Dover Book

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The title of this one is a bit misleading. It is more about the origins of myths, and whether similar ideas regarding religious beliefs, customs, such as burial practice, and meanings of symbols developed independently or were influenced by other societies. Mackenzie goes through great lengths to make the argument that there was cultural drift, and that peoples in the Americas developed their belief systems through the integration of Europeans and Asians, (including in-depth discussions of Buddhist and Hindu myths) and other diverse groups such as Semites, Celts, Norseman, and Pacific Islanders. He then goes to explain how these peoples might have migrated to the New World. So in that respect, the book is not only about Pre-Columbian American myths, but an overview of world myths and how Mackenzie believes they were integrated by Aztecs, Mayans, and other peoples. Because he covers so many ethnic and religious beliefs and quickly jumps from one group to another in his comparisons, reading is often confusing.
    Another drawback to this book is the fact that it was first published in 1923, and our ideas and knowledge about the evolution of humans on the planet have changed a great deal since then. He finds it improbable that the early Americans could have developed their culture as they did without outside influence. For instance, he says "In short, the symbolism of the American variety of mugwort (Artemisia), jadeite, and shells, is identical to that of the Chinese" then claims that "There is nothing 'natural' in the idea that shells, herbs, and minerals contain 'life substance' which cure disease, ease pain, and prolong life. . ." We know now, of course that the Mayans, for example, were a very intelligent and advanced race. Why is it so unbelievable that they would have discovered healing properties of herbs and minerals on their own? It is not only possible, but likely.
    Other outdated aspects of the book are, for instance, his mythical tale of Montezuma's defeat by Cortez. Modern historical texts portray a very different account of that event.
    However, once you get past the outdatedness, there is really some lively discussion here to be pondered. Of particular interest are the chapters on death and burial customs, gods, and ritual.
    The book is written in a scholarly manner, with lots of footnotes for the sources that were available at the time of its publication. I personally really appreciated the vast amount of information this book contains, because it gave me a starting point for further research. At the time I read it, I was also working on the Aztec Designs Coloring Book, and studying the Pre-Columbian Designs CD-ROM and Book, neither of which have any labels. Mackenzie's book provided valuable information about gods and symbols, which led me to other sources that helped interpret the pictures I was coloring and studying. Although it would obviously take a lifetime of research to fully understand the complex art of these peoples, at least I now have a rudimentary knowledge.


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