June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
One of the most fascinating of all the mysteries left for modern man by the original inhabitants of North America is the largely indecipherable record, carved on stone by a stone-age people, of the fabulous civilization of the Maya Indians. In the jungles of Yucatan and Central America are the imposing ruins of fantastic cities or ceremonial centers, many of them dating back to the early years of the Christian era, all of them reflecting the development and the activities of a unique society whose origins lie even farther back in the past. This society had gone into a cultural decline before the first Europeans arrived, and most of its finest centers had been abandoned. For four centuries men have been trying to reconstruct its history from data that are frequently confusing and always inadequate.
It has been said that there can be no history without documents. The Maya left plenty of documents, or at least inscriptions. The trouble lies in reading them. Maya hieroglyphs have been deciphered only in part. Enough is known to give a tantalizing glimpse of the spiritual and intellectual achievements of a truly remarkable people, but we still know only a portion of the story which was so carefully recorded many centuries before Columbus. There will never be a Rosetta stone to solve the riddle. Fuller knowledge comes from the slow, laborious work of scholars who work step by step at the breaking of a code devised by men whose concepts were profoundly unlike those of today.
One of the most distinguished and persistent of these scholars is J. Eric S. Thompson, who has spent many years in a study of the Maya and who has done as much as anyone to gain an understanding of their inscriptions. In Maya Hieroglyphic Writing he details the steps by which the glyphs are interpreted, and, in the course of it, sheds fascinating light on the spirit which animated the age that produced them.
Essential to any study of these gyphs is a detailed knowledge of Maya theology and myth, which were extraordinarily complex. Maya writing seems to have been concerned very largely with recording the passage of time and with determining the specific dates on which various solar, lunar, and astronomical periods would end, or begin. This was to the Maya a matter of deep religious significance, the very heart and center of what they believed about life and about the universe. Their calendar, the astronomical knowledge on which it was based, the days and months and years which composed it, the numerical system used to record it—these were not so much religious matters as religion itself. Never was there a people so completely given over to what Mr. Thompson calls a “strange, poetic absorption in the passage of time.”
Maya Hieroglyphic Writing by J. Eric S. Thompson. University of Oklahoma Press, reproduced from the first edition published in 1950 by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. 347 pp., plus plates. $10.
The Maya, to begin with, were astronomers and mathematicians of great skill, a good deal farther advanced in both of those fields than their European contemporaries. They were also excellent architects and they produced artists of uncommon sensitivity and sophistication, and Mr. Thompson believes that one of the things which make their glyphs so hard to decipher was the fact that they were poets as well, using seemingly redundant or tautological locutions simply for literary effect. Basically, indeed, their concept of the universe was a poetic concept. As Mr. Thompson remarks, “Man can hardly fail to be moved in spirit as he gazes into the ever-receding past, or ponders the immeasurable future. He faces eternity whichever way he turns.”
To help him face eternity the Maya had devised an exceedingly intricate calendar. He had two years going at once—one, a more or less normal g65-day solar year (he knew about leap year, but he refused to have one; he simply made corrections, kept himself perfectly in tune with solar time, but let the g65-day year run), and a special year of 260 days, which had nothing to do with any movement of stars, sun, or moon but which was extremely important to him. This special, 26o-day year came because the Maya had twenty days, given interesting names like Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Manik, and so on down to something named Ahau. These days were numbered only up to thirteen, which meant that the same day and the same number would not meet again until 260 days had elapsed. When that happened this particular year was over. Meanwhile, of course, the solar year of 365 days was going on, not to mention an extra year of 584 days, which had to do with the synodical period of the planet Venus. Every 104 solar years all three of these special years would come out even, which meant that the entire procession had to start over again; meanwhile, the periods of twenty solar years, known as katuns, were considered highly important, and the Maya tended to reckon time by katuns much as we reckon it by centuries.
What gave all of this its particular point was the fact that these various divisions of time were looked on as burdens, and the separate components—the days, the numbers, the years, and all the rest—were held to be bearers of these burdens. The bearers were believed to be gods. Each day was a god, each number was a god, and so was each month, each year, and so on; some gods had beneficent aspects, and some were quite the reverse—some, in other words, were lucky, others were unlucky, and to find out whether any particular day in the ordinary round of living would bring good luck, bad luck, or indifferent luck the priest-astronomer had to go through an extraordinary series of calculations to see just how the scales were going to balance.
All of this came down to the fact that when the Maya looked at time he did not see a flowing current, an unending tide, as we sometimes do; he looked at a whole set of living gods, each one carrying his own particular burden of time, the separate processions interlocking most intricately, each moment in time governed by a diverse set of deities, some of whom could be assuaged or persuaded by special propitiatory sacrifices, some of them impervious to all human appeals. Astronomy was married to astrology. Many relay races were going on, all of the races of different lengths; time was the journey of many different individuals, each one carrying his own special load, and the journey itself was of infinite extent. It went on forever, each day subject to its own combination of influences, each pattern inevitably repeated, sooner or later, in the unending round of eternity.
This was not simply an interesting game. The Maya had a rigid system of predestination, in which he believed devoutly. Any given day in his life was tightly controlled by a whole concourse of divine beings, the setup shifting from day to day but eventually repeating itself. In addition, there were external influences. The position of various planets, the nearness or otherwise of solar or lunar eclipses, also mattered; there were gods of the upper world, gods of the underworld, gods of the four compass points, gods almost without number, each bearing his own power for good or for evil, each touching one special day in the unending sequence. To know whether he should, on any one day in his life, do anything of consequence—get married, plant a crop, name a child, build a temple, make war on a neighboring state, or what-not—the Maya had to consider an exceedingly complex combination of deities.
In the long run, things came out even; the various auspices that attended any one day—today, five thousand years ago, or two hundred centuries in the future—would recur, sooner or later. The past and the future were oddly the same; history and prophecy, looked at over the long pull, were identical. What had once been, even though it might have taken place aeons ago, would some day happen again. To find out what was going to happen to him at any particular time the Maya, whether he was a humble farmer or the head of the state, had to consult the priest-astronomer, who in turn would consult his records and his knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and the incomprehensibly intricate theology that went with both.
This priest-astronomer, the repository of most of the thinking and all of the not-inconsiderable body of scientific knowledge which the society possessed, had to probe the mysteries of the past in order to see what was going to happen in the future. He was no mere medicine man; by his own standards he was a scientist, rendering an objective verdict on information which he got by using the best knowledge available to him.
“His premises were at fault,” says Mr. Thompson, “but that he did not know, and in any case the same charge can be made against not a few modern scientists who start with the premise that the stone of materialism will satisfy mankind, ignoring man’s far greater need for the bread of spiritual life.”
There was in all of this a queer blend of the very primitive and the highly civilized. In a way, the Maya were blood brothers to the Iroquois and the Comanches and the other tribes north of the Gulf and the Rio Grande; they were stone-age savages, caught up in a blind animism that entrusted the most profound mysteries of life and death to the cynical medicine man. But in another way the Maya were not savages at all. They were more advanced than their European contemporaries; they were better mathematicians and better astronomers, roaming through endless time looking for answers to riddles which puzzle the twentiethcentury American as much as they puzzled untaught red men 1,500 years ago. Nothing in history is more touching than their quest. The same stars that looked down on Judea were visible in Yucatan, and if what the Maya found was nothing in particular, what they looked for and the spirit that drove them to search were as lofty as anything in man’s experience.
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?
Quite a bit, in some ways. At an infinite remove they touched the beliefs and customs of the tribes far north of the Rio Grande, so that symbols and habits of thought have come down to us, and they developed grains and vegetables which have been a mainstay of the white man’s life ever since. Even more, however, they left us a picture of what a primitive people can achieve. Mr. Thompson sums it up very well: The Maya rose to heights of spiritual grandeur, unfortified by which they could never have freed their culture from the shackles of a poor soil, a deleterious climate, inadequate methods of agriculture, and a pitifully restricted range of tools. Our own culture is the opposite of that of the Maya, for materially it has infinite wealth and resources, but spiritually it is desperately impoverished. In religious feeling and sense of duty, in happiness and tranquility, in painting and sculpture, in poetry and prose, in music, and in architecture, too, I think, but with less assurance, our present civilization is at low ebb, displaying vast mudflats of purposeless living and frustration. In such a sad plight we may well humble ourselves to inquire how and why the Maya, endowed with scant material resources, made a success of their life, whereas we, with all nature at our command, have fallen woefully short of that objective. The general answer to that inquiry, if we have the humility to make it, must lie in the greater spiritual wealth of the Maya, but the detailed story can be ours only if we busy ourselves in mastering the script in which the Maya classics are writ. Progress has been made, and “now at last the sacred influence of light appears, and from the walls of heaven shoots far into the bosom of dim night a glimmering dawn.”