2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

2000 Years of Mayan Literature

Synopsis

Mayan literature is among the oldest in the world, spanning an astonishing two millennia from deep pre-Columbian antiquity to the present day. Here, for the first time, is a fully illustrated survey, from the earliest hieroglyphic inscriptions to the works of later writers using the Roman alphabet. Dennis Tedlock--ethnographer, linguist, poet, and award-winning author--draws on decades of living and working among the Maya to assemble this groundbreaking book, which is the first to treat ancient Mayan texts as literature. Tedlock considers the texts chronologically. He establishes that women were among the ancient writers and challenges the idea that Mayan rulers claimed the status of gods. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature expands our understanding and appreciation not only of Mayan literature but of indigenous American literature in its entirety.

Excerpt

The roots of writing go deep in the American continent. Even if we apply a narrow definition of writing, demanding that it record the sequence of sounds in a spoken language, we cannot get around the fact that writing existed in the Americas long before Europeans brought the roman alphabet here. Mayans started writing when English (even Old English) had yet to be born. By the seventh century, when English literature made its first tentative appearance, Mayans had a long tradition of inscribing ornaments, pottery vessels, monuments, and the walls of temples and palaces, and they had also begun to write books. the pages of these books were made of a kind of paper that is native to Mesoamerica, but another eight centuries would pass before the Old World version of the art of papermaking arrived in En gland.

And there is more. Now that we know how to read what ancient Mayans wrote, it has turned out that many of their inscriptions concern the births, deeds, deaths, and ghostly returns of named individuals who lived in named places. Scholars had known for some time that inscriptions included dates from Mayan calendars, but now we know that many of these dates concern events in the lives of individuals and the communities in which they lived. in other words, the writing of history began in the Americas before any European set foot here. For example, the lords who ruled the city whose ruins are known today as Palenque left behind continuous records that span four centuries (397–799 C.E.). They claimed roots for their royal powers that went much deeper, to a time when civilization was still relatively young in the Americas (996 B.C.E.).

The time has come to take a further step and proclaim that literature existed in the Americas before Europeans got here—not only oral literature but visible literature. So far, there is very little in print that would bring such a claim to life. Much decipherment has taken place but very little in the way of translation. Part of the problem is that decipherment is guided by linguistic rather than literary goals. After labeling the signs that compose a Mayan text and giving them a rough translation, specialists whose interests lie elsewhere than in literature extract fragments of information and reorganize them to fit forms of discourse that originated in Eu rope. When they mine Mayan texts for historical data, for example, they change the structure of the original narratives. Most of these texts tell a story with two overlapping strands, one of which follows events on the surface of the earth while the other follows events in the sky. Rather than unfolding in a strict chronological order, the sequence of events in these two strands may be interrupted by jump cuts that move the time frame backward or forward.

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