Encompassing a wide array of occupations, the Maya society included slavery and serfdom. The serfs were often treated as slaves that worked for the leaders. The Mayan civilization was one of the great powers of the pre-Columbian Americas. At its height, the empire covered much of Mesoamerica, including parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and central Mexico. While class and gender boundaries existed within Mayan society, recent research indicates women played a greater role within the Mayan society than previously believed.
To a degree unprecedented in the ancient New World, Mayan women played a prominent role at court. Unlike their Inca or Aztec counterparts, Mayan women could influence state affairs at the highest level. A man generally held the position of ruler; however, rare exceptions existed in which a Mayan woman of noble birth held all the titles and symbols of kingship. More commonly, wives and mothers within the royal circle influenced governmental decisions. In turn, these women took on public roles along with all the wealth and respect that such positions afforded.
Religion and Ritual
Religion and government often collided in Mayan society. As such, a role within one often conferred a role within the other. Women of the Mayan elite took part in royal blood sacrifices, honoring their gods alongside their male counterparts. Young girls also learned how to serve religious shrines and participate in other ritual practices.
Women carried out all of the domestic duties within a Mayan household. Daily tasks included tending to the children, preparing food, raising household animals and making clothing and other textiles. Women also created various craft items such as ceramics, either for household use or for trade. Men were not expected to perform any of these domestic duties.
Agriculture and Hunting
The Mayans obtained their food through agriculture, foraging and hunting. Hunting was very much a male occupation, and Mayan boys learned basic hunting skills from a young age. Women foraged for berries, tubers and other natural food resources. The agricultural process was a collective effort, especially during a harvest. A husband would dig or plow a field with rudimentary tools while his wife followed behind him, either sowing seeds or collecting the harvested items.
Men were required to serve in the Mayan military. All male youths were expected to learn the basics of warfare, and men were expected to serve their ruler in battle when called upon. A wife’s principle role was to help her husband prepare for battle. Women often engaged in acts of bloodletting to please the gods and ensure the safe return of their husbands.