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The Beast Between

The Beast Between
Deer in Maya Art and Culture

The first book to focus on the multifaceted images of deer and hunting in ancient Maya art, from the award-winning author of To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre Columbian Studies

April 2019
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288 pages | 7 x 10 | 20 b&w photos, 170 b&w illus. |

The white-tailed deer had a prominent status in Maya civilization: it was the most important wild-animal food source at many inland Maya sites and also functioned as a major ceremonial symbol. Offering an in-depth semantic analysis of this imagery, The Beast Between considers iconography, hieroglyphic texts, mythological discourses, and ritual narratives to translate the significance and meaning of the vibrant metaphors expressed in a variety of artifacts depicting deer and hunting.

Charting the importance of deer as a key component of the Maya diet, especially for elites, and analyzing the coupling of deer and maize in the Maya worldview, The Beast Between reveals a close and long-term interdependence between the Maya and these animals. Not only are deer depicted naturalistically in hunting and ritual scenes, but also they are assigned human attributes. This rich imagery reflects the many ways in which deer hunting was linked to status, sexuality, and war as part of a deeper process to ensure the regeneration of both agriculture and ancestry. Drawing on methodologies of art history, archaeology, and ethnology, this illuminating work is poised to become a key resource for multiple fields.


2019 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Deer Life: The Maya Ethnobiology of Deer
  • Chapter 2. Bones to Picks: The Classic Maya Use and Depiction of Durable Deer Remains
  • Chapter 3. Big Bucks: Deer and Social Status
  • Chapter 4. Wearing the Horns: Deer, Sexuality, and Fertility in “Dying God” Scenes
  • Chapter 5. Locking Horns: Deer Hunting, Warfare, the Ballgame, and Male Rites of Passage
  • Chapter 6. Hart’s Devotion: The Siip in Classic and Postclassic Maya Society
  • Chapter 7. A Sinking Hart: The Solar Symbolism of Deer in Maya Art
  • Chapter 8. Deer Departed: Cervid Spirits of Death and Disease
  • Epilogue. Out of the Woods: Deer and Borders
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Matthew Looper
Chico, California

Looper is a professor of art and art history at California State University, Chico. His previous books include To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization, winner of the 2010 Association for Latin American Art Book Award; Gifts of the Moon: Huipil Designs of the Ancient Maya; Lightning Warrior: Maya Art and Kingship at Quirigua; and, most recently, Wearing Culture: Dress and Regalia in Early Mesoamerica and Central America, co-edited with Heather Orr.


“The author makes important contributions here, especially to ongoing efforts to recover poorly understood aspects of ancient Maya mythology as revealed through scenes on painted pottery. Profusely illustrated, well written, and amply documented, this book can also serve as a rewarding entrée into broader subjects of ancient and modern Maya culture from archaeological, art historical, and ethnographic perspectives.”

“[The Beast Between] provides an important addition to the overlapping fields of art history, anthropology, archaeology, and Maya studies...This book provides the definitive starting point for an important dialogue regarding the meaning of the deer in Maya iconography and semiology...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.”

“Much can be learned from this richly varied book, and it certainly contains numerous starting points for further investigation.”

The Beast Between explores the significance of deer to the Maya, treating readers to programs of art dating to the zenith of Classic Maya civilization, to mythological tales recorded among the living Maya, and to consideration of the role of deer in the practicalities of daily life both ancient and modern. There is nowhere else where a scholar or student can find, assembled in one place, discussion of the many ways in which deer factored into the symbolic and practical world of the Maya. The study is a fascinating journey into the complex ways in which the Maya constructed (and continue to construct) meaning.”
Julia Guernsey, University of Texas at Austin, author of Sculpture and Social Dynamics in Preclassic Mesoamerica

“Looper is one of the most skillful readers of glyphs and iconography, and he has brought these powers to bear to make surprising but well-supported arguments.”
Carolyn Tate, Texas Tech University, author of Reconsidering Olmec Visual Culture: The Unborn, Women, and Creation


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This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca