In this ambitious description of Mayan civilization, Linda Schele and David Freidel attempt to reconstruct the history of a highly civilized people from their surviving monuments and from the ruins still being excavated by archaeologists. The coauthors, Schele and Freidel, are both scholars. Schele, author of Maya Glyphs: The Verbs (1982) and coauthor with Mary Ellen Miller of the influential exhibition catalog, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art (1986; see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1987), is the recipient of the Tania Proskouriakoff Award for achievement in the study of New World archaeology from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and she now holds the position of John D. Murchinson Regents Professor in Art at the University of Texas in Austin. Freidel, who has received fellowships from Dumbarton Oaks and the National Geographic Society as well as numerous national foundations, teaches archaeology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, however, is addressed to the interested lay reader as well as to the scholarly professional. The historical charts, linguistic notes, maps, line diagrams, glossary of gods and icons, footnotes, and bibliographical references are interlaced with anecdotal essays that describe Schele’s first glimpse of the ruins of Palenque, or Freidel’s sense of awe when he encountered the great Sun mask in Belize. The authors also include vignettes, fictionalized narratives reconstructing the thoughts and feelings of historical figures, to add drama to their history. These vignettes are less successful than the coauthors’ accounts of their personal experiences.
Much of this historical reconstruction was made possible because of relatively recent breakthroughs in reading Mayan glyphs. Between 1960 and 1964, Tania Proskouriakoff developed what is now called the historical hypothesis, demonstrating that Mayan inscriptions recorded the deeds of rulers and nobles. Yuri Knorozov first proposed in 1952 that Mayan epigraphy, like Egyptian hieroglyphics and cuneiform, is a mixed system of full word signs and of signs representing the sounds of syllables. It was not until 1973 that pre-Columbian scholars took phoneticism seriously. When they recognized that the glyphs reflected spoken language and that the writing had a word order, epigraphers were able to determine the syntactic function of specific glyphs even when their meaning could not be deciphered. The combination of a historical approach, phoneticism, and syntactic analysis facilitated treating the inscriptions as whole texts and led to the discoveries upon which Schele and Freidel base their story.
A Forest of Kings begins with a chapter entitled “Time Travel in the Jungle,” which attempts to place side by side modern Yucatan and its past, and then offers an overview of mythology as it emerges from Mayan art. The authors identify three motifs that appear repeatedly in the imagery of Classic Mayan religion. First, twin heroes triumph over their enemies by outwitting them. Second, resurrection and rebirth are made possible only through sacrifice, especially involving decapitation. Third, the place of confrontation is the ballcourt. Bailgames, which may have had both political and religious importance, were played in these courts, but the rules and scoring continue to baffle pre-Columbian scholars.
Each of the succeeding chapters focuses on a particular place that serves to illustrate an important facet of Mayan history. The advent of the institution of kingship is described as it affected the daily life of residents in the Late Preclassic town of Cerros. The bitter wars of conquest and subjugation are represented in the story of Tikal and Uaxactun, cities which were rivals for dominance in their region. From the inscriptions, we learn that Great-Jaguar-Paw became the king of Tikal and engaged the service of Smoking-Frog, member of the ahauob or nobility. The victory of Smoking-Frog is commemorated in inscriptions which describe him as throwing down the buildings of Uaxactun. Great-Jaguar-Paw, the high king, is depicted as letting blood from his genitals to sanctify the victory. We know the exact day on which the war took place. Tikal subjugated and then occupied Uaxactun on January 16, A.D. 378. Moreover, this date became part of a self-conscious Mayan history. The date of the conquest was venerated 126 years later on December 9, A.D. 504, by one of Smoking-Frog’s descendants.
A full chapter is devoted to the history of Palenque. Its monuments and buildings of fine-grained limestone preserve a historical record from March 11, A.D. 431 until after A.D. 799. The authors offer a convincing and fascinating analysis of the inscriptions at Palenque. Pacal (“shield”) and his son Chan-...