MICHAEL D. COE & STEPHEN HOUSTON — THE MAYA — NINTH EDITION — 2015
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU
The main interest of this book is that it follows the standard history of the Maya from beginning to end and city after city. The index is then very useful to follow one particular city or one particular reference. Each case is both described in what has survived, in what we can know about them and what has been said about them too. The bringing up together of the whole subject in some synthetic approach on some questions is at the end of the book and it is both useful because very synthetic and frustrating because very skimpy.
This synthesis though gives us some elements about the language, the writing system, the mathematics, the calendars, the four codices and a fast survey of what happened after the arrival of the Spaniards and what has been the fate of the Mayas since this arrival. The authors are clear, and they qualify this fate as being “ethnocide and genocide on a grand scale.” The two massive crimes against humanity are of a different nature. Ethnocide targets the destruction of the culture of a people to force them into deculturation and then into acculturation in a culture that has little to do with their original culture. The book though insists on the fact the various Spanish and then Ladino people who imposed that ethnocide could easily succeed because of the many common points between Maya religion and Christianity. The book insists on the fact that the Maya main god, the Maize God, is very similar to Jesus because he is put to death every year after the harvest for the winter and it is resurrected every spring from the very maize kernels or grains. For the Maya, maize is not a simple plant, but it is a person, a divine being that must be sacrificed every year to be able to be reborn the following year. Genocide, on the other hand, is the killing of as many members of this group, the Maya, as possible in the shortest time possible.
Maybe the book does not insist enough on the fact that this divine sacrifice has deep roots in a more general mythology, particularly the Popol Vuh and the Divine Twins. The rebirth of the Maize god is to be obtained with the sacrifice of animals, but especially self-sacrifice with bloodletting, and human sacrifice. The book insists on the fact the sacrificed human beings were war prisoners, slaves, and orphans or handicapped children. I am not sure this is enough. Such human sacrifices or self-sacrifices created a demographic problem that might have partly been the result of some kind of dealing with overpopulation with sexual self-sacrifice for men that resulted in some kind of contraception, with the sacrifice of males that resulted in less sexual male partners, and with the sacrifice of orphans and handicapped children that led to both eugenics and the reduction of male sexual procreators. It must be clearly said that such practices targeted men and practically only men, carried out by male priests and helpers, and this male domination is a typical trait of post-Ice Age agriculture. A last remark on this topic is that it does not — and I guess it cannot — indicate the real origin of such a vast practice, though it seems to have been contained within some limits by the Maya, whereas it was brought to some extreme levels by the Aztecs. It is yet remarkable that such massive human sacrifices were a common trait of all south and Meso American civilization from what is today Peru to Mexico. The author should also have insisted on the fact that such practices were absolutely marginal among northern American Indians. The debate about John Smith and Pocahontas is typical: John Smith was put through a procedure of integration in the tribe Pocahontas represented and not in any way menaced in his life. Only his outsider’s life was symbolically killed for his tribe-member’s life to be delivered by Pocahontas herself who was an initiated priestess.
The second question this synthesis brings up is that of the Maya language that we only know through its writing system. This writing system is only available in surviving inscriptions in stone or in wall paintings or on all kinds of tools, utensils, and objects for everyday life or for body embellishment: pots, cups, plates, boxes, etc., plus jewels and all sorts of beads or rings. The book cannot answer how long it took the Maya to devise and develop this written language and it cannot answer the simple question of how long Maya language had been in existence before the Maya society invented the writing system that needed an elite body of writing scribes. The fact that the Spaniards destroyed all the books the Maya had, except four that managed to escape that ethnocidal action, is depriving us of the necessary information about the past, the mythology, the history, etc., of the Maya. The timeline generally given is based too much on what we have at our disposal which is only what has survived and was produced in a highly advanced society. A human society does not decide to build pyramids and massive temples and vast cities in one generation (30 years). The only thing we know is that such massive constructions only appeared after the peak of the Ice Age and it took many thousand years for the social organizations that would build these constructions to emerge and stabilize. But what must be studied today is the timeline of such constructions. Satellite-viewing has revealed the same type of constructions exists in the high valley of Amazonia. Are they older than the Maya pyramids or younger? Are they the proof this stone constructing civilization went up north from the south or down south from the north? In the second hypothesis, where did they come from since we do not find such stone constructions in Northern America?
The object of this book is not to explore the language itself. So, do not expect a lot of detail. This remark can be extended to what is said about the mathematics and the calendars of the Maya. The Tzolkin calendar, in particular, is not explained in its “ritual” dimension since it is supposed to enable the priests to announce and order the various rites including human sacrifices in the social timeline of everyday life. But that’s not the object of the book. You will have to look for more information and I must admit that the role of Venus who is the embodiment of the second most important God, Kukulkan (the Maya version of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent), who is a God who was sacrificed and whose Second Coming is announced from the East on some kind of ship. The Spaniards were wrongly understood by some like the Aztecs as being the Second Coming of Quetzalcoatl. Note this Second Coming is not clearly indicated as being a common point with Christianity and the Second Coming of Jesus bringing Doomsday, the Apocalypse, and the Last Judgment. In fact, such parallel visions should bring us to the question of how in so distant places on earth civilizations that were so un-connected could devise such parallel visions. What made Maya or Mesoamerican mythologies produce patterns that are so parallel and similar to those produced by Biblical writers and even before them Zoroastrian or Sumerian Mesopotamian writers. There is no direct connection between these two geographical and historical zones and periods. So, do humans have some mental frame that is the same all over the world and hence has a unique source? Note this “second coming pattern” can be found in many cultures and civilizations in very distant times, at least times that provide us with some surviving testimony.
So, to conclude on this very interesting and very well-illustrated book, let’s say you will have a lot of work still to do to answer the questions I have put forward.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU