Here and There in Yucatan/New Year's Day Among the Mayas


The Mayas, like the ancient Egyptians, had a solar, or astronomical year of twelve months; and a lunar, or civil year divided into eighteen months of twenty days; to which were added—to make 365—five days that had no name. The first month of the civil year was called Pop. It commenced on what is for us July 16, ending on August 5.

The first day of Pop was a general holiday, also a day of special worship. Those who could possibly afford it then had everything new—clothing, utensils, and furniture; even the household images that they venerated were provided with new garments. All discarded things, every particle of rubbish and dirt, were carried outside of the town or village. No one thought of touching anything thus thrown away, even though they might see useful articles, and be greatly in need of them.

Previous to New-Year's Day the priests and those gentlemen who wished to take part in certain religious ceremonies, abstained from all indulgence that might give them any gratification: and fasted a longer or shorter time, according to the strength of their devotion to the gods. Some fasted three months (sixty days), others only one. Once having commenced a fast, none would dare to break it until the end of the year, believing that if they did, dire misfortune would befall them. Throughout their fast they painted themselves black. The priests meanwhile elected four officials to assist them in the religious services of New-Year's Day. These assistants, called chacob, were supposed to represent the gods of rain and agriculture, also called chacob. The duty of the four men elected was to make a number of balls and cakes of incense needed for the occasion.

On the first day of Pop, those who had prepared themselves by fasting and other abstinence, washed off all the black paint, putting on red instead. We may suppose that the black paint signified the death of the old year; as for the red they considered it very becoming, using it because it was fashionable. It might on that particular occasion have been also symbolical of the new fire, likewise kindled on the first day of the year.

The priests and gentlemen assembled in the court-yard of the temple, with only a few aged women who had to dance. Before the ceremony began, many people came to deposit in the court-yard abundant presents in the shape of food and drink, with plenty of balché, the nectar of the gods, all of which was for the benefit of those who had patiently fasted. But first the rite must be observed.

The priests began by purifying the temple and the yard with incense; then the devil had to be cast out. This was done by passing a rope all round the yard, a chac being seated at each corner; an assistant was given some incense and a goblet of balché to carry outside of the village. He was strictly forbidden to taste the nectar.

Then the four chacob made the new fire, produced by rubbing together two pieces of wood, one hard, the other soft. It is a most interesting fact that the pireos or Magi priests in Persia, when their sacred fire went out—which they considered a great misfortune—had to kindle it in the purest way possible; this they did by rubbing two pieces of dry wood together, or by concentrating the solar rays, by means of mirrors or lenses, on something inflammable. They renovated their fire once a year, at the time of the summer solstice.

In the splendid Temple of the Sun at Cuzco, Peru, there were vestals who, like the young Levite girls educated in the Temple of Jerusalem, had to weave the ornaments of the temple, garments for the priests and their household, as well as for the family of the Inca. Their principal duty was to watch with untiring vigilance over the sacred fire, obtained at the feast of Raymi, from the rays of the sun, by means of a concave metallic mirror.

In Rome vestals were likewise bound to keep alive the fire obtained in the same way at the feast of Pales (goddess of the flocks). A similar obligation was imposed upon the priestess of Diana-Laphria at Patras. Any one of those maidens who unfortunately allowed the sacred fire to die out was relentlessly buried alive.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, once every year, on the day following Good-Friday, the priests make new fire by striking together two stones. The officiating father blesses the new fire and extinguishes the old; he also burns incense on the freshly kindled coals, and a taper lit from them serves to light all the other candles, that they may burn with the new fire.

So among the Mayas, with the new fire the priests burned incense to their gods. Then one by one all those who were taking part in the ceremony received a small quantity of incense from the priest, who was careful not to spill the least portion of it; they threw it into the brazier little by little, watching it until every particle was burned; the old women meanwhile going through a weird dance to the beating of the sacred tunkul (drum) and the music of other instruments, such as the sistrum, used in religious ceremonies in many countries.

The priests earnestly besought that the blessing of Ku (Divine Essence) might rest upon the people during the year. They then felt at liberty to enjoy the good things that had been brought for them, so a banquet ensued, conducted with the strictest etiquette and good manners; while the people all over the land made merry as they pleased till the sun sank in the west and New-Year's Day was at an end.

  1. Published in "Harpers Bazar."