Claude-Francois Baudez. Une Histoire De la Religion Des Maya: Du Pantheisme Au Pantheon

By Paradis, Louise Iseult | Antiquity, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Claude-Francois Baudez. Une Histoire De la Religion Des Maya: Du Pantheisme Au Pantheon


Paradis, Louise Iseult, Antiquity


CLAUDE-FRANCOIS BAUDEZ. Une histoire de la religion des Maya: du pantheisme au pantheon. 472 pages, 113 figures, 1 table, 33 colour photographs. 2002. Paris: Albin Michel; 2-226-12669-4 paperback 35 [euro].

Claude-Francois Baudez's book on Maya religion is a very welcome addition to the dearth of works in French on the subject. As the title shows, it is 'a history of the religion' and, as such, a personal interpretation of the prehispanic evidence relating to the worldview and ideology of this fascinating civilization.

In a long and detailed introduction, Baudez presents his thesis and discusses the methodology used for analysing the data. From the first representations of religious themes in the Preclassic period up to the Spanish Conquest, Maya religion has evolved and changed. One cannot talk of homogeneity throughout 2000 years of history. The most important change that has occurred in the religious system, according to the author, is the transformation from a world without gods, composed of supernatural or cosmic forces, in the Classic period, to a world with an elaborate pantheon in the Postclassic. This comes as somewhat of an iconoclastic statement among mayanists, and especially the epigraphists who have generally based their identification of the Classic supernatural beings upon analogies with the Postclassic codices and Colonial texts such as the Popol Vuh. Baudez, following Kubler and what is still very much a lively debate on continuity/disruption in iconographic studies, sees a serious methodological flaw in this approach. Baudez proposes to work predominantly on a synchronic level and criticizes the abuse of untested analogies.

Faithful to his methodological standpoint, Baudez structures his book in three chapters: the Classic religion, the transition featuring Chichen Itza, and the last centuries preceding the Spanish Conquest. Each chapter presents elaborate information and interpretations on various data relating to ritual and worldview. In the first two, his interpretations rest almost exclusively on archaeology, iconography and, to a much lesser extent, epigraphy. Only in the last chapter does he make ample use of the Postclassic codices, Colonial sources and ethnography.

The chapter on Classic religion first looks at the places of rituals. Caves, temples and ball courts are privileged. Through a fine analysis of the architecture and iconography of selected centres such as Copan, Tikal and Palenque, he proposes that these are 'ritual theatres' in which the buildings constitute so many stage sets. The major part of this chapter is dedicated to the study of beliefs and ritual. The stage is set with the presentation of the cosmos and its various parts; then, the mythical world and its actors are introduced. The chapter closes, as one would expect, with the actual performances: the rites that connect the cosmos, the mythical world and humans. Some of his concluding remarks permit us to get a picture of Baudez's interpretation of Classic religion. Among these, many are generally shared by most mayanists, such as the conception of space (vertical and horizontal) and time (astronomical, ritual and dynastic). The central figure of the king is another idea shared by most mayanists; the sovereign is at the centre of most cosmic scenes.

He is identified with the cosmic tree, compared to the sun and celebrated on stelae. His funerals are sumptuous, often with human sacrifices and complex rituals to ensure his survival. His ancestors anoint his legitimacy, and the ancestor's cult is a central part of the religious system.

Baudez departs from the generally accepted idea that there is an important pantheon of gods among the Classic Maya.

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