This weekend’s reading

It’s a persistent melancholy with me that I read a huge number of books that I never get a chance to cover as reviews, so this section will be a chance to redress that omission. That said, I may well review Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. On the basis of the first few chapters it’s a bold attempt to reconstruct a culture known mostly through the memories of their destroyers. I never realised that “Hannibal”, the name of the great Carthaginian general who almost brought Rome to its knees, actually means something: “The Grace of Baal” (another deity who gets a bit of bad press from the Good Book).
Also reconstructing a lost culture is the magisterial 2000 Years of Mayan Literature by Dennis Tedlock (University of California Press). I’d always thought that the Mayan glyphs were pretty much indecipherable, and although it takes a massive mind-shift to get to the “literature” after the ritual dates, it’s worth the effort. “This is the Root of the Ancient Word Here in this Place called K’iche” is astonishing: a syncretic work mixing Christian influence with traditional aetiologies of the Mayans – astonishingly, their creation myth had multiple creations of humanity, with the Gods refining their early attempts as each proves inadequate. They begin with monkeys who lack language, then try a man made of mud (just like the Biblical Adam) who is also inarticulate and dissolves in water (a bizarre un-writing of the Genesis story!). The third attempt is wooden puppets, but they lack memory and are destroyed by a divine hurricane. Some of the glyphs, from chocolate drinking vessels, even give us the Mayan word for McShandy – “ajch’uh huun – the Master Who Looks After Books”. And for my weekly poetry catch-up: Robin Robertson’s The Wrecking Light. Just remembering some of the lines and images gives me goose-flesh.

Mayan Scribes: photograph © Justin Kerr

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One response to “This weekend’s reading

  1. The Maya vase of a scribe with what I believe is a mushroom encoded in the head led me to your site. For more about mushrooms in Maya Art, visit Breaking The Mushroom Code…
    The study I embarked on was inspired by a theory first proposed by my father, the late Maya archaeologist Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi, that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were a central aspect of Maya religion. He based this theory on his identification of a mushroom stone cult that came into existence in the Guatemala Highlands and Pacific coastal area around 1000 B.C. along with a grisly trophy head cult associated with the Mesoamerican ballgame.
    The cylindrical vase in roll out form is Late Classic (600-900 C.E.) K1185, (from the archives of the Justin Kerr), is from the Nakbe Region in Guatemala and depicts a pair of scribes, or calendar priests skilled in prophecy and divination. The Maya scribe on the left holding a paint stylus and shell pot, has what I believe is a mushroom encoded into his headdress. Maya centers were ruled by a priestly caste whose duties seem to have been obsessively concerned with astronomical observations and mathematical calculations. Maya calendar priests were typically known throughout Middle America as the enlightened ones. The Aztecs attributed this divine enlightenment to a single god named Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, who was the legendary leader of the Toltec empire. According to the Florentine Codex (Sahagun) the Toltecs above all, “were thinkers for they originated the year count, the day count; they established the way in which the night, the day, would work; which sign was good, favorable; and which was evil, the day sign of wild beasts. All their discoveries formed the book for interpreting dreams.” Through sacred mushroom rituals priests summoned the deities of creation to manifest themselves in the underworld where life regenerates from death.”

    Painted Maya vessels like the one pictured on your site very likely contained a ritual drink consisting of hallucinogenic mushrooms or a chocolate beverage used during consumption to wash down the raw or even dried mushrooms. It appears that the act of collecting hallucinogenic mushrooms was always accompanied by a variety of religious sanctions. For example, among the present day Mixtecs the sacred mushrooms must be gathered by a virgin. They are then ground on a metate, water added, and the beverage drunk by the person consulting the mushroom.” (Borhegyi, 1961)
    Carl de Borhegyi
    For more visit Breaking The Mushroom Code

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