In the last decade or so, it seems there has been quite a bit more
interest in these ancient peoples, particularly the Mayans because of their calendar. This Dover edition is a reprint (1999) of the third revision of this
book in 1928, making it considerably dated. The introduction candidly states that there are factual shortcomings, but praises the book, because when
Spinden wrote it, he was quite ahead of his time in his research into new territory. But we know much more about these
civilizations now. Reading this book, then reading an article on Wikipedia, for instance about the Mayan culture give two distinctly different impressions.
Nevertheless, Spinden does supply lots of basic materials upon which one may do further research, and in that respect his writing can serve as a general
starting point. He does speak quite a bit about the arts and architecture of the different cultures, and there are lots of photos, though not that great,
especially when we can now get online and view gorgeous color images.
In addition, I found it difficult to follow, as far as chronology and location. The maps included have such miniscule writing that they are almost unusable, (and I have excellent eyesight for reading!). He begins at the end, one might say, as his introductory chapter is about the Spanish invasions, beginning in the 1500s. He also gives information about the geography and topography of the area, and as I've mentioned before, I love geography, but it is an area in which I am sadly deficient, so I keep my old atlas handy, along with Wikipedia maps. I learned a great deal about Mexico—for instance I did not realize so much of the country was forest/rainforest, but I did know that much of Central America is a wet tropical environment. In addition, Spinden supplies lots of general information, such as what the people ate and wore, a bit about their physical features, customs, language, etc..
The first short chapter called The Archaic Horizon, discusses archeology, and remains that have been discovered in the area, from which he tries to establish a sort of developmental chronology. At the time the first edition of this was written, as I mentioned above, we really had little information about these peoples. Spinden gives examples of pottery, both household implements and primitive art. One thing I found interesting was his discussion on eyeballs and the different ways they were created in art forms. He also seeks to establish a timeline on the development of agriculture.
The second chapter, and the longest in the book, is about the Mayan Civilization. He supplies some interesting information on the construction of their temples, and what they looked like inside. He also discusses their artistic development, and provides information on interpretation of, for example, the serpents, which were one of the most common creatures to be depicted in art, often with the head of a god emerging from their mouth. Mayan art is really quite fascinating. He comments on their use of perspective, which was much more developed than, say, the ancient Egyptians.
One place that he totally lost me was in his discussion of the Mayan calendars, which are complicated indeed—and there were so many. Not only does he discuss the Day Count and Long Count calendars, but also the Lunar and Venus calendars. Yikes! In addition, he gives us information on Mayan numbers and a little about hieroglyphics, which I believe we now know much more because I've done a little research on that with other projects. But where he is really off is his timeline of Mayan history, where he starts at 613 B.C. in the Protohistoric Period. Wow! That's way off, in fact! Wikipedia gives the Mayan Archaic Period at 8000-2000 B.C. Quite a difference!!
The third chapter is called "The Middle Civilizations" and he discusses other ancient peoples of the time who have perhaps not achieved the recognition of the Mayans and Aztecs. These include the Toltecs, Zapotecs, Mixtecs and others, and lots of art examples along with the general culture. One thing interesting here is Spinden's discussion of the leader Quetzalcoatl. This is actually a deity, the "feathered serpent." Spinden most likely was referring to Ce Acatl Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, and the two are not to be confused. And according to Wikipedia, even the latter may be more legend than historic truth.
The last chapter is on the Aztecs. Here Spinden makes an analogy of the Mayans to the Aztecs as the Greeks were to the Romans. The Aztecs occupied Mexico, whereas the Mayans occupied southern Mexico, mostly Chichen Itza in Yucatan, and south into Central America. Furthermore, the Aztecs were much later on the scene, flourishing from the 14th to 16th centuries. Some of their history is still not established as fact, but it is believed that a collection of tribes united, known as the Mexica. Those who settled in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) became the Aztecs. They formed a triple alliance with the Texcoco and Tlacopan and settled in the Valley of Mexico on Lake Texcoco building an amazing Venice-like city in the water.
As in the chapter about the Mayans, this chapter also includes information on Aztec gods, art and hieroglyphics, and festivals. The Aztecs, like the Mayans, offered human sacrifice to the gods, and Spinden here explains the steps that the victim goes through before being sacrificed. The whole idea was that the victim would go willingly and be happy about it. Well!
Amazingly, there were also those Aztecs who were well educated and wrote poetry. He includes a translation of part of one, and it is quite impressive.
In all, this book is a fairly easy read, and has lots and lots of pictures. I probably would not recommend buying it, simply because it is out of date, but in spite of that, I still found a lot of interesting material here, and know much more on the subject than I did before reading it.
Tlaloc, God of Rain; Ehecatl, God of Winds; Blanket Design: "Spider Water"
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