Maya Law

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Maya Law

Maya Legal System and Sources of Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

The laws that governed the various Maya states were issued by the halach uinic and his council, or by the council alone if the state did not have an halach uinic. The batabs were responsible for carrying out these laws and serving as administrators to smaller towns and cities. Batabs also served as judges for their towns and adjudicated civil and criminal cases. Court cases were generally handled swiftly in public meeting houses known as popilna. Judicial proceedings were conducted orally and written records were not maintained. Witnesses were required to testify under oath and there is evidence to suggest that the parties were represented by individuals who functioned as attorneys. Batabs would review the evidence, evaluate the circumstances of the case, consider whether the criminal act in question was deliberate or accidental, and would order an appropriate punishment. Decisions made by the batabs were final and could not be appealed, though the victims could pardon the accused, thus reducing their punishment. If the accused parties were found guilty, their sentences were carried out immediately by the tupiles. The Maya did not have prisons, but may have had wooden cages that were used as holding cells for individuals who were awaiting capital punishment. If a crime occurred that affected an individual in another town, the batabs in the two towns would work together to ensure that issue was resolved. The batab generally acted independently, but would consult with the halach uinic on serious cases before passing judgement.

Because the ancient Maya civilization had peaked before the Spanish Conquest, the amount of primary material on the Maya legal system is limited. The majority of Maya manuscripts and codices were destroyed by Spanish priests, and the surviving codices tend to focus on Maya astronomy, mathematics, history, calendars, and religious rituals. These include the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices. Following the conquest, Maya scribes wrote various books, including the Popul Vuh, and the Books of Chilam Balam (Books of the Jaguar Shaman). Both of these resources contain information about Maya history, myths, and religious traditions. The conquistadores and Spanish missionaries additionally documented their observations of the Maya. Bishop Diego de Landa wrote a detailed chronicle of the Maya, entitled Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan. This manuscript contained information about Maya history, culture, and hieroglyphics. Finally, researchers have relied on Maya monuments, pottery and paintings, hieroglyphic texts, and anthropological studies of modern day Maya to learn more about this civilization.

Maya Criminal Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

Under the Maya legal system, punishments for various crimes were severe. Murder, rape, incest, treachery, arson, and acts that offended the gods were punishable by death. However, the Maya distinguished between intentional and accidental acts. For example, individuals who were found guilty of homicide were sentenced to death. However, if a killing was accidental, the perpetrator was ordered to pay restitution or sell one of his slaves to the victim’s family. If the perpetrator was a minor, he would be ordered into slavery. Theft crimes were punished with restitution or temporary enslavement. The sentences of slavery and restitution were not limited to the perpetrator, but were also passed on to his family members. Maya homes were subject to special protection because they did not have doors. Individuals who entered homes to cause damage or injure others were sentenced to death. Nobles who were found guilty of crimes were treated especially harsh and were forced to have their faces permanently tattoed as a symbol of their crimes.

Adultery was considered a criminal offense. Married women who committed adultery were publicly shamed and their lovers were stoned to death. Their husbands had the option of leaving the marriage and finding a new spouse. Married men who committed adultery were sentenced to death unless their extra-marital affair was with an unmarried woman.

Pardons were available for criminals. Adulterers could avoid punishment by being pardoned by the injured husband, and families of murder victims could demand restitution in lieu of capital punishment.

Maya Property and Commercial Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

Limited information is available on the Maya property system. Communal lands were owned by the nobles and ruling class, and were worked by commoners. Commoner families were also permitted to own small parcels of land that they used for subsistence agriculture. This land could be passed down to the owner’s sons. Commoners were required to pay tribute to the ruler, their local elite lords, and to the gods in the form of labor, goods, offerings, and a portion of their harvests from their communal and private lands. They were also required to work on annual labor projects, such as building temples, palaces, and causeways.

In addition to the agricultural industry, the Maya produced cacao, cotton, salt, honey, dye, and other exotic goods for trade. The Maya had traveling merchants, but very little is known about them. There is evidence that they traded across the Maya region and Central Mexico, and conducted trade by sea. The Maya had markets to sell their surplus crops, but it is not known how the markets functioned or were governed. The Maya did have a currency system, and used cacao beans, gold, copper bells, jade, and oyster shell beads as forms of money. Counterfeiting was a problem, and occurred when unscrupulous individuals removed the flesh of cacao beans and replaced it with avocado rinds or dirt. The Maya additionally conducted business using the barter system.

The Maya used contracts, which were formalized when the parties drank balché (a mild alcoholic drink) in front of witnesses. Interest was not charged on loans and there were no criminal penalties for going into debt. Individuals who could not pay their debts would become slaves of the people who they owed money to. If a debtor passed away, his family would assume responsiblity for paying his debts.

Maya Family Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

Maya family law appears to have been based on customary law. Maya men and women usually got married at around the age of 20, though women sometimes got married at the age of 16 or 17. Maya marriages were frequently arranged by matchmakers, and the father of the groom had to approve the match. The bride and groom were required to have different surnames to ensure that they were not from the same lineage. A dowry was required from the groom’s family, which consisted of clothing and household articles for the bride and groom. Marriage ceremonies were performed by a priest in the home of the bride’s father. After the ceremony, the newlyweds lived with the bride’s parents for 6-7 years. The groom was required to work for the family during this time as a form of payment for receiving his wife. The married couple then built a permanent home next to the husband’s parents and lived there until death. Couples were usually monogamous, with the exception of wealthy nobles who practiced polygamy. Divorces were permitted by simply leaving the relationship, and usually occurred when one of the parties was infertile or not carrying out his or her family responsibilities. Widowers and widows were required to remain single for one year after the death of their spouses, and could then remarry without a formal ceremony.

Children were loved and valued by their parents. They were raised at home and were provided with a moral education by their parents. Children were required to go through various religious rites at birth and puberty. After puberty, girls stayed at home until they got married. Boys were sent to live in community dormitories, but would return home each day to work with their fathers. It is not known whether boys received educational training at the dormitories or whether any formal schools existed. However, there is evidence to suggest that children were selected to be apprenticed for certain jobs, including scribes, priests, artists, and masons. This selection was based on social status and aptitude. Women were trained to manage their households, though some worked outside the home as midwives, market vendors, and matchmakers. Noble wives and mothers participated in various rituals related to the ruling class, and there is some evidence to suggest that women may have had governing roles within the various Maya states.

Inheritance property typically passed from father to son. There is also evidence that certain professions, titles, and government offices were passed down from father to son, brother to brother, or uncle to nephew. Women did not have the legal right to inherit property, but could inherit the family’s debts and slavery status. If a man died without a son, property would pass to the deceased’s brothers. If the sons were young when they received their inheritance, a trustee was appointed to manage the property and use the proceeds of the property to support the sons. This was usually one of the brothers of the deceased. Once the heirs reached adulthood, they would receive what remained of the inheritance.

Maya International and Military Law

From the Tarlton Law Library (University of Texas):

War was a common occurence throughout the history of the ancient Maya, and was conducted for the purpose of destroying rival states, gaining tribute, and capturing victims for human sacrifice. The halach uinic was considered the supreme military leader and was assisted by the nacom, a military adviser who was elected to this post every three years. When wars were declared, the batab was responsible for providing troops from his town to be sent to battle. However, it is not known how these troops were organized, trained, or supplied. During combat, nobles who were captured were immediately sacrificed. Other captured soldiers were forced to become slaves and were sometimes treated in a humiliating manner by the conquering army. Wars typically did not last for a long duration, and the Maya did not destroy cities because this could adversely affect their ability to collect tribute from the conquered regions.

Very little is known about foreign relations between the Maya and the Aztecs, though it is understood that the two regions engaged in trade and that the Aztecs collected tribute from certain Maya regions. It is not clear whether the Maya had nobles who served as ambassadors for their states and managed foreign relations with the Aztecs and other indigenous groups.


See Also

    • Mexican Legal System
    • Aztec Law
    • Community Property
    • Death Penalty Debate Dignity
    • Early Efforts Against The Death Penalty
    • Capital Punishment
    • Death Penalty Debate Effectiveness
    • Death Penalty Debate Brutality
    • Human Rights

Further Reading

  • Bahamondes Fuentes, Delfin. El Derecho en la Civilización Maya. Santiago: Editorial Jurídica de Chile, 1973.
  • Cioffi-Revilla, Claudio, and Todd Landman. “Evolution of Maya Polities in the Ancient Mesoamerican System.” International Studies Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Dec. 1999): 559-598.
  • Dary, Claudia. El Derecho Internacional Humanitario y el Orden Jurídico Maya: Una Perspectiva Histórico-Cultural. Guatemala: FLACSO, 1997.
  • Díaz Vasconcelos, Luis Antonio. Norma e Institución Jurídicas Mayas. Guatemala: Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas, Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, 1953.
  • Díaz Vasconcelos, Luis Antonio. “Tres Aspectos de la Convivencia Jurídica del Maya.” Anales de la Sociedad de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala 25, no. 3 (September 1951): 206-224.
  • Esquit Choy, Edgar, & Carlos Ochoa García, eds. El Respeto a la Palabra: El Orden Jurídico del Pueblo Maya. Iximulew, Guatemala: Centro de Estudios de la Cultura Maya, 1995.
  • García Ruiz, Alfonso. “El Derecho Premial entre los Mayas y los Chibchas.” In Estudios Históricos Americanos: Homenaja a Silvio Zavala, ed. México: El Colegio de México, 1953.
  • Herrera, Jose Israel. “Algunas Caracteristicas del Derecho Maya Prehispanico.” In Aproximaciones a la Antropologia Juridica de los Mayas Peninsulares, edited by Esteban Krotz. Merida, México: Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 2001.
  • Izquierdo, Ana Luisa. “El Derecho Penal entre los Antiguos Mayas.” Estudios de Cultura Maya 11 (1978): 215-247.
  • Krotz, Esteban. Aproximaciones a la Antropología Jurídica de los Mayas Peninsulares. Mérida, Yucatán: PNUD, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, 2001.
  • Noyola Arriaga, Alicia. Breve Examen de las Disposiciones Penales de la Legislación Maya. México, 1964.
  • Pérez Galaz, Juan de Dios. Derecho y Organización Social de los Mayas. México, D.F.: Editorial Diana, 1983.
  • Rivera, Roberto. “El Derecho Maya Según Landa.” Boletin del INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) 22, no. 3 (Apr.- June 1978): 27-35.
  • Sandoval Pardo, Fernando R. El Sistema Jurídico Maya: Una Aproximación. Guatemala: Universidad Rafael Landivar, Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales, 1998.
  • Sodi Bonequi, María Enriqueta. La Tierra y el Derecho Entre Los Mayas. México, 1962.
  • Trueba Urbina, Alberto. Historia Sintetica del Derecho Maya. San Ildefonso, Mexico, D.F.: La Facultad de Derecho y Ciencias Sociales, 1930.

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