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Marvels & Tales 15.2 (2001) 244-246

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Book Review

A Motif-Index of Luis Rosado Vega's Mayan Legends

A Motif-Index of Luis Rosado Vega's Mayan Legends. By Jim C. Tatum. Folklore Fellows Communications 271. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2000. 117 pp.

Luis Rosado Vega (1876--1958) was a Mexican poet, novelist, political activist, and archaeologist, among other things. As founder and director of the [End Page 244] State Museum of Archaeology in Mérida from 1923 onward, he made many journeys into the Yucatan interior where, while searching for ancient sites, he also recorded oral narrative from the Maya. Jim C. Tatum has now provided a motif-index to Vega's two books of Maya stories: El alma misteriosa del Mayab (1934) and Amerindmaya (1938). Vega divided the narratives into those he considered pre-Columbian (first volume) and post-Conquest (second volume). Tatum notes the inherent difficulty of disentangling these influences in what are likely to be hybrid narratives. The task, should it even be attempted, is further complicated by the thought that Vega, as a writer, may have fictionalized or stylized the legends, if indeed that is what they were. Citing Stanley Robe's characterization of legend as telling how "some manifestation of the supernatural suddenly intrudes" upon an ordinary human engaged in a routine activity, Tatum finds the majority of narratives in the two books to be legends by this test, but there are also motifs in the collection which parallel European fairy tales and animal fables. To this I would add that there seem to be a number of stories from the "Bible of the Folk."

The question of story origins still seems a natural one, despite the decline of the historic-geographic method. Tatum is properly cautious in what he says about presences and absences of motifs in Vegas's legends as compared with Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature, which is taken as the international standard work. He finds "an extraordinarily large percentage of motif variations not previously recorded" and suggests that this indicates "a rather large percentage of folk tales which tend toward American origin as opposed to European." Tatum places an asterisk before the category letter of the motif if it does not appear in Thompson, and adds a citation if the motif appears in another post-Thompson motif index, of which he uses eight, though without saying why these particular ones were chosen.

A further question raised by motif-indexes is whether or not they might serve as a guide to the preoccupations of a culture. The answer ought to be in the negative, especially when, as in the case of Vega, we do not know what questions he asked and what he may have suppressed. Tatum calls him an "emotional champion" for the Maya, and this is a motif-index of a writer's selection of the narratives he was told, rather than an objective sampling of what stories were extant, should such a thing even be possible. Nevertheless it is impossible to miss the prominence of water sources in the narratives. Cenotes, sink holes or open pools of water, are guarded by serpents, who trade water for a child to be devoured; cenotes can be contaminated by broken sexual tabus, or magically recede or fill. Other cultural centers include the seed corn, saved from a burning field by the red-eyed cowbird, as the ringdove saved Jesus and Mary from their enemies. The influence of the Conquerors' religion is seen in the dominance of the Devil in "Ogres" (section G), and the fallibility [End Page 245] of its representatives is seen in the motifs of priests as sexual aggressors. The Conquest is foreseen in prophetic motifs: *M341.2.28 (Death by strange, cloth-covered men who will come riding huge fish on sea). Most poignant is the series of motifs relating to smallpox: *F405.19 (Burning herbs and hanging wreaths on doors drive away smallpox demons).

Without having read Vegas's two books (I regret that I cannot read Spanish), I cannot judge...


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