Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2020
Matthew Looper The Beast Between: Deer in Maya Art and Culture Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2019. 288 pp.; 190 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (9781477318058)

As ubiquitous in the ancient Maya world (encompassing modern-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador) as they are today, deer provided a core food source to ancient populations. The Maya developed a complex approach to deer remains and imagery as a result, varying from a focus on economic signifiers to mythological or political content or, given the multivalence of Maya objects, a combination of all three. This heritage lasted beyond the Spanish arrival in the sixteenth century; modern populations continue to demonstrate a rich, enduring ritual tradition (albeit one now also influenced by Catholicism) surrounding the deer in nature and its procurement as a resource. Surprisingly, however, given this animal’s importance to the Maya of all periods, no major publication has hitherto explored the symbolism and significance of this creature in its own right. Matthew Looper’s The Beast Between: Deer in Maya Art and Culture rectifies this lacuna and provides an important addition to the overlapping fields of art history, anthropology, archaeology, and Maya studies.

In the introduction, Looper positions his work relative to previous studies and major art historical issues before outlining the main themes covered in the volume. This includes presenting both sides of the controversial debate regarding the use of the term “shaman” to describe Maya ritual specialists. Discussion of shamanism reappears in chapter 8 (see below), where Looper supports the conceptual shift in its use from Siberia to the Americas with a range of scholarly references. Those who disagree with such an approach may take issue with this discussion but are unlikely to have problems with rest of the book, where the term is largely absent.

Looper incorporates a wealth of taxonomic, ethnographic, archaeological, and art historical data in addition to comparative material drawn from other Mesoamerican times and cultures, such as the Postclassic Mexica (fourteenth–sixteenth centuries). This vast source literature is brought to bear immediately in chapter 1, “Deer Life,” where Looper presents actual ethnographic and ancient hunting techniques as well as deer activity patterns involving both forest and milpa (agricultural field). Coordinated with other deer behavior and seasonal changes in appearance, this conceptually links the deer to the transition between dry and wet seasons. In a thread that weaves its way throughout the volume, such patterns led the Maya to see this animal as a liminal signifier, bridging and connecting the wilds and the civilized, the fallow and the fecund. In this context, the hunt yielded economic resources even as it played an important acculturation role in socialization.

Looper begins each main chapter with an image or group of images, usually of ceramics. From there he branches out, engaging with a diverse data set before typically ending with a more comprehensive look at the opening work(s) of art. The book is well illustrated as a result, but many of the images are small enough that significant, diagnostic details mentioned in the analysis are hard to see. Important color references are also lost in the black-and-white illustrations. Looper provides “Kerr numbers,” however, so most images can be accessed, often in color, through the online image database of almost two thousand Maya vessels by photographer Justin Kerr.

In chapter 2, “Bones to Picks,” Looper investigates the class-crossing use of actual cervid resources as well as their representation in iconographic narratives throughout the Maya world. Again, religion, politics, and economics overlap, as deer that have been ritually killed through heart excision—an intentional parallel to human sacrifice—can also be consumed in feasting events, with the remains, like bones or teeth, deposited in sanctifying caches or at altars. As Looper points out, deer parts served other purposes too: antlers and bones formed music makers, hides became clothing, and crania were used as headdress components.

Chapter 3, “Big Bucks,” and chapter 5, “Locking Horns,” respectively consider the imagery of the deer hunt in the context of elite social and political status and with respect to sacrifice imagery. Chapter 3 shows that deer bodies provided objects for tax, tribute, and trade. The deer also acted as a symbol for larger ideas about prey versus predator. Finally, at the ruling level, dining on deer meat enabled “competitive feasting” and may have indicated control over the areas it roamed or the networks necessary for its procurement, even as the hunt itself acted as “a metaphor for elite male heroism” (61, 62). Chapter 5 explores animal hierarchies displayed during various activities as demonstrated, for example, through regalia and/or liminal associations carried by iconographic tags like the celestial Starry Deer Crocodile. The deer headdresses that appear in representations of an ancient ballgame, when a part of elite pageantry taking place in site centers, tapped into metaphors for war or political alliance. This was envisioned in the context of predator and prey, warrior and prisoner, and the interconnections between these foils.

As these chapters demonstrate, the deer can be connected with first-level elites by marking control of important resources, liminal areas, or youthful coming of age rituals. It can also be associated with the junior elite body as a provider of tribute or taxation, and/or as inferior to the jaguar symbolism of supreme rulers. Alternately, in a truly polysemous manner, the liminal deer can be equated with sacrificial victims who exist in a transitional moment between life and death as the prey of more powerful polities/leaders. In a further interchange of conceptual categories, first-tier elites could take the place of the deer/sacrificial victim in expressing ritual power at liminal moments.

Looper interprets mythic sequences largely found painted on Maya cylinder vessels in chapter 4, “Wearing the Horns,” and then considers deer familiars, as well as hunting gods as deer protectors/caregivers, in chapter 6, “Harts Devotion.” In Looper’s eyes (and as supported by postconquest myths), the ancient symbolic narrative of an old god, a deer, and a young woman (often astride said deer) points to larger solar and lunar cycles, in turn implicating maize growth, agricultural and human fertility, and sexuality. In mythic narratives, the deer and the old god are at odds with each other, while hunting gods (typically aged and linked to the Maya calendrical 819-day count, mountains, and altars found in the wilds) or trickster spirits (often female, inhabiting trees like the axis mundi ceiba) can protect the deer. Alternately, proper offerings encouraged hunting deities to aid the worthy hunter or farmer in killing or protecting against the depredations of this animal.

With the deer’s liminality already established, in chapter 7, “A Sinking Hart,” Looper emphasizes deer images associated with the sun’s transition between worlds (and the shift from day to night, when deer become most active). The resultant underworldly associations lead naturally to a consideration of the deer as a spirit familiar linked with disease in chapter 8, “Deer Departed” (hence the defense of shamanism noted above). Several distinct deer wahyob (animal familiars, as named anciently, of which a wide variety have been identified in modern scholarship) are thought to be regionally specific denizens controlled by, or linked to, particular polities/kings. Looper’s detailed interpretations find support in colonial and modern mythology throughout, although, given the complexity of Maya imagery, individual specialists in the field may see the details offered by the iconography presented in chapters 4, 6, 7, and 8 differently.

References to art historical theory can be found throughout the volume, as when Looper discusses the Maya use of female nudity in terms of male-dominated ways of looking at the end of chapter 4. Students of art history will also welcome his use of other familiar topics in the introduction and epilogue, such as the concept of the Other or how myth and archetypal symbols can act as templates for ritual practice. He further explicitly and implicitly demonstrates how an interdisciplinary approach can augment strictly art historical perspectives by drawing from archaeological, anthropological, and ethnographic work. As he makes clear in his final chapter, however, his methodology is also informed by the newly developed area of border studies. Even though this field of study is largely a modern construct applied to contemporary concepts of national and ethnic affiliation, Looper modifies and applies it as a way to explore the separation and connection between polities in the ancient period. In this way, he shows how various approaches, and their theoretical underpinnings, can be combined and kept current.

This book provides the definitive starting point for an important dialogue regarding the meaning of the deer in Maya iconography and semiology. Even a book of this length cannot cover every subject in depth, however, and several themes—like ritualized connections with shell trumpet use, vertical (versus horizontal) aspects of liminal spatiality, or how regional and temporal variation affect the treatment of deer—while mentioned, remain underdeveloped. Even as it highlights future avenues of research, Looper’s work presents the first thorough and wide-ranging look at the deer in the Maya world from the ancient to modern periods. As such, this volume provides important insights into deer use among the Maya and will frame and influence all subsequent considerations of this often understudied and underappreciated creature for years to come.

Maline Werness-Rude
PhD, Associate Professor, Art Department, Ventura College