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

Precious Few Films Attempt to Portray the Ancient Maya in a Sympathetic and Realistic Way.

The documentary-film industry has found the “Mysterious Maya”, “Mayan Calendar Prophecy” and the “2012 End of the World” to be fertile soil. There are so many of these films that I can’t keep track of them all… And most of them are sensational, opportunistic, garbage, merely jumping on the “Mayan Apocalypse” bandwagon.

However, Independent filmmaker David Lebrun is a delicious exception. He and his wife Amy Halpern spent eleven years making Breaking the Maya Code .


This is a feature-length, 2-hour visualization of Michael Coe’s book of the same name,

and Lebrun and Coe tell the incredibly complex, 150-year story of the decipherment of this mysterious script. (*see note below)

David selected me to do the graphics and the “hand-inserts”. This means my hands got to be in the film —carving stone, writing Japanese, painting Mayan glyphs in codices and on ceramic vessels, and writing Mayan in Colonial Spanish letters— but not my face. (The makeup people were able to make my hands look Maya, painting them brown and even shaving off my arm-hair! But, sadly, my mug was too Anglo.) I also drew all the Maya glyphs used in the film’s numerous graphics, and with my friend Paul Johnson, made all the codex-props used in the film. The largest number of these eventually were burned in the “Bonfire of Maní” scene, (in 1561 the Archbishop of Yucatan burned every Maya book he could lay his hands on… An act which his Maya flock, who had trustingly turned them over to him, “regretted to an amazing degree”.) To make these books as authentic as possible, we copied the texts and images from ancient Maya vases (thanks to the fabulous visual database of Justin Kerr actually printed them on bark-paper, so they would burn authentically. I have made props for a number of historic movies, from wax-seals for The Man in the Iron Mask,


to the “Pirate’s Code Book” in Pirates of the Caribbean 3,


but I have never had as much fun working for any other film as I did in Breaking the Maya Code.

PBS-NOVA edited Lebrun’s splendid film down to 53 minutes and called it “Cracking the Maya Code“.

Though not as in-depth as “BtMC”, it is a fine introduction to an understanding of the Mysterious Maya Glyphs. WGBH-Boston, who produce NOVA, also put up a great website where one can see and hear an ancient Maya stela read through from start to finish. They engaged me to render the text into stately English, and I in turn hired my friend, linguist Barbara MacLeod (a far better decipherer than I), to read it aloud in sonorous Mayan.
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(*below Note):
Now, I am happy to report, the majority of Maya texts can be read, and it turns out that they contain the same kind of wisdom we find written on monuments the world over. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean to belittle this information; what the ancient Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and Chinese carved for the Ages on stone is an extremely important source of historical and cultural information —notwithstanding their stunning calligraphy— but have you ever sat down to read through it? “Lord So-and-so nobly led his people/soldiers to prosperity/victory, in the year …”, or “Here lies Dame Such-and-such, a good wife and mother … “, or “This building’s cornerstone laid by So-and-so in the year …” Every culture has unique ways to invoke blessings from above, and the Maya erected statues or stelae (monumental carved slabs), bearing beautiful glyphs and images of their sacred kings performing ceremonies. And what they say, carefully documented with dated events and calculations of the intervals between events, is “Lord So-and-so dedicated this temple with a ‘scattering’ of his blood/ burning of incense/ donning the costume of the god Such-and-such. Six years and 136 days later he was married to Lady So-and-so, noble daughter of Lord Whatsisname of [neighboring kingdom]. Twelve years and 73 days later, So-and-so made sacred war on the people of ….” And so on in that rather tedious vein. Ho-hum. We have thousands of inscriptions in Maya glyphs, but none of them mention an “apocalypse” nor a “2012 End of the World” nor even an “End of the Mayan Calendar”.  (Frankly, I find the beautiful artistry of Maya calligraphy much more interesting than the events it so beautifully records.)

To repeat a technicality: The word “Maya” is properly used as a noun or an adjective: “Maya culture”, or “the ancient Maya” “Maya glyphs”. One ought *only* use “Mayan” when referring to language: “Landa was fluent in Mayan”, or “the Mayan word for ‘snake’ is the same as the word for ‘sky’: *Chan*.”

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