A morning among the Mayans at Chichen Itza

I try to imagine somebody travelling across the Yucatan in the 19th century and discovering Chichen Itza, the Mayan city. How astonished they would be. Who built this and why? What kind of people lived here? What happened here? And where did the people go? I imagine the Spanish conquistadors arriving in the 16th century: they came not to wonder but to capture, plunder, and convert. They took the city easily because the warriors had long gone. The people left were peasants, farmers. Nevertheless, they laid siege to the Spanish in Chichen Itza and drove them off the Yucatan peninsula. The returned, of course.

What strikes you first at Chichen Itza is the huge pyramid (actually a zigarat), which is perhaps 200 feet high. A staircase runs right to the box-like temple at the top. I imagine the captain of the winning team being led in a procession to the top of the pyramid. The priests are at the top ready to sacrifice him to the gods. How is the captain feeling? He may feel honoured, terrified, or both. Does he imagine that once dead he will go to some place sacred to the gods, what we might call heaven? When he arrives the top the priests strap him to a rack and paint his heart. They begin to slash at him with their jade knives, offering his blood to the gods. They cut deeper, eventually reaching his heart and removing it. They place his heart on a special mark on the back of a special stone modelled on a jaguar, the cat that infests the jungle that surrounds the city. The chief priest dances. Perhaps the people begin to sing or clap. We, the tourists, are taught to clap fast in front of the temple and hear the high pitched echo that the Maya knew to be the singing of the bird-god Quetzacoatl.

The main reason that the city is here is because of two cenote, two huge water filled holes. There are some 5000 cenote across the peninsula, and there is controversy as to how they were formed. Some belief that they are the consequence of a huge meteorite that hit the peninsula and led to the dark winter that destroyed the dinosaurs. Others have less dramatic geological theories. (Many of the cenote are in caves, and the day after our visit to Chichen Itza we swam in one, in the cold (but not North Sea cold), clear water under the stalactites with the bats made visible by our torches.) One of the cenotes at Chichen Itza is known as the Sacred Cenote, and above its waters that look like spinach soup is a platform that many archaeologists believe was for human sacrifice. “Usually babies or old people,” I overhear a guide saying.

Somehow on this hot, breezy day walking peacefully among the ruins and the trees, it’s impossible not to think of the human sacrifices that took place here. The thought of human sacrifice horrifies but also fascinates us, rather as we are fascinated by cannibalism. I read a book that suggested that cannibalism was mostly an invention of sensation-seeking Western explorers. Perhaps the same is true of human sacrifice, but I don’t think so. The book I’m reading on the history of Mexico, Fire and Blood, says that human sacrifice was common to most of the Mesoamerican cultures. There were dozens of these cultures but many of their characteristics—building pyramids, theocracies, human sacrifice, gods considered monsters, and sophisticated astronomical charts–were derived from a culture from the last years before Christ that the author of the book calls the Magicians. (I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez saying that he came to magical realism by simply writing down what his grandmother said.)

Human sacrifice was needed in Mesoamerican cultures to appease the angry gods. All the gods—fire, water, air, fertility—had an angry side. The Spanish made much of human sacrifice, perhaps even moving it from myth to history. It was perfect propaganda for them, showing how they were bringing “civilisation” to “barbarians.” As James, my son, points out, human sacrifice and Catholicism come together in that far from expecting humans to sacrifice their children the Christian God allowed humans to sacrifice/crucify his son, a great “selling point” for the religion.

Mayan civilisation did not collapse because of human sacrifice, but it may have a part in the story. The Mayans made the jump to civilisation where cities and temples could be built and some people had time for work of the mind rather than body by developing farming. But they didn’t invent the plough and didn’t have heavy mammals (oxen, horses, donkeys, etc) to do the heavy work of farming. So the civilisation was built on a fragile base of thousands of famers with small farms. And the civilisation was headed not by philosophers or scientists but by priests and warriors. Although they made the remarkable achievement of an accurate calendar by watching the stars, the thinkers of the Mayans were concerned with worship and war. They built temples not universities, and there was little material progress that might have led, for example, to more efficient farming. So when droughts came the Mayans were ill prepared, and religion and war sapped the strength of the Mayans. They degenerated to farmers, but Mayan culture survives in language, food, and physiogamy. I saw a boy who could have been a Mayan warrior from centuries ago with his long, thin nose.

These ruins make me think of Easter Island. Peoples with spare capacity created beautiful objects, worshipped their gods with all their energy. Unfortunately the worshipping of gods took over from everything else, meaning they neglected their broader environment. Collapse came inevitably. All that was left was a small group of impoverished people clinging to existence with no capacity to create beautiful objects or think original thoughts.

Our gods may be different, but we have gods. We worship growth, money, drugs, pleasure, hospitals that will keep us from death. Collapse will come to us as well, and another set of beings—perhaps from another planet—will walk among the ruins of our banks, skyscrapers, and hospitals, and wonder why we were so stupid.


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