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What we know about the Maya leads us to think this way. In Howard La Fay’s article “The Maya,” it can be read: “The image of the Maya man as a primitive peaceful farmer practicing esoteric religious rituals in the stillness of the jungle disappeared. The result is a vibrant, populous warrior people who employed highly advanced agricultural techniques. And like the Vikings, halfway around the world, they traded and invaded with vigor.”
Maya society was organized based on a marked social stratification, with the nobility, known as almenehoob (“those who have fathers and mothers”), at the top. This privileged group monopolized power and authority by holding political and religious positions. The supreme ruler of the province was, as we have seen, the halach uinik (or halach wíinik), in whom absolute power over earthly and spiritual matters resided. He was also called ahau, and his emblems were the round shield and the scepter with an anthropomorphic figure and a snake head. The position of halach uinik was hereditary within a single family, passing from father to eldest son.
The halach uinik was simultaneously the batab or local chief of the city in which he resided and had authority over the other bataboob or local chiefs of the settlements that comprised the province. As the supreme leader, he received tribute, called upon the warriors, and formulated policies. In times of war, each batab commanded their soldiers, but there was a supreme military commander called nacom, who held the position for three years and answered directly to the halach uinik.
After the bataboob, there were the ah cuch caboob, who administered the neighborhoods into which the city was divided. A similar position was that of the ah kuleloob, delegates who accompanied the batab, serving as assistants, spokespersons, and messengers. There were also officials in charge of social and ceremonial matters called popolna and ah holpop. Finally, the lowest category of officials was that of the tupiles, who acted as bailiffs or police, maintaining order and enforcing the law.
The group of priests, generically called ahkincob (singular: ahkin), held the same status as the chiefs or bataboob. The priesthood was also hereditary and limited to a few noble families. The high priest was known as ahuacán, which means ‘lord serpent’. Their activities were related to ritual, sacrifices, divination, astronomy, chronological calculations, hieroglyphic writing, religious education, and temple administration.
Beneath the ahuacán were the priests known as chilames or diviners, responsible for interpreting the messages that the gods sent to humans through oracles. The nacom was in charge of carrying out ritual sacrifices and opening the chest of the victim to extract the heart, but this should not be confused with the military leader who was also called nacom. Four assistants called chacoob helped him, not only in supporting the victim but also in performing other functions, such as lighting the new fire in the month of pop, fasting, and anointing the recently carved idols with blood in the month of mol.
There is no doubt about the position held by professional merchants (polom) in the social hierarchy. They were members of the nobility, not only because they descended from the Putun conquerors of that land but also because they controlled this important economic activity. In his book “Historia general de los hechos de los castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del mar océano,” the chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordecillas states:
“In this land of Acalán, the wealthiest merchant was made the lord, and thus it was Apoxpalón, who had great trade in cotton, cacao, slaves, salt, gold (although little and mixed with copper), and other things; and he had red snails for adornments, resins and incense for temples, torches for lighting, colors and dyes for painting in wars and festivities, and for dyeing to protect against heat and cold, and other merchandise they needed…”
As nobles, merchants were powerful allies of the military leaders, as they provided information about routes and economic and defensive opportunities with other peoples.
Although, in general, the land belonged to the communities as communal property, the nobles had greater access to its products (fruit trees, cacao plantations, and salt pans). They did not own or work the land but profited from the labor of the farmers. The farmers also received tribute payments, usually consisting of game, fish, crops from the milpa, honey, cotton blankets, and personal services.
Beneath this complex noble stratum was the common people, known as yalba uinikoob (‘small men’), chemal uinicoob, memba uinicoob, or pizilcan, all of whom were commoners. These names mean the same as the Nahuatl term macehual, frequently used during the colonial period.
The common people were the largest group and included peasants, fishermen, woodcutters, water carriers, masons, artisans, quarrymen, weavers, porters, and so on. The commoners were the ones who cultivated maize and produced food for themselves and the noble class. They were also the ones who cut, carried, worked, and sculpted the stones that would form the great buildings, built the causeways and temples, decorated their facades with paintings and mosaics, and sustained the privileged class through their tribute in goods and labor.
Below the commoners was the lowest rung on the social ladder: the slaves (ppentoc, male, and munach, female). They were mostly individuals captured in war or enslaved for a crime. One could also be born a slave or become one through being sold in trade or being orphaned.
In a simplified form, Maya society can be divided into four major social groups: The nobility, consisting of priests, warriors, bureaucrats, and merchants, held power, and membership in this group was solely by birth. Artisans, who specialized in crafting objects used by the nobility for clothing, adorning their homes, and demonstrating their status. Peasants, who lived dispersed around the cities and paid one-third of their production as tribute to the nobility. And slaves, war prisoners who were sold to perform labor or to be sacrificed in specific rituals to the rain, the earth, or the sun.
Return to the main article The Maya Civilization