Sunday, August 16, 2009

Maya Hieroglyphs

This weekend, I'm working on An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus Grimwold Morley. ( Isn't that a fantastic name? Seriously, it sounds like a D&D wizard rolled up by a 13-year-old.) It was originally published in 1915 but reprinted in the 70s.

The first couple of chapters about the Maya civilization are really interesting, but somewhat limited. At least in part that's because the whole area was in political chaos from the late 1300s to when the Spanish showed up in the 1500s, and after a couple of tries the Spanish succeeded in taking control of the area. So the earliest and theoretically most reliable sources of information about the Mayan culture are Spanish missionaries writing two or three hundred years after the fall of a great civilization. The main guy Morley cites is Bishop Landa, one of the first missionaries in the region, who wrote a history and description of the Maya in 1565. Landa was also a crazy asshole who tortured lots of people and burned all the native books, thus ensuring his own was the most authoritative source - though I doubt that was his primary reason.

Morley's analysis of the Mayan culture has apparently been superceded by more more recent, thorough research, according to Wikipedia. I suspected as much even while I was reading it, especially when it talks about the Maya in comparison to Greece, with a "golden age" of sculpture and culture followed by decline. He's also got a lot of "noble savage" ideas that bleed through when he makes generalizations about the hospitality, attractiveness, and level of "civilization" of the Maya. He's really condescending in general, both about the Mayans and to the reader. He says things like, "[t]hough a problem of first importance, the analysis of the simple elements is far too complex for presentation to the beginner..." (p. 26)

Also according to Wikipedia, most of Morley's ideas about the Mayan writing system have also been rendered obsolete by further research... which makes me wish I were looking at a better book, I suppose. But this book is almost exclusively about the calendar and date symbols, and Wikipedia seems to think those bits are probably okay. And this is the one I've got. So whatever, I'll go with this.

So a Mayan week, a "uinal", has twenty days ("k'in"). Most of the days have more than one symbol. The first day is Imix and the last is Ahua, and Ahua is the most important day of the week, the one that is most often used to count to or from something. Days aren't just called by their name, though, they're always preceded by a number, 1-13. So for example a day might be 3 Ahua or 12 Akbal. It takes 260 days for the day-number pairs to repeat, and this 260 day cycle is the basis of the Mayan sacred year. Apparently Morley doesn't know the name of the 260 day cycle in Mayan, but he says the Aztec name for this unit is "Tonalamatl". Wikipedia claims scholars use "Tzolk'in".

The calendar year started in July and was divided into 18 "months" of 20 days, for a total of 360 days, (called a "tun") plus 5 sacred days at the end of the year. The 5 extra days, called "wayeb" , were apparently not a happy year-end celebration, but instead a time when no one did anything or went anywhere for fear of evil spirits. The Maya were aware of the extra day every four years that we correct with a leap year to bring the calendar year into line with the solar year, but they didn't correct for it because that would mess up the counting cycle of uinals and tuns. Instead they did insanely complicated calculations to figure out the equinox, etc.

The "Calendar Round" is 52 years, which is the time for the tonalamatl to meet up with the 365-day calendar year (though not the solar year, nor yet the tun). A "ka'tun" is 20 tun, or about 9.7 years. The next division is the "Long Count," the one that people are so freaked out about supposedly ending in 2012. One B'ak'tun is 20 Ka'tun, or about 395 years.

So you can see that their calendar system requires a bit of knowledge of symbols but an enormous amount of math, not only to calculate which day would fall when but also to bring the calendar year into harmony with the actual solar year. But I suppose our weeks of seven days and months of 28, 30, or 31 days is not really any simpler.

Mayan writing reminds me a lot of Japanese. Maybe that's because Japanese is the only language I've studied that didn't use the English alphabet. But there are recurring elements in the figures, which can have either a phonetic or a semantic content. The same elements can have their form altered to fit more harmoniously in the figure, and they may in fact be completely unrecognizable at the end. Etc. According to Wikipedia, the Maya also had a complete syllabery, like Japanese. The whole thing gives me tremendous sympathy for the people trying to figure this stuff out- Japanese is hard enough when I've got a textbook sitting right there telling me how to figure out what it means.

I'm only fifty pages in and planning to work all the way through to the end; if I learn anything else cool I'll post it here, but I think this is a pretty solid summary of the actual information in the book. The rest appears to be application; actually learning to read and use the Mayan symbols.

No comments:

Post a Comment