The Blood of Kings

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In 1816, the English poet John Keats expressed his enthusiastic discovery of Homer in George Chapman’s Elizabethan translation by likening his experience to the discovery of a new planet or to the Spanish discovery of the Pacific Ocean. That wild delight which Keats described is precisely the condition contemporary readers experience on first looking into The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art in which Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller present to the modern world an astonishingly new version of the Maya in a generally accessible form. Produced in connection with the 1986 exhibition The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art shown at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, this richly illustrated and elegantly written work focuses in its eight chapters on the eight principal elements of the exhibit. It also contains a ground-breaking introduction in four parts as well as informative sections on the Maya calendar and on the recently decoded hieroglyphic writing system, the solution to the mystery of the Maya. The study is, thus, far more than a conventional exhibit catalog.

Michael D. Coe, in his preface to the work, places the book in its proper historical context as a culmination and definitive statement of the revolution in Maya studies since the mid-1960’s. He agrees with the authors that blood was the mortar of ancient Maya ritual life, and, in addition, he traces the short but meteoric history of the breaking of the hieroglyphic code. The slow acceptance of the Russian Yuri Knorosov’s revival in 1952 of Bishop Diego de Landa’s long-discredited sixteenth century recording of a Maya alphabet led to the epoch-making discovery in 1960 by Harvard University’s Tatiana Proskouriakoff that the Maya inscriptions had historical context. The twenty-five years of Maya studies that followed have been a golden age of collaboration among linguists, epigraphers, art historians, archaeologists, and ethnologists, one fruit of which is the present volume.

The speculative theories about the Maya most broadly adopted in the 1950’s and still quite evident in works published in the 1980’s are discredited here by the evidence of the Maya themselves in their recorded history on the stelae, temples, palaces, tombs, and artworks of Mesoamerica. The Blood of Kings replaces a highly romanticized conjectural image of the Classic Lowland Maya civilization (fl. 250-900 c.e.) as a peaceful, primitively agrarian theocracy attended by anonymous calendar priests who were learned in astronomy and lived in ceremonial centers to which the general populace was invited to witness spectacle and ritual with irrefutable evidence that the Maya lived in cities, had a highly advanced agricultural system, engaged in constant warfare among their city-states, and were ruled by dynastic kings who commissioned major artworks to memorialize themselves and ensure their place in history and who shed their own blood and that of their captives in bloodletting rituals that had dynastic, religious, and cosmic significance. Drawing upon varied sources in other fields in addition to those in their disciplines of art and art history, the authors provide a comprehensive guide to the Maya that is informative to neophytes, satisfying to amateur Maya enthusiasts and useful to students, teachers, and scholars in the field, and that leads to a realistic vision of a culture and civilization built upon the blood of its divine kings. This vision is never clearer than in the treatment of the edifices and artifacts beautifully and carefully photographed by Justin Kerr and reproduced in 122 color plates, the three hundred original drawings by Linda Schele, and the fifty other black-and-white illustrations.

In their introduction, the authors provide not only a clear sense of the divisions of Maya history and salient points about geography and agriculture but also an overview of the modern invention of the ancient Maya, the basics about the Maya calendar, a primer on the characteristics of Maya art, and a discussion of Maya gods and icons that all proceed from new readings of the Maya glyphs and iconography. The wealth of knowledge amassed since 1960 is amply evidenced and expertly used to explain the phenomenon that the Maya are only now emerging from a misty prehistory to become a people with a written history dating from 50 b.c.e., a history principally celebratory of such kings as Pacal of Palenque, Bird Jaguar of Yaxchilán, and Yax-Pac of Copán. The notion of kingship here espoused and explained is not that of a single Maya emperor but of kings who ruled concurrently in different parts of Mesoamerica.

The emphasis on blood is an important new element in the general understanding of the Maya: Their kings let blood on every important occasion in the life of the individual and community, a fact powerfully illustrated by the comparison of a sanitized nineteenth century drawing and a modern one of a detail from Yaxchilán Lintel 17. The former, by Annie Hunter, shows only the stylized head of a woman; the latter gives a fuller and more faithful rendering, complete with the rope which Lady Balam-Ix draws through a hole in her tongue...

(The entire section is 2152 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Ceramics Monthly. XXXIV, October, 1986, p. 77.

Choice. XXIV, November, 1986, p. 466.

Library Journal. CXI, October 1, 1986, p. 88.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, February 26, 1987, p. 3.

The New York Times. August 6, 1986, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, July 4, 1986, p. 54.

Times Literary Supplement. September 26, 1986, p. 1075.