The First 2000 Years of Mayan Literature
Thu, September 27, 2012 • 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM • BEN 2.104
A talk by Dennis Tedlock
Mayan literature is among the oldest in the world, spanning two millennia from the earliest surviving fragments to the present day. To read this literature requires not only texts and translations in the traditional sense, but graphic art as well. The Mayan script gave writers the means for notating the sounds of Mayan languages, but it never abandoned the images and diagrams that gave meaning to some of its characters. It was a mixed script, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, cuneiform, and Chinese, rather than a digitalized script, like the alphabet. And Mayan texts, like those in other mixed scripts, were nearly always accompanied with pictures that were themselves mixed, combining realism with abstract elements borrowed from the script. The forced change to alphabet writing brought a reduction of images and diagrams by stages, leading to pages filled with nothing but alphabetic writing in a prose format. During the early colonial period, it was not only the Mayan script that was banned, but public performances of verbal art as well. Mayan writers of that period, including the authors of the Popol Vuh, used the alphabet not only to preserve the contents of banned books, but also to make a record of endangered performances.
Dennis Tedlock is Distinguished Professor of English and Research Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has done ethnographic and linguistic field work among the Zuni of New Mexico and the Mayans of Guatemala and Belize. His book include Finding the Center: The Art of the Zuni Storyteller; Breath on the Mirror: Mythic Voices and Visions of the Living Maya; Days from a Dream Almanac, The Dialogic Emergence of Culture (edited with Bruce Mannheim), and Rabinal Achi: A Mayan Drama of War and Sacrifice. He won the PEN Translation Prize for Popol Vuh: The Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. His most recent book is 2000 Years of Mayan Literature.