The book “2000 years of Mayan literature” by Dennis Tedlock is a wonderful adventure through Mayan culture. The reading of this book transports us back to Classic Maya, to the times of pyramidal buildings erected in the jungles of Mesoamerica, to the times of astronomical understanding of their carvings, to the mythic origins of the K’iche people, to the beautiful and colourful murals found in the southern parts of Mexico. The book goes through their literature, starting at the beginnings of Mayan civilisation on the last centuries before Christ, and going through the first findings of carved writing in their temple lintels and walls, reaching a comprehension of their extraordinary murals and analysing important books as the Popol Vuh or the book of Chilam Balam. Dr Tedlock managed to decipher lots of Maya’s carved inscriptions, claiming that they wrote poetry and used parallel meaning on the description of objects. In fact, poetics and time keeping came together in one of their most successful creations, the calendars. On them, we find one of the commonest pairings, which set the time of an event by combining dates from two calendars, what Mayanists have called it a calendar round-date, with the combinations of two calendars, one of 260 days with divinatory purposes and the other of 365 days, related to the movement of the earth around the sun.
Most texts were accompanied by illustrations, which were drawn by the same hands that did the writing, so it became essential the interpretation of those illustrations to understand the writings. Dr Tedlock looks at various books and codices, such as the Madrid and Dresden ones, the Popol Vuh and the manuscript of the Chilam Balam, to understand their myth and society.
In one of the chapters, the author explains about the Skilled Observer from Maxam, at the site of Naranjo, in Guatemala. In there are found vessels explaining an account of the succession rulers. Those lords made claims through carved writing, to their right to rule to a much deeper past, naming an ancestor who preceded the historical lords of Maxam. This ancestor appears to be half way between mythic and historical times. The main subject theme within the story of Maxam’s human lords is their struggle to maintain the town’s position among three powerful cities, Calakmul, Tikal being the other two. A poem written by the “observer” mentions on his capacity to see his dreams, to interpret them and to tell of his ancestry, locating it in time and space. This is all reflected in the carvings, providing a picture of how leaders built myth to guarantee their right to rule.
In another vessel written by the Maxam Observer, we see the custom to carve a historical and mythological event in parallel. In this case we have in one side the life of a child of royal descend and the mythical part explains a meeting of the gods at the eve of the creation of the present world, just after the last era had fallen into darkness. The birth of a royal child appears marked by the planting of a cacao orchard and by the first fruiting of the tree, which provided an occasion to celebrate the growth of the child. In the same drawing, we have the meeting of the seven gods, who are all in the dark, although they will soon release light into the sky of a renewed world. The three levels on which they sit represent three levels of the cosmos. Three gods are represented as being in the sky, with a celestial dragon where the gods are suspended and below we find three gods of the underworld, resting on the head and upper jaw of another monster, the subterranean part of the celestial dragon. All six gods are expressing submission to the elderly deity sitting before them, who sits on a throne. He is the patron of the merchants who travels over the earth. A text that is part of this illustration explains about the stars and about blackness becoming in order again. It tells about the sky and the earth coming into order. In a final commentary about the Maxam Observer, the author mentions his skills in placing the viewer in the role of seer. A triangle made by the star bundles in the painting, is the mirror image of the triangle made by the actual stars in their rising positions. We can see the entire scene as a reflection in an obsidian mirror, the kind of mirror used by Mayan diviners. This triangle points at the constellation of Orion, Oxib’ Xk’ub or three hearthstones.
In Copan is found the emblem of the Bat, which implies membership of the four royal houses, each of them from a city that held a position in a four-directional scheme. The eastern city was Copan with the Bat emblem, the western was Palenque with the Egret emblem, south was Tikal with Hair Knots and north Calakmul with Snakes. At some point, Copan changed the emblem to be “place of cattails”. Lords sat on mats and thrones made from plaited cattail leaves. This emblem implies an interconnected relationship with Teotihuacan and Kaminaljuyu, old cities which had this emblem. It seems as if Copan claimed a share of an ideological inheritance. These messages were part of the carving works found at Copan. The building works were sponsored by the thirteenth lord in the line of succession, Waxaklajuun Ub’ah K’awiil, Sceptre of 18 bodies, who sponsored works of art and architecture on the site.
Near Copan there is another ancient city called Quirigua. In there are found carving works from some of the first lords inhabiting the town. In those carvings are found evidences which imply that Mayans traced their lineages back to remote human ancestors, claiming that their predecessors continued the divine works of gods, whose existence preceded and transcended human existence. Inscriptions erected by the lord Fiery Splendour shows a first carving part on the East, relating to mythic divine deeds, and on the West, a second part relating to historical deeds achieved by lords of the Gourd lineage. There was a time when the gods were part of the physical world. Then they became part of a spiritual world, sending messages through omens, dreams, visions, divinations and through the movements of the stars. In this side we find a mentioning to a thirteenth zodiacal sign. A sign that the Mayans had, but we don’t have in our contemporary western world. A sign which is connected to the constellation of Orion, or to a sea turtle. This sign is also connected to a centipede seen on the sky and related to the constellation of Scorpius at the base of an enormous tree, which is the Milky Way.
In the city of Palenque, carvings found on the lintels of temples portray astronomical scenarios. Those events recreated specific dates and times and the exact positions of the stars on the sky on the inauguration of those temples. Dr Tedlock deciphered the messages of those carvings, understanding that deities and lords had spiritual guardians who in many cases were planets. Astronomy was connected to historical and mythical events and Mayan inscriptions narrated mythical events through the stars and their movements. Connection between astronomy and myth intended to give a mythical aura to lords’ right to rule. Carving inscriptions placed the first ruler of the dynasty ruling at the time of the inauguration of the temple, as part of the astronomical scenario. In this scenario, the first ruler is presented as a mythological figure, almost a deity. In this case, his name was Snake Spine, the founder of the Egret dynasty. According to the inscriptions and illustrations, he lived in that gap of time that exists in Mayan myth, in between the divine primal mythical time and the human historical era.
In this same city, we find three temples in triangle shape, the temple of the cross, the temple of the sun and the temple of the foliated cross. In there, the twelfth Egret lord, Sun-eyed Snake Jaguar dedicated the three temples by devoting them to events taking place in the night sky during their dedication. On that night, observers could see the Milky Way passing through Scorpius and Sagittarius standing straight up on the horizon, like an enormous tree. Scorpius was on a centipede shape, at the bottom of the milky way and all the planets crossed the Milky Way in between the Great Rift and Scorpius on the night of the dedication. Visible planets that passed were: Mars, the guardian of Corn Silk at the tip of a single ear; Jupiter, the guardian of Sun-eyed Lord of the Shield; and Saturn, the guardian of Young Mirror Sceptre. All guardian spirits of the family passed along the centipede constellation, which was the ruler personal familiar spirit. This made it meaningful from an ancestral point of view. All of them were joint by the moon, guardian spirit of the goddess Cormorant. The human lady Cormorant was Snake Jaguar’s paternal grandmother, who had ruled Palenque between 612 to 615 AD. She had inherited the Egret lordship from their fathers and passed it on to their sons, thus transferring it from one patrilineage to another.
The ruler sacrificed his own blood and conjured the ghost of a blood relative. He inherited the white paper, which was a paper bloodied on it with the sacrificed blood of previous rulers. The oldest stain on the paper inherited by the lord Snake Jaguar was nothing else than that of the goddess Cormorant, who had left blood from her own tongue. The guardian spirits, or planets passing by Scorpion, were no others that those lords not born from the womb yet. They just had emerged from the earth and entered the sky after periods of invisibility. The blood of the umbilical lord bringing the brothers to life, was on that white paper. The white paper became an object representing the passing of lordship and a sign of claiming ancestral rights to rulership.
In the highest of all the temples of that mentioned triangle, at the temple of the cross or of the Sixth Sky, appears a carved tablet describing Snake Jaguar’s right to rule, given by his paternal grandmother. It appears also a Ceiba tree, which is a sign of the cosmic tree, and a bird symbol of the goddess Cormorant. All of this story is told as an allegory of the era of the gods, through an astronomical composition. Just as the heavenly bodies rise again after disappearing, royal persons hoped to rise after death and rejoin in spirit their living successors. The carved writings and drawings found imply that the goddess Cormorant was the one passing the white paper to the Egret first dynasts, which means that the goddess Cormorant was the predecessor of the Egret lords of Palenque. After this, the story adds almost 13 centuries until appears the first ruler Snake Spine and his father Toyemat. The white paper is handed to the child and Snake Spine becomes the first ruler to make offerings for the Egret dynasty. We see the transition from mythical to historical times and the connections between the sacred and the profane. We also see the importance of humans becoming the offerers of sacrifices and of ceremonial rituals to venerate their deities.
In another of the two other temples, the temple of the Sun-eyed Shield, there are inscriptions and texts explaining about the mythic divine past and it again ends with historical events. Both parts of the story include sacrificial rites in which a spirit is summoned from the underworld. The goddess Cormorant calls up her second son, Sun-eyed Lord of the Shield, and Sun-eyed Snake Jaguar raises the ghost of her human namesake, grandmother of the 3 planets that were in conjunction during the dedication. The planet which receives attention in here being Jupiter. The first event explained here was the birth of the deity Sun-eyed Lord of the Shield. Astronomically, this event was a hypothetical eastern rise of Jupiter after a period of invisibility. On the same night that Sun-eyed Snake Jaguar turned around, the three planets were joined by the moon, the outward manifestation of the spirit familiar of Cormorant, lady of split place. Her fasty and sacrifices made possible for the three planets to be reborn. In one of the epithets in this temple we find references to the twin brothers, Xb’alanq’e, a headless jaguar, and Junajpu, the blow-gunner. All of this related to the movement of planet Jupiter, and his periods of invisibility, which are related to the twin brothers’ visits to the underworld and the tests they go through there.
In inscriptions and drawings at the last temple of those three, the temple of the Tree of Yellow Corn, we find the custom in Mayan culture to project on the disappearance and reappearance of celestial lights an allegory of human birth, burial and spiritual return, which reflects the sprouting, planting and return of corn. Just as a man like Snake Jaguar stands on the split skull of a monster named First Corn Tassel Mountain, the corn raises from the underworld, where it was hidden at the end of the world before this age, returning to live. The Tree of Yellow Corn stands on the head of an earth monster with a cruciform sign on its forehead. Among the gods mentioned on these inscriptions we have Jun Jaw, connected to Venus, a god of alcoholic beverages, and Sun-Eyed Snake Jaguar, who receives the sceptre mirror, marking him as a future lord. The story of the three planets being in conjunction, which was explained at Sixth Sky, is here completed with the introduction of Young Mirror Scepter, whose guardian spirit is Saturn. In a sense, he is present at all three temples, as the mirror sceptre is an object used as a directional ritual. The text tells about the birth of Young Mirror Sceptre, relating it to the appearance of Saturn in the sky fourteen days after the “birth” of Jupiter. When Young Mirror Sceptre became invisible, his spirit was summoned by Cormorant. In order to do that, she would have done penance by letting blood, just as she did for his brothers, Corn Silk and Sun-Eyed lord of the Shield. In this case, she let blood near the temple discussed.
The historical events explained at that same temple relate also to astronomy and to the movements of Saturn, Jupiter, the moon, the Milky Way, the Great Rift and the constellation of Scorpius. The interpretation that the author makes of these writings is of a portal between the worlds of the living and of the dead. On that night, it appears that Sun-eyed Jaguar let his own blood and summoned the ghost of White Quetzal, his paternal grandmother, who handed the white paper to her grandson. That white paper pedigreed with blood was passed down from one Egret lord to another one, but now Sun-eyed Jaguar received its spiritual counterpart. This same paper would have been given to the goddess Cormorant in mythical times. We find at Palenque, in all these temples, mythical stories relating an astronomical understanding of the different planets, with a symbology related to all those stars and a relation to mythical events, to deities and to the different lords which formed part of the dynasty that governed the town in that era.
In another archaeological site named Yaxchilan, after analysing its murals and inscriptions, the writer mentions that rulers sprinkled offerings of small objects that were green or fresh and yellow, ripe or valuable, the understanding being that gods would have provided with abundance of children, crops and valuables in return. The name of this site was Drumming in the Sky, which might have been related to thunderstorms or earthquakes. It also might be related to sacrifices in the area. In here we read about the ruler Drum Sky and his semidivine father True Magician Jaguar, who had three women and one of them was named Lady Shark Fin. On the day of the inauguration of her husbands kingship, she performed a rite in which she invoked a divine patron of kingship whose outer form was a draconic centipede, just as the shape of the constellation of Scorpius took on a certain night at that archaeological site. In that same night, it appears the Moon as the guardian spirit of Lady Shark Fin, who acclaimed her husband’s divine source of power. A deity is also present at that night sky, being Venus. Venus in fact represents Chaak, the Thunderstorm god who gives to the lord the weapon and shield, both signs of power. This representation of the sky and its allegorical usage again intents to give a divine aura to the ruler’s right to lead the region.
Dr Tedlock claims that Mayans used poetry as a form of artistic expression. The writer uses few examples to do this. The mixture of painting and writing, retrieving logographs and syllabic signs from the world of language and returning them to the external world of visible objects, abandoning sentence structure in favour of a cosmic diagram. In one of the examples he uses, the god Pawahtun, a god of a cosmic scale, is painted with the moon in one hand, the sun on the other, the sign of fire coming out from his mouth and with the central sign of his headdress on his moon side being the sign for the night. His body is a version of Chaak, the Thunderstorm god, a weather deity with whom Pawahtun is closely associated. In his head he has a sign which means heat or anger. On his feet are two bars, representing all, and a pyramidal shape, representing the temple. So the poem or its artistic and harmonic form implies a Pawahtun deity, holding the sun and the moon, embodying the weather, linking everything together with a web, which stands over all temples of the earth, a living poem which expresses its allegorical meaning through writing and also through artistic painting.
In another example, on a Mayan vase, the name of Mirror Sceptre is repeated seventeen times, written in mirror image. On it we can also see a bat figure. A literate reader would have noticed that it was Mirror Sceptre and it was written in mirror image. Whether a Mayan viewer of this vase was a reader of iconography or a reader of texts or both, the text on the vase might have evoked the memory of occasions on which lords gathered together to dance at night, wielding sceptres that were images of the god named Mirror Sceptre, on the memory of flights of bats emerging from caves at dusk.
The author also mentions on graffitis such as various found in Tikal, which recreate Mayan myth. In one of them, in the space of a limestone cave which seemed to have been a major pilgrimage site, a cave called Stone House or Macaw Cavern, it was believed to be the house of Seven Macaw, a deity believed to have represented the sun in the Popol Vuh. A deity whose proud was brought down by the twin brothers. The seven stars of the big dipper, which are the sign for this deity, reach their high point above the North star and their low point in the underworld beneath it, disappearing below the horizon. The walls of this cavern were used as a kind of guest book, in which visitors registered their presence. The cavern might have represented the place from which the twin brothers emerged from the underworld.
The counting of the calendar is another impressive creation made by the Mayas. The long count calendar and the way it was made implies that at the very beginning of time, no one was present to do the counting that would lead to the placement of the hearth stones on 4 Lord 8 Kiln. This interpretation gives us a finite number, but it still produces an interval so enormous that it exceeds the powers of the imagination. The resultant time span would be more than a billion times longer than the age astrophysicists currently assign to the universe, which is 13.7 billion years.
In another study of his, Dr Tedlock mentions about the mixture of culture in Chichen Itza, where not only cohabited a mixture of language speakers from the South rainforest, Northern neighbours, the Chontals, the Nahualts and people form Tabasco, but its art is also a mixture of all these cultures. They instituted multepal, a form of shared power government which was projected and reflected in its architecture. We find a mixture of art types, with a south side of the town more Maya, and a north with features such as snake columns and colonnades of Toltec influence. Mayan and Mexican deities coexisted in the pantheon of Chichen Itza, as the Mayan Chaak and the Nahuatl K’uk’ulkaan, or Plumed serpent. On that time, Tula and Chichen Itza took the eastern and western places of Teotihuacan and of Kaminaljuyu. In fact Chichen Itza took the position of Copan as pilgrimage place for the K’iche and K’achiqel lords.
The book also touches on almanacs found on the Grocier, the Dresden and Madrid codices, in which we find divinatory almanacs related to the periodicity of Jupiter, or the symbology of Venus related to war and battles in one side, and to agriculture on the other. The codices used the movement of the stars as an allegory to deepen our understanding of an event that had already occurred, or to suggest the shape of events yet to come or to reveal the most appropriate time to schedule an event. In Palenque for example, Jupiter was amongst the planets tracked by almanacs. The literature found in not just Palenque, but in other towns such as Calakmul, imply an interwoven astronomical narrative with a dynastic one. On another vase, we find four panels depicting a historical baby birth, next to a mythological birth of one of the four directional Pawahtun gods, emerging from a dragon mouth and with a midwife caring about the new born, and on another panel the four directional gods with a younger midwife. This was an almanac that most provably aimed at divining the future of a new born child, partly on the basis of omens that occurred during pregnancy and partly on the birthdate. Perhaps a book about this subject would have mentioned about ways of curing a woman after birth.
The author also mentions of almanacs in which the moon goddess rises with burdens behind her, which represent other gods rising after her, when other planets arise ahead of the moon goddess or the moon goddess meeting face to face with other gods, on a kind of wife-husband relationship. All three contexts relate astronomically to stars rising after, before or at the same time than the moon. On other almanacs, the Mayans represent Venus, or Chaak Ek’, as the great star, a symbol of power and war. Venus takes 584 days to complete a cycle, appearing first as morning star, disappearing for a bit, reappearing as evening star, disappearing again and then appearing as morning star. This planet represents in Mayan culture a dangerous power that passes from one deity to another, taking the form of a dart, and transforming whoever holds it into a warrior who loads it into his dart thrower and shoots to a neighbouring deity. In relation to the Venus cycle, the writer mentions that Mayans adjusted the historical periods by producing an average Venus period of 583,93 days, coming within a quarter of an hour of the 583,92 days measured by western astronomers, an impressive calculation for the time and tools available.
Another god, in this case Chaak, or the Thunderstorm, is related to Mercury, a planet that is clearly observable as morning and evening star for only a few days at a time. It is a planet which is visible in few days, it comes and goes, just as thunderstorms. In fact the almanacs treat the locations of thunderstorms as possibilities rather than facts. In one of the almanacs, the story follows thunderstorms through a counterclockwise circuit of the four directions. We see again the interpretation of planets in the sky and representing ideas that Mayans posit to their deities.
Based on the book “2000 years of Mayan Literature” by Dennis Tedlock
Images are pictures taken by Javier Girona on site.