Iron Maiden, the Book of Souls, and the Ancient Maya – Guest Blog by Suzanne Nolan

Of all the film stars, celebrities, and bands I expected to be next in line to use the ancient Maya in their art and marketing, Iron Maiden did not reach high on my list. In 2011 and 2012, I presented numerous papers on the ancient Maya and the so-called ‘end of the world’ event. In that research, I delved deeper into the use of ancient Maya imagery, language, and culture in contemporary popular culture (an example of which can be found here). Since then, I have continued to note examples, and think about why ancient cultures are so used and misrepresented in popular culture and marketing today.

Iron Maiden jet

In April this year, I was surprised to see another resurgence of Maya imagery, this time adorning the tailplane of Iron Maiden’s very own 747 jet – ‘Ed Force One’ (if you know nothing of Iron Maiden: ‘Eddie the Head’ is their… ‘mascot’). A friend, and huge fan of Iron Maiden, approached me rather sheepishly to ask if I had seen it, and would I get annoyed every time I saw them wearing the accompanying t-shirt? Would I come with him to see them play live? I gave a rather non-committal answer, and said I would investigate.

The problem is, when you are known as an expert in a particular topic, you gain a reputation. Groaning at poor journalism (That kid didn’t find a lost Maya city, by Dr Yates), cringing at terrible references in movies (I’ve never been able to decide which I hate the most: 2012 or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), or laughing every time I see the Aztec calendar stone being used as a generic ‘ancient Maya’ image. I am sure scholars of the ancient Greek, Roman, Hindu, or Chinese find themselves similarly afflicted when they watch television, head to the movies, or open a magazine.

So investigate I did… and what did I find? Book of Souls, the sixteenth studio album released by Iron Maiden, is themed around the concept of souls. Fairly self-explanatory. The ancient Maya, well known for their belief in souls (of all living, and many non-living things), and that souls continued to hold a person’s ‘essence’  after death, seemed like a logical choice for the art and styling to follow.

Imagine my happy shock, then, that upon deciding such, not only did they contact an actual academic on the topic, Simon Martin, but they requested that he actually translate some of their song titles, and write out the ancient Maya hieroglyphs for them.

Iron Maiden tale

These same glyphs, translated by Martin and penned by his expert hand, now decorate the band’s plane. He even got a diecast model of the plane as a thank you.

This was perhaps the biggest shock. Not only had Iron Maiden sought out Martin and his expertise, but they actually used it – and it looks great. TV shows are known for hiring historians and then ignoring their advice. Tudors springs to mind. But this heavy metal band took it upon themselves to offer something new to the world – an accurate portrayal of the culture they re-appropriated.

For me, this is vitally important – there is no need to sensationalise or distort ancient culture. There is no need to misrepresent it as bloodier, or sexier, or with more intrigue then there ever really was. There is no need because it is already fascinating. Because it already excites and enthrals – that is the whole point of becoming an academic.

The learned scholar will look at the Book of Souls art and see a curious adaption of Maya hieroglyphics, but there will be nothing insulting or angering about it. It has not over-simplified the Maya to a barbaric or cartoonish peoples. The glyphs are clear, accurate, and beautifully worked. Importantly, too, the non-specialist will look and see something that might interest them for the right reasons – and when they go looking for more information, they will not be put off by the wholly different representations in books.

Needless to say, I returned to my friend, smile on my face, and gave him every blessing to wear his new t-shirt in front of me. And I’m looking forward to seeing them live… I might even overlook that they are using the Aztec Sun Disk as a set piece.

Photos courtesy Iron Maiden

Thanks so much to Suzanne for sharing this Mayan metal story with us!

You can follow her on Twitter @ZannPhD and read more about her work at her blog:


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