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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Mayan Religion & Civilization

Ancient Maya Women edited by Traci Ardren (Gender and Archaeology: AltaMira Press) The flood of archaeological work in Maya lands have revolutionized our understanding of gender in ancient Maya society. The dozen contributors to this volume use a wide range of methodological strategies-- archaeology, bioarchaeology, iconography, ethnohistory, epigraphy, ethnography-- to tease out the details of the lives, actions, and identities of women of Mesoamerica. The chapters, most based upon recent fieldwork in Central America, examine the role of women in Maya society, their place in the political hierarchy and lineage structures, the gendered division of labor, and the discrepancy between idealized Mayan womanhood and the daily reality, among other topics. In each case, the complexities and nuances of gender relations are highlighted and the limitations of our knowledge acknowledged. These pieces represent an important advance in the understanding of Maya socioeconomic, political, and cultural life-- and the archaeology of gender-- and will be of great interest to scholars and students.

Editor Summary: In the process of engendering archaeological materials, these researchers have brought faces and forms to the Maya sites where they work. The task requires that information from a wide variety of sources be creatively assembled and interpreted; Ethnographic observations enable the researchers to visualize the fabrication and function of tools, the social relations in production and reproduction, and the enactment of ideals symbolized in texts and epigraphy. Ethnohistorical research extends these understandings back in time to reveal sequences and processes that can then be verified in archaeological finds. Advances in epigraphy expand the interpretive base as studies reveal more of the past than we could have imagined a few decades ago. By focusing on the distaff side of human history, we gain new insights into the cosmological, ideational, and biological dimensions of Maya society. A gendered perspective on these new materials and interpretations expands those dimensions, allowing us to appreciate Maya philosophical premises of balance and harmony in a cyclical passage of time that ensures the renewal of life after death.

Women emerge as strong protagonists of the high civilization that developed in Mesoamerica over the past two millennia, but the record remains contradictory. For example, Traci Ardren shows that the sexed skeletal remains from Yaxuna reveal that women had a poorer diet and that their life span was a decade less than that of men, yet epigraphic analysis indicates that women enjoyed high ceremonial status as essential progenitors in the perpetuation of elite lineages.

Although women had unequal access to the community's resources in Yaxuna, they were equally subject to attack by rival groups that sought to usurp them, as the interred bodies corroborate. Women's grave goods, as Ardren interprets them, indicate productive roles that go beyond those noted in texts by contemporaries and the Spaniards in the early colonial period. Thus, weaving, represented by bone embroidery picks, and pottery found among women's grave offerings suggest women's engagement in activities in which contemporary Maya women predominate. Marilyn Beaudry‑Corbett and Sharisse McCafferty develop this idea further with a careful examination of the evidence for weaving at Joya de Ceren in El Salvador, a site buried in volcanic ash. Beaudry‑Corbett and McCafferty demonstrate that a variety of materials were spun on clay spindle whorls in household settings much as they are today in highland households. Sculpted figurines of female deities engaged in weaving and spinning clearly indicate the values ascribed to women's works in early Olmec sites that may have declined with the rise of militarism and the state.

These contradictions reflect the ambivalence of Mayas regarding women that implicitly recognizes their power while denying recognition of their accomplishments. Gender complementarity in productive roles reaffirms the complementarity of procreative processes that gave authority to ruling lineages, even though women's names are not often mentioned in the dynastic lineages. The researchers discover their contributions by indirect evidence in grave goods and associated inscriptions. Even the male usurpation of women's vestments to make a point about their legitimacy as kings reveals, as Matthew G. Looper suggests, the suppressed belief in the power they embody.

Just as the study of context makes up for the lack of textual references, so the reverse occurs. Ruth J. Krochock demonstrates this in the case of Terminal Classic Chichen Itza, where texts regarding lineage show that women provided the political sanction to male succession to power. Similarly, women of prestigious families left their natal kingdoms to lend prestige to faltering political sites. Scholars learn of these women's roles by default rather than forthright announcements as in the case of male leaders. For example, Linda Schele and David Freidel (1990: I8788) note that when Lady Wac Kan Ahaw left her home in Dos Pilas to marry a Naranjo noble, her son succeeded his father at the age of five and thereafter dedicated a monument to his mother each time he celebrated his succession. This alerted Krochock to find parallels with five other women of Chichen Itza: Lady K'ayam, Lady Ton Ahaw, Lady Ton Multun, Lady Bak Lem, and Lady Nik, all of whom mothered famous sons. Similarly, the strangers from Teotihuacan were able to achieve leadership in Maya capitals through marriage to the women of important lineages, a technique the Aztecs used in gaining leadership in the central plateau by marrying prestigious women of the Culhuacan lineages. Such inferences can be made only with the kind of specific personages identified in this careful analysis.

The few women who emerge as figures in early texts suggest dimensions of female leadership that are rarely taken into account in Maya studies that emphasize patrilineage. The old, fat woman described by Diaz del Castillo upon his arrival in Chiapas opens up a window for Maricela Ayala Falcon to speculate on female roles at Toning, which has only lately come into the archaeological perspectives on Classic Maya centers. The figure of a menacing Moon Goddess about to kill a captive may have a relationship to the elusive Lady K'awil referred to by one of the governors of Toning. Assumptions about patrilmeage were so impressed on such data in the recent past that references such as these were thrown out with other pieces of the puzzle that did not fit.

Gabrielle Vail and Andrea Stone bring together Bishop Diego de Landa's Relaciones with representations in codices to confront the androcentric biases evident in each. The codices relate to the concerns of commoners that are ignored in monumental sculpture, yielding a more complex understanding of the metaphoric relationship between women's tasks and their personas. For example, spinning and weaving are related to conception and childbearing, metaphors that still prevail in Guatemala. The interpretation of male‑female duality that Vail and Stone decode in the codices differs from that described by Looper. For the former, female signifiers appearing on male figures suggest their immediate association with female tasks, indicating that men attempted to take over the feminine role with its connotations of power. In contrast, the transsexuality implied by Looper seems to be derived from notions that exclude androgeny.

Criticizing Landa's statement that women are strictly prohibited from public rituals, Vail and Stone point to the codices that illustrate women, especially old women, engaged in ritual activities linked to males. With the ethnographic record we can now correct the assumption by many Western viewers, including Landa, that the proscription against women in ritual life was because of their impurity. As I learned in my fieldwork in Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas, the proscription, usually restricted to nubile women, is more related to female power. Women are assumed to be hot during certain phases of the menstrual cycle, and the power this connotes would conflict with the power generated in rituals, thus causing a rupture (Nosh 1970). The specificity of age‑related ritual roles in contemporary Maya communities and in the codices is one of the most impressive signs of the continuity of the culture over time. Vail and Stone show that the codices, as a "template to guide ritual behavior and as an expression of underlying societal beliefs," yield a picture of much fuller ritual and societal participation of females than Landa suggests.

Specification of artifact context by microlocations enhances kinship‑ and gender‑particular studies that give flesh and substance to history. Ellen E. Bell's study of gravesites in Copan clarifies the allocation of gender roles. Making up for the lack of specific historical data on women, she uses the skills of a detective, elaborating details of the burial of one woman that establish the identity of the interred remains and then relating the provenience to other such figures in other Maya sites. The person in the grave can be identified by her grave goods as a woman, a mother, and a weaver; this anonymous woman's ceremonial burial costume suggests a relationship to the Moon Goddess, and the figures decorating the furnishings of the tomb relate to prestigious Teotihuacan figures. Osteological evidence indicates that she was an active woman while young but suffered from painful knee and lower back problems later in life, and strontium isotope ratio analysis indicates her birth in a different area. Bell hypothesizes that her life might be a parallel to that of Lady Kanal Ikal, who ruled in Palenque until her son Pacal succeeded her, and that the constant reconstruction of her burial site might indicate the she remained a reference figure in establishing the dynasty long after her death. Taking this analysis one step further, J. K. Josserand points out parallels between other sequences of succession in which women clearly served as dynastic links in Tikal and Naranjo. The power that women exhibit in dynastic succession may, according to Josserand, relate to their uniting of patrilines not only within the ethnic group but between ethnic groups. In an age when Toltecs were arriving en masse in the southern regions occupied by the Maya, this may have cast Maya women in a particularly strategic role vis‑i‑vis the invaders and their own men.

The contributors have expanded the range of data in their analyses of prehistoric material by including ethnography and ethnohistorical analyses. This adds a functional dimension to the material, providing a greater base for conjecture of what actually happened. Linda Stephen Neff combines her analysis of the location of tools associated with intensified agriculture in Dos Chombitos with ethnographic studies of functioning agricultural communities to assess gender roles. Weaving together descriptions from ethnography, ethnohistory, and archaeological excavations, she further refines a gendered model of agricultural activities, identifying three areas in which gender‑related activities take place. These are the house site, adjacent tilled lands, and the distant fields that pinpoint the degree to which women and men participated in agricultural tasks. This conjunctive approach in data analysis enables her to conclude that both sexes participated in the tasks of milpa agriculture over time and that the increase in domestic activities performed by women as intensive agriculture was introduced explains the fluctuation in women's engagement in agricultural production.

Clearly there is no regional pattern in the gendering of tasks m the Mayan area. Historical and ecological distinctions among communities within close range of each other in highland Chiapas indicate this more clearly than those in the Yucatan, where altitudinal differences are not as extreme. Thus, women who are engaged in craft production, particularly when this is part of market exchange, reduce some cultivation practices but may take on others. For example, women of Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas, who produce and sell pottery never have carried out weeding and watering tasks as their neighbors in Chamula do. But with population increases and reduced land available, intensification of agriculture now requires costly chemical inputs. Hence, women have a new gender‑specific role in planting: they sprinkle the fertilizer bought with the money they earn to demonstrate their contribution while men continue to sow the seed. And like most women in highland villages, they along with their children assist in the harvesting. Their income, like that of female artisans in other Maya towns, effectively subsidizes small plot farming, which might otherwise have been abandoned as costs for herbicides and pesticides as well as fertilizers become a necessary part of the new intensive techniques (Nosh 1993).

Ethnographic evidence brings to light the fact that variations related to changing technologies, available land, and population have influenced gender allocations of time in unpredictable ways. This is spelled out at length by Cynthia Robin, who shows that men and women not only often collaborated in tasks but did so in a variety of settings that were once thought proscribed for female activities. She calls for greater attention to child nurturance and rearing as they affect engagement in agricultural tasks. Such data collection is a necessary prelude to sharpening our models not only for farming but for artisan production. For example, I was able to show that Chayanov's model correlating increases in artisan production with the number of dependents in the family applies only to households with exclusively male artisans, for female potters decrease their production when there are increasing numbers of minors (Nosh 1993). Similarly the engagement of women in agriculture, even when this is traditionally expected, might also decline until their children can engage in these activities with them. In the northern Lacandon area that Robin chooses to compare with Classic Maya practices, contemporary Ch'ol and Tzeltal farmers have expanded cash crops with coffee cultivation because the labor of women and children can be utilized particularly in the harvesting of this crop.

At a time when social anthropologists are tending to abandon ethnographic criteria of objectivity and scope of sampling, these essays remind us of the importance of quantitative evidence and repetitive observations in favor of, as well as supplemental to, imaginative interpretations. The careful attention to detail, the consideration of alternative explanations, and the multiple sources of data referred to in checking hypotheses are in the best traditions of a discipline that pretends to be a science. The collection is a welcome addition to feminist studies in critiquing androcentric assumptions that guided both the creators of texts, imagery, and sculpture and the ethnohistorical and ethnographic observers over the 500 years of contact and assimilation. Profuse illustrations allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the interpretations. It is, indeed, a welcome addition to Maya studies for practitioners and aficionados.

Handbook of Mesoamerican Mythology by Kay Almere and Jason J. Gonzalez (ABC-CLIO) The dead entering the underworld on the backs of yellow dogs...turquoise snakes bursting into flames...gods creating humans from corn and water-Mesoamerican mythology is full of such fascinating events. This guide covers all of Mesoamerica from ancient times to the present, including the interweaving of mythology and Christianity within each culture. Myths: tales of creation and destruction, death and rebirth, gods and heroes, the sacred origins of peoples, the forces of nature. Each society's mythology is unique, echoing throughout its arts and beliefs.

Handbooks of World Mythology explore these mythologies in depth, offering insight into the complex interrelations of myth, history, and culture. Designed for general readers and students, and meant for both pleasurable reading and reference, each handbook offers:

• A lengthy overview essay introducing the reader to the evolution of the culture's history and belief system
• A chronology of the mythological universe explaining the working and purpose of time and mythic time within the culture
• A-to-Z entries that address major deities, characters, themes, rituals, and beliefs of the society in cultural context
• Annotated bibliographies of introductory and scholarly publications, websites, fiction and poetry, and film
• Glossary of cultural and mythological terms
• Thorough subject index for fast and easy access to content
• Numerous illustrations

Mayan Script: A Civilization and its Writing by Maria Longhena (Abrams) By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in the 16th century, the Maya cities had long since fallen into a state of decay and abandonment. Europeans were impressed by the painted books of the Maya but concluded that they did not have a system of writing because no alphabetic value could be given to their script. This impression remained in the West until recently, when researchers finally succeeded in deciphering the written record of the Maya.

Maya Script presents about 200 Maya glyphs, or symbolic figures. Some are ideograms (pictorial symbols representing things, not words); others are phonetic signs. The glyphs express people, animals, ceremonies, and such abstract concepts as death. Each one opens a window onto fragments of everyday life, religious beliefs, or even emotions. The book also features two-color drawings of the glyphs, illustrations from Spanish codices, and examples of Maya sculpture and paintings. Concluding the book is a chapter on writing systems of the world, a list of museums to visit, a bibliography, and an index. Maya Script will be welcomed by anyone who is intrigued by ancient civilizations, including travelers to present-day pre-Columbian areas.


by Mary Ellen Miller and Karl Taube

Thames and Hudson

$16.95, sewn paper, bibliography, profusely illustrated



AN ILLUSTRATED DICTIONARY OF THE GODS AND SYMBOLS OF ANCIENT MEXICO AND THE MAYA offers an introduction to Mesoamerica and its religious principles that is controlled by the reader’s curiosity. The dictionary entries are organized alphabetically and include both discursive commentary and encapsulated identifications, ranging from concepts and ideas, ritual practices and participants, to particular deities, objects, symbols, flora and fauna, natural phenomena, and sacred places. Through topical investigations, one can review conceptual questions, while dozens of line drawings and brief texts provide quick guides to identifying Mesoamerican gods and their symbols. The text is cross-referenced. A subject index following the introduction guides to entries of particular interest and groups information otherwise scattered alphabetically, such as "Maya deities.''

Two introductory essays are offered. One is a cultural history of Mesoamerica and the other, a conceptual overview of Mesoamerican religion. In general, the authors have made direct citations in this book only from 16th century sources, and they have tried to attribute important post-1950 discoveries to those responsible. They provide a bibliographic essay (Guide to Sources) as well as a bibliography, not only to document the sources for this book but also to explain the complicated history of the sources themselves.

The book has exceptional graphic design qualities and is all-in-all a useful reference on Mesoamerican religion.

Mary Ellen Miller also wrote along with Linda Schele and photography by Justin Kerr the groundbreaking classic: The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art Published by George Braziller.

Karl Andreas Taube wrote The Major Gods of Ancient Yucatan (Studies in Pre-Columbian Art & Archaeology, No 32) Published by Dumbarton Oaks Publications Service.

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