Book review excerpt from Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies (Borderland Sciences Research Foundation) by John Major Jenkins:

Tedlock, Barbara


            Time and the Highland Maya. Albuquerque, New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. 1982 and 1992.


            I thoroughly explored the value of this incredible book in a book report written November 17, 1991. Here is the majority of it:


            The approach of Barbara Tedlock in her anthropological study the ritual calendar practices of the Quiché Maya is an ambitious and unique one. It involves traditional anthropological methodology, but also something beyond that, what she calls "human intersubjectivity" (5). This expanded approach resulted from her choosing to undergo formal apprenticeship to a Quiché calendar-diviner, which allowed her "to learn to divine instead of only learning about divination" (4). Her approach challenges traditional methods in that she has entered into a cultural context through her personal experience, refuting the idea that an anthropologist who has "gone native" (4) has lost their objectivity. She claims that this danger is a logical construction rooted in Western either-or thinking: "The implication is that the native way of knowing is somehow incompatible with the scientific way of knowing, and the domain of objectivity is the sole property of the outsider" (5). She also cites the work of anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing, who actually became a Zuni Indian to an impressive extent, yet never ceased to be an anthropologist.


            The way in which this approach shapes Tedlock's book is that it blends objectivity with subjective experience, and defines an expanded approach, a less ethnocentric approach to understanding a native religion. As such, her book almost becomes a guide to practical divination. Yet divination, by way of language usage, is connected to all aspects of Quiché culture. Tedlock emphasizes an understanding of the native language as another example of valuable participant-observation.


            An approach devoid of a theoretical framework is particularly important in light of the way the Quiché view time, space and religion. For example, the word k'ij (kin in the Yucatec Maya language) means both sun and day. Furthermore, this word serves as a stem for the words which mean "to worship" and "shrine" (2). The meanings of their calendar religion is built into the language, and does not require an abstract system of beliefs. In addition, the Quiché Maya religion springs from the experience of the tribe, and the practical experience of the calendar priests. In this way calendar priests, who are potential anthropological "informants," will draw upon their practical experience rather than from an abstract doctrinal framework. If asked "what is the first day of your calendar?", the daykeeper may use his own birthday, the present day, or your birthday. If pressed to state an unchangable theory to describe specific calendrical phenomena, the daykeeper may just invent one on the spot.


            This brings up an amazing property of the 260-day Sacred Earth Calendar: It has uses on many different levels of society. This has given rise to many theories of its origin. On one level it refers to the astronomical interval between the day on which Venus emerges as eveningstar and the day on which it appears as morningstar (implying the well known mythical journey of Quetzalcoatl through the underworld of Xibalba). On another level it corresponds to the 9-month (260-day) gestation period. On a mundane, agricultural level, it refers to the interval between the planting and harvesting of certain corn plants. In addition, the mythological adventures of the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque are structured within a calendrical framework which refers to days on which occur astronomical phenomena involving Venus, Mars, Mercury, Moon and Sun. Linguistically, the names Hunahpu and Xbalanque refer to the Sun and Moon respectively. This just goes to show that the Calendar can have many different applications, or what I call "multiple meanings." Anthropologists have struggled to promote one theory of the origin of the Sacred Count of days as "the theory." But the either-or mentality, as Tedlock shows, cannot be used in the study of a people who view things in multidimensional, interweaving ways. For example, in speaking about how the Quiché have embraced Roman Catholic teachings as a reflection of their own traditional beliefs, yet refuse to "replace them," Tedlock writes "This does not mean that innovations [or new ideas or teachings] are to be resisted but that they should be added to older things rather than replacing them" (176). Tedlock's teacher sums up this view when he says "one cannot erase time" (176).


            So what we have in Tedlock's study of Quiché religion is two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world. She has stated the methodological dilemmas accurately, and has chosen the ambitious approach of "human intersubjectivity," otherwise known as "participant observation." She follows the advice for writers of fiction: "show, do not tell." What is implied is that the reader at best can only have an intellectual grasp of Tedlock's experience. If one really wants a substantial transformation—an experience of the flip-side of their Western assumptions—then one must experience life among the Maya for themselves.


            Looking at Streng's categories of ways of being religious, I think each one applies, and any daykeeper could understand and expound upon the virtues and limits of any one. Mayan religion springs from the moment, recognizes each day as unique (as having its own "face"), and absorbs novelty easily as an extension of what is already known. This may explain why the Maya have survived continuing attempts to wipe them from the globe, and reveals what they have to offer us: a more comprehensive view of spacetime (which our modern quantum mechanics has just touched upon) and a greater capacity to love. Several incidents demonstrated to Tedlock that her teacher, Andres Xiloj, was not prone to thinking in either-or terms. For instance, although he knew her to be an anthropologist, this was not incompatible with becoming a calendar priest. Neither was being a woman. In fact, the highest level of diviners are respected men and women who are each known as "mother-fathers."


            With her approach of "human intersubjectivity" Tedlock's finds a religious system completely internally consistent. In other words, problems and dilemmas would arise only in trying to reconcile Mayan thought with Western thought—an unnecessary dead end to understanding. In a similar way, it is extremely difficult to learn Spanish if you always are translating to English in the back of your head; when you learn to drop your brain-chatter and think in Spanish, everything falls into place. As shamans have learned to do, Tedlock's struggles involved learning to be in two realms simultaneously; in the multidimensional dream-logic of the "spirit-realm" as well as in the linear domain of rational thought. What Tedlock says throughout her book is that these two viewpoints can coexist.


            The only weak point in this book that I can struggle to see is that Barbara Tedlock hesitates to fully explore the mystical dimensions of her experiences—they are still clothed in the garb of scientific exactitude. The good points are many: Tedlock's book reveals that it is not only valuable to entertain both a subjective and objective approach to religion, but that these two viewpoints are not irreconcilable opposites, but are mutually interwoven. Mayan culture is filled with the understanding that the opposites are complimentary, and are not merely disconnected opposites. This also brings up the fallacy of the transcendental God (the God who is totally other, or completely objective to the created world). One of the possibilities of an infinite God is the choice to become finite. Finitude is within the potential of an infinite God. In this way God's transcendence is inclusive of Creation. The idea that God is a completely “other” Creator, observing the universe from a distant cloud, is an intellectual construct, an idea that has come and should now go quietly. Thus I restate my understanding of transcendence as inclusive of what is transcended, in the way that air surrounds, permeates, and is above and within us. The subjective and objective worlds (the worlds of spirit and matter), each ruled by the principles of love and entropy respectively, interweave their opposed destinies to make the world we know. Likewise, many of the Mayan gods are capable of both creation and destruction. In this way, death is not equated with evil or as being a result of sin, it is seen as being forever joined with life. This is a "hard truth" that Westerners have yet to embrace, and which has made the Maya great.