Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Literary Continuities across the Transformation from Maya Hieroglyphic to Alphabetic Writing1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Literary Continuities across the Transformation from Maya Hieroglyphic to Alphabetic Writing1

Article excerpt

(ProQuest-CSA LLC: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

AT HE BEGINNING of the 1960s, Evon Vogt organized a conference on the cultural development of the Maya, which was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research and the National Science Foundation (Vogt 1964, 7). Wenner-Gren hosted the conference at the Burg Wartenstein Castle in Austria during the second week of September in 1962 (1964, 6). Vogt is in the middle of the front row in the picture of the conference participants shown in figure 1. Two other members of our Society are shown in the picture: Gordon Willey, who is looking over Vogt's left shoulder, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff at the left end of the front row.

The purpose of the conference was to look at the development of Maya culture over a broad sweep of time, from its beginnings before the Christian Era until very recent times. This was an interdisciplinary project, involving the collaboration of archaeologists, linguists, and ethnologists. A much-lamented gap in knowledge mentioned by several conference participants was that very little was then known about the content and structure of Maya hieroglyphic texts (Vogt and Ruz 1964, passim). The only paper on Maya literature-by my late colleague and close friend Munro Edmonson-was limited to texts recorded after the Spanish Conquest (Edmonson 1964).

Much has happened in the field of Maya studies since 1962, particularly in hieroglyphic research. We now know enough about the content and structure of hieroglyphic texts to show that the characteristic literary device of the Maya of southern Mexico and northern Central America predated the arrival of Spaniards in the Americas by more than a thousand years.

Maya literature is well known for its use of parallel couplets, a stylistic trait that it shares with other Mesoamerican literatures, notably that of the Aztecs (León-Portilla 1963).2 Numerous examples of couplets can be found in Colonial Maya writing from the Yucatan peninsula (Edmonson 1982, 1986; Hanks 1986) and highland Guatemala (Edmonson 1971), and their use is well attested in some oral genres of the Maya now living in Yucatan (V. Bricker 1974; Redfield and Villa Rojas 1934, 339-56), as well as in Zinacantan in highland Chiapas (Laughlin 1980, 206-84), where Vogt (1969, 1976) carried out his major ethnographic research. It seems reasonable that such a widespread tradition would have roots in the Precolumbian past, and it is now possible to document the existence of this tradition as early as AD 320 and to show that it has continued with few changes into modern times.

In Maya literature, couplets are composed of pairs of lines that are semantically and often also syntactically parallel. The following extract from a Zinacanteco prayer recited during a house-dedication ceremony illustrates these characteristics:

God, see here, My Father,

see here, My Lord.

Before Thy faces,

Before Thy eyes,

I will venerate my lowly torches,

I will venerate my lowly candles. (Laughlin 1980, 207)

In each of the three couplets there is a syntactic frame and a variable element. In the first couplet, the frame consists of "see here, My _____," and the variable elements are "Father" and "Lord." In the second, the frame is represented by "Before Thy __," which is filled by the words "faces" in the first line and "eyes" in the second. The third frame is "I will venerate my lowly __," and the variable elements are "torches" and "candles." In each case, the second line restates the idea that is expressed in the first line in a slightly different way. This is a pattern for which there are hieroglyphic counterparts.

The basic format of hieroglyphic texts serves as the foundation for a couplet tradition. Texts are usually composed of blocks of hieroglyphs arranged in columns and rows (fig. 2). The normal reading order is from left to right and from top to bottom in paired columns. …

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