The ancient Maya realm was no theocracy or primitive democracy, but a class society with strong political power in the hands of an hereditary elite. To understand the basis of the state in sixteenth-century Yucatan, we have to go right to the heart of the matter, to the people themselves.
In Yucatan, every adult Maya had two names. The first came to him or her from the mother, but could only be transmitted from women to their offspring, that is, in the female line. The second derived from the father, and similarly was exclusively passed on in the male line. There is now abundant evidence that these two kinds of name represented two different kinds of cross-cutting and coexistent descent groups: the matrilineage and the patrilineage. There were approximately 250 patrilineages in Yucatan at the time of Conquest, and we know from Landa how important they were. For instance, they were strictly exogamous (one had to marryout of the lineage), all inheritance of property was patrilineal, and they were self-protection societies, all members of which had the obligation to help each other. Titles deriving from early Colonial times show that they had their own lands as well, which is probably what Landa meant when he said that all fields were held "in common." As for the matrilineage, it probably acted principally within the marriage regulation system, in which matrimony with the father's sister's or mother's brother's daughter was encouraged, but certain other kinds forbidden.
Now, while among many more primitive people such kin groups are theoretically equal, among the Maya this was not so, and both kinds of lineage were strictly ranked; to be able to trace one's genealogy in both lines to an ancient ancestry was an important matter, for there were strongly marked classes. At the top were the nobles (almehen, meaning "he whose descent is known on both sides"), who had private roles of high-ranking warriors, wealthy farmers and merchants, and clergy. The commoners were the free workers of the population, probably, like their Aztec cousins, holding in usufruct from their patrilineage a stretch of forest in which to make their milpas; but in all likelihood even these persons were graded into rich and poor. There is some indication of serfs, who worked the private lands of the nobles. And at the bottom were the slaves who were mostly plebeians taken in war, prisoners of higher rank being subject to the knife. Slavery was hereditary, but these menials could be redeemed by payments made by fellow members of one's patrilinieage.
By the time the Spaniards arrived, political power over much of the inhabited Maya area was in the hands of ruling castes of Mexican or Mexican-influenced origin. Yucatecan politics was controlled by such a group, which of course claimed to have come from Tula and Zuywa, a legendary home in the west. In fact, any candidate for high office had to pass an occult catechism known as the "Language of Zuywa." At the head of each statelet in Yucatan was the halach winik ("real man"), the territorial ruler who had inherited his post in the male line, although in an earlier epoch and among the highland Maya there were real kings (ajawob) who held sway over wider areas. The halach winik resided in a capital town and was supported by the products of his own lands, such as cacao groves worked by slaves, and by tribute.
The minor provincial towns were headed by the batabob, appointed by the halach winik from a noble patrilineage related to his own. These ruled through local town councils made up of rich, old men, led by an important commoner chosen anew each year among the four quarters which made up the settlement. Besides his administrative duties, the batab was a war leader, but his command was shared by a nakom, a highly tabooed individual who held office for three years.