The Mystery Of Time
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Most of the innumerable hieroglyphic inscriptions in the buried Maya cities were written because the Maya attached especial importance to the ending of each katun, or twenty-year period of time. Each of these days was the climax of a mystery, the end of a major stage in “the majestic journey of time through eternity,” and each one accordingly was to be celebrated with all of the ritual at the command of the priesthood. This ritual was extensive. It involved, for many centuries, the erection in the center of town of a stela, or stone pillar, four-sided, intricately carved, carrying the neat hieroglyphs which gave the particular date and showed, to the limit of man’s knowledge, the various auspices which prevailed at that particular time. These stelae—lonely and weathered, enduring for centuries in destructive tropical forests, presiding over empty cities where no man has lived for many generations—are today a principal, though by no means the only, source of Maya inscriptions.
But the time-period ending involved also a hideous and dramatic ritual. The gods who ruled over each moment of Maya life were demanding; they gave nothing for nothing but had to be appeased, and what appeased them was human blood. So the lofty temples, with steep stairways running up the faces of immense pyramids, saw their own strange processions: priests and acolytes, with one chosen victim, climbing step by step toward the sky, with thousands of ordinary folk grouped in the plaza below to watch, the architecture cunningly arranged so that the open platform at the top of the long flight of stairs compelled the focus of all eyes. On that platform the victim was put to death, his heart torn from his living breast, incense sending plumes of smoke toward the sky, everyone absorbed in the unspeakable drama of the occasion. Once the sacrifice was made, the unending round could go on, day following day, year following year, each moment an unrecognized repetition of some moment which had been lived through ages before.
So the devout Maya, living through these days of bloodshed and terror and obscure adoration, put up their pillars, carving each one with the rococo inscriptions which summed up their imperfect knowledge of the universe that held them in terror and mute obedience. They also put inscriptions on their altars, and along the walls of temples, and they wrote a good many books—all but three of which, during the early period of Spanish occupation, were ruthlessly burned.
Deciphering these inscriptions has been in the last degree difficult. Each glyph apparently had two forms—a symbolic or normal form, and a personified form in which a fairly recognizable set of characters is replaced arbitrarily by the head of some lost god. The writers were sophisticated. Many elements in their writing could be substituted for each other, apparently without warning; beyond this, the writing was partly a rebus-style business, with familiar symbols representing nothing more than the pronunciation of their names, and partly three or four other things, and to make a beginning at understanding it, as Mr. Thompson points out, the student has to know what Maya symbols were and how they could be used. A single component, visibly displaying, say, a fish, might in fact mean “fish,” or it might mean the syllable a Maya would utter when he tried to say “fish,” or it might stand for a symbol meaning the god of the third level of the underworld, or some such; or, for that matter, it might refer to a secondary aspect of some god of the seasons who is ordinarily represented by the picture of a monkey’s skull or a banana. The path which has to be followed by a student of Maya hieroglyphs seems to be about as hard and as complicated as any channel which human learning may follow.
This book, as a result, is rather demanding, as far as the general reader is concerned. It is bulky, heavy in the literal and figurative senses of the word, concerned most of the time with the ins and outs of the Maya time count, or with the pronunciation of long-forgotten Indian names, or with the almost unendurably complex relationships between the innumerable gods in the Maya pantheon. Mr. Thompson says at the beginning that his work is intended “to provide nonspecialists in Maya archaeology with a cultural background for the study of the hieroglyphic writing,” but the nonspecialist who is not really dedicated will have his difficulties.
All of that, however, makes little difference. Mr. Thompson does provide what is important: an understanding of the Maya point of view, a feeling for the sense of mystery and awe with which he looked at his own pin-point place between two eternities, and a sense of admiration for the intellectual and spiritual capacities of this strange, New World people which rose as far above what we ordinarily consider the dead level of Indian barbarism as their temples rose above the level of a Navaho hogan.
There were, in short, long before any Europeans heard of the New World, people here who knew about the stars, about numbers, about the deepest mysteries of life and death. They did not come very close (by our own standards, anyway) to finding enduring answers to any of these things, and in any case they died and their cloud-capped towers were swallowed up by tropical jungles before the first inquisitive newcomer began to wonder what they had been driving at; but they did their best, they were caught up by a vision beyond life, and they fumbled with primitive tools to cut their way out of darkness and toward light. And they left us—just what?