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Invitation to World Literature

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This map shows the extent of the Mayan Empire at its peak, from 1200-1511 CE. It was not as geographically vast as some other empires, but like the Akkadians or the Egyptians, the Mayans developed a distinct and powerful civilization in a small space, and impacted the rest of what is now Central America. The end date—1511—is very specific: it represents the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. While the Mayans were not overthrown in a year's time, the arrival of the Spanish marked the end of the Mayan Empire.
David Damrosch talks about this image
This photo shows Mayan writing on the pillars of a public building. The ancient Mayans wrote on paper, carved writing into walls, and painted it onto vases and buildings. Pictures contained words, so they could also be read.
Image ©Marcos Carvalho, 2010. Used under license from Shutterstock.com
This close-up of Mayan writing carved into a wall shows the hierogplyphs clearly. Each carving is either a sign that stand for an entire word (like a name), or a phonetic sign that represents syllables (for instance, a word spelled out ca-ki-xa-ha). Mayan syllables almost always have the form of a consonant followed by a vowel; putting these syllables together makes a word (cv-cv-cv-cv = ca-ki-xa-ha).
Image ©Yummyphotos, 2010. Used under license from Shutterstock.com
David Damrosch talks about this image
Early explorers clearly pondering the hieroglyphs on this Mayan sculpture. It took over a century for westerners to decode ancient Mayan writing, in part because no modern Mayans still understood it—they had been forced to adopt the Roman alphabet by the Spanish.
Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division
This Mayan mask is an exception to the large, ceremonial masks that portray very stylized human faces with no unique characteristics. Here we have an individual with a long nose and a pointed chin who, even without his eyes painted in, seems to be looking very thoughtfully at something.
Image ©1171, 2010. Used under license from Shutterstock.com
An example of a pictograph—an image that is meant to be read. The items the man holds and his headdress have meaning and are meant to be read. Notice that the birds in the tree are "speaking," as they have symbols for sounds coming out of their beaks.
Image courtesy of JQ Jacobs www.jqjacobs.net/photos/
David Damrosch talks about this image
Quiché Mayans in the town of Chichicastenango, Guatemala, wear traditional clothing to celebrate the Catholic feast of St. Thomas. Mayans have adopted Christianity but retained much of their traditional religion. Instead of masks representing the dark-haired Mayan gods, blond masks of St. Thomas are worn.
Image ©Sam Chadwick, 2010. Used under license from Shutterstock.com
This woman is a Mayan vendor; her beautiful clothing is striking, while her strong face and proud profile make her unforgettable. Here is a modern and living representation of the ancient carvings of stern and powerful Mayan people.
Image ©j loveland, 2010. Used under license from Shutterstock.com