September 15th, 2006

Books!

Most recent book finished ...

Sometimes (like the past few weeks) I have long droughts where I don't finish any books, and then suddenly I'm boom-boom-boom with them. I really do try to schedule these better ... however, I just finished two books that I've been reading seemingly forever on back-to-back days. This is the review of the most recent one, skipping over another which I'm sort of still "processing"!

Anyway, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, by Mayanists Linda Schele and David Freidel, is well known as a classic book on the subject. This had, however, sat around on my bookshelves since its publication in 1990 ... why, I don't know, really ... I just never quite got around to plowing into it. Perhaps the very "substantialness" of the book had put me off, as it is a rather dense slog at times, especially if one makes the effort of flipping back constantly to the 90 pages of endnotes which add an extra 20% to the length of the book (not even counting the 24 pages of references which follow!). What the authors have attempted is a start-to-finish history of the Mayan peoples (well, for the periods when there were Kings), based on the inscriptions and other archaeological traces that they left behind.

A Forest of Kings was fascinating in being full of "I did not know that" moments, starting with its title. Most of the Mayan commemorative stele (like this fellow here) were structured as symbolic representations of the King embodying "the World Tree" at the center of the Mayan cosmos, and so in sites with long habitation (where many of these, erected by successive generations of Kings, would fill a plaza) it would create "a forest" of Kings!

On several levels, though, this is an "odd" book. Most of it is very academic (with endless credits being detailed about other researchers who had previously suggested plausible theories that might support or disagree with the theories and/or assumptions that the authors were presenting, yadda, yadda, yadda), yet is interspersed with "stories" trying to flesh out moments in time and humanize the figures frozen in these stone carvings. It also is structured as a look at "Kingship" as an organizing concept in the Mayan world, from its first emergence in early sites through its eventual abandonment it late-period cultural expressions such as found at Chichen Itza. For most of Mayan history, the King was not just a political figure, but they main psychopompic actor of the state religion, responsible for "manifesting" (through personal rites of bloodletting and various forms of shamanic trance) various deities and ancestors. The ongoing patterns of inter-city warfare (frequently regulated by the movements of the planet Venus) are also detailed, as much of this was purely to provide "high status" captives whose abuse (some were kept alive for decades in order to be dragged out for ritual torture at important ceremonies) and/or execution played key roles in the prestige of Kings, nobles, and cities alike (yet also set up "blood feuds" that churned on for centuries between mutually hostile lineages).

As I've noted previously, it's only been in the past few decades that we've been able to read what the Mayan elites had inscribed of their history, so this bears (for me, at least, having been interested in the subject early on) much of the thrill of "new discovery" (even though the book's been out for sixteen years!).

Needless to say, I'd recommend this to anybody who has a serious interest in all things Mayan. It's not an easy book or a quick read, but it a very illuminating look into a world that was shrouded in mute mystery for a millennium. A Forest of Kings appears to still be in print in a paperback reprint edition, so you should be able to find it at your local bookstore, but the Amazon new/used guys have it "like new" in paperback for as little as six bucks, and in hardcover for around nine. It's heavily illustrated with line drawings, and has a small 16-page section of color photos as well ... certainly a good addition to any archaeology fan's library!


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