Scholars studying the Maya culture of the pre-colonial and colonial eras are aided by the existence of a virtual plethora of literature written over time on a variety of media. From stone inscriptions to glyphic texts on cave walls, painted glyphs on fragile bark paper codices, glyphic inscriptions on bones, ceramics etc. and including colonial records written on European paper in the Latin alphabet, the Yucatec Maya have left us a massive diachronic record from which we can learn a great deal about their culture.
It is the editors of this volume’s belief that the term ‘Maya literature’ encompasses a wide array of different genres, created under different historical circumstances for different needs and for different audiences. Some of these textual genres emanated from pre-Columbian traditions of the Maya culture, for example the famous Katun prophecies. While others were introduced by specific Spanish colonial administrative requirements (e.g. petitions, land treaties, wills etc.). Still others consist of the written form of knowledge originally transmitted orally (i.e. medical texts). Although different in function and origin, all of these textual genres display the use of various literary techniques and forms of the Yucatec Mayan language. These assorted textual genres and their circumstances of production require different methodological approaches in order to gain an understanding of their literary creation. The following discussion of the history of Yucatec Maya literary research is intended to illustrate just a few of the main lines of scholarly works that have, over time, shaped the way we currently look at Maya literature and its cultural, religious and historical meanings.