Myths Of The Maya

Historian Restall says popular image of an exotic and violent society overlooks a rich, complicated culture

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

The familiar image of the Mayans as a mysterious, exotic society is cultivated through popular magazine articles and TV documentaries. But, says Asst. Prof. Matthew Restall (History), that image is largely mythical.

"Mayans have been thought of as peace-loving 'priest kings' who built pyramids and wrote hieroglyphs," Restall explained, "or violent, war-like people who engaged in human sacrifice. Then, the story goes, suddenly the whole society collapsed and disappeared."

Restall tells a far different, and less sensational, story in his forthcoming book The Maya World: Yucatec Culture and Society, 1550-1850 . Translating archival material from original Mayan language, Restall has constructed a social and cultural history of the Mayans during the period they were under Spanish colonial rule. The book describes household and family relations, gender roles, class structures, sociopolitical organization, and other aspects of Mayans' everyday life.

The Maya World represents a departure from most traditional approaches to Mayan research, Restall says, and aims to put the Mayans in a more realistic light.

Asst. Prof. Matthew Restall (History)-"Mayans were originally depicted as centering their life around religion. In fact, their maintaining of saint cults was only one of many ways they affirmed their community." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

"People have been interested in the Mayans, I think, because we are fascinated by the idea of a civilization so extremely accomplished," Restall said. "But this led to a lot of myth-making and ultimately we lost sight of who the Mayans really are. The idea behind a book like The Maya World is not to romanticize a people, but to see how they truly lived their lives, how they conducted their affairs day in and day out."

Besides demystifying the Mayans, Restall said, The Maya World focuses on a period less examined than the pre-Columbian and modern eras of Mayan history. By the time of Spain's conquest of Mexico in the mid-16th century, he said, the Mayans had shifted northward from their earlier, more well-known settlements in Guatemala to the Yucatan peninsula. During this colonial period, the Mayans adapted the Roman alphabet to their own language for keeping legal and other records, and it was this material Restall used as the basis for the book.

"The Spanish colonization did have an effect, but this was still very much a Mayan culture," Restall said. "That is why it was so important to look through the records from this period. You see that some terms convey multiple meanings which the colonialists' language simply cannot describe. Using the indigenous language sources and the terminology as it was, you can reconstruct the society and culture."

For example, Restall explains, the Mayan word "cah" (which can only be translated loosely as a self-governing community) was critical to describing their community organization, but the term was largely ignored by historians relying on imprecise translations from the Spanish colonists. Similarly, he said, Spaniards did not have a firm understanding of Mayan class structure, thus creating more gaps in their accounts of the period.

Restall, however, combed through 65 wills from a Mayan community in the 1760s and was able to identify the socioeconomic classes and their relationships with one another. The class structure was not especially distinct, he said, and rather than resembling "a tidy pyramid was more like a five-story building with a pyramid on top."

"There were definitely families that were rich and powerful, but the distribution of wealth was not grossly unequal," Restall said. "There was a lot of intermarrying within class levels and the transition from one level to another was imprecise. This was certainly not a caste society."

Restall also found other aspects of Mayan society more elaborate or complex than in previous descriptions.

"Mayans were originally depicted as centering their life around religion," he explained. "In fact, their maintaining of saint cults was only one of many ways they affirmed their community. There are a lot of details provided by the Mayan documents which in and of themselves do not fundamentally alter popular views, but together add up to a different picture."

Seen this way, he said, Mayans "emerge as a people we can better relate to, more human than before, really. We don't have to view them as especially noble or savage. Looking at a society as they look at themselves gives a far clearer image."

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