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  • The Flayed God. The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition: Sacred Texts and Images from Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America
  • Alan R. Sandstrom
Roberta H. Markman and Peter T. Markman. The Flayed God. The Mesoamerican Mythological Tradition: Sacred Texts and Images from Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992. xvi + 456 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth $30.00

This monumental work by Roberta and Peter Markman is an overview of the major myth systems that existed among indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica at about the time of the conquest. The authors present modern English translations of texts recorded by Spanish and Native chroniclers and show that a common worldview and system of meanings structures the apparent diversity of the region's cultures. In addition, they show how pre-Hispanic artists and artisans incorporated these fundamental mythic themes in their works, numerous illustrations of which adorn the book. The Markmans succeed in demonstrating that pre-Hispanic religious thought was subtle and sophisticated, the equal of any produced elsewhere in the world. The book is flawed, in my view, by its reliance on a comparative literature approach that insists on examining myths and works of art as texts to be read and interpreted as meaning systems in and of themselves. By failing to transcend the limits of a literary analysis, the authors miss much of the dynamic context in which ancient Mesoamericans created, transmitted, and understood their myths.

After introductory chapters on the history of Mesoamerican civilization and general descriptions of village-level and urban-level myth systems, the authors divide their material into three broad categories. One chapter is devoted to myths of creation, including versions from the Mayas, Aztecs, and Mixtecs. The next chapter covers narratives and beliefs that serve to perpetuate the creation—mainly myths that focus on fertility. It is in this chapter that Xipe Totec, the flayed god who gives his name to the volume, is discussed. The final chapter concerns the mythic structure of rulership and includes translations from the Popol Vuh and Sahagún. In this chapter we find migration myths and the famous story of Motecuhzoma sending the holy men to search for Chicomoztoc, the seven caves where the Aztec ancestors dwelled.

The authors rely on the work of Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell for their theoretical foundation, and this leads to certain questionable assumptions that underlie the book. For example, they accept uncritically that shamanism is everywhere the same and that shamanism and worship of the female principle are stages in the unilineal evolutionary development of religious thought. They seem to excuse these and other empirical lapses by stating that because mythmakers are artists, "only art can reconstruct the mythic past" (5). They assert that we only need search within ourselves to supply the lost connections and contexts that have given rise to Mesoamerican myth. But abandoning a more scientific approach has major pitfalls. One danger is that introspective researchers will mistakenly confuse their own cultural traditions with the humanity they share with ancient Mesoamericans. The Markmans commit this error when they assert repeatedly that the division between spirit and matter is fundamental [End Page 322] to Mesoamerican thought. A case could be made that, at its deepest level, Mesoamerican thought has gone far beyond such dualism and rests on a monistic, pantheistic foundation in which apparent diversity in the spiritual and natural realms is simply a surface feature obscuring an encompassing unity. Spirit and matter are one and the same. This possibility is hinted at in the book but remains undeveloped.

In their examination of the body of myths, the authors isolate several repeated themes in the narratives and ritual practices they discuss. These include the following:

  1. 1. Mesoamerican mythic thought is based on the process by which spiritual essence is transformed into material concreteness. A masked ritual performer exemplifies this transformation. The person behind the mask represents the spiritual essence (inside reality), and the mask of the deity is the material manifestation (outside reality) animated by the performer.

  2. 2. The myths reveal a worldview based on circularity. Historical events repeat, and life and death are in a dialectical relationship. Because of the belief that the universe...


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pp. 322-323
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