell with varying levels of power throughout their time.  The middle, or classic period (250 – 900 A.D.) represented the height of Mayan civilization.[[8]]  During this time, the Mayan people were ruled by dynastic leaders, the population expanded rapidly while art and culture flourished.[[9]]  As the elite classes became more entrenched, demands for tribute escalated with the wealth of their civilization.[[10]]  By the late or post-classic period, Mayan kingdoms began to break off into smaller more independent states.[[11]]  By the arrival of the Spanish, the Mayan’s peak was long over.  The Yucatec Maya first encountered the Spanish in 1502 though the conquest didn’t officially begin until around 1530.[[12]]  The Maya fought nobly until their eventual defeat in 1542.[[13]] 

It is through the rich oral and cultural traditions of the surviving Maya civilizations coupled with the pained efforts of expert archaeologists and anthropologists that we learn of their vast and complex civilization.


III.   Ancient Mayan Society


A.    Trade and Economy


The Mayan civilization was sustained primarily through agriculture and partially through the craft production of goods.[[14]]  Despite using only stone age technology and being located in what is characterized as an agriculturally low-productive region, the Maya expertly adapted to and manipulated their environment to sustain a system of agriculture that was able to feed between eight and ten million people by the 8th century A.D..[[15]]  Through a series of irrigation canals, wells, reservoirs, subterranean cisterns as well as using a variety of techniques such as raised and drained farmlands and following a strict cycle of field burning and crop rotation, the Maya were able to produce a wide variety of cultivated food for their people.[[16]]  The Maya grew subsistence crops such as maize, beans, squashes, tomatoes and tropical fruit, and also trade crops such as cacao, cotton, vanilla and tobacco.[[17]]  Of these, the cacao beans were the most prized[2], used to make chocolate drinks for the elite nobles and used as currency in marketplaces.[[18]]

The Maya also engaged in regional and distant trade, exporting raw materials such as feathers, cacao beans, tobacco and obsidian, as well as manufactured goods such as polychrome pottery, jade jewelry, salt, and cotton textiles.[[19]]  The Maya also had a system of distribution, where goods would be brought to the capital city and distributed outward amongst the smaller territories through local traders and markets.[[20]]

B.    Caste System


While Mayan polities were diverse, expansive and de-centralized, a rigid caste system according to certain revered lineages persisted across all of Ancient Mayan civilization.  The caste system reflected who an individual’s ancestors were, dictated his occupation, eligibility for political office and ultimately his role in Mayan society.

                                              i.     Elites


The elite classes of the Maya were complex and specialized.  Their occupation and status passed down for generations through elite, jealously guarded and often impersonated family lineages.[[21]]  The social hierarchy within this class was complex and its members served as rulers, government officials, tribute collectors, military leaders, high priests, local administrators, cacao plantation managers and trade expedition leaders.[[22]]  Literate and wealthy, elite nobles often lived within the central areas of the Mayan cities and modeled themselves and their households after those of the palace and the king.[[23]]  With all of their privilege, elites were also held to incredibly high standards of conduct and when they engaged in morally reprehensive or even criminal conduct, they were disciplined harshly to make an example of them.[[24]]

                                            ii.     Commoners


Commoners, individuals who could not boast of a distinguished lineage, occupied the roles of farmers, laborers and servants within Mayan society.[[25]]  Commoners lived outside of the major city centers, serfs working communal plots of land owned by the local ruler or nobles.[[26]]  They were forbidden to wear certain clothing or symbols of nobility and couldn’t purchase or use luxury items.[[27]] Many became quite wealthy through their specialized skills as artisans and shrewd merchants and upward mobility was possible through service in the military.[[28]]

                                          iii.     Slaves


The Maya had an active slave trade and both commoners and elite class members purchased, sold and owned slaves.[[29]]  The status of slavery was common and not always permanent.  In addition to being captured as a prisoner of war, many members of society found themselves enslaved as punishment for certain crimes or to pay back debts.[[30]]  The poor would sell themselves or members of their family into slavery.[[31]]  While slave status was not passed on to the children of slaves, unwanted orphans would become slaves and were often sacrificed during religious ceremonies, and if a citizen married a slave he or she became the slave of his or her spouse’s owner.[[32]]  Slaves were commonly sacrificed upon the death of their owners so they could continue in their service in the afterlife.[[33]]

C.   Religious and Cosmological Beliefs


Despite the fact that the Ancient Mayan civilization consisted of several de-centralized polities, basic religious beliefs remained relatively constant across these independent states.  Religious beliefs about the supernatural powers that explained the cosmos and the Mayan’s lives and existence were the basis for many of their traditions and their way of life.  Because of the profound influence and the persistence of religion in their society, an understanding of Mayan religious and cosmological beliefs is important to appreciating their legal system.

The Mayan religion was based on varying beliefs about the supernatural powers that created and ordered their world.[[34]]  Religious beliefs were devoutly held by all in Maya society from kings to commoners.[[35]]  Believed by the Spanish be heretics, during the conquest the Mayan priests were summarily executed and citizens who did not convert to Christianity fled to the hills, jungles and forests.[[36]]  From these few surviving people and texts[3] comes our understanding of the Mayan’s rich religious tradition.

                                              i.     Cosmology


Maya concepts of life and the universe are quite distinct from those of European civilizations.  Instead of believing in the separate and distinct supernatural realm and the earth, the Mayan believed that all animate and inanimate things were part of a single existence, both visible and invisible.[[37]]  The Maya believed that everything in the natural world was infused with sacred and unseen power of different degrees.[[38]]  The Yucatec Maya called this essence the k’ul[4], meaning “divine sacredness.”[[39]]  In animals and humans the k’ul was believed to dwell within the blood, hence the prevalence of blood letting in sacred rituals.[[40]]

The Maya also manifested this understanding in their concept of the way, the co-essence or spirit companion they believed every human being possessed, parallel to their own.[[41]]  The Maya believed that every person had a way whose destiny was intertwined with theirs.[[42]]  The most powerful of the way was the wayob, manifested in Mayan gods and deities.[[43]]  Mayan deities took on varying forms, some were visible, like the Mayan sun god, some invisible, like the rain god.[[44]]  Both Mayan gods and wayob were represented by animal or human like entities, evidenced by the hieroglyphs carved into their temples and their surviving idols.[[45]]  The Maya believed that every person had a spirit companion, a nagual, whose life paralleled that of the individual.[[46]]

The Mayan believed that the cosmos had three major planes, the Earth, Underworld and Heavens.  The earth, the visible domain of man, was the back of a huge reptile, often depicted as a caiman or turtle, that swam in the primordial sea.[[47]]  The mountains the Mayans observed about them were the scales or ridges on the back of this titan.[[48]] 

Because of their great and obsessive fear of death, the Mayans greatly feared Xibalba, the invisible realm of the spirit underworld.[[49]]  The Mayans believed that Xibalba was represented by and that it could be accessed through caves and tunnels.[[50]]  Consequently, caves and tunnels were regarded as both sacred and terrifying places to the Mayans and they buried their dead in them as well.[[51]]  Mayan temples had sacred doors to represent these caves and access to the underworld, where priests and kings would walk through in ceremonies to talk to the gods.[[52]] 

Xibalba had nine layers, each presided over by one of the Bolontik’u[5] gods and corresponding to either suffering or rest.[[53]]  Places of rest were where the spirits of the kings went along with warriors who died in battle, women who died in childbirth, those who committed suicide[6], and sacrificial victims.[[54]]  In this layer of Xibalba, all could rest in the shade of the Yaxche tree, free of work, with plenty of food and drink.[[55]]  Evil-doers were sent to the ninth layer, Mitnal.[[56]]  The lowest layer in Xibalba, Mitnal was a place of great and eternal suffering.[[57]]

The third plane of the Maya cosmos, the Heavens and sky above, were believed to be the invisible realm of the celestial deities.[[58]]  The skies had thirteen layers, each presided over by one of the Oxlahuntik’u[7] gods.  The sun, kinich Ahau and Itzamna, aged god, dominated this realm and the night sky was considered a window, revealing all supernatural things.[[59]]  Believing the sky would foretell future events and reveal other important things, complex Mayan Astronomy details the Maya belief that it was the intersection of the realms and all things was found within it.[[60]]

The Maya modeled their cities and the buildings within them according to the cosmos, with the palace representing the core of the earth, the center of life, and the sacred funeral grounds of the kings to the north, the heavens.[[61]]  This gave the people the security of not only living in a cosmologically ordered and structured society, but also provided them with a daily reminder of the importance, divinity and the power of their rulers.[[62]] 

The Maya believed in cycles rather than permanence, so activity that would be considered evil in one time, may be entirely appropriate in another.[[63]]  This was shown in the importance of the life-cycle of maize and the Maize god as the model for the courtly life of the nobles.[[64]]  The Maya believed that there were several worlds that existed before theirs, each inhabited by different beings, each ended by a great flood and that theirs would eventually end in the same manner.[8][[65]]

                                            ii.     Rituals and Sacrifice


Because of the Mayan’s deeply held spiritual beliefs, particularly those concerning the harmony and order of the universe and preventing disasters or the end of the world, the Mayans felt the deities had to be appeased through offerings.[[66]]  The Maya referred to these offerings as nourishing or “feeding” the gods.[[67]]  The Maya sustained their gods directly by providing offerings of food, cacao beans and by burning incense, or indirectly by devoting their time, energy and labor to them.[[68]]

The Maya believed all suffering was caused by the anger of the gods and would perform either private rituals or public ceremonies to appease them.[[69]]  In this, the Maya believed they would ensure both their individual and collective success as a people.[[70]]  Public ceremonies were sponsored by the king and state government and lasted several days and nights.[[71]]  These ceremonies also signified the kings’ power and divine qualities.[[72]]  The kings would often dress as gods during these ceremonies and it was believed that they assumed supernatural identities at the time.[[73]]  In the direst of circumstances, the Maya would offer blood, the k’ul, believing it to be the most potent of offerings.[[74]]

While the ceremonies of various Maya polities had varied nuances, for the most part they shared a common format.  The dates of ceremonies and the nature of the offerings were foretold by the priests in advance through their divination practices[9] and in the days leading up to the ceremony, all Mayans would undergo a time of fasting and abstinence, symbolizing their spiritual purification.[[75]]  The ceremonies themselves would incorporate divination, determining the gods to be appeased and what they required, and included specific rituals to banish evil, music and processions, burning incense and offerings of food or sacrifices of living things.[[76]]

The most notorious of these ceremonies were the offerings of human sacrifice, reserved for the most grave of circumstances or to sanctify major rituals, such as the designation of a new heir to the throne, the dedication of a new temple or ball court, or in the case of conquest of opposing foes.[[77]]  The subjects would most often be prisoners of war, slaves purchased for the purpose, or even the volunteered children of townspeople.[[78]]  The subjects would be sacrificed in a variety of ways, including disembowelment, death by arrows or even the self-sacrifice of young women cutting their own throats or heart removal.[[79]] 

As 16th century Spanish bishop Diego de Landa recounts, the priests would paint the subject blue and adorn him in a miter, conduct him about the town with great display, when the chacs[10] would stretch him out by holding his limbs across a temple pillar.[[80]]  Then a specialized priest would cut across his torso and tear out his living heart, place it on a plate and hand it to the priest, while he quickly smeared blood on the idol’s face.[[81]]  If the man were a great warrior, the elites would then eat his flesh to gain his strength.[[82]] 

The most dramatic example of human sacrifice in the Maya civilization is in the case of the Well of Sacrifice at Chichén Itza where the sacred gods of rain were thought to dwell.[[83]]  In times of drought or famine, Mayans would come from their respective polities all over the Yucatán where they would stand over the sacred cenote and throw subjects 65 feet to the water below.[[84]]  Spectators would throw their precious jewelry and jade in as well.[[85]]  At daybreak, the priests would attempt divination by throwing children to the bottom and asking any who survived what the gods had told them.[[86]]  When the cenote was dredged in the late 19th century, more than 50 human skulls were recovered.[[87]]

Due to their belief in the potency of the k’ul, Maya would also practice self-sacrifice, or bloodletting.[[88]]  In earlier Mayan civilizations kings would draw their blood to ensure the continuity of the cosmos, elites, even the wives of kings and noble women would pierce their tongues, bleeding into bark paper that they would burn in a pottery vessel.[[89]]  The men would ritualistically draw blood from their genitals[11] as an offer for fertility and great honor was given to the men who could endure the most pain.[[90]]

            It is upon these deeply held spiritual beliefs and religious practices that their legal system was based and their laws drawn.

IV.  Political and Legal Structure


The Ancient Maya had a system of largely de-centralized and independent polities that were constantly undergoing change and restructuring, with the fate of each polity closely tied to the success or failure of its particular king.  At their height, during the Classic Period there were as many as 60 polities spanning across the Mayan world.[[91]]  The typical Classic Period Maya polity was composed of a capital city ruled first by a particular dynastic king and council of elites that then had a structured government down to the local or community level.[[92]]  Kingdoms were composed of a capital city with an immediate neighborhood, surrounded by several lesser towns and settlements.[[93]]  The royal palace symbolized order to the Maya people, surrounded by concentric circles of less-ordered space, radiating out into the wild, undomesticated and morally ambiguous forests and jungles.[[94]]  Greater kingdoms would expand over larger territories with multiple and subordinate ruling centers where the king’s proxies, sajals, or other appointed officials ruled over the subjects of smaller, tribute paying polities.[[95]]  Despite this constant warfare and systemic shifts of regional power, most of the Mayan kingdoms never disappeared from the political scene until the 9th century A.D. saw the collapse of the whole system.[[96]]

A.    Mayan Rulers


The foundations for Maya society lay in ties of kinship, class and community that formed the leadership of their larger independent polities.[[97]]  The Maya civilization is quite odd in that its people were never politically unified, instead, they were always divided into independent polities.[[98]]  The number of these polities would vary at different periods according to military strife, the avarice and military prowess of a particular king, or simply his lifespan and the efficiency of his administration or the success of local farmers and the skills of artisans.[[99]] 

The varying power and prosperity of different polities within the Mayan world can be explained not only by the success of their particular rulers, but also by their particular location, access to important communication and trade routes or strategic military positions, or by their rich natural resources.[[100]]  For example, the polity of Dzibilchaltun in the northern Yucatan had access to coastal salt and the Kaminaljuyu in the Southern Highlands controlled the flow of obsidian.[[101]]  Other polities enjoyed greater power because of their cosmological or spiritual affiliations, for example, being an eastern city associated with the rising sun, or a coastal town associated with the watery depths of Xibalba.[[102]]  Maya cities varied in size, some covering as little as one square mile, others, over fifty.[[103]]

Across time, the Maya polities maintained their political affiliations and interactions with each other, exchanging goods and services, extracting tribute as well as visiting and arranging marriages between lineages.[[104]]  Typical social interaction occurred regionally, between geographically close polities, however, the Maya did occasionally travel great distances to arrange royal marriages or strengthen alliances between great polities.[[105]]



                                                                i.     Kings, Nobles and the Royal Court


The Maya kings and their palaces represented order and the divine epicenters of their polities.  The Maya courts conformed with a “court paradigm,” with an emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and the person of the king.[[106]]  Maya palaces were grand, with throne rooms, temples, great halls and plazas.[[107]]  The palaces were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, centers of diplomacy, where matters would be settled and alliances formed with foreign polities, places where aesthetic values of high culture were formed and disseminated, the self-proclaimed centers of the social, moral and cosmic order of Maya society.[[108]]  These palaces could be seen as a theatre where rituals and other courtly performances were sponsored by the king, a royal household where the king and his extended family of nobles resided and provided a model to all of an ordered household, a school where young elites were educated in the ways of the gods and nobility, and also as the source of all things spiritual, the mouthpiece of the gods.[[109]]  These royal courts were just as politically driven and complex as those of European kingdoms with countless courtiers and court members, high and low status officials without official ranks who spent significant time inside or close to the royal palace, competing with each other for political power.[[110]]  Access and physical proximity to the king, especially when the king claimed divine authority, were important factors that would affect an individual family’s political power.[[111]] 

The Maya court was ordered through the use of titled positions, including the king, called the k’uhul ajaw or k’ul Ahaw, divine king.[[112]]  The supreme ruler of the polity, all things flowed to and from him, including land, office and title, economic resources and territories.[[113]]  The king was chosen from a specific royal lineage and the position was most often hereditary, passing from father to son, or brother to brother.[[114]]  Later kings legitimized their authority not only through claims of divinity, but in most cases by tracing their lineage from successful and distinguished rulers within their lineage.[[115]]  Kings would also earn additional titles throughout their reign, through their various achievements, such as “captor of,” or their divine affiliations, “sun-faced lord.”[[116]]  Mayan kings had to be not only charismatic, forming political alliances with neighboring polities, but also a successful commander in times of war and conquest, and a powerful religious leader, channeling the gods to strike fear and awe into the hearts of their subjects.[[117]] Because the success of a polity was so closely tied to the acts of its particular king, and for the purpose of ensuring loyalty from their nobles and subjects, Mayan kings were consumed with advertising their achievements and did so through the construction of various monuments, buildings, and texts that emerged from this period.[[118]]  Each elite lineage held title to specific offices within the state hierarchy down to the lesser administrative offices of the local communities.[[119]]  The king would appoint his officials, usually based on political ties or familial association, and those officials would in turn appoint lesser officials whose positions were then passed down to later generations.[[120]]  Important positions within the Mayan royal court were those of the Sajal, ajk’uhuun, Yajaw k’ahk, the Ti’huun and Ti’sakhuun and the un-deciphered symbol, the “banded-bird.”[[121]]  Just like the king, titled elites were inducted into their positions through an accession process called chum, seating, headband tying called k’alhuun or encircling.[[122]]  This accession process indicated the strength of the bond between the king and his nobles.[[123]] 

The sajal position, read as “regional governor,” “war captain,” and “feared one,” was the most common title amongst the nobles.[[124]]  The ajk’ uhuun, “he of the books,” or “he of the temples,” served the function of a royal priest.[[125]] This royal priest interpreted the days for festivals and ceremonies and foretold auspicious events for the king and his the kingdom.[[126]]  The high priests were responsible for keeping the knowledge of the people, everything from the cure to diseases to the history of the kingdom and imparting this knowledge on the local priests before they took office.[[127]]  They also gave advice to the lords and answered their questions.[128]   

The Yajaw k’ahk, or “lord of the fire,” was a highly specialized and scarcely understood position, that of a military or religious official, possibly one related to fire rituals.[[129]]  The Ti’huun and Ti’sakhuun served in charge of the movement of time, may have spoken for the king, or could possibly have been the spokesmen for the deities of Xibalba.[[130]]  The last position, that of the un-deciphered Mayan symbol, the “banded bird,” was that of a highly skilled scribe or artisan.[[131]]

The Maya kings ruled with an growing reliance on an advisory council, as time went on, these councils would gain increasing authority and importance, sometimes to the complete exclusion of the king’s power, as some polities were ruled solely by advisory councils, comprised of the heads of major elite lineages within the state.[[132]]  Foundations for the power held by the elites were reinforced in the rigid social and economic class distinctions flowing from lineage.[[133]] 

An overriding characteristic of Mayan state administration was reliance on kinship that radiated out from the king to his elite council, down to the local community.[[134]]  The ruler and elites provided security and protection for their subjects and reinforced their authority through the religious beliefs that the prosperity and health of their subjects was closely tied to the harmony of the cosmos facilitated through obedience to the king and his officials.[[135]]  Political power was less based on actual physical power of the kings to harm subjects, and based more on threats of religious and economic sanctions, or coercive force exacted through the local laws, courts and police.[[136]] 

                                                              ii.     The Local Government: the Maya Chieftains.


The Maya local government paralleled that of the great royal courts, only on a smaller community level.  Chieftainship was not always hereditary but was only considered legitimate when it was confined to certain families of elite lineage.[[137]]  Each of the smaller polities was ruled by a single lord, the halach uinic, or “true man,” who ruled with the help of an advisory council.[[138]]  Of elite lineage, the halac uinic governed major cities and provinces and was the highest religious authority in his district.[[139]]  The halach uinic collected tribute[12] from his subjects, consisting of grain, fowl, game, cotton cloth, and precious stones or sometimes slaves.[[140]] In times of war, the halach uinic would demand a quota of fighting men from his subordinate leaders.[[141]]  While the halac uinic’s power was certainly the highest held by an individual in his division, the halach uinic’s power was far from absolute, as he would consult with his advisory council before deciding complex foreign and domestic issues.[[142]] Each halach uinic in turn appointed a batab, a town and village overseer, usually a member of his close kin.[[143]]

The batabob[13] oversaw each subdivision within the state, reported to the halach uinic and were usually based in an outlying town where they held administrative, judicial and military authority.[[144]]  The batabob fulfilled a local position of extreme importance to the community and were revered and feared above even the local priests.[[145]]  The batabob were tasked with ensuring that all subjects paid tribute to the halac uinic and that town was kept clean, all buildings were repaired and that farmers cut and burned their fields within proper cycles.[[146]]  As judicial officer the batab arbitrated disputes and decided both civil and criminal matters, sentencing criminals appropriately, awarding damages, and always consulting with the halach uinic before deciding more serious matters.[[147]] 

The batab’s decisions were not always arbitrary; they were often influenced through pressure from various factions within the community.[148]  The batab was assisted by two or three officials, called al kulebob, who accompanied him everywhere, fulfilling his orders.[[149]]  He also presided over a local council comprised of al cuch cabob, who were the heads of the next level in the local government hierarchy.[[150]]  The al cuch cabob, often prominent members of the community, also functioned as advisors who could veto some of the batab’s decisions.[[151]]  Under the batab, each town also had constables, called tupiles, tasked with keeping the peace and enforcing the batab’s orders.[[152]]  The batab also served the functions of a lesser military commander, rallying the appropriate quota of troops demanded by the halac uinic in times of conflict and leading them into the fray.[[153]]  During times of war, all batabob served under a single commander, the nacom.[[154]]

The nacom was supreme military commander and his position was not based on kinship, rather, he was elected[14] by the council to serve a three-year term or to serve as commander during a particular war.[[155]]  As he formulated the war strategy and commanded the batabob who led their troops to battle, the nacom was revered as god-like.[[156]]

Each town also had local priests, the ahkinob, “they of the sun,” subordinate to the high priest of the kingdom.[[157]] The ahkinob priests conducted and orated at public rituals and they received the hearts of sacrificial victims and offered them to the gods.[[158]]  Below these priests were specialized priests for sacrifices, who were held in low esteem.[[159]]  They performed the function of opening the chests and removing the hearts of sacrificial subjects while they anointed the idols’ faces with blood.[[160]]  Each town also had local shaman, the priest most in touch with the people and still in existence among the modern Maya.  The shaman is today called the ahmen, “he who understands,” and people go to him to cure illness and listened to his prophecies foretold through his divination practices.[[161]] 

The Maya chieftains were also regularly examined through a process scholars refer to as “the interrogation of the chiefs.”[[162]]  This questioning took place regularly at the start of each k’atun,[15] and was conducted by the halach uinic.[[163]]   It was used as a process to weed out the upstarts and pretenders who claimed title through false pretenses from the legitimate rulers.[[164]]  It functioned as sort of a civil service examination and most of the questions were trivial, but the more pressing questions corresponded to proof of legitimacy and asked of certain occult knowledge that would be possessed by legitimate rulers, as it would have been passed down from father to son in certain lineages.[[165]]


B.    The Mayan Legal System


                                                                i.     Sources of Law and the Legal Process


Because the Maya’s civilization peaked before the Spanish Conquest and due to the ensuing destruction, primary material from the Mayan legal system is limited.  Spanish priests destroyed the majority of Mayan manuscripts and codices once they witnessed their “heresy,” however a few codices do remain and following the conquest, some Maya scribes authored various books chronicling the origin of their civilizations, religious traditions and some legal material.[16] The remaining information on this civilization comes from recent efforts in deciphering hieroglyphics on monuments, pottery and paintings as well as anthropological studies of the modern Maya.[[166]]

The laws governing the various Maya states were issued by the halach uinic and his council, or in the absence of a halach uinic, by the council alone.[[167]]  The batabob were responsible for carrying out the laws and serving as judges and administrators to their smaller towns.[[168]]  Trials were generally conducted swiftly in public meeting houses called popilna and judicial proceedings were conducted orally, no written records were maintained.[[169]]  Witnesses were required to testify under oath and evidence exists to suggest that parties may have been represented by individuals who functioned as attorneys.[[170]]  The batab would review the evidence, evaluate the merits of the case, determine if the offense was accidental or deliberate and prescribe the appropriate punishment.[[171]]  While the batab’s decision was final and no appeal was available, the victim or their family could pardon the accused, thereby reducing the defendant’s punishment.[[172]]

The Maya didn’t have prisons[17]and punishment was immediately carried out by the tupiles.[[173]]  If a crime occurred or a case arose that affected parties from other towns, the respective batabob would work together to resolve the case agreeably.[[174]]  While the batabob functioned largely independently, in severe cases they would consult with the halach uinic before rendering judgment.[[175]]

                                                              ii.     Property, Contract and Estate Law


Communal lands were owned by the nobles and the ruling class and were worked by the commoners.[[176]]  Commoners were permitted to own small parcels of land solely for subsistence farming.[[177]]  They had to pay tribute to their local leaders as well in the form of goods, offerings, portions of their harvests as well as provide public labor when the need arose, such as in the construction of a temple, causeway or palace.[[178]]

The Maya had a currency system based on cacao beans, gold, copper bells, jade and oyster shell beads used as coinage.[[179]]  Counterfeiting was a common problem as parties would remove the flesh of cacao beans and replace it with dirt or avocado rinds.[[180]]  Business was also conducted on a barter system.[[181]]  The Maya even had forms of legally recognized contracts, formalized when the parties drank balché.[18]  Interest was not charged on loans and there were no criminal penalties for going into debt, however the debtor would become a slave of the people they owed if they failed to pay back the debt in timely fashion, and if a debtor died, his spouse and family would assume responsibility for his debts or his friends might help them pay it back.[[182]]

Upon death, property would pass to the subject’s sons; women had no legal right to inherit property but could inherit the family’s debt or slavery status, or would inherit as a matter of good will or favor, in which case they would only receive a smaller portion, with the rest divided amongst the sons, or proportionately if one of the sons had contributed more the family’s accumulation of wealth.[[183]]  If a man died without sons, his property would pass to his brothers, cousins or male next of kin.[[184]]  If a son were too young to inherit when his father died, a trustee or conservator would be appointed to manage his inheritance and use the proceeds to support the son and his family.[[185]] Once he reached adulthood he would get the remaining property, less what was spent on his care.[[186]]  The transfer of property would be done in the presence of available rulers or the batab and it was considered a great dishonor to have squandered the son’s inheritance or to refuse him any of what he was due.[[187]]  Sons would not receive the profits that had accumulated or been produced from their farmlands as this was considered payment to the trustee for the labor involved in maintaining the lands.[[188]]

Official title and offices passed in this way as well, from father to son, or if no son or too young a son, then to either the eldest or most capable brother until the son came of age.[[189]]  While the fatherless boy was growing up, he would be removed from his mother to his uncles and instructed in everything he needed to know about the position.[[190]]  Even after he took office, the brothers would commonly influence his affairs.[[191]]  If there were no suitable heirs to an office, the council or priests would choose the next official.[[192]]

                                                            iii.     Criminal Law


Violations of Mayan criminal law were met with severe and swift punishment.  As de Landa explains, the batab would bring the accused before him and if the aggressor refused him there would be more trouble.[[193]]  The batab would order that damages or satisfaction was given to the wronged party or his family and if the defendant couldn’t pay, his family or friends would help him, or he would become a slave of the victim.[[194]]

a.     Homicide and Other Serious Crimes


The Maya law distinguished between accidental and intentional homicide, or acts committed with malice.  In the case of involuntary homicide, the punishment would be death at the hands of the victim’s relatives unless the defendant could pay them off to receive their pardon, another typical resolution was that the defendant would sell one of his slaves to the family.[[195]]  If offenses were committed with malice, the punishment was beating.[[196]]   In the case of malicious or intentional homicide, or more serious crimes that offended the gods, such as rape, incest, treachery and arson, the punishment was immediate death.[[197]]  In the case of accidental crimes, such as causing a spouse to commit suicide, causing a house or field to be burned, etc., the punishment would typically be reparations made to the victims, or if the defendant was insolvent or a minor, he would be ordered into slavery.[[198]] 

b.     Theft


Theft, no matter how small or petty, was punished by the defendant being ordered to pay restitution to the victim, additionally being ordered into temporary slavery, and his punishments passed on to his family members as well.[[199]]  Mayan homes, because they didn’t typically have doors, were especially protected, and thieves who entered a person’s home to injure an occupant or do damage to the property were summarily executed.[[200]]  In the case of nobles or officials, punishment was particularly severe, if found guilty of theft, the noble would be gathered in front of the townspeople where his face would be tattooed or his flesh would be cut off from both sides of his face as a permanent sign of his crime and a badge of great dishonor.[[201]]

c.     Adultery


Adultery was a criminal offense and occurring commonly, was severely punished by the Maya.  If adultery was committed by a married woman she was publicly shamed and her lover was executed.[[202]]  If convicted, the woman’s lover would be tied to a piece of wood and brought to the woman’s husband’s house.[[203]]  The offended husband could either choose to pardon the wife and her lover, in which case the lover would be sent free, or he could choose to leave the marriage and seek a new wife.[[204]]  If the husband didn’t pardon them, the wife’s lover would be executed in front of him, by dropping a large stone on his head.[[205]]  Married men who committed adultery were sentenced to death unless the woman they had slept with was unmarried.[[206]]



                                                              iv.     Family Law and Marriage Customs


Maya family law was based on the customs and norms of the time.  In the Classic period, Mayans typically married around the age of twenty, with the bride sometimes being as young as 16 or 17.[[207]]  By the time of the conquest, marriages were entered into at much earlier ages, sometimes around 12 or 13.[[208]]  The father of the groom had to approve the match and they would take great care to assure that the marriages were to brides of equal rank and status, most commonly enlisting matchmakers.[[209]]  It was considered undignified for a man to seek a wife for himself and equally undignified for the parents of a woman to make advances.[[210]]  Additionally, the bride and groom had to have different surnames to assure they came from different lineages on their father’s side, as incest was a capital crime.[[211]]  Marriage between a man and his stepmother, or his wife’s sisters or mother’s sisters was considered wrong, but all other kinsmen on their mother’s side, including first cousins were appropriate matches.[[212]]  It was also ill advised to marry the widow of a dead brother.[[213]]  Dowries of clothing and goods were paid by the groom’s family to contribute to the new couple’s household.[[214]] 

Marriages were performed by a priest in the home of the bride’s father and were concluded with a banquet and celebration.[[215]]  In the case of a second marriage, no dowry was offered, nor festival or ceremony performed; the marriage was simply finalized by the groom eating a meal in the home of the bride’s father.[[216]]  After marriage the new couple would live with the bride’s parents for about 6 or 7 years, with the husband required to work for her father as a form of payment for receiving his wife.[[217]]  After this period, the couple would build a permanent home next to the groom’s family.[[218]] 

 Children were cherished and provided with moral and practical education by their parents in the home and required to go through various religious rituals at birth and puberty.[[219]]  After puberty, girls stayed at home until marriage while boys were sent to live in community dormitories and returned each day to work with their fathers.[[220]]

With the exception of nobles and elites, Maya marriages were typically monogamous, however divorce was frequent and typically occurred when one spouse was infertile or not fulfilling their obligations, such as a groom failing to work for the bride’s father.[[221]]  There were no formal divorce proceedings, simply the husband leaving his wife and children accomplished a divorce[[222]] and as de Landa describes, “they did this with no concern that others might take them as wives.”[[223]]  In the case of divorce, all young children and girls would stay with their mother, while mature sons would remain at the dormitory and continue to work with their fathers.[[224]]  Some young men were selected out of the dormitories based on lineage or special abilities to be formally trained as apprentices for certain jobs (scribes, priests, artists or masons).[[225]]

                                                                v.     Foreign Law and Warfare


Amongst the Ancient Maya, battle was commonplace, resulting in frequent political restructuring.  Smaller skirmishes and raids were conducted frequently to gain sacrificial victims for various upcoming ceremonies.[[226]]  As a part of their coronation ceremony, kings were required to provide captive enemies to sacrifice in order to legitimize their power.[[227]]  Other times, longer wars and skirmishes were initiated for economic gain, subjugating smaller polities in order to collect tribute or secure trade routes.[[228]]  For this reason, the Maya sensibly did not destroy the rival state, but would instead suppress the conquered state by humiliating their rulers, battle banners or patron gods and requiring that the subjects construct public monuments depicting their defeat as a daily reminder of their subordination.[[229]]  Sometimes the conquered ruler and his government would be left intact as a subsidiary territory, provided they supplied regular tribute and soldiers in time of war.[[230]]  Other times, conquering kings would displace the ruler, holding him captive or torturing and executing him as part of a great ritual and installing a noble of the conqueror’s lineage in his place.[[231]]  Wars of destruction were not entered into lightly and would require prior intense divination to ascertain their celestial necessity.[[232]]  Wars of this nature often occurred only in the case of an economic or political rival and the Maya would completely destroy the city, executing all leaders, driving off its people and burning its buildings to the ground.[[233]]

In times of greater wars, the Mayan council would appoint a gifted warrior, the nacom, who would be attributed divine qualities and revered as a god to formulate military strategies and give orders to the batabob who would eventually lead their smaller troops into battle.[[234]]  Conscription was also practiced when the need arose or as a form of tribute, and commoners would march into battle armed with sticks and rocks to attack their foes.[[235]]  Military prowess and distinction was the only way for commoners to advance in social status.[[236]]  It is unclear whether or not the Maya kings would fight or join in battle, their role may have been detached and more akin to that of the United States President, as dignitary  “Commander in Chief,” although they never missed the opportunity to attribute any military success to their expertise.[[237]]

Very little is known about foreign relations amongst the Maya and surrounding nations but it is clear that they commonly traded with the Aztecs.[[238]]  It may have been that nobles functioned as ambassadors, traveling to foreign nations to secure alliances and broker trade and what is fairly certain[19] is that nobles did engage in trade over great distances(at least 1,000 miles).[[239]] What is clear is that at varying times, the Aztec collected tribute from certain Mayan polities, so invariably there was somewhat extensive interaction between their cultures.[[240]] 


V.             Conclusion


Flourishing for thousands of years, the Mayan civilization advanced devout religious beliefs and practices, thrived with booming trade and agriculture and developed a complex system of government and legal practices based on kinship and family ties, enforced through a strict class of elites.  While the people that survive today preserve many of their ancestor’s ways, much more can be done to unlock the secrets of this great, at times terrifying and fascinating culture.

[1] If as argued, they were a continuation of the Olmecs.

[2] Although maize was the most spiritually prized, having it’s own deity and its life cycle influenced their spiritual beliefs concerning time.

[3] one of which is the Popol Vuh, sacred book of the Quiché Maya.

[4] or ch’u in many highland languages

[5] translated as “nine”

[6] Suicide was honored, particularly when committed by hanging and was even watched over by a special deity, Ixtab, “the hanging woman.”  Ixtab was portrayed hanging from a rope and supposedly accompanied suicides to paradise where she would watch over them.

de Landa, a depiction of Ixtab is found in the Dresden Codex.

[7] translated as “thirteen”

[8] December 21, 2012 may sound familiar.

[9] Divination, or talking to the gods and spirits, was one of the prime responsibilities of Maya priests and often enjoyed their own special ceremonies and rituals.  During Divination rituals the priests and shamans would consume mind altering hallucinogens reserved for this occassion, including mushrooms, highly potent raw tobacco leaves rolled into cigars and an alcoholic drink called balché, made from the bark of the balché tree fermented with honey.  Foster at 164.

[10] specially appointed men to take part in these ceremonies

[11] If you are interested, although a word of caution, this is quite graphic: the men would pierce their penises, often with a stingray barb and then as de Landa recounts, a group of men would stand together forming a semi-circle and thread cord through each of their penises, stringing themselves together in a circle and collectively bleeding onto an idol.  The man who could withstand the most of this would be revered as greatly honorable and devout.

[12] tribute was characterized as relatively light and not oppressive

[13] plural for batab

[14] presumably this was based on merit

[15] a unit of time in the Maya calendar, equivalent to 7,200 days, little over 19 years.

[16] The Popol Vuh, the Books of Chilam Balam, are some examples.

[17] Although they may have had holding cells for the convicted awaiting death.

[18] Balché was a drink made from bark from the balché tree and fermented with honey, it was a highly potent alcoholic beverage.

[19] Pottery depicts travelling traders adorned in clothing and jewelry that only nobles would have been permitted to wear.

[[1]] Tr. Allen J. Chirstenson, Popol Vuh, Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People, p. 6 (2003).

[[2]] id.

[[3]] id.

[[4]]Lloyd Duhaime, Law and Justice in the Mayan and Aztec Empires (2,600 B.C. to 1500 A.D.), (2009), Available at

[[5]] id

[[6]] Lynn V. Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, (Facts on File 2002).

[[7]] id.

[[8]] Tarlton Law Library, Maya Law, p. 1, (University of Texas School of Law).  Available at .

[[9]] id.

[[10]] id.

[[11]] id.

[[12]] id.

[[13]] id.

[[14]] Foster, supra at p. 307.

[[15]] id.

[[16]] id at p. 307-08.

[[17]] id.

[[18]] id.

[[19]] Foster, supra at p. 318-19.

[[20]] id at p. 325.

[[21]] Tarlton Law Library at 2.

[[22]] id.

[[23]] id.

[[24]] id at p. 3.

[[25]] id at p. 2.

[[26]] id.

[[27]] Tarlton Law Library, supra at p. 2.

[[28]] id.

[[29]] id.

[[30]] id.

[[31]] id.

[[32]] id.

[[33]] Tartlon Law Library, supra at p. 2.

[[34]] Foster, at 151.

[[35]] id.

[[36]] id.

[[37]] id at 153.

[[38]] id.

[[39]] id.

[[40]] Foster, supra at 154.

[[41]] id.

[[42]] id.

[[43]] id.

[[44]] id.

[[45]] id.

[[46]] Foster, supra at p. 154.

[[47]] id.

[[48]] id at 155.

[[49]] id.

[[50]] id.

[[51]] Foster, supra at p. 155.

[[52]] id.

[[53]] id.

[[54]] id.

[[55]] id.

[[56]] id.

[[57]] Foster, supra at p. 155.

[[58]] id.

[[59]] id.

[[60]] id.

[[61]] id at 156.

[[62]] id.

[[63]] Foster, supra at p. 156.

[[64]] id at 160.

[[65]] id at 157.

[[66]] id at 164.

[[67]] id.

[[68]] id.

[[69]] Foster, supra at p. 164.

[[70]] id.

[[71]] id.

[[72]] id.

[[73]] id.

[[74]] id.

[[75]] Foster, supra at p. 164.

[[76]] id.

[[77]] id.

[[78]] id at 169.

[[79]] id at 170-71.

[[80]] Diego de Landa, tr. William Gates, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, Sec. XXVII, (1937). Available at

[[81]] id.

[[82]] id.

[[83]] id at p. 171.

[[84]] id.

[[85]] id.

[[86]] de Landa, supra at Sec. XXVII.

[[87]] id.

[[88]] Foster, supra at p. 168.

[[89]] id.

[[90]] id; de Landa supra at Sec. XXVII.

[[91]] Foster, supra at 161.

[[92]] Wikipedia, Maya Civilization, at p. 5.

[[93]] id.

[[94]] Foster, supra at p. 161.

[[95]] id.

[[96]] Wikipedia, supra at p. 5.

[[97]] Foster, supra at p. 135.

[[98]] id at 138-39.

[[99]] id.

[[100]] id at p. 136.

[[101]] id.

[[102]] id.

[[103]] Foster, supra at p. 136.

[[104]] id at 139.

[[105]] id at 140.

[[106]] Wikipedia, supra at p. 5.

[[107]] id.

[[108]] id.

[[109]] Sarah E. Jackson, Politics of the Maya Court: Hierarchy and Change in the Late Classic Period, at p. 11 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2013).

[[110]] Takesha Inomata, Stephen D. Houston, Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya, Vol. I, at p. 27-28, (Westview Press 2001).

[[111]] id.

[[112]] Jackson, supra at p. 11.

[[113]] id.

[[114]] Foster, supra at 135.

[[115]] id at p. 142.

[[116]] id.

[[117]] id at p. 144.

[[118]] id at p. 135.

[[119]] id.

[[120]] id.

[[121]] Jackson, supra at p. 11.

[[122]] id.

[[123]] id.

[[124]] id at 12.

[[125]] id.

[[126]] id.

[[127]] Jackson, supra at p. 12.

[[128]] id.

[[129]] id.

[[130]] id.

[[131]] id.

[[132]] Foster, supra at p. 135.

[[133]] id.

[[134]] id at p. 142.

[[135]] id at p. 143.

[[136]] id.

[[137]] Tr. Ralph Roys, The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, at Appendix E (1933).  Available at

[[138]] Foster, supra at 146.

[[139]] id.

[[140]] Roys, supra.

[[141]] id.

[[142]] Foster, supra at 146.

[[143]] id.

[[144]] id at 147.

[[145]] Roys, supra.

[[146]] Foster, supra at 147.

[[147]] id.

[[148]] Roys, supra.

[[149]] Foster, supra at 147.

[[150]] id.

[[151]] Roys, supra.

[[152]] id, Tarlton Law Library.

[[153]] id.

[[154]] id.

[[155]] id.

[[156]] id.

[[157]] id.

[[158]] Foster, supra at p. 148.

[[159]] id.

[[160]] id.

[[161]] id.

[[162]] Roys, supra.

[[163]] id.

[[164]] id.

[[165]] id.

[[166]] Tarlton Law Library, supra.

[[167]] id at p. 3.

[[168]] id.

[[169]] id.

[[170]] id.

[[171]] id.

[[172]] id.

[[173]] id.

[[174]] id.

[[175]] id.

[[176]] id at p. 3-4.

[[177]] id.

[[178]] id.

[[179]] id.

[[180]] id.

[[181]] id.

[[182]] id; de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX.

[[183]] id.

[[184]] Tarlton, supra.

[[185]] id.

[[186]] id; de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX.

[[187]] id.

[[188]] id.

[[189]] id.

[[190]] id.

[[191]] id.

[[192]] de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX.

[[193]] id.

[[194]] id.

[[195]] id.

[[196]] id.

[[197]] id.

[[198]] de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX; Tarlton, supra.

[[199]] id.

[[200]] id.

[[201]] de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX.

[[202]] Tarlton Law Library, supra.

[[203]] de Landa, supra at Sec. XXX.

[[204]] id.

[[205]] id.

[[206]] id.

[[207]] Tarlton Law Library, supra at p. 4.

[[208]] de Landa, supra.

[[209]] Tarlton Law Library, supra at p. 4.

[[210]] de Landa, supra.

[[211]] Tarlton Law Library, supra.

[[212]] de Landa, supra.

[[213]] id.

[[214]] Tarlton Law Library, supra.

[[215]] de Landa, supra.

[[216]] id.

[[217]] Tarlton Law Library, supra.

[[218]] id.

[[219]] id.

[[220]] id.

[[221]] id.

[[222]] id.

[[223]] de Landa, supra.

[[224]] id.

[[225]] id.

[[226]] Foster, supra at p. 143.

[[227]] id, at 148.

[[228]] id.

[[229]] id.

[[230]] id.

[[231]] id at 149.

[[232]] Foster, supra at p. 149.

[[233]] id.

[[234]] id at 144.

[[235]] id at 145.

[[236]] id.

[[237]] id at 143.

[[238]] Tarlton Law Library, supra at p. 5.

[[239]] id, Foster, supra at p. 321-22.

[[240]] id.