A Tale of Two Civilizations

Statue of Leda and Zeus Disguised as a Swan

I tend to like to visit the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades at regular intervals. It is a museum primarily of Greek and Roman antiquities in a building that is based on Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri. For some reason, this visit I became interested in comparing Greek and Roman images to the Maya images I saw in Guatemala and Honduras in January. We know how Greek and Roman civilization contributed to later European civilization, especially from the Renaissance onward. But what about Maya civilization?

Unlike the ancient Greeks and Romans, Maya civilization was never wholly extinguished—although the Spanish under such conquistadores as the Montejos and Alvarado gave it their best shot. It continues to exist, though there are some major differences:

  • Maya civilization consisted, like the ancient Greeks, of city states—except, where the Greek language was widely understood, there are over thirty different major dialects of the Mayan language.
  • The god kings of the Maya polities were typically not worshiped across the entire Maya area.
  • Both civilizations had writing, but among the Maya, it was limited to the priestly scribes and not generally known even among the noble classes.
  • Most of the surviving Maya codices were burned by Catholic priests and monks as being heretical.
  • Today only a handful of Maya works survive dating from the early years of Maya-Spanish interaction, the most prominent of which if The Popol Vuh. In contrast, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of works coming to us from the Greeks and Romans.

Stela A from Copán in Honduras Depicting 18 Rabbit

Look at the figure above from Stela A in the Copán Museum. It depicts god king 18 Rabbit, thirteenth in the succession of Copán rulers, who was beheaded when Copán was defeated in war by the smaller polity of Quiriguá, after which point there wasn’t quite so much point in worshiping him. And this fact was discovered only after a century of research in deciphering Mayan glyphs. Mention 18 Rabbit to a Maya from Yucatán or Palenque, and you will only get a quizzical look. Not in their area, Mon!

Now look at the story of Leda and the Swan, and read W.B. Yeats’s great poem on the subject. In the Western world of today, tens of thousands of people are familiar with the myth, if not more.