Glyphs – The Ancient Maya and the Film Industry, Part IV

Animation is Getting Better than Live Action

The best recent films about the Maya are both cartoons: The Road to El Dorado is an unlikely animated musical, featuring the vocal skills of Elton John, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, and Edward James Olmos.

The film is very loosely inspired by the true story of two Spanish castaways, captured by the Maya of Yucatan in 1511, some years before the arrival of Cortez, who in 1519 tried to enlist them in his Conquest. One, Gerónimo de Aguilar, a former priest, joined up. The other, Gonzalo Guerrero, remained with his adopted people, and eventually died fighting the Conquistadors. (Even more unlikely, the film has a happy ending: The jovial citizens of El Dorado are spared their own World End, and the castaways leave the city with their sexy sidekick Chel, played by Rosie Perez. The three lose the gold, but save their self-respect.)

King Tarabak of El Dorado is modeled after the so-called “Fat Cacique”, a Classic ruler of “The Ik’ Site” in northern Guatemala, whose workshops produced dozens of vases painted with distinctive pink glyphs …and featuring a distinctively portly ruler.
Justin Kerr photograph of Mayan VaseJustin Kerr photograph of Maya Vase


These vases were all brought to light by “tomb raiders” like Lara Croft.) Temples, costume, haircuts, glyphs, the Maya ballgame, even the spears, sandals and other details are pretty correct. This accuracy is thanks to archaeologist John Pohl, adviser to the film, who did his best to keep the film honest. Alas, the big fish and the golden-walled pyramids are fantasy, but at least the architecture is right.


It occurs to me that the trope of the Hidden City is also based loosely on history: Conquistadors didn’t bother to invade the Maya in the central Peten jungle of Guatemala for 250 years; it was not until 1697 that they captured the kingdom of Tayasal. Tayasal is the modern Flores, the Maya jungle city into which tourists fly on their way to Tikal. Even today the area is heavily forested, one of the largest patches of rainforest on the continent. Like the Maya of El Dorado, Tayasal’s isolation delayed the End of their World for centuries.

The second cartoon is a short called Kichwa, made apparently by film students at the French École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques.

Kichwa by Esma-Movie
This French school is pretty prolific, producing dozens of shorts that are charming and technically excellent. Kichwa features time travelers and a Maya civilization, placed, like the City of the Crystal Skulls, in Peru. If one can ignore that jarring error, the kids got the visuals pretty well, and the story is rather fun.

Having written these four at one sitting, I expect I have neglected a Maya-themed film or two. There are rumors of other 2012 end-of-the-world films coming soon to a multiplex near you.


Glyphs – Evidence for 2012 Apocalypse

Looking at ancient Maya glyphs, we find some evidence, but it ain’t much.

Very few of the books and websites about the “Mayan Predictions of 2012”  admit this.  We archaeologists and decipherers have analyzed thousands of ancient inscriptions in Mayan.  Most of the carved stone monuments —the most prominent surviving glyph texts— as well as glyphs on painted vases, carry dates in the Maya calendar.  (Though most writers prefer to say “Mayan calendar”, this term is technically incorrect. See below.)

Glyphs from Kerr Vase 1398

Glyphs painted on Kerr Vase 1398, beginning with a very ancient date. This famous vase portrays the mythical battle between God L (Tobacco) and the Lunar Rabbit allied with the Sun God. Though it contains nothing about the end of the world in 2012, it does give us precise dates of this ancient confrontation: tens of thousands of years ago, before the beginning of any known or posited Maya calendar cycle.

Glyphs from Palenque Temple XIV

The Mayan calendar glyphs which start this text are precisely the same ancient date as the vase shown at left.
















In fact, there are so many Calendar dates and time-intervals in their inscriptions, that some glyph scholars believed that the ancient Maya, uniquely, worshipped Time itself.  The fact that the calendar glyphs were the only glyphs to be deciphered, for most of the 20th century, didn’t help. Then, between 1960 and 1980, an avalanche of decipherments revealed that the ancient Maya were simply interested in stating precisely when things happened. The rest of their “mysterious” glyphs were concerned with royal life, conquests, dedications … the same things we carve in stone.

Continue reading

A new Maya-interest conference debuts: “Maya at the Lago” in Davidson, NC (North of Charlotte)

Mat Saunders, creator of the excellent conference series “Maya at the Playa” in Palm Coast, Florida, is launching another archaeology-for-the-masses conference in North Carolina. The debut of this event comes a week from this writing, from 14-17 April 2011.

The lectures and workshops bring first-class Maya scholars and archaeologists into contact with the interested public, in a friendly and informal setting.  This is a great opportunity to meet  and learn from world-reknowned experts in the Ancient Maya such as National Geographic archaeologist George Stuart, the eminent Norman Hammond, and Marc Zender, a rising star in Maya Decipherment, co-author of the just-published “Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture”
(highly recommended)… and of course, Yours Truly, promoting my own book.

Continue reading

About Time: A New Film on 2012 That Gives a Balanced, Scientific Perspective

Inside page and blurbs for my 2012 book

Blurbs for my book and one inside page

Breaking news, as of 6th March 2011:

Finally, a television documentary to counter the Hysteria Channel’s constant refrain of Doom, Death, and Destruction about 2012! Respected filmmaker Graham Townsley (NOVA, National Geographic) has just inked a contract to produce a three-part documentary film about the Maya and 2012.
How do I know this? I am delighted to report that he has asked me, Yr Obt Svt, to appear and provide expertise in the first segment, which will focus on the Ancient Maya and what they actually tell us about their view of the upcoming “End of the Calendar”. As I write this, Graham is readying his crew to depart to Chichén Itzá, where he will film the popular Equinox festivities there (for a different segment, about modern beliefs about the Maya Calendar).

Continue reading

Discovering a parallel colleague is a little like suddenly finding Nibiru

Before I was a professor (that is, certified with a Ph.D. and a tenured teaching job), I was a professional calligrapher.  It takes some doing to earn the title of “professional educator”.  But unlike education, calligraphy in this country is completely unregulated; there exist no respectable institutes to grant us professional credentials, and all one has to do to qualify as a “professional” is to charge money for lettering something for someone.  (At least in the eyes of the IRS!)  The simplest regular work of this type is hand-addressing envelopes, beautifully, for a wedding or other fancy event, and it pays anywhere from a dollar an envelope to five dollars a line.  Higher-ranked scribes work for Hallmark or American Greetings, or letter book jackets for publishers (who do you think produces all those gushy titles for romance novels, or the manly lettering for Tom Clancy books?); or, in California, letter movie titles.  Now, calligraphy is a tragically undervalued art, and very few of us do it full-time, simply because we would starve to death.  Few towns have the critical mass of lavish parties, like Washington DC, New York, and Hollywood, to support a steady stream of envelope gigs.  And type design, an honorable and well-paid profession when Hermann Zapf was in his prime —you use Palatino or Optima or even Hunt Roman?— now is going the way of investigative newspaper reportage.  (Adobe, which used to employ a large stable of type designers, has laid off all but two, last I heard.)  So, like aspiring actors or painters-in-a-garret, most calligraphers do something else, some *real* job, to pay the rent, and practice their art, their passion, only part-time.

Continue reading

An Atheist Celebrates Xmas —er, the Solstice … Part 1

21st December, 2009 (cue background music: Paul Winter Consort)

Well, the “End of the Maya Calendar” is exactly three years away.  Roland Emmerich’s computer-generated-apocalypse-fantasy “2012” has swept through like a tsunami, and we are confronted, like it or not, with Christmas.  Luckily, I like Christmas music, or I would be forced into a hermitage for six weeks every year, away from shopping malls, television, radio, and Main Streets cheerfully blaring their music and bustling with cars sporting felt antlers.  Actually, that sounds like a capital idea. Bah, Humbug…. Except I really do like harmonizing with all those upbeat, major-key carols.

The politically-correct phrase “Holiday Season” was coined, ironically, by that epitome of conspicuous consumption and planned obsolescence, the fashion industry.  This highly intelligent, articulate, and largely non-Christian population refers to itself, with supreme cynicism, as “the Schmatte trade”.  “Schmatte” is Yiddish for “rags”.  (Their Capital is 7th Avenue in Manhattan, not far from 34th Street, home of Macy’s, Gimbel’s and the eponymous “Miracle”.  If you haven’t seen the film with the 8-year-old Natalie Wood, sarcastic and cute as a button, do so.  We call it a Classic for good reason.)

Continue reading

All you need to know about Nostradamus!

Perhaps the most notorious of European soothsayers is the 16th-century French apothecary, Michel de Nostredame, better known by his Latinized name, Nostradamus.

(His surname, like the Paris cathedral, simply means “Our Lady.”  His Jewish grandfather converted to Catholicism on Our Lady’s Day, 1455, and, like many a new-born [and ancient Mesoamericans], adopted the name of his “birthday” as his own.)

His famed Prophecies purportedly predicted pivotal and tragic events in Europe and America such as World War II, Princess Diana’s death, and the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Center Towers (nobody claims they predicted any events in Asia or Africa, as far as I know).  Lately they have been applied to 2012.

He composed his prophecies over eleven years for an annual Almanac that he first published in 1550.  (This tradition continues, in such publications as the Old Farmer’s Almanac, whose long-range weather predictions are reputed to be better than the US Weather Service’s.)  He selected about a thousand of these to re-cast as 4-line rhymed poems (called quatrains), and they were published in many editions.   Due to the casual standards of 16th and 17th-century typesetters, no two copies are exactly alike.  Most English translations are based on later, increasingly corrupted, copies of copies.  Very few versions of his prophecies can be trusted.  But the worst of it is, his own obscurantist compositions are impossible to pin down.

Continue reading

Why 2012? The Drunk Taxi Driver Model

Inaugurating a weblog, 1 November 2009

Whoever said “Well begun is half done” was thinking of someone like me. Except my grasshopper-mind offers such monumental impediments to getting started on large projects, that my version is more like, “Well begun is about 85.714286% done.” First impressions being so important, I’ve been dithering for days about the topic of my very first blog. I finally overcame the inertia with the comforting thought that only about six people in the world will read this, and three are family. You, dear Reader, are in very select company.

The first, the most specific: What did the Maya say to make us think that 2012 was the end of the world, or something?  And second, more generally: Why are people attracted to Apocalyptic prognostications like this?

I’ll speak to the latter issue first:
Interviewers always ask, “Harmonic Convergence in 1987, Y2K, and now 2012.   So why do people keep predicting The End of the World As We Know It?” Continue reading