FORT WORTH, Tex. — We thought the Maya were the philosopher-priests of pre-Columbian America. Instead, it turns out they were blood-soaked aristocrats who played hardball for keeps.
Wait, that can't be right. Everybody knows the Maya were the ancient Greeks of the New World, a theocracy supported by slash-and-burn agriculture, theorizing in magnificent temple precincts dotted around the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and Central America at famous sites like Palenque, Tikal and Copan. All the hoary texts say the Maya were peaceful mystics obsessed with time and mathematics whose culture endured for a thousand years until their inefficient economy went bust and the peasants revolted even before the coming of the evil conquistadors in the 16th Century.
The Maya were anonymous, self-effacing votaries whose art reflected their abstract view of the world in ornate indecipherable glyphs and allegorical representations that look like a combination of East Indian encrustation and Oriental elegance. Yes, they practiced a bit of human sacrifice late in their history, but only under the sway of those Meso-American militaristic cut-throats, the Aztecs and the Toltecs. Basically, Mayas were intellectuals to be revered by subsequent generations of liberal arts majors, flower children and peaceniks.
Now, this muzzy historical bubble is burst in "The Blood of Kings" organized by this city's Kimbell Museum and on view to Aug. 24. The exhibition will certainly stand among the most important three-dimensional essays on ancient art produced in our lifetime. It actually does what every exhibition would like to do. It presents new information that illuminates the landscape of history and embodies that insight in aesthetic objects of hypnotic quality. The show is not large at 120 objects but it manages to be comprehensive because the work is so fine and telling.
Art and catalogue reveal that the Maya were indeed preoccupied with an unreal world, but it was not a dream of rational purity, it was a realm oozing terrible ritual, myth and magic. It was a dream that demanded to be acted out in reality.
In reality, the Mayan empire developed into a series of populous, warring city-states battling one another in endless squabbles in a pattern that will seem familiar to readers of Italian Renaissance history. Maya rulers fought for the usual motives of greed and ground but there was a special twist to their violence. They wanted prisoners--especially high-ranking aristocrats--because they needed players for the opposing team in ballgames combining aspects of Roman circus and medieval joust.
That seems like a rather excessive amount of trouble to recruit athletes. Why not just send some scouts out to the minor leagues?
Wait. I've gotten a little ahead of the story.
Maya kings ascended by inheritance--almost always in the male line--and were therefore preoccupied with bloodlines. So what else is new? European aristocrats were also obsessed with lineage.
True, but the Maya were noticeably more literal-minded. We are not talking books of peerage here. We are talking real blood. Here is an oversimplified scenario drawn from the new scholarship: A prince is about to ascend the throne but first he has to prove his machismo and recruit his ballplayers, so he marches off for a brief war with a neighbor.
Successfully returned with prime-quality prisoners, preparations are made for a crucial accession rite. The King--call him Cobra-Jaguar--is gussied up in a rich costume including a feathered headdress that would make a Las Vegas showgirl jade-green with envy. He attends the ritual with his head wife or favorite concubine. She draws blood by puncturing her tongue and drawing a rope though it. He penetrates his penis with a sharp object like a sting-ray spine. Their blood is soaked up by paper, quickly dried and set afire. From the resulting smoke the Vision Serpent appears, presumably spitting oracles like fortune cookies.
The coronation ceremonies are going well so now it is time for the ballgame. If you know four things about pre-Columbian art you know about the ballgames with their mysterious accouterments of stone yokes, palmas and hachas . You know they were as much a passion then as is soccer today and played in a roughly similar fashion, although with more padding, few players and a much heavier ball of solid rubber.
Scholarship has fudged about the ballgames out of ignorance or reluctance. Now we learn that, although often played as pure gambling sport, ballgame mystique was deeply enmeshed with Mayan myth whose collective corpus is called the Popol Vuh . The epic recounts tales of human princes in ball contests with the lords of the underworld competing for fatal stakes.