Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
The hacking of the Mayan script in the twentieth century is an intellectual epic that is in some respects even more dramatic than Champollion's decoding of Egyptian in the century before. The Mayanists had no Rosetta stone. What they had were a few clues and a consuming curiosity that would be familiar to anyone who has ever stood at Chichen-Itza or Tikal, or encountered the Mayan's weird and elaborate reliefs: a prince drawing a thorn-studded cord through an incision in his tongue, a deity emerging from the jaws of a draconic centipede.
Now, as a result of generations of study, the language is mostly understood, and it is time, Dennis Tedlock writes, to understand this writing as art. "Much decipherment has taken place but very little in the way of translation," he explains in he introduction to his definitive compendium, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature (California, $49.95). Richly illustrated, the book insists that we must "take a further step and proclaim that literature existed in the Americas before Europeans got here."
Tedlock begins with the history of Mayan writing, printing his English translations beside the grimacing faces and jaguars and squiggles and dots that make up the Mayan script and showing, along the way, how the civilization evolved. He devotes an intriguing chapter to the esoteric subject of Mayan graffiti and explains how the name "Yucatan" originated when an inquisitive Spanish explorer asked some fishermen what the place was called: "What they actually said was k'i ut'an, which means, 'The way he talks is funny.' "
As enjoyable as his book is to read, Tedlock overburdens his work with his insistence that much of this Mayan writing is literature. To a Mayan, it may well have been, but it is barely identifiable as such today. Pity the Mayanist who has spent decades learning such devilish languages only to reveal this bewildering sentence:
No single days, 5 score days, and 8 stones passed after she was born, and meanwhile the era was closed on 4 Lord 8 Kiln, completing 13 bundles of stones, 2 and 9 score days and 1 stone after the hearth was measured at the edge of the sky -- the First Three Stone Place -- there in the sky was Corn Silk at the Tip of a Single Ear.
There's an awful lot of this stuff. What remains as indisputable, or at least still intelligible, literature is the cosmic masterpiece Popol Vuh (extensively excerpted here), which, alongside all the other texts Tedlock has collected, creates an impression of an intricate culture that still won't yield all its secrets.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.
Books mentioned in this post