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Aztec and Maya Law

Maya Legal System and Sources of Law

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.

Sources: Foster (2002), Herrera (2001), Salcedo Flores (2009), and Sharer (1996).