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In the Maw of the Earth Monster

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In the Maw of the Earth Monster
Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use. Edited by James E. Brady & Keith M. Prufer. (University of Texas Press, Austin: 2005. Pg. viii, 438. Illustrations, Figures, Tables.) ISBN: 0-292-70586-7.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - March 4, 2005

The study of Mesoamerican archaeology is an ever evolving endeavor. New information is constantly coming to light that increases our ability to interpret and understand the history and culture of the Maya people. In the Maw of the Earth Monster - Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use is a collection of fifteen papers that provide an overview of the most current research being conducted in the study of Mesoamerican ritual cave use, from the Pre-Columbian period through the present. This new research helps to answer some lingering questions about ritual cave use and also provides new insights into how the caves were used.

Rather than just being places of religious worship or burial chambers, this new research indicates that caves served a variety of purposes. Recent research indicates that the caves were used for habitation, places of refuge, burials, depositories of ritual goods, and food storage, in addition to being used as places for the performance of rituals and other religious functions. Combining ethnohistory, ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, and iconography, the authors of these papers examine the varied uses that the caves were put to in terms of their religious and ritualistic usage, and they analyze the role that these ritual caves played in the Maya belief system, social life, and their role in Mayan cosmology.

The papers in In the Maw of the Earth Monster are organized geographically, into three sections: Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Maya Region, with the bulk of the papers in this collection focusing on caves in the Maya Region. The text begins with an informative introduction by the book's editors, James E. Brady and Keith M. Prufer. This introduction provides an overview of the history of the study of ritual cave use, and it examines how ongoing research has altered our understanding of Mesoamerican ritual cave use.

Twenty experts in the study of ritual cave use contributed to this collection, including James E. Brady, Keith M. Prufer, Doris Heyden, Alan R. Sandstrom, Manuel Aguilar, Miguel Medina Jaen, Tim M. Tucker, Janet Fitzsimmons, Carlos Rincón Mautner, Evon Z. Vogt, David Stuart, Jaime J. Awe, Cameron Griffith, Sherry Gibbs, Andrea Stone, Holley Moyes, Abigail E. Adams, Jaroslaw Theodore Petryshyn, Dominique Rissolo, and Clifford T. Brown. Many of the papers provide detailed analysis of specific caves, while other papers take a more interpretive viewpoint, explaining new theories and interpretations of various cave rituals. Some of the caves examined in detail include: Actun Tunichil Muknal, Laberinto de las Tarántulas, Chechem Ha Cave, the Caves of the Yalahau Archaeological Cave Survey, Blade Cave, Coloassal Natural Bridge, Acatzingo Viejo Cave, Balankache Cave, Xmuqlebal Xheton Cave, Mayehal Eheton, and Chab'il Uk'al.

Throughout, detail descriptions of how the caves were used - and are still used, are clearly described. The papers are enhanced by the inclusion of photos, maps, sketches of the cave's layouts, illustrations of cave stelae, glyphs representing cave use, and by illustrations of many of the artifacts found in the caves. Each paper also concludes with a list of references that serve as a bibliography for each paper.

In the Maw of the Earth Monster - Mesoamerican Ritual Cave Use will fascinate anyone with an interest in ancient or modern Mesoamerican ritual or religious practices. While written for Mesoamerican scholars, this text is eminently accessible for nonspecialists. Not only do these papers provide keen insights into ancient cave rituals, but they also examine modern cave rites.

Throughout, the authors demonstrate that the scientific study of ritual cave use is possible and that previously held views that the caves were only significant to the Mayans as portals to the supernatural realm was a simplistic viewpoint. As these papers indicate, ritual cave use throughout time has served a variety of functions and played a larger role in the social and religious life of the Maya than was previously thought. This text will serve as an introductory text for those new to the study of ritual cave use, as well as a reference guide to those already transfixed by this fascinating field of study. It is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in Mesoamerican studies.

Related Reviews:

Ancient Maya Commoners, edited by Jon C. Lohse and Fred Valdez, Jr.
A groundbreaking collection of eleven essays that explore the data that is currently available on the lives of ancient Maya commoners. These essays also show how this information increases our understanding of Mayan culture, society, and organization.

Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos, by Prudence M. Rice.
In this work, Rice expounds upon her theory that the Maya politico-religious structure was uniquely Mayan and based upon a 256-year calendar cycle called the may.

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