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.

When played as a part of royal ritual, the ballgame borrowed cosmic aspects from the Popol Vuh . Evidently the king himself sometimes participated against aristocratic captives. The game was, of course, rigged. When a hostage inevitably lost it was with mortal finality. Sometimes he was tortured for months or years before dying. Sometimes he was trussed up and used for a ball or cut apart an organ at a time, finally ending with the heart. As the catalogue points out, Maya practices sometimes make the Aztecs’ quick ritual excision of sacrificial hearts seem downright humane.

Even knowing full well that our own civilization has been history’s champion slaughterer of fellow humans it is hard not to cringe at the seeming barbarity of the Maya. But they believed profoundly that these rituals were the only way to preserve a stately, amazingly sophisticated culture hacked out of the jungle in an environment where death was ever-present. When it all finally came unglued it was probably because the Maya failed to unify and had grown so ritually rigid that they could neither suppress nor adapt to immigrant cultures moving into the area.

The new Mayan scholarship disillusions our sweeter longings for Edens and Utopias, but it does have the bracing jolt of reality. All this insight has become possible because of the work of scholars like Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, who organized the present exercise. Since the 1960s, scholars have deciphered the Mayan glyphs so that much can be read with absolute accuracy. One of the great insights here is to look at two great, timeless masterworks from Chiapas and read a label saying, “The scene depicts a bloodletting rite that took place Oct. 28, AD 709.”


The Maya were real. The people depicted have names and did things on particular days. The veil of myth falls from a mythic people. Clarified, they are more compelling than ever.

Finally, you look around the gallery and wonder less at what is revealed than the fact nobody saw it before. Without any verbal translation it is perfectly obvious that the Maya were a courtly and ceremonial people. A life-size stone head of a maize god and heavy architectural reliefs speak of great tombs and temples advertising the power and legitimacy of the ruler. The slightly stiff style--based on ancient Olmec--speaks more concern with correctness and intimidation than with originality.

That the Maya were real has always been abundantly clear in their brilliant Jaina figures, elegant six-inch genre portraits that are the miniaturized expressive glory of the Maya. They give us the whole range of life. A dirty, toothless old man paws a willing Amazonian beauty. He has to be rich. She wants to be.

Figures of soldiers range from the arrogance of a peacock-caparisoned young officer to the cruel sinew of a gritty veteran. And the prisoner figures--this one agonized, that one resigned and dignified--have the echoing pathos of the Parthenon friezes.


Real. As quotidian as you and I going to the 7-Eleven. Real but not pedestrian. Artists were immortalized in stories of the Popol Vuh as clever humans transformed into intuitive chimeras with monkey’s tails. Their craft seemed magical. Drawings on cylindrical vessels have the mad vivacity and virtuosity of Japanese monster calligraphy. Ritual objects on view are invested with the radiations of belief. Conch shell horns are transformed into human wonders by incised carving. They are as aesthetic as Faberge eggs.

Flints are chipped into crazed, threatening, sawtoothed blades that have hydra-headed human profiles and Vision Monster bodies. They live equally in the realms of human need and natural force, which is where these people dwelt. The wind was a person. The man was the rain. The jaguar was the thunder. What’s amazing is that they were so much like us and that we can’t see that way.

Mayan ways were visible in chilling graphic detail long before the translations. Why didn’t Mayan experts of the past see these people clearly? The answer is always the same. They didn’t want to. The antique art that caused the Italian Renaissance lay in full view for centuries and people just didn’t see it. Mayan scholars did drawings of carved reliefs clearly showing bloodletters with ropes through their tongues. The draftsman just left out the rope.

They didn’t want to see it. Why? Too grim? Too out of touch with the sensibility of their epoch? Fascinating question.


More fascinating: Why do we want to see it now?