What was the religion of the Mayans?
The mystery and beauty of the Mayaby C.G. | BERLIN
DURING the final days of the Red Army’s fierce battle for Berlin, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, a Soviet artillery soldier, found boxes of books in front of the Prussian State Library. Clearly, the Germans hadn’t managed to remove and put them somewhere safer as they did with so many works of art before the advance of the Allied troops. Knorosov, who had begun studying ethnology in Moscow before war broke out, was hungry for books and rummaged through the boxes. Fortunately, they were still in good condition; neither vandalised, ruined by debris from bombs or scuffed amid the street-fighting.
He found a treasure: an edition of Diego de Landa’s “Relación de las cosas de Yucatán” (“Narrative of the things of Yucatán”). Though written in 1566, it is still seen as the authority on Mayan life, religion and culture. Ironically, de Landa was also responsible for the destruction of a large proportion of works in 1561 which contained the icons and hieroglyphs of the Mayan language. Those included the famous Mayan codices, folding books made of what the Maya called huun-paper. Apparently it was more durable and had a better writing surface than papyrus. But as a bishop, de Landa felt that “none of them was free of superstition and devilish illusion.” Yet in his own book he describes Mayan life and culture including their calendar, their architecture, the floral and the animal world using Roman letters for the phonemes he heard in the Mayan language. His work made it possible to decipher around one-third of the Mayan hieroglyphs.
Knorosov’s precious loot is said to have also included reproductions of the three Maya codices that survived the destruction by the conquistadores, named after the cities where they have been brought—Paris, Madrid and Dresden. The Dresden codex is considered the most precious, as the oldest (from around 1250) and best preserved. Back home in Leningrad, Knorosov began to study the hieroglyphs with great enthusiasm. He “knew that the Maya script—with its 800 or so characters—could not have been an alphabet in which each letter matches one phoneme”, says Nikolai Grube, an epigrapher and anthropologist at Bonn University. (A phoneme is a single sound, like or .) “But it could also not have been a pure script of words or terms, since no language works with just 800 words.” The Mayan writing system, it seemed, represented syllables: bigger than phonemes but smaller than words.
“The least likely person one would ever have thought to have made the greatest of all breakthroughs in the Maya decipherment was a Soviet citizen, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov”, asserts Michael Coe, an American anthropologist and archaeologist, in a documentary in 2008. Yet it took a few decades before Knorosov gained the appreciation he deserved. His findings, published in 1952 in a Soviet journal, Sovyetska Ethnographica (“Soviet Ethnography”), were trumpeted by the Soviet propaganda apparatus as a kind of defeat of the capitalist world. “This young scholar has done what none of the imperialist scholars in Britain or the United States or Germany could ever do, ” they proclaimed. “He’s shown how the Maya wrote.” Many in Britain dismissed the findings as Marxist propaganda.
The books Knorosov took to Russia never returned to Berlin. However, in April a spectacular exhibition was launched at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau museum: “Maya—The Language of Beauty”, featuring around 300 Mayan artefacts from the Yucatán peninsula from between 500 BC and 1500 AD. Tiny figurines made of limestone or clay—as well as giant arenite sculptures of humans, gods or animals—embody the Mayan lifestyle, religious rituals and the pre-Hispanic Maya’s ideas of beauty, physical strength and social power. The Mayas venerated different creatures as symbols of the forces of nature, and as mediators between gods and men. Their beauty ideal does not match modern Western views; nobody would bind a newborn infant’s head between two boards, gradually increasing the pressure in order to create a deeply sloped forehead, but this was highly elegant to the pre-Hispanic Maya of all social classes.
While the works of Mayan art in this show (including a few very well preserved stelae with hieroglyphs) are outstanding and extremely precious treasures, the attached explanations (in German and English) regarding their history, background and origin are sometimes a bit sketchy and displayed in a slightly old-fashioned way on wall panels.
But as Mr Grube tells Prospero, the town of Speyer in western Germany—in co-operation with Bonn University—will host a huge exhibition on the Maya (completely separate from the Berlin show) with around 320 artefacts from Guatemala and various European museums in early October. With the help of interactive installations the curators will present brand new scientific research results on Mayan urbanisation of the rainforest, with a detailed catalogue to help decipher the wonders of Mayan architecture, life, script and art, Mr Grube promised. The exploration of former Mayan sites continues, as for instance under the Maya Research Programme in Belize in the summer. About 6, 000 Maya sites have been registered in Central America so far. Hundreds more, if not thousands, are still waiting to be discovered by archaeologists and museum goers alike.
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