“The Book of Souls” (The Book of Souls, 2015) tells the story how the Mayan empire vanished. At least this is what I learned during the two live concerts I visited during the respective tours. Mayan references are well recorded and dominated the stage set as well as they served as inspiration for the album cover and designs. Even the discs are covered with little Mayan symbols and I still cannot decide whether I am more enchanted with the Mayan triplane or the Mayan airship… (In case you have not spotted them yet, I heavily recommend having a good look at the discs.) But, coming to the song, I was never so sure what this story exactly was. I mean, I read the word “alien” in here, and that is when my fantasy ran wild. Were the Mayans abducted by extraterrestials? Have the aliens come to the Mayans to spy upon them, as apparantly described in the second stanza? Hardly. So, I tried to get a grip on this song, but I am sorry to say that I cannot offer one reading, but three you have to choose from. In case you come up with a fourth, please feel free to share it.
Aside, I was asked to take a group photo in the museum café while visiting the exhibition you currently see photos of. At some point someone complimented me on my cool and very befitting shirt. Guess which shirt it was...
The lyrics basically cover more or less everything we know about Mayans. We have stone cities in the jungle, mysteries we cannot solve, the two-headed serpent entity Kukulkan (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukulkan), the Mayan calendar and their knowledge on astronomy, their trading and warfare system, sacrifices, the use of gold, shamans, kings who can control the forces of nature (third stanza), but most of all, caves. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization) But none of this made it to the title. The title mentions another object alltogether, something so rare that only three of them are left in this world: Mayan books. The only surviving books are the Madrid codex, the Paris codex and the Dresden codex. There are also a few remnants of the Grolier codex which is of uncertain authenticity. This lack of Mayan books is not only down to decay, but they were also systematically destroyed by colonisers and the Catholic church, mostly Bishop Diego de Landa. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization#Writing_and_literacy) The loss of a Mayan book, even one that can contain souls, whatever that may mean, is not as far-stretched as it may seem.
As soon as we lost the books, we also lost our grip on the Mayan culture. This is pretty much what this song is about. I have promised three readings, but they all have three things in common: a powerful Mayan book, the subsequent destruction of Mayan culture, and caves.
The role of caves in the Mayan culture cannot be underestimated. They were places of worship, of gathering, where shamans would take drugs to communicate with spirits, gods, and their ancestors. Caves are the realm of these unearthly beings. Caves have to be seen as the frontier between two worlds, the world above of the living and the world underground of the dead. Once you want to enter the world of the living you have to pass the mouth of the cave, thus living through a symbolical birth. (cf. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/mayan-caves-places-sacred-rituals/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_cave_sites)
Reading One: The Mayans Seeking a Book of Deathly Knowledge
In my first interpretation we stay firmly in the Mayan world. The second stanza refers to a figure who is tasked to find further knowledge. This is the tricky part, as I assume that he is not flying to the planet earth, as I had hinted at in the introduction, I assume that he flies to the underground caves. He is to rise again from death, at least he would do so as soon as he leaves the cave.
They key to all readings is the question whether you can find a monarchy in the book. In this case, the Mayans seek something to improve their condition. Their king is one of trading and warfare, things that hint at expansion. Probably the Mayans do not only seek knowledge, but are also plotting to take over another kingdom. Thus, the monarchy that they intend to find in the book is probably not their own, but a foreign one they intend to conquer. The book is either meant to contain record of the warfare as it is meant to pass on legislation and documentations or it is meant to provide them with the knowledge needed to conquer the other monarchy.
But, things do not end well. The book does not contain the truth (stanza 7). This leads to defeat and catastrophe. The Mayan culture vanishes as they are lead astray by wrong information given by the book they had put their hopes in. In an alternative reading, the book gets lost. Be that as it may, the knowledge seeker has lured them to a new kingdom indeed, but it is of questionable nature (this will become clearer later).
Reading Two: Cortés Deciphers and Steals the Book
In my second reading, the Mayans are not the colonisers, but the colonised. Mayan populations were in constant war with each other, different kingdoms trying to take over the each other (see reading one), and were thus considered in need of missionary work by Spanish Catholics. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Maya)
I argue that the second stanza may refer to Spanish colonisers such as Hernán Cortés. ( cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Maya) He is sent out to gather knowledge and now the Spanish king is the king of trading and warfare, in other words: the king of colonisation.
As mentioned above, the Catholic church had a vivid interest in Mayan books, but not all of them were burned. Not only did Catholic priests keep meticulous accounts of the Mayans, but constant attempts have also been made to decipher their script. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization#Investigation_of_Maya_civilization) They tried to deprive the Mayans of their mysteries. This is what we see in the song: the wish to demystify the Mayans’ way of life followed and surrounded by a list what these things are: their aforementioned knowledge of astrology, their gods, their culture.
However, these records were of course tainted, being written by missionaries and colonisers, who are far from obective. Early attempts to decipher Mayan texts were not too succesful either. Interpretations that Mayans were a peace-loving nation could only be disputed as late as the 1950s. (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization#Investigation_of_Maya_civilization) These wrong reports and the misguided scholarship are in turn books filled with lies. This book is dediacted to holy deities, but it is also filled with misinformation. Are these the Mayan deities, misrepresented by Christian missionaries? Not to forget that this book contains souls, the souls of the Mayan gods and people twisted and catalogued into a carricature of themselves. Ultimately, the book is lost, which may mean that it is transported to Europe. Mayan mysteries are not only falsified, they are also collecting dust in the archive of the Vatican – destroying the secrets of a civilisation formerly hidden away in the jungle. In order to avoid this exposure, the Mayans would have to disappear from the surface of the earth. Which they did.
Reading Three: The Mayans Use the Book Against Cortés
In a third reading I wonder if the Mayans use the book that contains their souls against the colonisers. The Mayan king or shaman climbing up the pyramid in stanza 8 brings back souls from the other side. I argue that this might be the underworld. So now stanza 2 is open to two readings. It may be the Spanish coloniser or the Mayan explorer. In case of the latter, he may have been successful in finding what he wanted in the underworld, the realm of gods, spirits, and the dead, and brings this now back to his people during a war against the Spanish.
They were seeking the new monarchy that may be contained in the book – a new way to live, an escape. Escape is what they do. I argue that all three readings end the same way: the Mayans vanish because they retreat to their underground world and caves. The book inspires the Mayans to lie, to fake their own disappearance, considering that it is a book coined by misinformation. The book is lost just like everything else is lost: It is packed up and moved to the caves, thus making it unavailable to the Spanish. The Mayans have conquerered the lords of evil intend by flying underground.
I base this reading, that the Mayan civilisation vanishes at once by simply going underground, on the last six lines. The Mayans go back to where their forerunners have the say. The dark forces they have conquered could also be demons living in the caves (instead of the Spanish) – here, again, two readings are possible. They have enslaved themselves to an existence without fresh air and sunlight. But they also have found true knowledge and proven that the Spanish can be defeated by going underground, literally. If this is a happy ending, however, is open to debate.
- Gers, Janick, Harris, Steve. “The Book of Souls.” Iron Maiden. The Book of Souls. Parlophone, 2015.
- Historisches Museum des Pfalz Speyer. “MAYA – Das Rätsel der Königstädte” (16.10.2016 – 23.04.2017) museumspeyer.de https://museum.speyer.de/informationen/ueber-uns/mediathek/maya [06.06.2022]
- “Kukulkan.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukulkan (04.06.2022) [06.06.2022]
- “Maya Civilisation.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization (29.05.2022) [06.06.2022]
- Herrero, Hannah. “Mayan Caves: Places Of Sacred Rituals.” National Geographic. education.nationalgeographic.org https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/mayan-caves-places-sacred-rituals (20.05.2022) [06.06.2022]
- “Maya Caves Sites.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_cave_sites 07.03.2022) [06.06.2022]
- “Spanish Conquest of the Maya.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. en.wikipedia.org https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_conquest_of_the_Maya (28.05.2022) [06.06.2022]
Featured Image: Taken in Mayan Exhibition of the Historical Museum Speyer (16.10.2016-23.04.2017) © Katharina Hagen