Of late I have come across a lot of hullabaloo on the subject of barbarism and/or its polar opposite in the cultural and religious practices of enforcedly extinct precolombian civilizations:
On Excite News I found an article from the AP discussing the possibility that early colonial historians downplayed the significance of human sacrifice in Mayan and Aztec society in order to settle blame more convincingly on the Conquistadors. Another I read in January’s Smithsonian Magazine heralds a new, enlightened aestheticism in the appreciation of mesoamerican art, with an accompanying show at the Guggenheim. There’s been much to-do of late from archaeologists in Central America about newly discovered and contested burial sites. Apparently the Indiana Jones stolen-artifact black market trade in the region continues to thrive. And that’s not all.
Not that there isn’t a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the subject all the time. After all my own fascination with the subject hardly begins here, but back in my super-impressionable Transcendentalist social-outcast days, also known as Junior High, with a brief but really depressingly earnest belief in the pseudoeastern newagey fuzzified hamstrung spiritual philosophy of the Celestine Prophecy, and short stories about time traveling teens playing basketball with bloodthirsty Aztecs in Boys’ Life magazine.
Still, when my employer, Mariam Massaro, asked me to construct a logo and a web page for her upcoming pilgrimage to the Inca Holy Seat, I began to feel as though a cosmic hint were being dropped. Mariam, her super-impressionable Transcendentalist days having lasted several decades longer than mine, certainly would have agreed.
She handed me a small, black, cast-iron symbol, the negative afterimage of a radiant sun burned into retinas like a brand, and then transmuted from the mold back into iron. “I bought this in Peru,” she said. “I had a vision of it in the flames, one night while I was meditating at Machu Picchu. It’s a powerful symbol. If you create something from it, you’ll be communing with that power–with the creative energy of the sun.”
So I did.
I am not usually one to give the greatest of credence to cosmic hints. Despite what the fantastical digressions elsewhere on this site might lead one to believe, I’ve never had trouble distinguishing between the waking and the dream, the momentary, voluntary entertaining of illusion for pleasure’s sake and the acceptance of it as fact. But this is the most fulfilling paying job I’ve ever had, and frankly the most entertaining. How many places have you worked where the haze of the fantastical hangs round your head like the scent of stewed lavender, while a self-styled sorceress tears through the house hurling mad demands like a spark-spitting, serpentine whirlwind, and the cat in your lap only stretches and looks at you knowingly? Not many, I’d wager. It’s a privilege I’m enjoying thoroughly, and one I’d rather not lose. So i indulge her. After all, if it hurt to speculate, I’d have been dead since at least seventh grade.
So now let me bow, at least in spirit, to these concepts of karmic transference. Let me bend to the energetic flow of fate, delve into this recent slew of hullabaloo, and see if I can’t draw out a lesson or two. Will doing so ignite the creative fires of inspiration in my loins, or at least under my ass? Why not join me on my ramble among the ghastly galleries of popular perception of precolombian thought, and do me the honor of being the judge?
In the course of her search for female representations of the divine both positive and empowering, my enlightened employer also brought to my attention Our Lady of Guadalupe: a virginal figure from significantly post-colombian religious mythology, whose Basilica, not far from the ruinous Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, is only the second-most popular Catholic vacation destination in the world, after the Vatican. Our Lady’s website, www.sancta.org, which is deeply enveloped in the inexorable, iron, limp and clammy grip of His Holiness Pope John Paul the Second, poses newcomers the following lead-and-human-head-weighted question:
“Mesoamerica, the New World, 1521: The capital city of the Aztec empire falls under the Spanish forces. Less than 20 years later, 9 million of the inhabitants of the land, who professed for centuries a polytheistic and human sacrificing religion, are converted to Christianity. What happened in those times that produced such an incredible and historically unprecedented conversion?”
The Lady of Guadalupe happened, or so we are to assume. She appeared to the heathen masses, demonstrated her holy generosity and mercy, and in doing so convinced the ensuing 9 million descendants of the aforementioned masses that cannibalism just wasn’t the way to go. And who can blame them? Who’s not going to argue it was worth twenty-four million deaths by smallpox, influenza, blunderbuss-blast and slave labor to obliterate an evil, murderous, damned culture that sacrifices its own people to its gods? Not Cortez. Certainly not you, humble visitor to lofty religious site. Human sacrifice just doesn’t seem as appealing compared to visions of a pretty girl who can heal people at six hundred paces and cause fields of roses to grow in the desert. Still, I can’t help thinking there’s an oversimplification here.
Admittedly, I’m not exactly the target audience. Not that I’m about to pitch myself off an Andean cliff in the name of the maize god, but in spite of my early, unpleasant experiences with the exploitative writings of Mr. Redfield, I remain quite the fan of precolombian, and indeed, precolonial cultures. If nothing else, they appeal to me as incredibly cool and sadly underused settings for fantasy. I know the names and locations of the Mayan constellations. I have studied enough of the mythology and the math behind the Aztec and Mayan calendars that fools claim predict a 2012 apocalypse to know there will be no such thing, while at the same time hoping against hope that if one of these end-of-the-world myths has to be right, it’s this one. I’ve made some small effort at deciphering the Mayan pictography. I even tried learning some Nahuatl.
In short, I’ve read a lot of books on the subject–most of which I unfortunately have had to return to the library and thus am unable to scathingly quote. Instead, allow me to paraphrase something I read describing the evolution of Vodoun mysticism among the slave population in Haiti. This book presented said evolution as a practical piecing-together of the various African mythologies of its participants with that of their enslavers–namely, christianity. This book, gratifyingly, happens to be biased towards the newly-recognized Vodoun religion as none of the mainstream western sources above could possibly hope to be. (No, not even the Guggenheim. We’ll get to that.) One instance of such piecing-together it describes happens to run unsettlingly parallel to the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the elderly Saint Juan Diego in the cornfields outside Tenochtitlan.
Several generations after the slave revolution that freed Haiti from its colonial masters, a local evangelical bishop learned of a magnificent waterfall somewhere deep in the island’s hot and hotly-contested jungle interior. It seemed this waterfall was revered among the adherents of Vodoun, as sacred to the rainbow goddess Aida Wedo. Enraged at this all-too-obvious evidence of his parishioners’ heretical beliefs, the bishop
stomped about his office for a while ranting about golden cows, and once he was good and tired sat down and conceived the clever notion of co-opting this sacred place to serve his evil evangelical ends.
My apologies for the blatantly self-imposed melodrama. Who knows but the good bishop was not the very most well-intentioned of evangelists?
But whatever the case, at the bishop’s behest, some of his more fervent followers paid a visit to the sacred falls. On reaching the site, and beholding its utterly breathtaking natural glory, they promptly fell into quite convincing convulsions, claiming in between their gasps of ecstasy that they’d seen visions of the Virgin Mary in the mist. The bishop acclaimed the event as a miracle, and promptly proclaimed the falls as sacred to his true religion as it was to the unholy false one of the unwashed indigents.
“Come ON!” he seemed to shout into the forest shadows: “Your religion IS my religion! SEE?”
Hmm. Doesn’t this kind of ‘ole’ switcheroo’ technique of cultural-annihilation-through-straw-man begin to look rather uncomfortably familiar? Doesn’t it make you wonder which other deep-set religious and cultural traditions are based around tacked-on-haloed tackling dummies?
You don’t have to wonder. We can go through them one at a time. Christ wasn’t born on Christmas–the powers that be (that be intoxicated to the point of pink elephants with their own self-righteousness) just needed a convenient excuse to obliterate Yule. Easter is the name of a barbarian goddess. Groundhog Day absorbs a celtic festival of renewal and its christian replacement into a kitschy annual infertility dance weatherpeople perform with a heavily medicated ball of fluff for a maypole. St. Brigid? A Catholic stamp on a pagan goddess. All Saints’ Day? Please. This column has already shined the murky light of half-truth on the theft of the flood myth from Babylon. Look at the proliferation of Hindu and Shinto traditions in the spread of Buddhism. Hell, even Satan his own bad self didn’t grow horns until Caesar invaded Gaul!
None of this is new. The ole’ switcheroo is the oldest trick in the victorious-history-rewriting book, and with good reason. It works. Invade region populated by infidels. Absorb religious figures into extended pantheon. Absorb credulous infidels into flock. Obliterate culture. Repeat.
Had this been Mexico three hundred years earlier, we might have expected never to hear another peep from Vodoun. It just so happens the local Haitian evangelical mob wasn’t quite as talented at the necessary accompanying ultra-violence as the Holy See. Or rather, their infidel opponents weren’t quite as unused to it. African culture in the New World was nothing if not survivalist. They’d already pulled off one bloody rebellion. The houngan (the Vodoun clergy), their own religion having been constructed piecemeal out of the fragments of so many others, were eminently unimpressed by the bishop’s noble efforts. They calmly and cooly reviewed the relevant christian beliefs, selected some of the more transmutable attributes of the Virgin, and assigned them to Aida Wedo. Two hundred years later, Vodoun accommodates both figures as aspects of the same divinity.
But again, it isn’t as simple as all that. Yes, the Vodoun religion has survived. It’s accepted now. The Thriller video and Night of the Living Dead notwithstanding, the modern interest in voodoo has pretty much died down. Now go back across the gulf to mainland Mexico, and the massive success of the same tactic three centuries before, as practiced by a far more hostile form of evangelism on a far more advanced, far more heretical culture. Oh, they obliterated that culture, sure enough. They obliterated it good. But how successful were they, really, if we’re still quibbling about it amongst ourselves five hundred years later?
Even the utterest orthodoxy of American History, that which we’re taught at our most impressionable in order to foster the minimum necessary patriotism to keep us from revolution, about Columbus discovering a whole other hemisphere all by himself, hesitates to conceal from us entirely the existence of those incredible civilizations that were already here. Then, as we progress, and they run out of convincing things to tell us about the noble ideas of our forefathers, we begin to grow bored and stop listening. Our thoughts wander back to those poor dead cannibals, and we wonder.
What we’re seeing here is evidence of another well-documented phenomenon of cultural warfare, which oversimplification tempts me to term the apocalypse effect. The most visible example is the Japanese fascination with American culture, and to a broader extent with the idea of apocalypse in general, resulting from the Bomb. It is only thanks to that most horrific moment in human history that we have experienced such fantastical glorifications of destruction incarnate as Godzilla, Akira, and, by extension, Dragonball Z. The Bomb drove the national consciousness of Japan away from tradition and towards science fiction. I am grossly oversimplifying the transition, and I’ve been berated for drawing this conclusion before–but it has often struck me that their current capitalist technological advances couldn’t have been possible without the influence of American economic philosophy.
And they’re right. It isn’t that simple. Because now quite the opposite is happening. American culture, such as it is, has been overrun by spiky-haired heroes with giant heads and little yellow balls of cuteness that shoot bolts of lightning out of their adorable crooked tails. Those of my generation spend a lot of time lamenting the deterioration of Saturday Morning Cartoons, working themselves up into steaming-eared rage over unfavorable comparisons between the original Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their new, anime-influenced clones.
One might call it cultural-conquest backlash. The All-Obliterating Hammer of the Righteous Crusade smashes both ways. What happened when Rome conquered Athens? The same thing that’s happening now.
Archaeologists are currently seeking to prove that the body of Christopher Columbus is buried, not in Spain as that nation’s historians claim, but in the New World. Spain is quite up in arms about it. Yet at the same time, the relevant sites in Central America are being quite hotly defended by the relevant governments against violation by the grubby groping fingers of the relevant archaeologists. I’m not even going to touch that one.
The Smithsonian article treats briefly with this phenomenon. It points to the origin of the postcolombian backlash with the writings of American historian William Prescott on Aztec culture in 1843. “Though fascinated by Cortes’ military and administrative ability”, they claim, Prescott “did not conceal his distaste for politicized Catholicism and in some regards even found the Aztecs superior to his own countrymen”–thus invoking, though not explicitly taking into account, the 19th century imperialist fascination with the “noble savage” as the incarnation of Rousseau’s tabula rasa, the man unsullied by the indulgences of culture. The article goes on to describe the evolution, under the always sobering influence of radical politics, of a blind fascination with the mesoamerican aesthetic in the popular art of the 20th century. I was intrigued and interested to learn of Mexican patriot and communist pop muralist Diego Rivera’s cadre of grave robbers and consequently impressive collection of Mayan artifacts. I was flooded with bitter ennui by the article’s attempts to lay bare the unrecognizable Mesoamerican influences in the unfathomably ugly aesthetic of my personal least favorite architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Clearly, we are to gather, if these iconic artists can be so influenced by precolombian art, there must be something to lament in the lost cultures that produced it. But we’re also strongly cautioned that the aforementioned artists are wacko slaves to aesthetic who do whatever the hell they want without regard for science or objective truth, and thus are no more good to we the impartial scientific crowd than a pack of hooting Shakers would be at proving the existence of God.
The Guggenheim exhibit, we learn, is an attempt to correct this romantical skewing, to return, with rather a more delicate touch than a bull in a black-market artifact shop, to the appreciation of Aztec art for itself, based on what we know it to be. And what do we know it to be? The art of a primitive, savage, cannibalistic culture that killed its ailing children rather than its healthy ones because their screams were more convincing, and then served up their livers with polenta.
Overwhelmingly, the trend of cultural backlash appears to have reversed. We’ve whipped ourselves for a while. Now, the recent press hullabaloo appears to argue, we ought to whip the dead horse just a bit more, to even things out.
It’s not that the modern-day exalters of Our Lady of Guadalupe mean to condone Cortez. In fact, they’re very careful to avoid the subject of the inconceivable number of native lives lost in massacres and plagues as a result of his actions in the interest of spreading the Word of God. But the post-colonial demonization of Cortez and those like him is no longer quite as en vogue as it once was. As the Excite article puts it:
“It has long been a matter of contention: Was the Aztec and Mayan practice of human sacrifice as widespread and horrifying as the history books say? Or did the Spanish conquerors overstate it to make the Indians look primitive? In recent years archaeologists have been uncovering mounting physical evidence that corroborates the Spanish accounts in substance, if not number.”
And isn’t that what it all comes down to? The central aspect of our centuries-old fascination with the incomprehensible spirituality and unsettling art of these dead cultures, is the strange taboo, so deeply ingrained in the distant, dusty history of our own culture, against consuming each other.
“It is really very difficult for us to conceive,” the Excite article apologetically quotes Carmen Pijoan, a forensic anthropologist, with respect to the custom of human sacrifice. “It was almost an honor for them.”‘
Isn’t it this taboo that necessitates all this fetishization? I did so not want Freud involved, but it seems so obvious. Why does Diego Rivera collect all this stuff if not to achieve, to abrogate unto himself, the aspect of mystery, of fascination, that his iconic status demands? Why does James Redfield find the “disappearance” of the Incas, or Carlos Castaneda the Tenochan culture of sorcery, so perfectly structured to fit his cult of fictional mysticism? I am well aware that my own love for the esoteric has its irrationalities, its resemblance to a compulsion–I have often been called on it by intellects more complex than my own. We hate and fear the very prospect of sitting down to a meal of another human’s flesh, no matter what the circumstance–yet we are fascinated with it too, as the Japanese were with us, and now we are with them. Intense, irrational, polarized emotions tend to blur together until we forget which side of the mirror we’re on. Consider the tendency of captives to fall in love with their captors, which tendency Tom Sawyer, that famed-and-faulted racist and imperialist removed from context, so romanticized for his impressionable friend Huck, who in turn imparted it to his poor African friend and servant, Jim. Consider Hannibal Lector, to whom any discussion of the popular consumption (forgive me) of cannibalism must almost necessarily gravitate.
Indeed, consider Lector. Perhaps you were unaware that in the original, literary version of the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs, the good doctor convinces Agent Starling to see the world from his point of view. She doesn’t merely allow him to escape. She yields to him. Hatred turns to love, and they run off together to consume human flesh as a romantic antiheroic duo. Hollywood, moral barometer it is so known to be, deemed this conclusion of the tale too sordid or Freudian for popular moviegoing consumption, and elided it from the film version of Hannibal. Instead, the drugged and at-the-murderer’s-mercy Starling consents to share Lector’s meal of chauvenist-asshole-brain sauteed in mushroom sauce, but stops short at partaking of his predator’s philosophy.
“Eating human flesh is one thing,” quoth the movie execs, the self-appointed saints of the post apocalypse. “Murdering humans in order to eat them is entirely another.” But isn’t that the same justification we (certainly in my own cultural context) use to justify the hunting of deer, as a worthy, even nigh heroic, cause? Kill them and don’t eat them and you’re just lusting after destruction. Kill them and use them, use their bones and hide and sinew and eat their flesh, as the Indians do, and you are doing something poetic. You are participating in the natural cycle in the same tradition that convinced the Victorian imperialist to append nobility to the savage’s title–the tradition of the countercultural backlash.
How does one–a journalist, let’s say–manage to distance himself from all this concerted self-flagellation long enough to enable himself to look objectively at the available scientific and historical evidence, and decide whether we (because of course it’s the journalist’s job to decide for the rest of us) ought to condemn this long-extinct society for its transgressions or embrace it, in spite of our reservations, for its glorious achievements? The AP and the Smithsonian seem to think themselves quite capable of doing so. My employer, the other gung-ho mysticists, and the papist powers that be would certainly have me think them capable.
But as much as I’d like to throw my towel and my last shred of decency in the muck with the mysticists and praise the fossilized cannibalistic heathens, if only for being something other than the culturally eviscerated, intellectually lobotomized establishment, I’m afraid I have to conclude it can’t be done.
I want to. Boy do I want to. I want to bring forth yet another relic of my credulous youth, yet another nigh-ubiquitous appearance of cannibalism in the popular consciousness–that of a certain simplistic counterexample to the theory of moral relativism dragged out at least once in every Intro to Ethics class in the known universe. I want to cut said counterexample apart with a flippant bit of caustic logical abstraction, and wield the unavoidably anarchic conclusion to the utter destruction of every idiotic argument for this nation’s current imperialistic trend of morally motivated culture-crushing. In fact I want it so bad I may just have to outline for you how it would go, and how helpless you’d be to attack it. But I’m not going to actually do it. And I’ll tell you why.
The argument for moral relativism goes like this. Where do my morals come from, what high unassailable source, that makes me hold them so absolute? Not from god–because if god actually talks to anyone, they are few and far between, and I am certainly not one of them. No. I get my morals from others just like me, others who either interpret the communications of god or who fabricate their morals themselves, most often based on the morals of still others. And those others are just the same, on back into history, getting more and more blurry and assailable all the time. The point is, I can’t hold my morals above anyone else’s.
The simplistic counterexample? You guessed it. Cannibalism. I can hold my morals above someone else’s, as long as that person’s morals allow him to kill, spit, roast, and eat me. Why do I call it simplistic? Because this counterexample only works in a classroom setting, when posed by an intellectually unassailable professor to a bunch of insecure, impressionable students. He knows nobody’s going to disagree. When my professor posed it to me, I thought to myself, “Why the hell should that convince me of anything? Who’s to say the cannibal didn’t speak to god this morning, and who’s to say god didn’t tell him the fate of the universe depends on him eating me for lunch?” But I wasn’t about to say it. Not in front of the whole class.
The anarchic conclusion? Nobody can pass moral judgment on anybody. So long as everybody follows this simple rule, and god doesn’t tell anybody otherwise, nobody gets hurt. Of course that’s never going to happen. If everybody followed the same rules we wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place. But that’s the great part of it–even if someone does kill you and eat you, you don’t have to get angry, because they could just as easily been acting on the word of god as that of their flawed morality.
It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Frustratingly so, to those of you who’d rather not die in a terrorist attack, or would rather go on exacting revenge-in-proxy for terrorist attacks that have already occurred. But you’ve already encountered the problem of trying to reason with (read: threaten) someone perfectly willing to die. Looks like you’ll just have to roll over and give up the ghost yourself, doesn’t it? And I’m afraid I must admit I wouldn’t be all too sad to see you go.
Alas, it comes down to the fact that my own morality isn’t nearly that yielding. Unassailable and absolute as I may hold it to be, my morality forces me to admit this elegant solution just isn’t going to work. Because isn’t all I’m doing equating terrorists with cannibals, falling victim to the same cultural backlash, equating oppressor with oppressed? Getting sucked into all this ridiculous taboo/fetishism we’ve inevitably constructed around them seems as much an insult to these cultures as an honor. So I really can’t win either way. I’m forced to back off from the whole idea of judging, of deciding who is right, and try to enjoy the utterly alien ideas of this utterly alien culture for what they are. Maybe that’s what everyone, the journalists and the museum curators and even William Prescott–everyone but the Catholics, anyway–were arguing in the first place.
Were you aware that in the Inca culture people killed themselves out of ecstasy instead of despair, and when they were dead their bodies were honored instead of disgraced? In the abstract, how can that seem anything but cool? And no matter how problematic the same idea might seem considered in practical light, how can it mean anything at all anymore, except in the abstract? It shouldn’t be so hard for us to conceive of death as a sacred thing, of life as a fleeting one, or of faith as an absolute. But it is.