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To Be Like Gods

Matthew G. Looper
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  • Book Info
    To Be Like Gods
    Book Description:

    The Maya of Mexico and Central America have performed ritual dances for more than two millennia. Dance is still an essential component of religious experience today, serving as a medium for communication with the supernatural. During the Late Classic period (AD 600-900), dance assumed additional importance in Maya royal courts through an association with feasting and gift exchange. These performances allowed rulers to forge political alliances and demonstrate their control of trade in luxury goods. The aesthetic values embodied in these performances were closely tied to Maya social structure, expressing notions of gender, rank, and status. Dance was thus not simply entertainment, but was fundamental to ancient Maya notions of social, religious, and political identity.

    Using an innovative interdisciplinary approach, Matthew Looper examines several types of data relevant to ancient Maya dance, including hieroglyphic texts, pictorial images in diverse media, and architecture. A series of case studies illustrates the application of various analytical methodologies and offers interpretations of the form, meaning, and social significance of dance performance. Although the nuances of movement in Maya dances are impossible to recover, Looper demonstrates that a wealth of other data survives which allows a detailed consideration of many aspects of performance.To Be Like Godsthus provides the first comprehensive interpretation of the role of dance in ancient Maya society and also serves as a model for comparative research in the archaeology of performance.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79378-1
    Subjects: Archaeology, Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION The Definition and Interpretation of Ancient Maya Dance
    (pp. 1-14)

    A series of rocket explosions reverberates through the village as two bands play competing rhythms in the main square, amplified by massive loudspeakers. It is 5 a.m. on December 22, 2004, and the annual festival in the highland Maya town of Chichicastenango is underway. Food stalls have been active for hours, adding their pungent smoke to the clouds of blue incense burned by Maya shamans on the shaded church steps. In the cobbled rectangular plaza, teams of twenty-five masked men dressed for the Toritos, or Little Bulls, dance arrange themselves in front of the band pavilions. They begin to dance,...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Textual Record of Dance
    (pp. 15-44)

    This brief passage, paraphrased from the inscription of Panel 3 of Piedras Negras, is in fact one of the most detailed records of dance to have survived from the ancient Maya. Unlike the accounts that survive from ancient Greece, which include detailed descriptions of dance, Classic Maya inscriptions convey highly formalized narratives consisting of short clauses related through elaborate chronological linkages.¹ Carved and painted on monuments, murals, ceramics, and portable objects made of shell, stone, and bone, these ritual texts cannot be taken at face value, for each event resonates with a “fan” of associated meanings (see Turner 1967: 50).²...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Iconography of Dance
    (pp. 45-82)

    The art of the ancient Maya is a major field of inquiry within pre-Columbian art history. In part, this may be attributed to the almost mythical role that this culture has played in recent times (Schele and Miller 1986: 18). In addition, our fascination with Maya art is inspired by the extraordinary quantity of detailed images that survive, which strongly appeal to western aesthetic values. Accordingly, scholars tend to approach Maya art with the same methodologies that they use in western art history, mainly stylistic and iconographic analysis. The essential difference between these two approaches is that the first looks...

  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  8. CHAPTER 3 Dance Poses and Gestures
    (pp. 83-112)

    For Hindus, as among the Maya, dance is a fundamental form of worship. The dance is referred to repeatedly in the Hindu sacred texts, theVedas, as well as theNatya Sastra(Science of Dramaturgy), a two-thousand-year-old text composed by Bharata Muni, which attributes the origin of dance to the god Brahma (Bhavnani 1965: 2–3). According to this source, the elements of Hindu dance—its lyrical content, gestures, music, and aesthetics—were compiled from the fourVedas, resulting in the creation of a fifthVeda, theNatya Veda. After viewing the first performances derived from this text, Shiva—the...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Dance on Classic Maya Ceramics
    (pp. 113-150)

    One of the distinctive traits of Maya civilization during the Late Classic period was the production of finely painted ceramic vessels. Decorated with complex images rendering a variety of subjects, these vessels provide an unparalleled source of information on Maya politics, religion, and society. The main problem with studying these vessels, however, has been that most of the known examples were looted from archaeological sites. As a result we have lost crucial information concerning the contexts in which they were used.

    Yet the social circumstances of the vessels’ production can be reconstructed from two lines of evidence and investigation. First...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Architectural Settings of Dance
    (pp. 151-188)

    The descriptions of Maya dance ritual and architecture by early Spanish colonial authors made a lasting impression on modern scholarship. Diego de Landa, for example, writes of a performance in Yucatán of some eight hundred warriors dancing with streamers: “They dance to a beat and with the long war-like step, and among them there is not one who does not keep time; and in their dances they are generally heavy, for they do not stop dancing the whole day, because food and drink are brought to them there” (Tozzer 1941: 94). With similar grandiose visions in mind, Diego García de...

  11. CHAPTER 6 The Persistence of Maya Dance After European Contact
    (pp. 189-222)

    The early years of missionary activity in New Spain (which includes modern Mexico and Central America) witnessed a complex blending of European and indigenous performance traditions. In response to the tenacity of native traditions, the missionary friars, initially of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, adopted an official policy of harnessing pre-existing cultural institutions to convey Christian doctrine (Mace 1970: 31–38). This policy encouraged a novel synthesis of genres combining the traditional homiletic and humanistic theater of Europe with indigenous forms such as comedy, song, and dance (Horcasitas 1974; Ravicz 1970: 80). The scripts for these multimedia performances, either imported...

  12. EPILOGUE: Dance as an Image of Civilization
    (pp. 223-234)

    A Tzotzil Maya tale told by Xalik López Castellanos of Chamula tells how the first people, who were like gods, learned to become human (Gossen 2002: 141–169). Fashioned of clay by Adam and Eve, these primordial ancestors were naked and ate only greens, beans, and hard corn, one grain at a time. They slept all night, undisturbed by lust. This perplexed the demons, who first instructed them in sexual practices, and then decided to cast the world into perpetual darkness by killing Father Sun. Though they buried him, he rose again the next day, so the demons decided to...

  13. APPENDIX T516 “Dance” Expressions Ordered by Date
    (pp. 235-240)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 241-246)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-270)
  16. Index
    (pp. 271-276)