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Anthropology Symposium: Mallory Matsumoto - "Supernatural Figures and Religious Knowledge in Classic Maya Culture"

In the Classic Maya (250–900 CE) lowlands of Mesoamerica, writing and imagery as ritual performances integrated individual practice, public reception, and other-than-human engagement. This talk explores two important but enigmatic phenomena at the intersection of religion and elite artistic production: supernatural scribes and wahy ‘sleep; transform; companion spirit’. Drawing on evidence from iconography, archaeology, and ethnohistory, I discuss other-than-human scribes depicted in Classic Maya iconography as a parallel, ritual community whose portraits reminded viewers that hieroglyphic technology’s origins and significance extended far beyond the scope of human experience. The products of scribes’ and artists’ labor, in turn, were crucial to transmission of Classic Maya religious concepts such as wahy, whose diverse meanings ranged from places associated with gods and ancestors, to zoomorphic figures that represented companion spirits or naguals, to embodiments of disease and other threatening forces. Based on the distribution of wahy references, I argue that knowledge of wahy was not bound to specific hieroglyphs or images and thus was circulated within broader cultural and intellectual exchange across the Classic Maya lowlands. Together, the cases of supernatural scribes and wahy suggest that Classic Maya ritual developed collectively through regional interaction rather than dissemination from one or two prominent cultural centers. Moreover, they demonstrate the potential of reconstructing multifaceted transmission of cultural knowledge between communities in the ancient past.

Mallory Matsumoto is assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her addresses the interface between language, material culture, and religion in pre-colonial and colonial Maya communities of Mesoamerica across archaeology, epigraphy, ethnohistory, and historical anthropology.

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