Those Mysterious Maya?

By Blair A. Moffett

The remains of Maya civilization were discovered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by amateur archaeologists who came to Central America. Better prepared individuals in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries extended this pioneering work. Compared with today's highly specialized professionals, these enjoyed an enviable atmosphere of scholarly freedom and they did not hesitate to address themselves to the larger question — still moot — what kind of people erected those magnificent stone edifices and why? This continues to fuel a surprisingly wide interest in all of the high cultures of pre-Columbian America despite the mainly technical reports now offered us by most specialists.

The human story of Maya explorations has been engagingly set out in two books by Robert L. Brunhouse, professor of history at the University of Alabama. In his first work, In Search of the Maya (University of New Mexico Press, 1973. Brunhouse's 1975 sequel is published by the same press), he outlined in sympathetic terms the exploits, foibles and conjectures of eight of the first pioneers in the field. Pursuit of the Ancient Maya, just published, draws lively portraits of seven of their successors such as Alfred P. Maudslay, Sylvanus G. Morley, William E. Gates and Frans Blom, describing their successes and failures. Read serially, these interesting accounts yield a far better insight than does any one alone.

Their easy style and intense human interest aside, Brunhouse's studies provide a valuable X-ray picture of this field of science whose subject is man and his past. He testifies to the important contribution made by the alert and concerned amateur. Because he is not so fettered by current theories or archaeological fads that can unduly influence the professional, the amateur can more easily maintain a broader view of potential meanings inherent in his data. Moreover, he is often more aware of the role played in human history by the great imponderables — intelligence, spirituality, genius and tradition — whereas the professional, seeking greater "scientific rigor," may overlook the importance of these in favor of more material factors as he theorizes about his finds.

Brunhouse shows us how the egotism and ambition for personal acclaim from their discoveries vitiated, when they did not seriously damage, the usefulness of the work of numbers of the early investigators. The penchant of some of them for issuing sweeping public statements claiming to have solved the "mystery of the Maya" served to sour many scholars against serious speculation about Maya origins and to restrict their inquiries to the work of "dirt archaeology" — unearthing artifacts and classifying, measuring and restoring sites.

Among the archaeologists discussed by Brunhouse, few appear to have associated contemporary Mayan peoples with those prehistoric races responsible for building the great stone ceremonial centers which literally dot southern Mexico and parts of Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala and are still not fully charted. True, the Indians they saw seemed not to possess any of the characteristics one would expect to find in the fashioners of such mighty works, but they overlooked the disastrous effects of the brutal Spanish conquest which caused the Indian to retreat within himself. As John F. Neidecker, a geographer recently with the Johns Hopkins University, says:

The theory one often hears voiced, that the Maya mysteriously disappeared into the jungle, is also most romantic and doubtless holds a fascination for the sensation-seekers or the pseudo-religiously inclined. The truth is that nothing at all has "happened" to the Maya: they are still there . . . until recently, virtually 90 percent of the people of Yucatan spoke Maya. - Johns Hopkins Magazine, May 1975, p. 5

The corollary, which Brunhouse touches on, is that living Mayas were almost always disregarded as sources able to shed light on the works of their ancestors, and their myths and traditional knowledge dismissed as fantasy. Yet he notes several instances where native legend proved to be the key to important discoveries when an explorer, for instance Edward H. Thompson, gave them credence. A case in point was Thompson's recovery of a treasure of religious artifacts from the sacred cenote (a hollow depression in limestone with a pool at the bottom, found especially in Yucatan) at Chichen Itza.

This failure to associate modern with ancient Maya was apparently so pervasive that Brunhouse relates how Frans Blom and Oliver La Farge were "electrified" when, in 1925, a local Indian worthy (of Comitan, Mexico) told them Indians in nearby Jacaltenango "occasionally" held a ceremony in honor of the Maya "year-bearer." It was known that the ancient Maya believed such a "god" or divine force was responsible for the type and quality of events that each year brought. Again, in 1927, when La Farge and Douglas Byers learned that Indians of the same locale still made use of the old Maya religious calendar, this was termed a "significant discovery." Writing in 1970 the eminent Mayanist, J. Eric S. Thompson, acknowledges that "less than fifty years ago no one dreamed that some Maya communities not only retained the old sacred almanac of 260 days, but were still regulating their lives by it." (Maya History and Religion, University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, p. xv) This statement, however, is true only if for "no one" is substituted "no purely dirt archaeologist," for there were students who knew that some Mayan peoples had never abandoned their ancient ways but had instead drawn a curtain of silence between them and the European intruder. Yet if it had not been for the efforts of these courageous and concerned explorers who excavated, drew, and mapped the Mayan ruins which they found only through an amazing persistence and considerable hardship, we today would be the losers in terms of some of the most important raw materials for further Maya research.

Perhaps the major deduction to be drawn from Brunhouse's narrative is that present-day knowledge of the ancient Maya is far from complete or definitive. More, it may very likely remain so unless new approaches to their study are adopted. The incidents involving Blom and La Farge form only the tip of an iceberg of fact. The modern Maya, like his ancestor, has a great reticence before strangers about matters which to him are sacred — his religion — and the culture which belongs to him and his ancestor is wholly centered in religion. But it is a religion whose external forms and expressions conceal a profoundly esoteric vision of cosmic and human life and their spiritual interconnections. Until recently most professionals in this field either fought shy of such an idea or, seeing in the Indian a mere primitive, contented themselves with describing his outward rituals.

Happily, it appears this situation is changing, albeit slowly. By 1971, J. Eric S. Thompson had stated as his conviction that "we shall interpret the glyphs only by relying heavily on the beliefs, the religious symbolism, the mythology, and, to a lesser extent, the everyday activities of the Maya, because such concepts are imbedded in the structure of each glyph."' More recently, Neidecker has added that "I am more and more convinced that the whole structure of this society [the Maya] was of a religious nature, and that the total social investment was for religious purposes." (Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971, pp. 34-5) Brunhouse himself recounts how the early archaeologist mentioned above, Edward H. Thompson, received the Indian's confidence in ways that others did not and owed many of his best discoveries to suggestions from them. He was actuated primarily by an impersonal interest in the ancient native cultures and lived for many years in Yucatan. About 1900, for example, Thompson was taken into a secret society of Mayans, the Sh'Tol Brotherhood, which then flourished near Merida. And the Mexican scholar, Alfonso Villa Rojas, has found persisting as a primary influence in the present Maya world a series of highly metaphysical ideas about the cosmos and man.

Most notable, however, is perhaps the Swiss anthropologist, Rafael Girard, who for some fourteen years during the 1920-30s lived among the Chorti Mayas and carefully studied the religious philosophy chiefly of the tribal elders — current among these people who inhabit the territory along the Guatemala-Honduras border near the ancient Mayan sites of Copan and Quirigua. In two works published in the Spanish language in 1948 and 1949 (El Esotericismo del Popol Vuh (1948), [translated as Esotericism of the Popol Vuh on this site] and Los Chorti ante el Problema Maya (1949), both published in Mexico City) Girard demonstrates convincingly the existence of an exceedingly sophisticated esotericism at the heart of all Maya religion, which has correspondences with similar spiritual perspectives to be found in the ancient Nahuatl cosmogony of Mexico. He criticizes many opinions held about the Maya by well-known scholars which, as he says, though they may accord with our logic and belief systems, do not accord with Mayan spiritual thought. Girard's conviction is that Mayanist scholars with few exceptions have failed to learn more about the nature and purpose of the monumental sites and their still-undeciphered glyphic records because they discount the Indian's spiritual mentality and overlook his cosmic philosophy. He deprecates the efforts of some modern translators to 'improve' the language of the Popol Vuh, that splendid scripture of the Quiche Maya people, to make it conform to our literary and anthropological notions. The metaphysical structure of the Indian's language, he points out, assigns each word a quite precise, if elliptical, value; if so much as one word is wrongly interpreted the proper esoteric comprehension of a whole sentence is destroyed.

Perhaps it requires too much of a mental leap for most persons, trained only in modern Western pragmatic disciplines, to recognize that peoples who have gone beyond the need of a panoply of material possessions, therefore seemingly primitive, could yet quietly possess a complex spiritual philosophy and try to live it. Our own culture tends to discount any idea that does not lead directly to increases in the personal affluence of things. As Mircea Eliade has said:

The chief difference between the man of the archaic and traditional societies and the man of the modern societies with their strong imprint of Judaeo-Christianity lies in the fact that the former feels himself indissolubly connected with the Cosmos and the cosmic rhythms, whereas the latter insists that he is connected only with History. — The Myth of the Eternal Return, pp. xiii-iv

That is, with a man-made process, not with nature's own process. It is interesting that Eliade uses the word traditional, not primitive; Maya spiritual thought may be ancient, but only the blind could call it primitive.

Although Brunhouse devotes himself to Mayanists, one could wish that he had included the eminent German student of pre-Columbian civilization and thought, Eduard Seler, active around the turn of the century. Hailed by J. Eric S. Thompson as "the Nestor of Middle American studies," he adds that Seler's greatest single contribution was perhaps his demonstration of the essential unity of all of that area's advanced cultures. Brunhouse's latest book is said to describe "the coming of age of Maya studies." But, from a larger point of view, one can justly say that neither Mayan, Mexican, nor South American Andean studies will have reached their maturity until the outlines of the cosmic vision which all shared, as from a common parent philosophy, have been recognized. The challenge still posed by the enigmatic Maya forms only one part, though a major one, of the pursuit and clarification of this primeval American theosophy.

(From Sunrise magazine, May 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)


Back Issues Menu