Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 20, 2019
Stephen Houston The Gifted Passage: Young Men in Classic Maya Art and Text New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018. 256 pp.; 56 color ills.; 49 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780300228960)

With this book, one of the more prolific Maya archaeologists makes a significant art historical contribution, providing evidence of the impact of adolescent males in ancient Maya society as preeminent subjects and patrons of art and texts, particularly during the Classic period (300–850 CE). Indeed, according to the author, young males “energized and reinforced courtly societies” of the ancient Maya realm (6). Over six chapters, plus extensive and detailed endnotes, the work fully combines epigraphy, art history, and archaeological data into a comprehensive synthesis that provides a new perspective on gender among the ancient Maya, a topic that until now has largely examined female identities. Moreover, it focuses on an age segment that has largely been overlooked, as scholars devote most of their attention to mature men and women and, secondarily, to young children. As in author Stephen Houston’s previous book, The Life Within: Classic Maya and the Matter of Permanence (New Haven: Yale, 2014), extensive anthropological (ethnographic) and literary comparisons throughout help to contextualize, support, and illustrate his insights regarding this neglected segment of the ancient Maya population.

The main arguments of some of the chapters will be familiar to scholars from the author’s previous publications in academic journals and blog posts; however, by reworking them and combining these arguments in a single volume, they bring into sharper focus several salient themes relating to male identities in Maya art. The first chapter draws the reader’s attention to the social construction of male identities, through a discussion of literary and pictorial images from various cultures and framed by anthropological and sociological theories. Critical issues brought up include the controversies regarding nature vs. nurture in the expression of gender, the distinction between age grades and age sets, the cultural aestheticization of youth, young men as a source of labor, youthful spaces such as schools, and psychological dimensions of youth, such as risk-taking behavior. All of these issues are addressed later on in the book, in the ancient Maya context. It sets the stage for the second chapter, which discusses the social construction of ancient Maya gender, including terminology for youth, especially xib, “male”; keleem, “strong male”; and ch’ok, “youth, sprout, young.” He asserts that the term “ch’ok” has a “strongly masculine nature” (52), which has implications for the interpretation of the patrons of ceramic vessels discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter 3, the focal chapter of the book, argues for the importance of young males as the patrons of inscribed ceramic vessels starting in the mid-sixth century CE. This assertion is supported by the fact that a significant percentage of vessels (29 percent) refer to their owners using “ch’ok” or “keleem.” Interpreting the vessels’ dedicatory inscriptions as formulaic “toasts,” sometimes witnessed by a scribe of lower status, the elaborately painted luxury vessels seem to “celebrate a particular age status” (68). By exclusion, too, they seem to exalt males, as only a handful of vessels were noted as having been owned by females. The author’s assertion that, “[g]lyphs prove the rest of those with texts belonged to males,” should perhaps be qualified to refer to vessels with a named owner. Additional complexities arise when considering a vessel excavated at Tikal, discussed in pages 69–70. Not only was this vase buried with a young woman, but it depicts two women and is supposed to have been owned by a woman who is also a ch’ok. Were any of the dozens of other vessels whose inscriptions simply mention that they were owned by ch’oks also owned by women? The chapter closes with a discussion of the evidence for the vessels having been given as gifts to mark important events. The evidence for this is difficult to discern, as most inscribed vessels are looted; however, Houston does make note of an important example of a vase inscribed as having been commissioned “for the first fast/penance,” a critical celebration that is the focus of the next chapter.

Chapter 4 discusses the “first penance” rite in relation to male identity, through an analysis of the term at its core, ch’ahb, which is interpreted as a personal sacrificial rite that had reproductive connotations. Texts associate this event with nobles (mostly male but some female) between five and nine years of age. The rite involved various acts in addition to autosacrificial bloodletting, conducted under the supervision of older adults and often in the company of other males of various ages. The author also considers other rituals associated with young persons, including dental inlaying (ages 15–20), and entry into “young mens’ houses” (a combination of dormitory, school, and ritual training facility) by males around puberty. Concerning the latter, Houston offers several possible examples at Maya sites, but usually with question marks. The images and texts of Naj Tunich cave provide evidence of caves as pilgrimage destinations for young men, where they experienced visions and possibly homosocial eroticism.

Chapter 5 explores the role of youthful identities within the political rhetoric of a specific monumental program: the Bonampak murals, dating to 791 CE. Taking the texts of the murals as the principal lead, Houston argues that the ruler Yajaw Chan Muwaan, who is a focal character in Room 2, is not the main character in the program as a whole. Instead, it highlights a trio of youthful males, who may be the heirs to the throne, presented in ranked order. In this reading, the Bonampak king and his Yaxchilan overlords may have used the mural images of young males performing elaborately choreographed rituals as a metaphor for the orderly succession of political power. Though based on incomplete information, this interpretation is compelling, and his suggestion that the mural building may have served as a young men’s house is intriguing.

The final chapter of The Gifted Passage provides a brief and provocative analysis of the contrasting representation of old and young males in Maya art. Although historical individuals are considered, more attention is devoted to the role of supernatural elder males, who are typically depicted as sorcerous, potent beings at the same time as their bodies express the physical signs of aging. Near the end of the chapter, the author identifies certain female figures as courtesans, analogous to the Aztec “flower women.” However, because the evidence is largely based on ethnographic analogy and textual identifications from a supernatural context, it will likely be controversial, or at least in need of follow-up studies.

In conclusion, The Gifted Passage makes a compelling case for a greater attention to the youthful male element of ancient Maya society, for it was they, together with older male relatives, who “formed the chief mechanism of governance and the core of expressive culture” (6). While their older male counterparts generally dominated the political rhetoric of publicly visible monuments, male youths were indeed an important presence in smaller scale monuments and especially in portable works. Although it is expected of an art historical study, it is surprising that more archaeological data is not brought to bear on the topics considered in this book. With the exception of the Bonampak murals, the analysis of which benefited from a detailed documentation project in which Houston participated, most of the objects discussed in The Gifted Passage are unprovenanced. Of course, the justification for this is that the bulk of portable objects with legible inscriptions relevant to the subject are without archaeological provenance, but I was indeed surprised to see only two vessels from recent Piedras Negras excavations, which Houston codirected, illustrated (figs. 30, 31). More importantly, what can human remains tell us about young males as individuals and as a group, especially with regard to social status, since most of the art objects discussed in this book seem to express high status (5)? In this book, skeletal material is only considered briefly, reflecting upon cranial shaping and dental modification (110, 112) and human sacrifice (113), in the latter case, citing data from a previous study.

I should also like to make note of how the physical appearance of book strengthens the reputation of Yale University Press in Mesoamerican art history publication. Like his previous book, The Life Within, also published by Yale (2014), The Gifted Passage is very nicely designed and well illustrated with numerous high-quality color photographs. This not only makes for a more pleasant read and brings notice to a work, but provides important information relevant to art historical discussions. The press is to be congratulated for consistently investing in the production of these and related volumes—in particular the beautifully illustrated Art and Myth of the Ancient Maya by Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, published in 2017. One may hope that they will provide an example to other presses that produce academic studies on related topics.

Matthew Looper
Professor of Art History, California State University, Chico