The Direction of Our Roots

Our past is lost to sight as we retrace the steps of the Asiatic migrants who, during the last ice age approximately 250 centuries ago, crossed what is now the Bering Strait-without getting their feet wet. Shrouded in a nebula of mythology, they began to slowly filter in. Then, the distant fountainhead forgotten, and having lived through the whole primitive human experience, they had become Americans and cultivated corn. Centuries later, they would build Tikal, Quiriguá, Uaxactún, Palenque, Copán. Without any contact with their land of origin nor with any other outside of America, the false arch of Labná was on the verge of becoming a real one.
The pre-Columbian cultures were based on a seigniorial agricultural economy where corn shone like a sun upon communal conglomerations and city-states-according to Morley-ruled by the tribes' theocratic and military class. Warriors and priests, ranked higher than the industrious and combative commoners, incited conflicts to gain dominion over other territories, and taxes, slaves, sacrifice victims. The wars were primarily of an economic character, in combination with sacred requirements of secondary importance. When we were invaded by Pedro de Alvarado, one of the least ignorant of all the conquistadors and also the most rapacious, six hundred years had already gone by since the metropoli of the Old Empire's florid age sank into the jungle. The Bonampak frescos were painted during the apogee. At the turn of the sixteenth century, the Mayas were languishing in utter decline.
The Old Empire Mayas-in Morley's already outmoded terminology-scattered in the direction of the Laguna de Términos. Traveling against the current of the Usumacinta and Chiapas Rivers, they came to the regions where Pedro de Alvarado found them in 1524 when he conquered Guatemala. The memory of the Old Empire was wiped from their minds, almost to the point of disappearing. Some few relatively modern myths survived, such as the Toltec myth of Quetzalcóatl-which dates to before Christ according to some sources, and to the late ninth or tenth century according to others-and customs and practices that were altered by contact with other tribes.
Title of the Lords of Totonicapán-a text compiled in part (or entirely, according to some scholars) by Diego Reynoso-gives some vague indications as to the route taken by the tribes following their desertion of the Old Empire. In other Mayan books, accounts of various migratory periods thrive in a tangle of myths, history and legends. Unraveling the different migrations is an arduous task, despite meticulous comparisons and knowledge of coetaneous civilizations. The books refer primarily to the New Empire, though the cosmogonic and theogonic part is the product of the Old Empire and even older epochs: historical precision is yet unknown here. There is still hope that some of the inscriptions of the so-called Old Empire will permit the recovery of several centuries or millennia.
Mayan ceramics were unique for their delicacy, perfection and decorative variety. Frans Blom asserts that "ancient Mayans produced the most extraordinary pottery in the world." The cup, the wall, the codex, the stele, baked clay figurines, funerary urns, all attest to the imagination of this society of limners and colorists, unleashed in a theological world where at every turn they invoked the great gods of their universe and the lesser gods of the community, tribe, ceremony, institution or trade. The Maya pantheon-which contains no god of love-is immense: it is perpetually flitting from the human level to the mythical, from history to portent. Superimposed legends and transfigurations, in a perpetual epiphany of mythic invention. A world of poetry in action that, with startling opulence, brought the feathered serpents to life and blanketed their constructions with symbols that incarnated the forces of nature, prodigies of heroes and priests, and the animal, human and divine powers of the gods.
The Quiché Maya pantheon possesses certain traits that have yet to be studied in depth. The elaboration of their mythology, and its use in explaining the world, is one of their masterpieces. It is quite legitimate to speak of the contributions that former settlers of the lands now constituting Guatemala made to the horizon of ancient civilizations: in this part of America, they created the most important advances found by Europe during the sixteenth century. The religious beliefs of this divinity-saturated world structured the whole of life, as expressed through art and science. Over and above the peculiarities of different epochs, this totality remains essentially the same. They made a civilization blossom-manifested in writing, architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, in their numeric and chronological systems and, in all likelihood, in music-founded on a certain conception of the world and its destiny, on an integral perception of humanity. The relics allow us to conjecture as to some of what they accomplished. In sculpture and lapidary arts, they transcended their Neolithic techniques and achieved anything they desired, with astounding perfection. The evolution of the different styles remains nebulous, despite attempts at classification. Evolution was slow, as in any art form strictly governed by theocratic will. It passed from simple forms to fugues of shapes and volumes, to expressions opening into deltas, into arabesques, volutes and movement captured in a static image, even depicting air as Chinese artists did.
It was commonplace to blend the most laden, ornamental art with the most uncompromising austerity. Sculpture, the art of space; poetry, the art of time. The cloud and the clock. Space, form, cloud, imprecision. Time, conceptual expression, lyric precision, clock. Stone and song. In their own tangible imprecision, matter and form sustain their everlasting nature. An idea grows old more readily than a shape, a color, a drawing. Independently of the purely conceptual, lyricism becomes eternal as it expresses his terror, hope, tenderness of inner man with the precision of a sob or a scream, and is transformed into pure sensation: a prolonged interjection, a magic prayer to divinity or human communion. A painter's work is grasped or sensed in a glance, like observing a starry sky. We enter a room filled with El Grecos or Rubens, and the artist's dynamism, either ascetic and tortured or Dionysian and jocund, drags us along like a hurricane. Like the night sky, one does not feel the impact of a poet like a blow. It is a slow process, without the possibility of that immediate sensorial communication particular to the visual arts.
The presence of action abides in forms. In ideas-or to be exact, in literature-the instability of events is frozen for an instant. The world of forms is not as ephemeral because of its sensuality. The world of ideas is precise, and therefore more elusive, wider and more vulnerable: it is constantly assailed from all sides. The hexagon, the spiral of a snail shell, a breast or a profile, the quality of matter added to the prestige of color-jade, gold, flesh, obsidian or granite-all experience their empire with greater force than a concept, which is merely instability and approximation. Visual art is linked directly to our senses, to our animal interior, to physical pleasure and the tellurian root of humanity.
The influence of the oral tradition is surely comparable to that of visual art: it exists and it possesses similar aesthetic validity. However the influence of the indigenous word cannot survive with the same freshness and joy as art because the world of form and sensation diverges from that of concepts and reason: artistic expression is more suitable for the preservation of eminence than literary expression, where ideas take on a more fragile shape. Art crystallizes the conception of the world, as do words. They are the consolidation of a certain mentality or sensibility in an entity that does not demand any logical analysis of the message: the senses delight in lines and volumes, in the forms themselves, regardless of which civilization produced them, as in the presence of a woman, a star, a rose or a serpent.
The Mayan line achieved a sharpness and eloquence that few have matched in the history of ancient civilizations. The line is the intellectual element par excellence, circumscribing the real object, delimiting something imaginary to bind it so tightly it acquires corporality. The abstract world, eternal and human, our world without time, concerned with mystery, destiny, death: the metaphysics of a people·. In one analysis after another, it was captured in drawing and volume-precise parallel equivalents of the magical thought that ruled over them. Many years, many centuries, were needed for the diverse forms of expression to filter into masterpieces: vessels and steles, the frescos of Bonampak, mosaics and featherwork, architecture, poetry, finally springing from interwoven nebulae of myths where reason adhered to the most copious fantasy, and the two fed off each other.
Studies by Sylvanus G. Morley claim that the artwork of the so-called Old Empire has a more solid, serene air, having been reduced to the most indispensable of aesthetic elements during its two immortal early stages, but even so, many centuries would have to go by before it reached perfection. Line is condensed within itself, form observes itself, turned inward, proudly reducing itself to intrinsic geometric elements. They had ingeniously achieved the expression of form and, bit by bit, moved on to a conceptism of form, to an arborescent and flamboyant style. And from sober, eloquent, primitive inertness, they slipped toward the idea of expressing movement.
Even forms such as the pyramid that are the epitome of stability underwent such modifications. Massive structures were alleviated with capitals, columns, lintels and the ever-rhythmic ornamentation of their great monumental artistic tradition. Evolution in the New Empire does not appear very substantial, due on the one hand to the mastery already attained, and on the other, to the secular constraints that mystic norms placed on artistic expression. The evolutionary path did not only pursue form and its possibilities, but form as the incarnation of the scars and fears of a theocratic civilization.
An integral aspect of art was its social function. Art of the masses; religious art that, like religion itself, invaded every facet of the real world down to the most trivial, and down to the most trivial facet of thought and imagination, of the collective aboriginal dream. Art created by homogeneous humanity in isolation, in a reality without divisions where the frontiers of liberty cannot be demarcated; in a society where differentiation is minimal and that has contact with fraternal cultures very similar to its own. All is assumption in symbol, parable and metaphor. They sculpt, draw, write myths; they speak myths in everyday conversation, familiarly: myths about time, about children, about the fields. Art, poetry, science-in a word, culture-were based on the supreme devotion that generated unity. Art in the service of theocratic power, in a society inundated with the inenarrable absolute of the devouring myth, entirely free within the utilitarian and absorbing common dream, within the social function required and practiced by all, the soul of the people's ethos and pathos. The representative arts were committed to interpreting metaphysical, mythical and magical concepts. That was the origin of slowness and its transfiguration. Riotous, seminal art, always strong within the analytical hieratic quality of indigenous sobriety, though it was born in the tropics and blended with nature and the daily life of their faith. By grasping the imaginative world and the hallucinations of belief, by representing the reality created under their own impetus, they were carried into the purer realms of creation, while maintaining their consubstantial integration with all of life. From the social unity achieved through fervor there derives a splendid, visceral art form. Never exuberant or verbose, it is built upon the essential nature of forms, not their accidental nature. They sculpt and write dreams, the reality of their essential life. They do not narrate nor are they descriptive; they are as condensed and hieratic as a number, as opulent as a creation that exults in burning objective reality and building it up again from its ashes, only more real: just as it is for them, as their wisdom fears, loves and venerates it. They were impassioned with the world of their belief, their mythic world, and with the concretion of an abstract world that guided and typified the most profound parts of life. A symbol is a trap that imprisons the forces of nature. Art is an act of magic. Primitive? Far from it: it is a way of expressing ourselves. Their realism cannot be objective, but is rather that of a practical poetry, like all religions. That is the essence of pre-Columbian art and of Mayan art in particular: all that delirium was realer than the real world.
Man has never been able to escape the real world: "abstract" expressions will always contain references to it. Everything becomes symbolic: numbers, animals, plants, colors, natural phenomena, the planet, imaginary entities, feelings. For an artist, a tiny nail clipping has planetary connotations. With these symbols, like diminutive roots, man takes possession of the world to know himself better, to discover who he is and where he is. And to comprehend the world, to explore it and create paths and possibilities. And we find ourselves faced with facts such as this, appropriated by Mayan art: for its absolute and functional integration into the world which it represents and which is within itself, it drives expression to such an extreme that its zeal must inevitably give corporeality to all that is observed, to all that is invented by the eyes of hallucination, dreams and faith. It was neither an imitation of irrelevant natural reality, nor magic realism: its magic was the mystery streaming from the sacred model. And like all symbols, it served to link abstract and concrete life, to blend the two antagonistic worlds, to reconciliate the irreconcilable and to create the cosmic unity of man.
Mayan art possesses a radical Orphic essence, such as is demanded by an order of an absolute nature: it is not so much a representation as the appropriation of the godly and animistic nature of all creatures and all things. Its primordial models were subconscious ones, and not an individual subconscious but rather a religious and social one. Such is the unitary and votive integration of Mayan art, and the secret to its power and grace (realism and reality became one and the same thing in the mind) that made its creators the greatest architects, painters and sculptors of America. It is always the creative product of a celestial hungering to give visual form to the magical and mythical world where they lived more than in the real world, and which was only the extension of their own secret, totaliarianly theological world that defined the forms of culture. And all of it, hidden and nocturnal under the sun, was completely immersed in reality: people, animals, plants, stones-the fruit-bearing tropic dripping with juices that is our land.
In his quick book Beyond the Mexique Bay, Aldous Huxley makes the observation that there are no feminine figures in evidence in Mayan representations, and concludes that they are lacking in sensuality. Despite its clearly Uranist nuance, André Gide's argument on one page of his Diary (September 20, 1941) is quite sound:
That may well be, but one thing does not necessarily issue from the other, and I have seen, in Etruscan graves, paintings of evident sensuality and even lubricity from which the female element was excluded. But it is a frequent induction, and what surprises me is that such an alert intellect as Aldous Huxley's would lend itself to such ends. He speaks of a certain masculine divinity's torso that is "a marvel of grace and delicacy"-fit, he says, "to occupy a spot in the British Museum." That torso in no way recalls the equivocal effeminacy that is such a constant in Indian sculpture. Consequentially· But come now! Neither do the Ignudi of the Sistine Chapel. Oh, how easy it is for Uranism to pass for frigidity or chastity to heterosexual eyes!
The female nude has no importance in Mayan art because women's role in the theocratic and warrior society was a secondary one. In the so-called Old Empire, matriarchy-if it ever existed-left no conspicuous traces. In certain representations of the young god of corn, such as those at Copán, the attire contains something of the effeminacy that André Gide noted in the sculpture of India. This is more of an impression than a well-founded evaluation. Mayan civilization has few instances of female divinities, who perhaps originated, as in other civilizations, during periods of cultural decline. Isla de Mujeres off the Yucatán coast-discovered by Hernández de Córdoba in 1518-was given the name "island of women" because of its significance in the cult to Ixcel, goddess of safe childbirth, representing the moon and femininity as opposed to the solar aspect. Sensuality was violently evaded through diverse religious practices, especially sacrifice-outbursts of the bloody and dazzling collective theological obsession that were amassed and then symbolized by art. A life absorbed and deranged by sacredness, a passion that also expresses eroticism, despite the austerity of Mayan art. Painting and sculpture are in essence forms of writing: pictograms, symbols, narrations, concepts, representations of ideas and prodigies. Each city is an epic, a saga. A Popol Vuh, constructed, painted and sculpted. A poem in stone. There are no pure forms-concentrated solely on artistic zeal-that do not speak, transmitting their messages in two ways: as writing and a prompt to memory, and through their intrinsic formal eloquence. And what a beautiful hand they had!
The Hellenic influence spread throughout Asia on Alexander's heels and the nude appeared in the ancient civilizations of present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, India. Its ardent sap flows back as through capillaries until getting lost in the serenity of Buddha, whose very image has Hellenic origins. These cultures and our own indigenous antiquity developed-in complete ignorance of one another-forms and expressions of surprising similarity. They were morphologically influenced by human physical attributes, perhaps by the path of distinct but related folklores, and by the natural surroundings of regions whose exuberance bears a certain likeness to our own. Saturated with depictions of death and war, and influenced by the lush tropical foliage, Mayan art has a remarkable ability to capture in drawing the meaningful features of real and imaginary worlds, and combines that power with a sense of ornamentation to produce a feeling of rightness, even when verging on excess. In the aforementioned book, Aldous Huxley states that the hieroglyphics are among the most exorbitant decorative combinations to be produced by the Maya.
Even fantastic Gothic ornamentation seems pedestrian in comparison. But, despite the richness and strangeness of Mayan hieroglyphics, this extravagance is strictly disciplined. Each glyph contains and fills its frame completely; its mise en page is nearly always impeccable. These fantastic symbols, often savage or grotesque, are submitted to a severe intellectual discipline.
Jerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero were the sole survivors of a shipwreck in which the other sailors were sacrificed by the aborigines. Their story is prodigiously suggestive as the first strand in the ball of thread that is the consciousness of cultural blending-mestizaje-in the Americas. Both were held prisoner by the Maya from 1511 until 1519, the year the conquistadors first set foot on these shores. And here the trunk of the Spanish tree divided into two branches. Jerónimo de Aguilar learned Maya and spoke it with Doña Marina, La Malinche, who also knew the language of Tenochtitlán. Together, Doña Marina-who did not speak Spanish-and Jerónimo de Aguilar served as Hernán Cortés's interpreters. Gonzalo Guerrero did not follow the Spaniards as Jerónimo de Aguilar did. He remained with his new gods and his indigenous wife in the community he belonged to, along with his children who were the first mestizos on the continent. Doña Marina is the other side of the coin: she left her people, turned traitor and went off with the invaders as Cortés's lover. Gonzalo Guerrero and the Malinche began the process of intermingling blood, languages, beliefs. A conquered Spanish man; a conquered indigenous woman. Jerónimo de Aguilar took up arms, but together with La Malinche, as interpreters, they formed a Trojan horse that was more powerful than artillery and muskets. Gonzalo Guerrero turned his back on the Holy Cross, refused to fight the Indians and lived their life forevermore.
Bernal Díaz del Castillo recounts the tale as follows:
Aguilar set out for the place, five leagues distant, where his companion Gonzalo Guerrero was living, but when he read the letter to him he answered: "Brother Aguilar, I am married and have three children and the Indians look on me as a cacique and captain in wartime. You go, and God be with you, but I have my face tattooed and my ears pierced. What would the Spaniards say should they see me in this guise? And look how handsome these boys of mine are. For God's sake give me those green beads you have brought, and I will give the beads to them and say that my brothers have sent them from my own country." And the Indian wife of Gonzalo spoke to Aguilar in her own tongue very angrily and said to him: "What is this slave coming here for, talking to my husband-go off with you, and don't trouble us with any more words." And Aguilar turned to Gonzalo saying that he was a Christian and must not lose his soul for an Indian woman; and that if he did it for his wife and children, to take her with him if he did not want to leave them behind. But as much as Aguilar talked to Gonzalo and admonished him, he did not want to leave. It seems Gonzalo was a man of the sea and a native of Palos.1
On his travels through Honduras (1524ö1525), Hernán Cortés became the first white man to cross the domains of the Old Empire. He hanged Cuauhtémoc in the forest, near or within the present-day Guatemalan borders. Copán was discovered in 1576 by one of the judges of the Royal Tribunal of Guatemala, Diego García de Palacio. At the close of the seventeenth century, Father Avendaño became lost in the jungles of El Petén when the members of the expedition he was traveling with got split up; this same expedition would later come to his rescue. Though faint from hunger, he survived the ordeal by eating a few chicozapotes that the monkeys had thrown down from the trees. He set out walking aimlessly. Suddenly, as if in a hallucination, he stumbled upon the first sizable ruins found-perhaps Tikal. Palenque appears to have been discovered midway through the eighteenth century. Shortly before 1840, the Payés brothers discovered Quiriguá. John L. Stephens, who had already visited Copán, first saw Quiriguá in 1841 and definitively called the world's attention to Mayan civilization with his valuable work Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán.
Sylvanus G. Morley tells us that
...the ancient Mayan priests conceived of a simple numerical system that even today, after more than two thousand years, still stands as one of the most brilliant creations of man's intellect.2
And he goes on to say:
The monoliths of Quiriguá are singular both for their large dimensions and for the mastery with which they were carved out of extremely hard stone. They possess a perfection that is quite distinct from the exquisite, nuanced and truly culminant forms of the Mayan sculptures in Copán and of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier's 1953 findings in Palenque. The heads in Palenque present the opulence of a quetzal-feather headdress framing a face that could not have been any more expressive, nor more austere, nor wiser, nor more beautiful.
How to travel any further along such a path? These heads deliver up all the exquisiteness and strength of Mayan art. In them, these qualities are so closely linked with the "eternal human"-we would say in the Mediterranean idiom-that when we admire the face of Nefertiti (or the finest works of African art), we recall the delicacy of Palenque, whose splendor is at least equal.
Without realizing it, we allow the buried influence of these foreign masterpieces to cause us to say that certain works of Mayan art are so beautiful they look like X or Z, instead of affirming the exact opposite: X or Z is so beautiful it looks like such-and-such a mask or like the Palenque head. How many Greek heads could not serve as kitchen wenches to the prodigious Maya? Pre-Columbian sculpture exists in a lofty domain that demands new, wider frames of reference of us in our judgments. When this daily confrontation arises, it is not libido alone that decides-that vital, grassroots proof, guaranteed by a living specimen that we either know or have seen in the movies-but the watered-down ghost of what, until recently, was the "classical" notion of "primitiveness" and "barbarism" as determined by the Greek miracle and Occidental anthropomorphic demands. Pre-Colombian sculpture developed in regions where past migrations had left traces of their genius like floods leave evidence of their force. Its beauty, and the varied forms of that beauty, are such that we would note a marked contrast if we placed the heads of Palenque alongside Coatlicue: two worlds, two art forms that could be from different planets. Mayan art managed to exist in both worlds simultaneously as no other American art tradition had done.
Having turned their backs on Asia, having lost all notion of origins our pre-Columbian civilizations, in the words of Roger Fry, "bequeathed us more masterpieces of pure sculpture than all the Mesopotamian civilizations put together, and more than the majority of modern European civilizations."


  1. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico 1517ö1521, (New York: ???, 19??),  pp. ??ö??.
  2. Sylvanus G. Morley, La civilización maya, 2nd ed. (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1953) pp. 306-307 and 498 ss.


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Última revisión: 26/03/06
por Juan Carlos Escobedo Mendoza M.A.