What Are the Similarities Between Mayan and Aztec Religious Beliefs?

The Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza honoring Kukulcan, known to the Aztecs as Quetazalcoatl.
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The Mayan Empire reached its apex around 900 A.D., but their culture continued to influence contemporaneous Mesoamerican civilizations after their political power declined. The Aztec Triple Alliance peaked in influence shortly before the Spanish conquered the region in 1521, and while their religion often revolved around the war and sun god Huitzilopochtli, they nevertheless shared a number of similarities with the Maya with regard to worship and ritual.

1 The Feathered Serpent

The deity known as the Feathered Serpent, called "Kukulcan" in Mayan dialects and "Quetzalcoatl" in the Aztec's Nahuatl, played an important role in the pantheon of both cultures. Despite the vivid, specific imagery associated with his name, Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl could take many forms, including that of the wind god Ehecatl, a black ant and a human warrior with a pale, bearded face. According to Pantheon, both the Maya and Aztecs credited Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl with creating humankind, teaching them how to farm maize and acting as a god of fertility, wind, water, Venus and artistry. A gentle god, Quetzalcoatl only required the sacrifice of butterflies and other small animals, whereas other Aztec gods demanded human sacrifice.

2 Pyramids and Astronomy

Both the Maya and Aztecs built their step pyramids to honor deities associated with the sun, the rain and the moon. Although the pyramid designs were distinct, both cultures constructed geometrically precise pyramids out of stone, with their sides aligned on a north-south axis and their exteriors decorated with carvings of snakes -- representing Kukulcan/Quetzalcoatl -- and other divine figures. These pyramids played a constant role in the lives of Aztecs and Mayans, as citizens were required to visit the pyramid for religious ceremonies throughout the year. Typically, priests would pay homage to their deities by burning incense, sacrificing slaves or war captives, praying and making other offerings.

3 Ball Games, Creation and the Underworld

Ball courts -- called "tlachtli" in Nahuatl and "cha'j" in Mayan -- served as physical manifestations of religious beliefs. To the Aztecs, the ball courts were a portal to Mictlan, or the underworld. The Maya saw the game as a reenactment of their creation myth, in which the twin sons of a maize god vanquished the gods of death. It is possible that both empires may have sacrificed the losing team, as all ball courts featured skull racks, along with depictions of human decapitation.

4 Days of the Dead and Ancestral Veneration

The Maya honored their lost loved ones out of grief and the notion that their ancestors continued to participate in the lives of their families and communities. They thought ancestral veneration helped present generations maintain their status. Aztecs also practiced forms of ancestor worship, believing their deceased ancestors would return to earth to celebrate with their families during the Days of the Dead. Both the Maya and Aztecs honored their ancestors with altars and offerings.

Since 2003, Momi Awana's writing has been featured in "The Hawaii Independent," "Tradewinds" and "Eternal Portraits." She served as a communications specialist at the Hawaii State Legislature and currently teaches writing classes at her library. Awana holds a Master of Arts in English from University of Hawaii, Mānoa.