Taken from "Ethan Vanderpool's Research of the Mayan Trail of Dead" by Scott Pullman

In 1860 Ethan Allan Vanderpool, a professor of linguistics at Harvard and a former sergeant of the United States Army made a trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico at the insistence of a former Army associate, Prescott Phillips Meyer. Meyer's work lay mainly in the excavation of Pre-Hispanic step pyramids. He had been working at the site of the remains of a Mayan city in the lower Yucatan known as Machuxla and had recently struck gold with the discovery of several Mayan scrolls which he had been unable to decode in full. His hopes were that Vanderpool might be able to assist him in the deciphering of the codex. An eccentric in his field, Meyer had also arrived at a theory of correlation between Mayan religion and that of the anitquated Babylonian mythos, based on an uncanny similarity between Babylonian and Mayan architecture. Vanderpool gladly agreed to join him, not realizing that his visit would eventually extend for years.


The only surviving portrait of Ethan Allan Vanderpool.
(Daguerrian Society, Portland MN)

Because of the scarcity at the time of other comparable Mayan texts - the only ones of considerable length being the Paris and the Dresden Codex - Vanderpool had to make several attempts at a full translation before finally arriving at one that satisfied both scholars. Although Vanderpool's translations were not able to confirm Meyer's Babylonian hypothesis, they did reveal several startling points, including the possibility of communication between the Mayans and Viking explorers of the late 10th century. In the passages dealing with their contact with "horned foreigners" is a transcription of a religious rite performed on the eve of the Mayan New Year. The ceremony, which summons the spirit of the Mayan corn gods Apuk, begins with the following lines:

"Sever for us all ties between the now and what is to be
We will act as your sword, oh Great Itzamna
And you will know us by the trail of dead."


Prescott Phillips Meyer with an Indian guide.
Taken during his excavation in the Yucatan.
(Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX)

What bothered Vanderpool, and intrigued Meyer the most about the above lines was in line "by the trail of dead", which did find an unusual corollary, not in Babylonian text, but in Egyptian burial texts of the 13th dynasty. The Book of the Dead papyrus contained a spell for letting a soul rejoin its corpse in the realm of the dead (Spell 89). The first lines of the spell read:

"O you who bring, you who run
You who are in the booth of the Great God...
...If the bringing of my soul to me from anywhere is delayed
You will find the Eye of Horus standing us thus against you
And you will know it by a Trail of the Dead"


The earliest Book of the Dead papyri date to the mid-fifteenth century BC, but the ritual utterances and incantions they contain have a history which can be traced back more than a thousand years earlier. A similar concept in the coffin texts of the Book of Dead is a belief in an afterlife spent in the Field of Reeds, where agricultural tasks would have to be carried out by the deceased for all eternity. Some of the earliest Book of the Dead papyri, such as those of Nu (BM 10477), Userhat (BM 10009), Kha (Turing Museum) and Yuya (Cairo Museum) contain an surprisingly small number of chapters and are further distinguished by having few vignettes. During the course of the New Kingdom, however, the repertoire of chapters grew steadily and vignettes became more prominent.


Portions of Meyer's codex. The above passage is part
of a prayer to the Mayan corn gods.
(Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX)

Vanderpool made several more consecutive trips to the Yucatan to assist P.P. Meyer, but his work was cut short when in the summer of 1890 he fell ill with an undiagnosed stomach illness. Meyer never published Vanderpool's findings, and the work of both men remained relatively obscure in the academic world until Meyer's journals were discovered at the University of Texas by a student of archaeology in 1997. The journals are now part of the archive at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, TX.


Palace at Palenque in the Yucatan where P.P. Meyer
began work on his excavations.
(Harry Ransom Center, Austin, TX)

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