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Religious Syncretism and its Consequences in Mayan Society

When Spaniards first set foot on Mesoamerican shores in the early sixteenth century, they encountered not the godless mass of natives they believed they found, but a people whose rich spiritual traditions shaped and sustained them for thousands of years. These diverse spiritual practices legitimized nearly every aspect of Mesoamerican daily life, from science and architecture to art and politics (Carmack 295), in many of the same ways Catholicism did in Spain. The collision of these cultures in the Great Encounter and the resulting Spanish colonial state mixed not solely two different peoples—Indian and Spanish—but thousands of variants: elites and slaves, peasant farmers and traders, priests and traders, organized and local spiritual customs, all with different degrees of diversity in their respective religious practices. This diversity set the stage for the syncretic religious traditions that emerged in Mayan society and remain a vital part of that culture today.
Syncretic refers to the "nature of ideas, deities, and practices that derive from historically distinct traditions that become reinterpreted and transformed in situations of a cultural encounter" (Carmack 303). The cultural encounter between Mesoamericans and the Catholic Church was a natural result of mutual needs. The Indians needed protection from the cruelties inflicted by Spanish colonists, and the Church in many ways fought for their basic human rights; the Church needed land and support for their missions, and the Indians provided provisions and labor in much the same fashion as they had been giving tribute to ruling elites for thousands of years (Fash). This arrangement gave missionaries access not only to the Indians’ bodies—in the form of sweat and labor—but also their hearts and souls.
The introduction of Christianity to native Mesoamericans, however, expressed itself in ways unexpected to the Catholic missionaries. For example, the concept of Jesus Christ—both...

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Carlsen, Robert. The War for the Heart & Soul of a Highland Maya Town. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Carmack, Robert, Janine Grasco, and Gary Gossen. The Legacy of Mesoamerica: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996.

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