on October 18, 2001
I approach this review with some diffidence. Mr.Brennan, who claims to be an expert on several fields, including writing systems and indian sign language, makes several claims that struck me as strange, even outlandish. However, I am not in any sense an expert on the Maya, so I am uncertain whether what he states is mainstream among Mayanists or not.
I almost didn't get past the introduction. Mr. Brennan made some comments on the Chinese writing system which seemed erroneous to me, and that is a subject about which I do know something. His claim that there are 80,000 Chinese characters is an anecdotal figure, not usually cited by experts, and the largest dictionary ever compiled has only 40,000. He also said that Japanese use only 1200 characters, whereas the Joyo Kanji list is 1,945 characters. As Mr. Brennan spent some time in Japan studying the writing system I would expect him to know that. Mr. Brennan also seems convinced that the indians of Mesoamerica left us a record of the appearance of the Crab Nebula in Orion - a statement that he seems to back up with the flimsiest evidence.
Upon receiving the book I discovered that it is published by a New Age publisher, something which I didn't know when I purchased it. While I have nothing against much New Age material, I am skeptical about accepting it as having a scholarly imprimatur, and therefore I must admit I was uncertain about Mr. Brennan's expertise. Several of his observations seemed unsettling to me.
One was the concept, frequently reiterated, that the Maya had a full blown tradition of drama in which they acted out their myths. He also says that a lot of Maya painting, particularly on ceremonial vessels, were depictions of these dramas. This would be lovely if it were all true, but it sounds a bit too much, coincidentally, like the ancient Greeks
While he does not actually say so, Mr. Brennan more or less intimates that he is an expert epigrapher, and he has a detailed interpretation of very many texts. Again, his comments may be mainstream, I really don't know, but it's difficult to accept some of them at face value.
But then there is the major thesis of the book, which is that the figures in Maya art are using their hand gestures to tell us a great deal about what is actually taking place in the picture. And the fact is...well, they Maya do seem to be very busy with their hands in their art, making signs with their fingers. What's more, not infrequently the figures in the paintings are looking intently at each other's fingers. If nobody else in Maya studies is looking into this, somebody should be. While it's possible that Mr. Brennan may have some of the meaning of the signs wrong, it seems quite likely that his basic thesis is sound.
Which is my suggestion - read it for what it's worth, and draw your own conclusion. I certainly feel that I want to learn more about Indian sign language since I finished this book.
on October 5, 2002
This book is a real gem, on a par with scholarly studies of Maya art and epigraphy, with an unexpected bonus in the interpretation of the hand gestures found so plentifully in Maya monuments, inscriptions and paintings. Brennan, who has studied Native American sign language, describes a remarkable correspondence in the hand gestures of the Maya, which came to me as a revelation, but not a surprise. Although Maya scribes clearly brought an accurate and detailed understanding of their world and culture to their art, the ubiquitous and painstakingly detailed deptictions of hands in both scenes and glyphs had always intrigued me. These could not possibly be an accident.
The text carefully explains Brennan's thesis in a non-stop array of sparkling detail, although a full understanding of his thesis might require some prior knowledge of Maya epigraphy. As an amateur Mayanist who has participated in gatherings of Maya epigraphers and toured Maya country with the best of them, I can see that Brennan follows current epigraphical readings closely, unless he has good reason to differ. Relating scenes on Maya funerary vases to episodes in the Popul Vuh, Brennan shows how the hand gestures in the scenes supplement, complement and sometimes form part of the story, and how the hand signs in the verb glyphs are derived from and portray the gestures of a sign language that was once shared by Mesoamerican and Southwest cultures.
In addition, Brennan approaches his subject from a refreshingly spiritual perspective, showing how the subject matter of Maya art depicts their deep spiritual understandings of life and death, and the mythological episodes that are the foundation for Maya art. Taken as a companion volume to Simon Martin and Nicholai Grube's acclaimed Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens, Brennan's book provides the reader with a balance between politics and religion in ancient Maya life. Although at times I became sceptical of the persistent application of his thesis to example after example, it was no more scepticism than I felt of Linda Schele and David Friedel's Maya Cosmos, a similarly spiritual interpretation by acknowledged scholars and art historians.
I highly recommend Brennan's book to any serious Mayanist, amateur or professional, for a refreshing and careful analysis of Maya art and culture. Although published by a New Age house, this is mainstream Maya scholarship.