Mayan Appropriation

Dennis Tedlock’s Breath on the Mirror wasn’t a book I had ever heard of or was inclined to put on my list–it was recommended by my professor, but turned out to be an unexpected and interesting look at cultural, rather than individual, adaptation and appropriation.

First off, let me preface this by a general warning that I have absolutely no prior knowledge of or experience with South American cultures, ancient or otherwise.  So, if I sound ignorant or stupidly surprised by something, well, now you know why.

The first interesting thing I learned from this book was that the ancient Mayans had a writing system that was both phonetic and pictorial; though they looked to European explorers like hieroglyphics, the script actually had the advantages of a phonetic system.  So, this was a literate culture (how literate, I don’t know), and most of the myths/religious histories were recorded in a Mayan holy book, Popol Vuh.  This record-keeping is significant in talking about myths, because once written, Walter Ong notes that these text are dead, or fixed in time.  That’s not to say that they can never be altered, but that they are absolutely more static than the always in-flux myths of an oral culture.  According to Ong in his book, Orality and Literacy, “skilled oral narrators deliberately vary their traditional narratives because part of their skill is their ability to adjust to new audiences and new situations…” (48).  Mayan myths, being recorded, were fixed, with the potential to be quite old in their plots, since they weren’t being consistently updated to have current relevance to a live audience.  Interestingly, with the “conquest” of the Americas these myths have been blended with Christian Biblical stories.

Tedlock recounts several of these Christian-Mayan hybrid blendings/appropriations, particularly in the creation myths.  For example, in one retelling Jesus is present at the creation of Adam and instead of coming from Adam’s rib, Eve springs from his “female side”–according to Mayan myth, each person has a male and a female side, with origins in this tradition to the first “motherfathers” who embodied both genders and were the first human beings according to Mayan myth in the Popol Vuh.  What is interesting is that, going back to Ong’s theories, both myths, Christian and Mayan are codified–written down–and should therefore be somewhat more difficult to blend.  However, Tedlock’s recounting of these myth adaptations is highly preformative, told by a modern Mayan priest who makes the telling into something very like the oral culture’s myth-making, with a basic script but interaction from the audience, vocal variations, and a willingness to adapt as the performer goes.  Now, I’m sure that some linguist has noted this somewhere, but I got the sense that this adaptation in the form of a slight return to an oral way of telling myths, was a way to more easily appropriate, and therefore deal with/reconcile both cultures.  I don’t know if this is quite an apt metaphor, but it seems very like what happens when two languages collide: there is a period where both languages are spoken separately, but if the cultures continue to interact, in about a generation a pidgin language will form–an often highly unstable hybrid language which can form into a more complex and stable creole.  I wonder if myths go through these stages of linguistic development, or something like it as well, and the pidgin blending is made possible partially due to a return to oral culture.  Just a theory.

The Popol Vuh is the only Mayan holy book Tedlock references making it seem like the Mayans had only one holy book comparable with (many sects of) Christianity-Judaism, but a quick Internet search tells me otherwise–that this book was fortunate enough to survive due to its translation by a Dominican friar, but that there were other holy books as well.  This is just one example of Tedlock seeming to force an artificial connection between Judeo-Christian and Mayan religious myth, and it becomes difficult to untangle them, but perhaps this was exactly what Tedlock was going for, a faithfully confusing mess of myth, reality, history, “New” and “Old” worlds–a representation which circles back to the beginning myth Tedlock retells, about how the Gods blinded humanity, breathed fog on the mirror of their sight, because the original people could see too clearly.  This limitation is an explanation why we must interpret, blend, adapt, and retell–we cannot fully know the truth.


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