Helena Dyndová, "The Maya Religion" (review), Central European Journal of Contemporary Religion 3 (1, 2019): p. 65-67.
religion is a comprehensive
and high-quality introductory monograph to the religious life of Ancient Mayas.
It can be used as an extremely useful guide, not only by the academic
community, to which it has been dedicated in the first place, but thanks to its
readable and fluent style, it will be beneficial even for laymen or enthusiasts.
At the same time, this book is useful not only for those interested in the
area of Mesoamerica, but for a variety of experts on ancient cultures and on a
wider scale, with regard to its remarkable meta-methodological scope, for
religious studies scholars in general as well.
Even only a brief look on the table of contents indicates
that the author focuses on Maya religious life in accordance with detailed and conscientiously
written introductory handbooks: from history and geography, to the
categorization of available archaeological and literary sources, the social
organization and city architecture, and finally to the role of the king,
nobility, and other religious specialists. A great part of this book is
naturally dedicated to deities, myths and rites, and inseparably related topics
such as the importance of astronomy and astrology for calendar feasts, the Maya
concept of the soul, and Maya cosmology.
We could probably end the book review at this point and
evaluate the book based on its relationship to the current scientific
knowledge, stylistic skills, etc. However, this book is not as linear or
shallow. Besides its unquestionably erudite range, the reader, no later than
after the second chapter, enters the jungle of interpretations and
pre-understandings of how the study of the Maya has been approached. Step by
step, the reader is slowly immersed in the universe of motivations and ulterior motives,
with which these interpretations were created. After all,
the nature of the sources and history of Maya studies calls for this approach.
author systematically guides the reader through all the topics, introducing relevant
approaches to these issues. And simultaneously, in the background of the
discussed aspects of Maya religion, the reader will begin to follow the
methodological questions that go beyond the given area of study and which
sometimes overtake and form the chapter. This leads to continuous reasoning
about the availability and credibility of sources, to which the author shows
great respect. Thus, the reader learns to ask, over every aspect of Maya religion:
does the primary material possess this quality or is it our secondary
interpretation? (p. 170) And this skill is both helpful and much needed in the lack
or absence of empirical evidence.
In this way, the interpretations of the post-colonial Christian
administration, as well as romanticizing (an inspiring chapter about human
sacrifice, p. 246) or hypercritical postmodern approaches (the Maya had no
gods) gradually begin to be considered. The famous theories of the pioneers of Maya
studies are discussed alongside the undisputed influence of the historian of
religion Mircea Eliade and the generation of his followers. The author provides
a fair reassessment of the limits, pitfalls and benefits of comparative and
synthesizing theories on the one hand, and the specific and highly specialized approaches
on the other hand and tries to walk the line. To the credit of her research, she
manages this uneasy task sensitively, without unnecessary mocking, irony or an
implacably critical tone, which can be sometimes observed in academic polemics,
when the expert disagrees with another interpretative tradition.
the reasoning goes beyond scholarly analysis. In the same way as all sources
are necessarily interpreted or explained by scientists themselves, scholars
also do not live in an academic vacuum. Their texts influence society, which – in
turn – affects them. It is only commendable that the author was not afraid to deal
with important contemporary trends, which, at face value, have little to do
with academic Maya studies, but which are of a great importance to the whole subject
nevertheless. Accordingly, the author concentrates on modern environmentalism (co-creating
a new theory of classical collapse, p. 51), feminism (fresh criticism of the Goddess
Ixchel’s “Smurfette principle”, p. 170), or the craving for Maya spirituality as
a source of spirituality to the new age/contemporary alternative spiritual movement
(i.e. scholars writing about “energy” or “transformation of consciousness” in
Ancient Maya context, p. 159).
this intertwining of “sources we have” and “interpretations we introduce” then
culminates in a sort of grand finale; the last section of the monograph
that summarizes the entire history of approaches to Maya religious
chronologically, the short addendum of Czech and Slovak Maya studies,
contemporary spirituality, pop culture, and the 2012 millennial expectations
included. But considering how important of discourse analysis is for the author
and how the whole book contains a number of references to the last chapter, the
final chapter could do with even more elaboration and a more complex approach.
The following matter of dispute is not about what is contained
in the book, but what is missing. For example, it is somewhat confusing that
despite the constant reminders of the researchers’ points of view, the author herself
does not give any hints and explicitly reveal her “individual partiality and
emotions” (p. 321) to the research subject, which is a pity. As the author puts
it: “A completely neutral approach to the past is virtually impossible, and the
researcher’s personality and the ‘Zeitgeist’ that shaped her/him can never be
completely removed.” (p. 321). That is true; but applies to her as well.
regard to the reflection of archaeological and literal sources, a more theoretical
evaluation of the Maya religious syncretism and use of folklore records would
complete this “source family”, since the author occasionally draws a comparison
between contemporary and Ancient Maya customs – albeit with caution. Likewise,
a more in-depth methodological analysis of gods other than the prominent god D,
the goddess O (I) and the K’uk’ulkan would be surely appreciated, since in
these three cases, the analysis was very inspiring.
this academic publication lacks indexes or any other apparatus, which is very
user-unfriendly. Furthermore, the Maya alphabet table, the solar and lunar
calendar tables, and the Schellhas’s table of deities are dispersed in the book
and that makes it difficult to work with them.
These small final
touches notwithstanding, this monograph is beyond all doubt not only an extremely important contribution
to current Maya studies, but also a useful
tool for researchers in ancient (non)literary cultures and, for its methodological aptitude, for religious
studies scholars as well. The discourse analysis implicitly applied to old Maya
religion is a refreshing attitude, since not only religion is in constant
dialogue with the “profane world” of political agenda, economy, and the
prevailing worldview, but so are the scholars who form the image of these
civilizations. This meta-methodological technique is certainly a complicated
and multi-levelled one, but The Maya Religion accepted this challenge with
Kostićová, Zuzana Marie, Náboženství
Mayů [Maya Religion], Praha:
Karolinum 2018, 357 p.