- Reading Symbolic and Historical Representations in Early Mesoamerica
For many centuries, the sounds of musical instruments and human voices arose from intricately carved and painted courtyards sprinkled across the Mesoamerican landscape. The audiences there understood themselves to be in the presence of a learning and beauty that we, gazing from our own time and place at the remnants of that world, have been slow to see. In the second half of the twentieth century, scholars working as Mayan epigraphers and translators of sixteenth-century alphabetic texts in Mesoamerican languages at last moved beyond an initial impression that we were confronting the almost mystical self-expression of anointed men who seemed “fundamentally weird” to us. We suddenly recognized that we were reading royal biographies, records of war, and demands for tribute, the stuff of real people’s lives. It was so empowering to move from murkiness (one might even say from science fiction) to clarity and historical comprehension that we are perhaps to be forgiven if we have remained on that page of heady discovery somewhat too long.
The consensus seems to be, however, that scholarship should move on. Dennis Tedlock writes in his superb new study, 2000 Years of Mayan Literature: “The time has come to take a further step and proclaim that literature existed in the Americas before the Europeans got here. . . . Much decipherment has taken place but very little in the way of translation” (1). Such thoughts are echoed by scholars in other disciplines, whose works are reviewed in these pages. Flora Simmons Clancy observes, “The ancient sculptors of Piedras Negras were not automatons or simple creatures of a patron; their monuments were artistic creations and cannot be fully understood if they are only considered as products of or for royal aggrandizement” (17). And Eduardo de J. Douglas comments in his work on sixteenth-century Nahuatl visual texts: “Although I isolate what I consider to be figures of speech, ultimately what I argue for is not a set of specific readings or interpretations, but a method of reading that recognizes . . . [that my sources are] literary, specifically poetic, texts as much as historical records subject to verification” (14).
Tedlock did not write his book for other epigraphers—although they will find much of interest—or for the...