Times Literary Supplement

Times Literary Supplement

TLS Book Review by Prof Norman Hammond


Jennifer John and Alexander John


426pp. Koyopa. £30.

978 1 911195 82 5

The ancient Maya of Central America worshipped time. Each period in their complex calendar, from the 400-year baktun to the kin of a single day, had its tutelary deity, and any single day was also identified by gods of the interdigitating 365- and 260-day cycles that made up the fifty-two-year Calendar Round. Other deities were identified with the planets and their periodicities, and with the natural forces of the sun, wind, earthquake and rain.

Linked with this god-permeated world was an origin myth, surviving in the Popol Vuh of the K’iche’ Maya in highland Guatemala, but portrayed on carved stelae and painted vases of the Classic period between AD 250 and 900. Embedded in this is a threefold imagery, from the three hearthstones at the Creation of their world to the triune temples topping single pyramids, and the triple thrones of rulers in Classic city-states such as Tikal and Palenque. More than a century of iconographic scholarship has been vastly enhanced in the last few decades by the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic script, and the recognition of much of its subject-matter as the quotidian history of petty kings.

The Maya Gods of Time aims beyond this, to reveal “how the Maya perceived the laws of the universe and their own life and death as bound by the structural impermanence of time”. Jennifer and Alexander John make some interesting observations: Jesper Nielson and Soeren Wichmann’s idea that subtly differing figures on vases represent not artistic variation within a momentary scene, but successive actions – like the frames of an animated film or an old flick-book – is extended to the nine captives of the ruler Chaan Muan in the arraignment scene of the famed Bonampak murals in Mexico. Rather than a simultaneous grouping, the authors suggest “the animated sequence of a single person shown approaching his own sacrifice in nine steps” reflects the nine levels of the Maya underworld. Their argument in rather unconvincing, but the attention to detail is impressive.

The most useful section illustrates the long-vanished murals of Santa Rita in Belize, heroically recorded in the face of imminent destruction by Dr Thomas Gann, local medical officer in the 1890s. The excellent colour rendition of Gann’s tracings bring these important paintings, neglected since their 1900 publication, back into the academic arena. The artist might not be, as this book claims, “a Maya Michelangelo”, but the links with murals elsewhere – and with coeval Central Mexican manuscript painting – make him and his work significant in understanding the Maya mind in the century before the Spanish conquest.