GULF OF MEXICO
GULF OF MEXICO
on, scattered about in little villages. Since then, the population has suffered many hardships, but has managed nevertheless to retain its own identity and traditions.
Mayan city-states were highly complex constructs, politically speaking. They were autonomous, but linked by structured, mutual alliances, which often resulted in conflict between them (Schele and Freidel 1990). This tangle has only begun to be unraveled gradually in the last few decades, due to the deciphering of inscriptions, initially made possible by the brilliant insight of Tatiana Prouskianoff. Up to the 1950s, a rather iniquitous and dangerous archaeological mindset persisted, whereby the Mayas were seen as a sort of "flower people" ante litteram. Even though it is sufficient to glance at Mayan art—in which, for instance, human sacrifice is explicitly depicted—to realize how absurd such a conviction is, it really was believed that the Mayas were a calm, pacifist people of docile farmers. This idea was applied also to the inscriptions, resulting in statements like, "The great theme of Maya civilization is the passage of time," as J. Eric Thompson, an authoritative Maya scholar, said in 1954.
We have been able to read Mayan numerals for considerable time, and Prousniakoff came up with the idea that glyphs written between one date and another were the recordings of real events. As so often happens, ingenious things are obvious only when someone points them out. What can be more banal than the fact that in an inscription containing dates, a king or leader should write: "I, X, son of Y, was born, ascended the throne, defeated Z in the city of W" and so on? This discovery led to the opening of archives of Mayan historiography that had remained unstudied, although they were in plain view of everyone. Once our disgraceful shortsightedness was corrected, we rediscovered this wonderful civilization.
The Mayas, in fact, were able to do anything, and were very good at what they did. For example, they knew how to farm using sophisticated systems of terracing and irrigation, they knew how to work with many materials with the highest artistry, and they knew how to construct grandiose, sophisticated buildings. The Mayan world was inextricably linked with the realm of the natural and supernatural, to a degree that was to be surpassed only by the Incas, as we shall see. Their pantheon was extremely complex and ramified, including deities embodying two aspects (old/young, man/ animal, good/bad). Itzanma, an old sage, was to a certain extent their main divinity, and by no coincidence the inventor of the arts and sciences. Celestial divinities were associated with the sun, the moon, Venus, and the cardinal points. The four gods associated with the four cardinal points had their own special color and behavior, as in China and Japan. The cosmos was structured in three levels, or "worlds": one subterranean, one terrestrial, and one heavenly. It has often been written that the Mayas therefore considered the world to be flat. But I am extremely dubious that a Mayan astronomer would believe in such nonsense.
The underground world, or Xibalba, was divided into nine levels, each inhabited by a divinity associated with death. The heavenly world was populated mainly by divinities connected with natural phenomena, for example, Chac, the rain god, the Mayan version of Tlaloc. Venus played a particularly important role; her cycles were studied scrupulously, as we shall see shortly. Generally speaking, the prediction of all heavenly events and the study of their presumed influence on human lives was undoubtedly fundamental for the Mayas, and for this reason they are usually defined "astrologers, not astronomers" (Coe 2001). I shall return to this issue later. For the moment, let me say that establishing what they were is a question that need concern us little. What does interest us, rather, is understanding what they knew.
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