Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path

Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path

by David Freidel, Linda Schele, Joy Parker

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A Masterful blend of archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, and lively personal reportage, Maya Comos tells a constellation of stories, from the historical to the mythological, and envokes the awesome power of one of the richest civilizations ever to grace the earth.

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A Masterful blend of archaeology, anthropology, astronomy, and lively personal reportage, Maya Comos tells a constellation of stories, from the historical to the mythological, and envokes the awesome power of one of the richest civilizations ever to grace the earth.

Editorial Reviews

Brian Fagan
Maya Cosmos is...quite simply, one of the most important books on religious beliefs ever written—because it combines archaeology and all manner of other sources in a compelling, readable synthesis.
Mary Miller
Maya Cosmos is an awesome achievement in decoding ancient thought.
Library Journal
In this highly original and politically provocative synthesis, archaeologist Freidel and epigrapher Linda Schele team up with Joy Parker, a popular writer, in an attempt to bridge history and prehistory in the Yucatan peninsula of Guatemala and Mexico. Their device is to apply shamanistic belief and practice among modern Maya to interpretations of hieroglyphics and other archaeological remains. In this captivating thesis, foreshadowed in Dennis Tedlock's Popol Vuh ( LJ 1/85) and their own A Forest of Kings (Morrow, 1990), they argue that the world view of the prehistoric Maya lives on in the language and beliefs of the survivors of the Spanish conquest. While at once compelling and controversial, this book will appeal to everyone interested in the Maya and non-Western religion.-- William S. Dancey, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

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HarperCollins Publishers
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7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.36(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Road of Maya Reality


(as told by David Freidel)

 The plains of Yaxuna in northern Yukatan are usually covered with a green sea of waving maize plants and waist-high grasses in the month of July. The temple-mountains of stone rubble rise skyward like the gray, forested islands of a landlocked archipelago, but in the summer of 1989, the sea had become a desert. Red dust jumped in small puffs as I stumbled, heat-stupid, through the stunted weeds and stillborn cornstalks from the June planting-the second failed planting of that year. Stripped of its life-sustaining greenery, the plain was a maze of low rock patterns, the homes and household lots of the ancient community's farmers, warriors, craftsmen, and merchants. The earth, torn up by burrowing iguanas, was littered with the broken pottery trash from two thousand years of habitation. The sherds glittered in the relentless glare of midmorning.

I climbed the steep broken stairway of a temple pyramid and saw two Maya farmers sweating over thirty-pound chunks of quarried stone at the bottom of the shallow square hole on the summit. Torn from the earth two thousand years ago by their ancestors, who bore them by tumpline from nearby quarries and piled them into platforms to raise the eyes and voices of kings and shamans to the horizon above the tangled forest, the stones were being moved once again by the muscle and will of Maya men, who were heaving them into neat piles by the side of the pit. At the bottom of the pit, the men had cleared away the rubbleto reveal the summit of an earlier temple-a mountain inside a mountain. Its stairway of brown-plastered masonry disappeared under the rubble of the temple built on top of it. I jumped down and carefully brushed clean the surface of the floor so that I could stand on the ceremonial platform. Maya rulers had last stood there when the Maya civilization was new, centuries before the birth of Christ in an alien world far away. This was one of the first temple-mountains raised by the Maya in this northern country.

My exhilaration of discovery was tempered by worry as I struggled out of the pit and scanned the eastern horizon for the blue-black shadows of rain-yielding thunderheads. The cloud-borne Chakob were riding the wind, but they weren't coming our way. They were headed south toward the village of Santa Maria. No one around me had spoken of rain for some time; it had been days since the last sprinkle on the lands of Yaxuna.

"They held a Ch'a-Chak at Santa Maria yesterday. The shaman from K'ankabtz'onot came and they killed two deer for it," said a young villager.

Sometimes shamans perform Ch'a-Chak ceremonies for the tourists who throng to Yukatan to admire the temples. These rituals are supposed to call upon the ancient gods to bring rain. Here in Yaxuna, however,  Ch'a-Chakob were a deadly serious business, a plea for relief from the drought that threatened the lives and well-being of my friends.

Drought was perfect working weather for my project, but it was catastrophe for the villagers who lived along the western edge of the ancient city around the ancient well of Yaxuna. Drought is a time when old tensions surface and chronic afflictions feel worse. It is a time to redress the balance between the people and their place in the world through communion with the unseen beings of the Otherworld. In the old days, said some of our workers, people could seek out wild honey in the high forest in times of drought and live on honey mixed with water to still the grumbling in their bellies and stretch their dwindling supplies of corn. Now the high forest is gone, cut down for lumber, cleared for farmland, and replaced by tangled young growth. Wild honey is hard to find.

The archaeologists working on the ancient site of Yaxuna were a part of that tension. We brought desperately needed wage work. Now that the stocks of seed corn were depleted, we brought money to buy new seed corn and money to buy corn to eat. We had divided up the work among as many families within the village as possible, scheduling the men in awkward three-day shifts during a field season when it would have been better for us to have the same men working longer stretches of days. We had brought the vilage some financial relief, but we had also dug into the temple-mountains, the dwellings of the old gods.

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Meet the Author

David Freidel has been a Maya archaeologist for twenty years. He teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

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