The Mayan civilisation was one of the great powers of the pre-Columbian Americas. At its height, the empire covered much of Mesoamerica, including parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and central Mexico. Rigid class and gender boundaries existed within Mayan society, and men and women of the commoner classes played distinctly different roles.
To a degree unprecedented in the ancient New World, Mayan women played a prominent role at court, according to the National Gallery of Art. Unlike their Inca or Aztec counterparts, Mayan women could influence state affairs at the highest level. A man generally held the position of ruler; however, rare exceptions existed where a Mayan woman of noble birth held all the titles and symbols of kingship. More commonly, wives and mothers within the royal circle influenced governmental decisions. In turn, these women took on public roles, with all the wealth and respect that such positions afforded.
A blurring of boundaries between religion and government in Mayan society existed. As such, a role within one often conferred a role within the other. Women of the Mayan elite took part in royal blood sacrifices, honouring their gods alongside their male counterparts. According to pre-Columbian Women, young girls also learnt how to serve religious shrines and participate in other ritual practices.
Women carried out all of the domestic duties within a Mayan household. Daily tasks included the raising of children, preparing food, raising household animals and making clothing and other textiles. Women also created various craft items such as ceramics, either for household use or for trade. Men were not expected to perform any of these domestic duties.
Agriculture and Hunting
The Mayans obtained their food through agriculture, foraging and hunting. Hunting was very much a male occupation, and Mayan boys learnt basic hunting skills from a young age. Women foraged for berries, tubers and other natural food resources. The agricultural process was a collective effort, especially during a harvest. A husband would dig or plough a field with rudimentary tools while his wife followed behind him, either sowing seeds or collecting the harvested items.
Only men served within the Mayan military. All male youths were expected to learn the basics of warfare, and men were expected to serve their ruler in battle when called upon. A wife's only role was to help her husband prepare for battle. Women often engaged in acts of bloodletting to please the gods and ensure the safe return of their husbands.