Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Introduction

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Author: Thompson, John Eric Sidney (1898-1975)

Year: 1950

Publisher: Carnegie Institution of Washington

Place: Washington, D C


xvii+347+[64] with frontispiece, figures, map and index. Quarto (11 1/2" x 9") bound in original publisher's wrappers. Publication 589 Carnegie Institution of Washington. First edition.

In this series of essays Thompson reviews extant knowledge on Maya writing, gives rich comment, and reworks anew the entire field in search of material that may give clues to decipherment. His approach is revealed in the following quotation. “In this volume I have tackled the problem of decipherment in what I deem to be a new way, although one which has in it elements which have been tried before. It is my conviction that we shall interpret the glyphs only by relying heavily on the beliefs, the religious symbolism, the mythology, and to a lesser extent the everyday activities of the Maya, because such concepts surely are imbedded in each glyph . . . Argument must be from the known to the unknown, and for that reason many pages are given to elucidating the meanings of the day names and other signs, the names and functions of which are known.” All these phases are discussed, linguistic clues are investigated, and the pictorial and graphic qualities of the glyphs themselves are analyzed at length. Thus the author makes an intense dual study of both the ethnology of the ancient Maya and of the morphology of the hieroglyphs, in a search for inter-linkages that may lead to further understanding. Thompson shows that the several calendars, endlessly repeating and interlocking like the gears of a complicated clock, were not just soulless counting devices: “The Maya conceived of the divisions of time as burdens which were carried through alleternity by relays of bearers . . . Time was not portrayed as the journey of one bearerand his load, but of many bearers, each with his own division of time on his back.”This concept accounts for a host of ethnological ideas suggested in the codices and the stone inscriptions, and mentioned in the books of Chilam Balam. Each period, such asthe day, the 260 day cycle, and the katun, had its own group of bearers, usually gods; and the occasion of transfer of the burden of that particular series was an event of note. Period endings were the resting places of the porters. The outstanding example of this Maya idea was the importance of the endings of the twenty-year katuns, commemorated by important ceremonies and the erecting of monuments. At such times the bearer of the incoming katun became a powerful diety, while his predecessor was relegated to comparative obscurity until the cycle repeated itself. Regarding the religious nature of the Maya calendar, the author says, “Nowhere else in the world, have the periods of time, from the day upward, been not only deified, but given active personalities and the most important parts on the divine stage. . . The fourth Maya day was the day of the maize god . . . The sun god is not only the sun, he is the day Ahau, he is the number 4.” Thus even the numeral itself may be deified. Thompson believes that this thesis of spiritual inter-linkage of living calendars with the Maya pantheon indicates a basic philosophy of the priests. It serves not only in interpretation of the hieroglyphic texts, but also gives an insight into the thought and action of the Maya.


Corners gently bumped with some light edge wear, spine age darkened else a very good copy.

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