The Knowledge Exchange, Library of the Ancestors: Mayan Textiles as Poetic Texts


[MUSIC PLAYING] Come with us on a journey,
a journey to a place where information is unlocked,
knowledge is gained, and the exchange of
experiences welcome. This is the Knowledge Exchange,
presented by Lakeland Community College. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for
all of you for coming. And thanks to [? Lisette ?]
for inviting me. I’m happy to have
the opportunity to talk again about one
of my favorite topics, which is a relationship
between text and textiles especially in the Maya context. So [? Lisette ?]
wanted to make sure that I gave everyone
a little background on Mayan culture and Maya
people and, in particular, about the role of textiles
and clothing in Mayan culture both in the past
and the present. Then I want to say
why it is that we can talk about text
and textile together in the same kind of analysis. I’m going to give you some
examples of poetic language in Mayan culture
and then show you how to apply those principles
to looking at Mayan texts. They are an indigenous
Mesoamerican people. Everybody sort of can locate
them geographically, right? And so that’s this
area that we’re looking at here in the
map, the Yucatan Peninsula, all of Guatemala, Belize,
parts of Salvador and Honduras, and the southeastern
part of Mexico. They are a linguistically
diverse, but a linguistically identifiable group. There is a Mayan
language family. It was already distinct
over 4,000 years ago in Northwestern Guatemala. They cultivated corn. There were probably
20 million or more of them at the time
of European contact. And their history is
divided into parts that relate to the classic period. So this preclassic
period– and the reason I want to just mention
something about this is so that you have some
sense of the timeline, which is on your handout. But that already important
ceremonial centers, architecture, pottery, other
visual art forms and writing were in place by 250
of the current era. This just gives you an idea of
the geography of the region. It’s volcanic. It’s mountainous. It also has lowland
jungle parts. So these are people
who are adapted to lots of different
environmental settings and thrived in them. Most of us have
images of Maya people that are based on
the classic period. That is we’re familiar with
the archaeological sites, places like Tikal, places like
Copán in Honduras where there is monumental
architecture, temples. Those are the things
that have survived, ball courts, gigantic buildings
that served as tombs for kings. This is the tomb of the
King of Palenque, Pakal, known as The Palace
of the Inscriptions. If you go all the way up and
go into the temple at the top and then go all
the way back down, you come to where his
sarcophagus was found. So you can imagine with
a population of people who did not have metal and who
are pulling these materials from widely dispersed
places that you are going to have a very
complicated and hierarchical social structure. You are going to see
complex social organization. They had dynastic
rulers, kings, lords, people who were under those
vassals, subordinate kings. They also had merchants. They had class of commoners. They had slaves. They were organized
as city-states. So each one of these centers
that we have that we name now, Tikal, Palenque, Copán,
[? Washa, ?] all of these places– and they’re
finding more every second, the new technologies are
showing us that there were many, many more city centers than
we ever had any idea about– formed political
alliances among each other with marriage just
like the Hapsburgs did, patronage relationships,
ceremonial relationships, and so on. I would draw your attention
to this stela, which is in the Cleveland Museum of
Art, and depicts a Maya queen. So notice here her head,
her long, elaborate dress, her enormously elaborate
headdress, her jewelry and various accouterments
of power objects. And this queen was
actually the daughter of a king in a major
site that ruled over a number of
subsidiary sites. And she was the queen
at a subsidiary site. And she’s shown here
performing a ritual that commemorated the anniversary
of the ascension of her father to his role. So we’re talking
about lots and lots of close connections, and
yet independent polities that might change
their affiliation from one time to the next. I’m going to make this
connect in a minute. They have also
recently become known for their patterns of warfare. I’m not going to talk
a lot about that. But I am going to say that
warfare played a role in ritual and calendrics. And if you’ve heard
about the part where they were bloodthirsty
maniacs killing their captives and all that kind of stuff– tiny part of what you need
to know about Mayan culture. So here’s a bigger
part of what you need to know about my own culture– extremely advanced in
terms of arts and sciences, serious agriculturalists,
except in the volcanic regions. Many of the land areas
were not very productive and required irrigation
or terracing in order to be made productive to
feed the population large enough to maintain
these giant cities. They were, as you’ve seen,
already serious architects. They engaged in large
scale urban planning, road building, bridges. They created ceremonial temples,
which are about the only things that we really know
a lot about today. They did invent the corbel
arch, but they did not have what we refer to in the
Western idea of what makes you a sophisticated architect. They did not have the true arch. They were mathematicians. Their mathematic system was
base 20, the vigesimal system. And that’s relevant in
[? weaving ?] in a minute. They had a zero. They were very
interested in cycles and in recurrent patterns. So they were serious
observers of the solar system. They maintained multiple
astronomically based and other kinds
of calendars that were calculated on recurrent
cycles that interlocked. So this image, which is a
very famous representation of Mayan calendars,
shows you how interlocking circles of
different numbers and names produced a date, like the date
I had on the opening screen of the PowerPoint, so
calculating back thousands of years, a complete date. Now, I’m just going to
make a little sideline here about this. A lot of people
have misconceptions about Mayan calendars
or “the Mayan calendar.” They have lots of different
calendars just like we do, right? So we have a calendar
of seven named days that cycles round and round and
around within a calendar of 12 named months that
cycle round and round that vary in the
number of days numbered they have from 28 to 31. We have academic
calendars, so you know where you are in
the current semester. And there how many
semesters in the year? We have fiscal calendars, so
you know when the tax year ends if you’re running a business. We have civic
calendars, so we know when Memorial Day comes and
there won’t be mail delivery or when election day is. And we all need to go
out and vote, right? And then we have all
kinds of sacred calendars, ritual calendars that pertain
to our particular religious observance. And some of those are
based on lunar cycles. Some are based on solar cycles. And some are based
on just sacred cycles that don’t necessarily go
with an astronomical cycle. The Maya’s had that
same kind of thing. And that’s the topic
for another whole talk. But one important thing
about it is that they had extensive almanacs. And they could predict things
like eclipses and the Venus cycle, or the cycle of the
planet Venus, and so on. They also had an extremely
well-developed philosophy about the nature
of the universe. And I’m going to just say
a little bit about that in a minute. But I think oftentimes
we overlook the fact that people who are not from
our own areas or, in particular, not from Western
Europe we sometimes overlook the fact
that they can have extremely complex
philosophical beliefs and philosophical systems and
concepts of the universe that can be extremely
well-integrated, but not necessarily
anything like ours. In the visual arts,
they were accomplished potters, painters, sculptors. They had writing, the only
Western hemisphere culture to actually develop
a writing system. And in their written
material, they had narrative. They recorded history. And they wrote literature
and poetry or things that might have been
narrative history, but were in the form
of poetic material. And they were weavers. I’m going to just say
a couple of things about the hieroglyphic writing. Because the
decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphics is one of
the great intellectual accomplishments of
the 20th century. And at this point, estimates
are between 80% and 90% of all hieroglyphic
writing is now actually interpretable or deciphered. So from the period in the
1950s when all anybody knew were the names of a few
gods and the number system, there’s been a tremendous leap. And it is really seriously
an intellectual masterwork of the second half
of the 20th century. The top image is part
of a wall painting from a preclassic site, OK, so
about 200 of the common era. And it shows that at that
point the cosmological system was already in place. And if you look here
at these little– they’re sort of like labels
of the individuals depicted. Does everybody see
where I’m pointing to, these little vertical signs? Those are writing. So it was already in
place at that point. And they were already
using it integrated with other visual material. They wrote on stone. This is a portrait of a
king at the site of Copán. And all along the side
and all around the back is a text that explains
what a great guy this was. This is a small jade
plaque that someone would have worn by passing
of some kind of leather or other string through
this hole, probably with a whole bunch of others,
and would have worn it as a personal ornament. And it has a whole text on it. And then this is
one of their books. And I actually brought
a facsimile of one of the four
remaining Mayan books just so you could get a sense
of how an object like this– here, if you hold this
end, I’ll stretch it out. So they were accordion fold
on handmade paper gessoed and then painted
and double-sided. Four, or at least four
partial, such books remain of what must have
been thousands of such books that were burnt, and
destroyed by the environment, and lost over time since the
time of European contact. And the thing that is perhaps
most interesting from the point of view of what we’re
going to talk about later is the way in which each
page integrates both writing and visual elements, right? So you guys probably
can’t see it as well. But if you just look
at this example page, this is all writing. All these bars and
dots are numbers. This is an almanac page. So it tells you what day
something is going to happen and how many days
later something else is going to happen. And then interspersed here
are images of ceremonies, gods, activities, like
planting and so on. So they had not just a
well-developed writing system, but well-developed
book making system. These are two other examples
of written material carved in stone, an image here
of a king receiving a bunch of kneeling captives who
are swearing allegiance to him. And this text tells us who
he is, when this happened, who these guys were,
and what was up. And this is a roll
out image from a vase. So if you imagine the
ceramic vase is round, this is the thing
that, if you had a camera went all
the way around, it would give you this roll
out, so that you could read the whole text in one place. And here we have an image
from the creation story of the Maya’s. Here are the Hero Twins who
are in the underworld talking to one of the lords of death who
has killed their father whose head is in this basket. It’s important to know that
this is from that story, because we actually have
a copy of that story that was made in the 1500s, copied
down, transcribed by a K’iche’ speaking vassal of
the Spanish court. But we know from
a vase like this, which dates to maybe
600 of the common era, that the story was
already fully intact and was already part
of the common knowledge and common lore as
it still is today. I’m not going to spend
a long time on this, but it’s a very
well-known depiction of the idea of the cosmos. And the things I want
to really focus on are the overworld,
the Earth, four sides, four colors, where we
live, the watery underworld where dead things are, and
in the middle combining them, the world tree with the
celestial bird living at the top of it. So if you notice how
this is laid out, the celestial bird
is in the overworld. The tree is in our world. And its roots are in
the watery underworld. And that’s going to be important
when we look at some textiles. So quickly, after 900
something happened. It’s not clear what, lots
of different theories. But people started
abandoning the cities. The period that we refer
to as the postclassic was characterized by
the complete breakup of the big hegemonic centers. Every little group
went their own way. And we know that there
was already language differentiation before that. But you can imagine that at
this point, as this town becomes its own thing and
that group of people separate from everybody else,
it would create the language differentiation
that we see today. And so this just gives you
an idea of the sort of way that was happening over
the last several years before Europeans showed up. And this is an image
from the site of Iximche’ in central Guatemala,
which was a thriving city at the time the Spanish came. And this is one of its
central ceremonial parts. It was a Kaqchikel
kingdom, Kaqchikel being one of the Mayan languages
that has among the largest number of speakers still today. And Pedro de Alvarado, one of
the cruelest and most inhumane of Hernán Cortés’s captains
swept through Chiapas in Mexico and into Guatemala where
he captured this kingdom. And I’m going to just take
a minute, because we’re right here in October, the
day after the civil calendar observance of what is
called Columbus Day and celebrates the “discovery”
of the “New World,” to just ask you to think
about that conquest from the point of view of the
people who were conquered. This is from a memorial, a
recording, a memory book, a history that was
done in 1571, so only a few decades after the
events of this encounter. And it demonstrates to us
that sexual violence, threat, torture, extortion,
and land grabs were all part of that experience
from the point of view of the people who suffered. “Hid beneath the trees,
beneath the vines, oh, my sons, all our tribes entered
into war with Tonatiuh,” the name given to
Pedro de Alvarado. And so just as a reminder
that not everybody gave in to the
[? conduit. ?] In fact, most Maya communities did not. And there has been a steady
sequence over the last 500 years of resistance,
rebellion, and nationalism. The point that’s going to
be relevant to some of what I’m going to say about clothing
and identity is the Guatemalan Civil War, which occupied
a 30 year span from the mid-’60s till the mid-’90s
and had a tremendous impact on Maya communities,
Maya identity, and Maya textile production. And this is an image, of
course, Rigoberta Menchú, a K’iche’ woman who was an
influential and important participant in the resistance
and the peace process. This is one of the unexcavated
mounds of [INAUDIBLE].. And if you look here,
you will see a Maya woman and several altars. It is still in use today
as a ceremonial site. So people go and conduct ritual. So who are the modern Maya? It’s not really clear exactly
how many there are in the areas that we’re talking about. They still live in
exactly the areas they lived in 2,000 years ago. There are about 29
different Mayan languages spoken across this area. Some of them are
as closely related to each other as, say,
Spanish and Portuguese. Some of them are as
distantly related to each other as, say, German
and Cape Verdean, right? And I’m just now
going to show you a series of images to
give you some sense of the kinds of activities that
modern Maya people are engaged in. And I want you to particularly
pay attention to the clothing they’re wearing. So you have a coffee
agriculturalist, a market seller, a textile
seller, a tortilla vendor. Some painters, these three women
are part of a painting co-op. These are their
paintings in the back. Musicians, a radio broadcasting
group, some college students, some organizers and members of
a social welfare organization, a sociolinguist, and some young
men in training to be teachers. Every time I talk
about the Mayas, I remember when one of my
colleagues in Guatemala who knew that I often give
talks or in the past often gave talks said,
just be sure you tell them we’re not dead yet. So I always include
the information that they’re not dead yet. And these are some
young colleagues of mine who were conducting a New
Year’s ceremony that I was privileged to attend. Quickly, quickly,
quickly, what are the kinds of things
that Maya people value? They value a sense of
responsibility, respect– somebody has a device. They’re hard workers. And they value work. When the gods
created humans, they created them to
do three things– stand upright and
walk around, so they could go from ceremonial
site to ceremonial site, work, and speak. So those are three
critical values from the origins
of Mayan culture. And they go together with
the idea of reciprocity and gratitude, a strong sense
of connection to nature, an appreciation of
beauty, and a sense of the centrality of dialogue. So things are worked
out by consensus. The nature of
conversation is always involving lots and lots
of comments by bystanders. And this is not unrelated to
this sort of aesthetic values. You may recognize this,
complex patterns of repetition and parallelism, symbolism
at various layers, which always invites the
opportunity for ambiguity, right? So if you’re not reading at
the same layer of analysis, you might have a
different interpretation of what a relationship
is between two elements, all right? So I might have an example
of that in a minute. Again, dialogue,
everything assumes that there is going to be
a dialogic relationship between the viewer or the user
or the maker or the people who are in the neighborhood– and good sense of
humor and wordplay. Traditional occupations–
the usual things in this kind of society, right? You’ve got to have
people make things. You’ve got to have
people who trade things. You’ve got to have people who
can heal, help birth babies, catch fish if
you’re by the lake, bring firewood, carry
things from place to place, make food, and so on. Anybody ever been to
Guatemala or Chiapas? So some of this will be
familiar to you, right? I want to say that
ritual practice continues to play an important
role in Mayan culture. This is a [? doña ?]
[? delfina ?] [INAUDIBLE],, who is a spiritual guide
or a ritual practitioner. She’s conducting a ceremony
for a group of people. And you’ll notice
that her posture is very similar to the
posture of this Maya queen from back in the 600s
performing, also, a ceremonial ritual. So why do we say that textiles
are the Mayan cultural library? Well, they had
libraries, all right? But only a handful of
their books survived. And because of forced
Christianization, massive loss of life as a result of disease
and warfare and enslavement, and because of the systematic
removal of the highest echelons of society– so scribes, priests, nobles,
during the early period of European contact– it means that the writing
system became opaque and unused. The tradition of book
making was replaced by European books in a different
structure, different language, different kinds of content. And it means that all of these
records of the narratives of creation, the folktales, the
histories of individual towns, the biographies of
individual people, the cosmological understanding,
the mathematics, and so on were also lost except for where
they were maintained by weavers and spiritual guides. There continued to be people who
maintain the calendar in secret generally. But weavers were
among the people who retained the
knowledge of symbols and who retained this craft and
art form from centuries before. Weaving is extremely old. If you look at the posture
of the weaver depicted in this little ceramic
piece and compare it to the posture of weavers
in the various images that you’ll see here,
you’ll see they’re still using the back strap loom. And there’s one in the
exhibit in the library. That is a loom that exists
only when you tie one end of it to a vertical pole,
a house pole, a house beam, a tree, and the other
end of it to a weaver’s body. Do you see how this
is depicted here? This is the loom. It’s tied here. It goes around her back. This one has been
released from the back. But you can see here, when she’s
got it stretched from the wall by these ropes around her back,
it becomes actually a loom. Otherwise, it’s just
a pile of sticks maybe with some strings on it. And if it’s a pile of sticks
with some strings on it and you’re not really
careful about it, it’ll fall apart on you. So you have to really know
how to put it together. It’s important to know
that Maya weavers consider the loom to have a
certain vitality, to be living in a certain
sense, and to be in dialogue with the weaver as she weaves. The terms of the loom– its feet, its lungs, its heart– are terms of human anatomy. And this goes back as well. This part is called
the warp, connects the weaver to the far end. And then the crossing
lines of thread are going to be the weft. And you can see here
that what happens is you start weaving at
one end, and then you turn the loom around and start
weaving from the other end. So you always come to a section
of the weaving that was done first, but it’s at the end. And this notion of cyclicity
and of my end is my beginning and of things just go round
and round in constant cycles is a very important part of
Mayan weaving and weaving tradition. This gives you three different
stages of the weaving process. And you can see this posture. And you can see how
the little designs– so if we take a piece
like this, each one of these little designs
has been put into the weft with threads that– see, they don’t go
all the way across. They’re just inserted as she is
inserting the white threads up here. That’s going to turn out
to be a bird at some point. Just another series of quick
images from various stages in the lifecycle– to show you how clothing
both changes by life cycle and by region. Now, it’s pretty
clear that in the past there were regional differences
in clothing partly governed by resource availability,
partly by geography. Is it hot where you live? You might not make a
blouse even, right? You might just make
a lower covering. Is it really cold
where you live? Then you might make
heavier clothing. But it’s also the case that
during the Spanish imposition, it was of use to
the Spanish to be able to tell where you were from
and that you were not traveling around where you didn’t belong. And so they began,
we think, to impose the regional and municipal
controls on clothing. This is not unprecedented
in European history, right? But whatever the various
causes of it were, one of the distinctive things
about Mayan communities through most of the 20th
century, 19th and 20th century, is that you could
look at a person. And if you knew the
rules and the regions, you could tell where someone was
from by what they were wearing. And people didn’t wear
clothes from other towns. And there became a
development of great diversity from one community to the next. That’s why you’ll see in
the exhibit in the library that things can
look really, really different from each other even
if it’s the same kind of thing. Like, it’s a blouse, but it
has a completely different type of design. And I think you can probably, if
you’re paying close attention, already see something
that’s happening in terms of gender, where
women tend to maintain traditional clothing. So even these children,
right, these little girls are wearing huipiles. They’re wearing woven
blouses over cortes, skirts, traditional skirts,
held up by a faja, the traditional wrapped
belt. And the little boy is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. As people grow into
adolescence, their clothes tend to become more complex. Girls traditionally
all learn to weave and made their own clothes. And so you can see
here people that are from two different
areas, right? They share something, however,
in terms of design, right? There are these big
circular things. We have two huipiles in
the audience that also have that big circular design. And that is related to
that cosmo vision, that cosmogram I gave you, right? When I stand here
wearing this huipil– which if you imagine it
laid out flat, right, it forms a four-sided
figure, the four-sided Earth. I, in it, am the world tree. My head is in the overworld. My feet are connected
to the underworld. And I’m holding the
world on my shoulders. And this metaphor is a really,
really powerful metaphor. That’s why often you see these
circular images or designs around the neck sometimes
literally looking like the sun. You want to stand up? Me? Yeah. Here’s a good example. It’s also the case
that traditionally men had distinctive
clothing by community. These are three different
communities represented here. But nowadays, it’s
often the case, as it is here, that men wear
their traditional clothing only on ceremonial occasions
or special occasions. You can guess what this
is related to, right? Men have more access
to external employment. Your employer tells
you don’t come to work in that, right, in
that primitive, you know, whatever that is, right? Women are making
all the clothes. There’s more access to
Western made clothes for men than for women, tailored
shirts, jeans, and so on. So that’s part of the process of
the last, especially, 50 years. Another thing– and this
relates back, again, to the Guatemalan Civil War– during that period, millions
of people were displaced. They were sent out of
their own home communities, because the army was clearing
communities and forcing people into exile, internal
or external. And you can imagine, if you
cross the border into Mexico, for example, or if you just
cross municipal borders within the country
and you clothes say you’re not from
around there, that’s going to be a problem, right? And so that period between
the ’60s and the ’90s, really accelerated the loss
of traditional costume and, in particular,
accelerated the loss of male traditional clothing. Because men were
fighting, because men were conscripted into
the army, and so on. In adulthood– and
these two women are wearing what are
called ceremonial blouses. And you can tell one of things
about a ceremonial blouse. It’s big, worn over
your other clothes. Because ceremonial
occasions call for– you know, think about Catholic
ritual specialists, right, and the kinds of
clothing that are worn on ceremonial occasions,
special feast days and so on. More images– this
time only of women. One of things I want to
draw your attention to is the ubiquity of this
apron thing going on. And I’ll come back
to that in a second. But just note how often women
who are not in the kitchen cooking when you would just
tie some old, you know, cloth around you to
keep your clothes clean, are out wearing
extremely fancy aprons. Just a quick, quick annotation
about the various parts, because there are lots and
lots of different elements. And so you might
wear on a huipil, as people here are doing, and
not wear any of the rest of it. But this person in
a ceremonial setting has a tzute, a ceremonial
cloth covering her head. Because heads are important. Head coverings are important. And rituals always involve
things on your head. She has a hair ribbon. This woman from a different
town has a cinta, a hair ribbon. The huipil, the blouse– two different towns. A sobrehuipil is
not here, but it’s this kind of ceremonial
huipil we saw before. A faja– the belt wrapped. The corte– the skirt. The delantel– the apron,
which we don’t see here. A parraje– the shawl
and then jewelry. For men, you also need a
tzute, especially if you’re in a ceremonial setting. It’s a very special
kind of cloth. I have an example
somewhere, this one. So in this town,
the man’s tzute– this is about 100 years old. And it hasn’t
recently been washed. So it might strike
you as kind of dingy. But it’s actually made with
traditional, vegetable dyes. So this is the kind
of thing that you’d throw over your shoulder
or over your head and use in an ordinary context,
use in all kinds of ways– wrap your food, take
the sweat off your brow, use it as a sunshade. In ceremonial contexts,
it’s an important statement about your status and
the ceremonial role that you’re playing. So a tzute is just a
cloth, a plain cloth. A hat– because you always
need something on your head. A shirt– a camisa. Also, a faja– the belt. A pantalón– these men from
Todos Santos Cuchumatan are still wearing the traditional
red striped pants. And they have also
a kind of over-pant. This guy has a kind
of over pant, too. It’s not very clear here, but
some towns still had those. And in some cases,
they were actually derived from Spanish
bullfighter costumes. They’re sort of
partial leg coverings. A capixay– a special
kind of heavy wool jacket in cold country. A maxtate– which is this
loin cloth apron here. A morral– a bag. And huaraches– notice there was
nothing about shoes for women. Huaraches are sandals. Men usually have
something on their feet. Women even today
still often do not. This notion of a head
dress is amusing to me and I think are
really important. These are some old examples
in ceramics and painting of the importance of
elaborate hair paraphernalia. And you’ll see
several hair ribbons in the library exhibit
that will shock you by their length and complexity. The librarians
can attest, right? They cannot be worn unless
you have really, really long, thick hair, which everybody
did and mostly does. Here are some hair ribbons. Depending on where you
put your tassel ends, it might in your community
convey information about whether you’re
married or unmarried. It might convey
status information. This is a very interesting
one, because this one is specifically tied
to the creation story– where the first woman,
the first goddess, Ixchel, who was a
creator, a weaver, and wore a headdress
of snakes in her hair. The cinta from the
town that commemorates this is an extremely elaborate
one, as you can see here, piled up with long,
long tassels and ribbons that are intended to
remind us of those snakes. So again, textiles and
articles of clothing are constant reinforcement
of the narratives of Mayan creation. When you’re wearing
Mayan clothing, you’re communicating to
the public around you all of these things
about your identity– that you are identifying
with Mayaness, that you are inhabiting both
a local geographic space and a ceremonial or spiritual
space, a supernatural space, that you are from a
particular place that’s associated with a
particular linguistic group, a particular point on the
globe, and a particular family and set of ancestors, and
that you have particular role in the community. So in this town,
this vertical stripe runs right down the back of a
woman’s body when she’s young. And every year, she moves
the stripe a little bit to the right. And that’s a sign to
people in the community that an elder who
probably knows things, could probably give
you good advice, can probably help you out
of problems and so on, is among you. And so you could go to
that person for advice. You wouldn’t happen to
necessarily know her even. Her clothes give her away. Eventually, it ends up
right along the right side of her hip. This a wonderful
image from about 1973 of a very conservative
community in which the men wore a kind of wrapped
woolen checked garment over a pair of homespun
and decorated undergarment, the under one held on by
an elaborate wrapped faja, the outer one held
up by a leather belt. The women– all in their
traditional clothing. But this young man
was, at this time, a linguistics student in a
project that I was working in. And what he’s doing is over
his T-shirt, his Western shirt, he’s wearing a traditional
shirt from his town– you see these embroidered
cuffs, the men embroidered their own cuffs– together with a pair of
boots and blue jeans. This is the period
at which we already begin to see that shift away
from traditional clothing among men especially. This is from two years ago– last year. This is a man who is head
of a linguistics research and teaching organization. And he is wearing a jacket
made in a Western pattern that has a zipper and tailored
sleeves made from traditional and extremely well-woven,
I might point out, traditional cloth. That would normally
be a woman’s skirt, but has been made into a jacket. This is a way for him to
signal he’s Mayan identified. He supports Mayan identity and
Mayan cultural preservation. It doesn’t have anything to
do with the town he’s from. It has to do with
his identity as part of the Mayan cultural group. And this is a common
kind of thing. It’s also what’s going
on with those aprons. So one thing that
happened is women brought those aprons
out of the kitchen and started elaborately
decorating them and wearing them on formal occasion. It’s now part of formal attire. It is now part of
ceremonial attire to wear those fancy aprons. And the other
thing that happened once the peace
accords were signed and people could go back to
wearing traditional clothing without fear of
discrimination, you began to see women especially
wearing mixtures of a huipil from one place, a hair ribbon
from someplace else, a corte or skirt from another place– never before seen, but
now very commonplace. And it speaks to this issue
of pan-Mayan solidarity. It also means that
you can’t tell where a person’s from by
looking at what she’s got on. Mayas in the modern
world have the same kinds of concerns as the rest of us. They want to get
ahead educationally. They’re worried about
their environment. They’re worried about
loss of culture. And they are increasingly
engaged in community and political activism. I am going to talk about
text and textile here. Weaving is one of the
oldest human technologies. And I think a lot
of people don’t realize that in our own
English and European languages going back to the beginning
of European languages, the earliest language,
Indo-European, the route teks meant to weave. And it is the route of the words
we have today in English, text, textile, technology,
tissue, subtle, it was the thread that
went under the warp, the [NON-ENGLISH], right? Because it’s so subtle, right– and many, many more. And there are common
associations all around the world between text,
textiles, weaving, and writing. In Mayan languages,
it works the same way. So in Tz’utujiil, the
word for weaving is keem. And a colleague of mine
said, but that doesn’t anything to do with writing. Well, it is the word we use for
computers, because computers weave words together. I said, yeah, thanks very much. I’m going to put
that in my talk. Another word in Tz’utujiil
that also refers to weaving, it means to tie
things together, OK– so to pull things together, to
make your weaving really fine, to work with refinement– also is how you refer to
good editing of a text or to write well. In K’iche’, a
different language, the word tz’ib
refers to writing. But it’s also the word for
drawing, making a line. All those paintings on
ceramics would be tz’ib. And it refers specifically to
rows of figures like these. Does everybody recognize
a world tree here with a bird sitting
on top of it? In English, we can
see lots of ways in which we sort of associate
writing or texts with weaving, right? We talk about weaving a
tale or spinning a yarn, losing the thread
of the argument. Got to tie up all those
loose ends, right? And there are also very
clear and widespread ritual associations. So sacred texts
are often wrapped in rare and special textiles,
especially beautiful textiles. Think of Jewish Torah scrolls. Think of the kinds of
coverings that were made for medieval manuscripts. We know that in old Maya
times textiles were tribute. So kings would demand
a certain amount of woven material the
same way they demanded a certain amount of paper. This is one of my
favorite images of that connection
between writing in the past, the
ancient culture– here’s a guy writing
an accordion fold text. And by means of
textile, a huipil, it comes into the present day
as a book with European writing that people can study. And that records, in
this case, the stories from its [INAUDIBLE] town. Why would this be? Why would this kind of
connection be so common? Well, think about it. They’re both linear, right? When we talk, things come
out of our mouth in a line. We’re not holding onto the
first word back here somewhere. You have to pay attention. You have to be connecting the
later word to the first word for it all to make sense. But it’s a linear process, just
like the weaving is linear. There’s a lot of repetition. We use that repetition
to create parallelism. And we do that to make
poetry, especially in English. We create patterns. We have framing devices. So here’s an example
of a framing device. There is an actual frame, right? That tells you all
the stuff in here is separate from all the
other stuff out here. But even within here,
these three masked figures perform their own
framing function, because they’re
containing little figures inside their anatomy. When you write a
text out flat, you don’t see that kind of parallel
structure the way you do here. So the famous text
by Winston Churchill, when you look closely
at it, you can see how he’s
deploying repetition, structures like prepositional
phrases, repeated adjectives. So that’s all happening
at a grammatical level. But he’s also deploying a
geographic metaphor, right? First, on the beaches,
they get closer. It’s the landing grounds. Now, they’re in our fields. Now, they’re in our streets. Now, they’re in the
hills all around us. As we hear the text, as
we go through the text, we move in space. Because he has built a
parallel structure within which that variation creates
its own meaning. With me? That kind of thing happens in
Mayan textiles all the time. Here’s a rhetorical
fragment from the Popol Vuh. This is the early
beginning of the creation. There is nothing at this point. There is just the water,
that watery underworld. You can see here– and I’m
working from the translation here. So there’s that problem, too. But what I want to
draw your attention to is the way this piles
up with repetitions. If you have still
ripples, still murmurs, ripples, we all hear this still
even though it wasn’t there. And we make the connection
between the two ripples, which is a visual thing,
to the murmurs, which is an auditory thing. So now, we’re having
our senses activated by the actual structure, right? It’s still sighs. It hums. So now, we’ve made a connection
between that middle element, murmurs, to two more elements
about hearing, right? So when we look at a– this is a long string, right? There is not yet one
person, one animal. Now, we have three
animals and a bunch of things that are not animals. But we’ve been carried
along by the sequence. And in the original, there would
also be elements of repetition, sounds and so on. This is a poem about
weaving by the distinguished Q’anjob’al poet,
Gaspar Pedro González. And he’s defining weaving. So look at the first
line, “to weave is to be a creator
and a former.” Those are the names of the
creator gods in the Popol Vuh. Immediately, he’s
connecting this poem through weaving to the
creation story of the Maya’s to the creation
of the world just by that choice of that
couplet of creator and former. They mean sort of
the same thing. They’re not the same
word, as you can see, by looking at the original
Q’anjob’al on the left. And if you go through
this paying attention, I’m just going to draw your
attention to one or two little examples here in the
Q’anjob’al version. So a thing that Q’anjob’al has
that many other Mayan languages do not is a set of particles
in front of nouns that classify the noun according to
a set of categories. So all animals get one particle. People get particles
that distinguish them by status and age. Things that are made of
clay have a particle. Things that are made of
corn have a particle. Vine-like plants have
a particle and so on. So if you were going to
look closely and analyze this the way you would analyze
a power or analyze a text, you might start with
these big figures, right, the three masked dancers. And you might say,
oh, that’s cool. They’re all the same. And they are except for what? Well, then we can start looking. They have different
colored eyes, right? So now, we might be inclined
to look a little more closely at the anatomy. And what would happen is
we’re going to start– or at least what happens to me
is I start counting the colors. And I try to see if there’s
a pattern here somewhere. But the thing about
that is the pattern can be at several
different levels, right? So sometimes you’re going
to see this guy matches this guy in some regard,
but not others, right? It’s like on the beaches,
on the way landing fields, on the streets, right? And sometimes you’re going
to notice that things are matching and following along. But it’s going to be
hard to keep track, because there’s so
much going on, right? One of the great things about
these textiles– and I’m going to show you the first
Mayan textile that I ever bought. And these are both going
into the exhibit today. So you can look at them
more closely later. This is a one panel from a
ceremonial huipil from the town of Tecpán. And I had this hanging
at the foot of my bed. Can everybody see it? And I spent a year looking
at this every night before I fell asleep and
every morning when I woke up trying to see how it worked. And if you pay attention to your
own eyes as you look at it now, I think you’ll notice
the same thing I noticed. You can see that there are lines
of same image figures, right? And there’s a sequence
of colors, right? With me? It’s not the same
sequence of colors. So then you start looking for,
well, maybe every second thing is yellow or every
third thing is yellow. Well, it is down here. But what’s going on in here? Well, one of the great
things about these– and remember, if this takes
you six months to make, which it does, and you only
have one fancy one and one daytime one, it’s really
handy if you don’t get bored every time you
look at it, right? And I actually
theorize that that’s part of what goes on here. Weavers talk about,
well, I’m weaving along. And the weaving says to
me time for some white, time for some blue. Did you think about
making a bird, right? And I think that’s really part
of this process of the dialogue with the weaving in the same
way language in dialogue with a poet
contemplates how many different levels of patterning
you can set up, right? I will guarantee
you that you can look at this weaving for a year
and still find it interesting. Because one day, you’re finding
the way the yellow moves across the line. And the next day,
you’re remembering that this would be worn by
going over the shoulder, right? So the fact that these guys have
their feet on the bottom here and the feet on
the top here is not how that’s supposed
to be read, right? Once it’s over your
shoulder, the feet are on the bottom in both lines. OK, so that’s
another thing that’s going on in a piece like
this which is symmetrical. A piece like this, which is
a sleeve from a shirt from the town of San
Martín Chile Verde, so in that town the men
wear white, long shirts, homespun shirts. And the sleeves stick
out of an over jacket and have these
elaborate woven designs. And you can see how the weaving
is so meticulous, right? There’s not a thread
hanging off the back. Do you remember how that
story goes [? Nadine ?] It’s a guy. He courts a girl, right? He sends a bird with
messages to the girl. And then he comes on a
horse to take her away. She’s a princess or some
kind of thing, right? They’re fleeing the father. What? They’re fleeing– They’re fleeing the father. This turns out to be a
narrative story that is embedded in the weavings from this town. There weren’t horses
before the Spanish came. So this is not a
pre-Columbian story. There also weren’t princesses. I mean, there were,
but not that kind. But if you look in here, you
can see all the elements of it. They go away and
grow corn, right? So you can see corn
plants, a tree, a bird. I don’t think this one has the
girl, but sometimes they do. So elements of
this story show up. Not all of them, because
you don’t need all of them. You already know the story. You know the text. You can fill in the missing
lines and the missing words. That’s sort of
what I have to say. And what I would
like to underscore is that Mayan textiles,
like Mayan languages, are core and key
to Mayan identity, that they both use some of the
same strategies, techniques, and mechanisms to
create poetics, that you can analyze
a textile using some of the same techniques that
you used to analyze poetry, and that it is in the nature
of both textile and language that there is rigidity
in the grammar. That is what frees you up to do
the creative work that poetry and, in this case, weaving
require of the creative artist. Thanks, everybody. [APPLAUSE] [MUSIC PLAYING]

1 thought on “The Knowledge Exchange, Library of the Ancestors: Mayan Textiles as Poetic Texts

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