The secrets of Mayan literature

Maya drawing of a scribe at work

Archaeologists have discovered a treasure deep in the jungles of meso-America more valuable than any city of gold: a Mayan writing system that developed in isolation from Europe or the ancient cultures of Africa and Asia. However, due to the passage of time and our own brutality as colonizers only fragments remain. But what do we know about these sophisticated, urban people and their hieroglyphs?  As always, language offers rare glimpses into the minds of the defeated. Historyradio.org contacted Brown University’s Anthropology department, and talked to Mallory Matsumoto, a Ph.d. student who is a specialist on Maya culture and writing.

Historyradio.org: The Maya were one of the very few literate cultures in ancient meso-America, how common was reading and writing among their people? Did everyone know how to read and write?

Mallory Matsumoto: As far as we can tell—from the quantity of texts we have, their contents and contexts, archaeological evidence for scribes, and comparison with other cultures—only a small minority in pre-Columbian Maya society would have been able to read or write. Moreover, these people probably would have been elites; some lower-status persons or commoners, who were the majority, may have been able to recognize the hieroglyphs as writing or even interpret a few signs, but probably did not engage with the writing system much more than that.

Historyradio.org: Did the Maya use literature for personal entertainment like we do today?

Mallory Matsumoto: For the most part, we don’t have direct evidence indicating in what context or for what purposes the Maya used their hieroglyphic texts—we must deduce this largely from text content and context, including where and when it was created. For example, some monumental texts were positioned to be clearly visible to people, in a space that would have been accessible to many; thus, these may have been intended to serve a broadcasting function. Their texts often record historical or biographical information about the dynasty and appear with images of the king or his allies. The relatively few surviving murals, like those at Bonampak, Rio Azul, or Xultun, would have only been visible to those who were able to enter the building or tomb in which they were painted, and in some cases, the hieroglyphs were small enough that the viewer would need to come up to the wall to read them. In contrast, writing on portable objects, like ceramic vessels or ornaments, is thought to have been intended for more restricted or even individual use. These texts may more directly address the object itself or a mythological narrative, for example, rather than political events.

Historyradio.org: Do we know anything about what sort of literature they had? Is it possible to talk of any Maya literary style, for instance?

Mallory Matsumoto: Unfortunately, it’s not clear to what extent the texts we have represent the entire breadth of Maya hieroglyphic writing as it was used in pre-Columbian times. Most hieroglyphic texts have not survived, because of a combination of preservation bias that favors materials more durable than bark paper or (probably) palm leaves, (intentional or otherwise), and random chance.
Nonetheless, one key stylistic feature of Maya writing and orality for which we have ample evidence is parallelism, a strategy of articulating two or more comparable elements (words, grammatical forms, etc.) to add nuance or communicate additional meaning. In its most basic form, this strategy juxtaposes two elements (words, grammatical forms, etc.) in a couplet. But more elaborate examples can combine three or more elements to convey very subtle levels of nuance. We have examples of parallelism in hieroglyphic texts from pre-Columbian times, as well as in alphabetic writing and oral traditions recorded since the early colonial period, and it remains an integral component of Maya expression through the present.

Historyradio.org: Many of the books were of course destroyed during the Spanish conquest by people like Diego De Landa? Do we know anything about what was lost? What do the sources tell us about what Landa destroyed?

Diego De Landa: During a ceremony on July 12, 1562, a disputed number of Maya codices (according to Landa, 27 books) and approximately 5000 Maya cult images were burned. The actions of bishop Landa passed into the Black Legend of the Spanish in the Americas (wiki)

Mallory Matsumoto: Almost all pre-Columbian books have been destroyed or lost. Some simply decayed; painted and plastered bark paper would have needed extraordinary conditions to survive, especially in the hot, humid Maya Lowlands. In this context, it is unsurprising that the four books that we do have all date to within a few centuries of European contact. Archaeologists have found eroded remains of much older, pre-Columbian books, but they are illegible because they are so fragmentary.
Most of those books that did manage to survive the stress of time, the elements, and general wear and tear, were abandoned or confiscated by colonial officials as part of cultural persecution under European colonialism. Because these books were written in a writing system completely foreign to the colonizers and many books were integral components of Maya spiritual and ritual practice, they were seen generally as threats to the Europeans’ civilizing and evangelizing mission. We do have records of Europeans seeing these books, but for the most part, their descriptions have proved to be unreliable for reconstructing the original books’ contents. More frequently, they refer to the documents in passing as exotic and impenetrable, if not outright threatening, objects.

Historyradio.org: What about the remaining manuscripts, what sort of text are they?

Mallory Matsumoto: Only four books or codices are known to have survived into the present. These books contain hieroglyphs and images painted on bark paper, and their contents are, as far as we can tell, largely calendrical, religious, or astronomical. However, many passages are still opaque, so there is plenty that these codices have left to tell that we don’t yet understand.

Historyradio.org: Are there any significant literary texts inscribed in stone?

Mallory Matsumoto: Almost all known hieroglyphic writing is preserved on more durable media, like stone or ceramic, although a handful of surviving texts were recorded on wood, bone, shell, or other, more fragile materials. Hence, texts inscribed in stone have been critical in decipherment efforts and in the ongoing development of our understanding of pre-Columbian Maya political history, among other issues. However, they are not, as far as we can tell, representative of all genres of Maya writing: those on stone monuments typically deal with politically, historically, or dynastically relevant information, whereas those on portable stone objects like jade celts or earspools are, necessarily, briefer, and tend to focus on the immediate context of the object itself and its user.

Historyradio.org: What about the oral traditions of the Maya people, do they in any way reflect what you have discovered in manuscripts and in texts?

Mallory Matsumoto: Many narratives known from later oral traditions probably would have been recorded in books and other media that have not survived into the present. We see hints of this in texts from the colonial period, most famously the Popol Wuj, that record community histories and cosmology. However, it’s likely that much content of known oral traditions would not have readily been written down during the colonial period, at least not in documents that were made available to those from outside the local community, because they could have been seen as incompatible with European (especially Christian) values. We have a small number of comparable texts from the pre-Columbian period as well, including the four surviving codices, but most known hieroglyphic texts are different in content and style from oral traditions that have been recorded since European contact.

Historyradio.org: The Maya language system seems very difficult, does it bear any resemblance to any other language found in meso-America or elsewhere?

Mallory Matsumoto: Mayan languages form their own linguistic family and are not known to be related to other languages in Mesoamerica, but there has been a substantial amount of contact and borrowing between Mayan languages and those spoken by their neighbors, including Mixtec, Zapotec, and Nahuatl. The language primarily recorded in hieroglyphic texts, now referred to as Classic Mayan, is no longer spoken today. Even at the time, it was probably an elite, literary language that was not spoken by most of the population. Around 30 Mayan languages are spoken now by several million people, although most of them are not directly descended from Classic Mayan.

An sample of Maya text.

Historyradio.org: Do you know if the rediscovery of the Mayan script has influenced any modern mexican writers, or literary movements?

Mallory Matsumoto: Research on pre-Columbian Maya contexts has certainly influenced contemporary literary and artistic movements. Artists are incorporating elements and motifs from pre-Columbian Maya culture into their paintings, sculptures, prose, poetry, etc. Growing interest, both locally and internationally, in (especially pre-Columbian) Maya society and culture has also generally inspired more pride and association in some contemporary Maya peoples with the heritage of the more distant past. One important, recent development in this context has been the revitalization of the hieroglyphic script itself, led by local and international intellectuals interested in reclaiming the ancient writing system in the present. In addition to hosting workshops to disseminate knowledge of the script, they have also created new murals, paintings, books, and monuments with hieroglyphic writing.

Historyradio.org: What is the most surprising thing you have discovered after the Mayan scripts were deciphered?

Mallory Matsumoto: One key realization, catalyzed by the work of Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Heinrich Berlin in the mid-20th century, has been that the content of hieroglyphic texts, especially on monuments, is overwhelmingly historical and biographical, rather than singly focused on esoteric, spiritual themes. This advancement had consequences for our view of pre-Columbian Maya civilization as a whole—as scholars have become able to read more and more and have interpreted them as historical sources, they have developed a more dynamic view of Maya politics and warfare, among other aspects of society. It continues to drive much current epigraphic and archaeological research as we have been able to reveal more of the complexities of pre-Columbian Maya society.
For me personally, one of the more surprising aspects of studying the Maya hieroglyphic script has been the sheer diversity of the corpus—of the text forms and contents, of the objects on which they were created, of the manner of presenting the texts, of the materials used to produce them, of the contexts in which they were made and used, among other aspects. It continues to remind me just how many perspectives and corners of Maya epigraphy there are to be explored.

Historyradio.org: Are there any remaining mysteries concerning the Mayan scripts?

Mallory Matsumoto: Despite decades of intense and insightful epigraphic work, the Maya hieroglyphic script has not yet been fully deciphered; a number of glyphs cannot yet be interpreted, phonetically, semantically, or both. The early and late hieroglyphic texts remain some of the most enigmatic—to really understand the history and development of the script, we need to be able to read them, which will require the discovery of additional texts and more concentrated effort from scholars.
We also know relatively little, for instance, about how much linguistic diversity that the hieroglyphic script records. Most texts seem to have been written in a relatively standard variant, now called Classic Mayan, but this elite literary language would not have been the primary language of everyone, certainly not most non-elites across the region who spoke any of many different Mayan languages. Scholars have found some evidence of local, vernacular influence on hieroglyphic texts, but we still do not fully understand the relationship of the writing system to spoken languages(s), and work on this topic remains ongoing.
And these are just a few examples—there certainly plenty of issues waiting to be addressed by future generations of Maya epigraphers. Every discovery or advancement in Maya archaeology or epigraphy raises more questions.