The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Flayed God: The Mythology of Mesoamerica: Sacred Texts and Images from Pre-Columbian Mexico and Central America.

By Roberta H. Markman and Peter T. Markman. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 456 pages. $30.00.

Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University.

The inhabitants of prehispanic Mesoamerica developed a vast array of myths that exerted pervasive influences over their lives. These myths provided a context within which the Mesoamericans defined themselves and their intimate relationship with their cosmos. Many of these myths were expressed through, and have thereby been preserved in, a rich and variegated body of art and literature. These sources have served scholars since the sixteenth century as tools for interpreting the mythology of ancient Mesoamerica.

The Markmans have crafted one of the most recent studies on this subject by adroitly melding the resources and methodologies of art history, ethnohistory, and archaeology. Moreover, the authors have developed their interdisciplinary approach within a larger methodological framework constructed from the pioneering studies of such scholars and Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. The book’s geographical scope is quite broad and embraces four principal culture areas of prehispanic Mesoamerica; namely, the Valley of Oaxaca, the Basin of Mexico, the Maya highlands and lowlands, and coastal Veracruz. Recognizing that a correspondingly expansive topical coverage of Mesoamerican myths could not be properly treated in a single volume, the authors have prudently elected to limit their study to three principal genres of myths– those of creation, fertility, and rulership. The Markmans have described and interpreted these myths at great length. They have developed their insightful analyses by drawing not only upon the standard works in the field, both primary and secondary, but also have econsulted many of the latest contributions to the scholarly literature. Sections of the book which are designated as “Images” are integral to the descriptions and analyses of the myths; the “Images” contain photographic reproductions of works of native art, and accompanying these are the authors’ interpretations of the works’ mythic symbolism. The “Images” are often interspaced with translations of native texts, some of which appear in English for the first time. The authors have applied the same keen analytical lenses to these literary works as they have to the visual.

In spite of the book’s many merits, The Flayed God is not without a few blemishes. There are, on occasion, minor factual errors. For example, when discussing the monumental sixteenth- century encyclopedia of Aztec culture compiled by Bernardino de Sahagun, the authors state that “we do not know the identity of any of Sahagnun’s informants” (p. 120). While Sahagun does indeed not name his informants, recent research (such as that conducted by the Mexican scholar, Alfredo Lopez Austin) has established the identities of at least several of these individuals. In another instance, the Codex Boturini, a native pictorial manuscript, is described as being “published in the sixteenth century” (p. 411). Even though this important native history was drafted in the sixteenth century, it was not published until three centuries later.

But the more notable flaws are those of omission. While four Mesoamerican culture areas are included within the book’s scope, the one remaining area that comprises Mesoamerica–Western Mexico (a region embracing the present-day states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima, Sinaloa, Guerrero, and Michoacan)–is inexplicably excluded. Finally, the book suffers from the absence of a conclusion. The interrelatedness of the myths is noted throughout the book, and this important subject might have been more fully developed in a conclusion.

These deficiencies notwithstanding, Roberta and Peter Markman have produced an informative and highly readable contribution to Mesoamerican culture history that is recommended to specialists and novices alike.