Coming to Terms With the Ancient Ones

13.0.3.16.16 3 Kib 19 Sak  :  1.29.4.20 kin 62

 

This post is of a somewhat different nature than my usual offerings. Due to the course I plan to take in the next post I feel it necessary to comment on some cultural issues to avoid misinterpretation of my intentions. So, to begin with, I’ll just come right out and say it: I do not envision the civilization of the ancient Maya as having been some sort of perfected utopia, and I do not envision the ancient sages as having been anything other than mortal, flawed human beings.

For those willing to take off the blinders of modern presuppositions of superiority, it is, of course, impossible to deny that Mayan culture has generated works of surpassing magnificence, worthy of our most humble admiration and respect. Although the debased condition of industrial civilization might cause one to deny this, humans actually possess amazing potential, and various cultures have advanced certain of these potentials to varying degrees. The dreaming arts of the aboriginal Australians, the meditational techniques of the Vedic traditions, the monumental arts of the ancient Egyptians, and the philosophical disciplines of ancient Greece are some of the examples that come readily to mind. Our respect for these achievements, and their continued influence in present times, is no reason for us to believe that those responsible for cultivating such things should be uncritically romanticized and emulated; nor, by the same token, does the fact that they were human creations justify an ignorance of their value.

Dualistic thinking on such issues is incredibly pervasive, but there does exist a point of balance between uncritical romanticization on one hand and self-inflicted cultural amnesia on the other. Nor is it correct to assume that any one cultural achievement defines any of these cultures in itself; all naturally arising human cultures are integrated whole systems unto themselves. You’re not going to truly understand Egyptian monuments from a purely architectural perspective, nor will you understand Greek philosophy from a purely logical perpective; and you certainly won’t understand either if you substitute an appreciation for the wider cultural context of the traditions with a projection of the inherited preconceptions of your own foreign culture.

With such in mind, we turn to our consideration of Mayan culture — certainly the target of the complete range of intercultural projections, distortions, and misperceptions. I don’t have to tell you: The ancient Maya were an enlightened, almost fairy-like people, masters of every science, artform, and divine aspiration; unless, that is, they were superstitious savages, obsessed with war, human sacrifice, and every imaginable form of depravity. It sounds silly, but these stereotypes are quite rigidly imprinted upon the collective consciousness; and some overachieving schizophrenics are even capable of believing them both at the same time.

My approach is, I hope, a bit more nuanced. Was there violence among the precolumbian Maya? You would have to ignore some pretty clear evidence to think otherwise. And, of course, you would have to be equally ignorant to deny that their cultural achivements in certain areas, notably ceremonial magic, mathematics, and astronomy, rival or surpass those of any other cultural tradition.

Another level of nuance recognizes that cultures change throughout time and space. There’s no uniformity to Mayan culture. Assuming that preclassic El Mirador, classic Tikal, and postclassic Noh Peten were culturally identical is like assuming the same about ancient Rome, renniasance Venice, and the modern Vatican. But because so much of what draws attention to the ancient Maya has to do with the classic civilization, let’s focus on that, taking Palenque, widely recognized as exceptional even in this context, as an obvious example.

Were the Maya of ancient Palenque exceptionally bloodthirsty, or was their society more peaceful? These are of course relative concepts, but worthy of consideration nonetheless. This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, the Maya of classic Palenque did practice human sacrifice; name one human culture that didn’t, or doesn’t. Perhaps some are thinking, well, we don’t practice human sacrifice, to which I would respond, oh you naive fools. The reason the type of human sacrifice practiced by the ancient Maya is so sensationalized is that it was done with a conscious attitude of reverence, as a divine offering. We have human sacrifice in the modern world, of course, but it’s nature is obscured by terms such as “capital punishment”, “casualties of war”, and “automobile fatalities”. These kinds of death are all avoidable, but they are accepted because it is believed that they are necessary to the functioning of society. The same principal holds for human sacrifice in the ancient Mayan world. It is not unlikely that many cases of human sacrifice were indeed forms of “capital punishment”, and it is absolutely certain that many victims of sacrifice were war captives. The most spiritually elevated form, however, was likely that of the innocent victim offered as a gift to the divine powers. That might sound horrible to modern sensibilities, but the modern world sacrifices a staggering number of innocents to the powers that it worships; I’m thinking of automobiles and alcohol in particular.

I don’t have statistics to back this up, and I’m not sure any reliable statistics on the matter could be found, but I would guess that your chances of being killed in battle, as a war captive, or innocent sacrificial victim were far less as a Maya person of the classic era than are your chances of death as an offering to the gods of war or the automobile in the modern age. Furthermore, the existential despair that manifests itself today in ever increasing rates of death by overdose or suicide would have been, in my opinion, almost completely absent among the classic Maya. No, they actually had something worth living for — a vibrant sense of community and divinity, a strong connection to the spirit of the ancestors, and value for the lives of the future generations. To find such things in the modern age, you must be looking very very hard; even then it’s no sure thing.

The simple fact is, and I don’t see any way this can be denied, Mayan culture is far and away more aware and accepting of death as a natural part of life than the schizophrenic industrial civilization of modern times. The leaders of industrial civilization — we can use the POTUS as a prime example — are perfectly willing to bomb other countries, attack wedding ceremonies with drone strikes, impose punitive trade embargoes on impoverished communities, incarcerate huge portions of the domestic population, build up massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons, promote regime change abroad, and engage in numerous wars without end, just so long as they, and no one in their family, has to sacrifice even a moment of their comfortably affluent lifestyle. Compare this to the military campaigns of the classic Maya, which would very commonly be lead by the king himself. In other words, the declaration of war for classic Maya kings was no passive, casual act, it was genuine self-sacrifice, done with full knowledge that they were putting their own lives on the line. Furthermore, even in times of peace, the royal figures of a Mayan city were expected to demonstrate their commitment and dedication to the common good through auto-sacrifical bloodletting ceremonies. It would be interesting to see how the United States’ foreign policy would change if Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were required to cut open their own penis and tounge, respectively, for every willy-nilly act of foreign aggression authorized by the executive branch. But no, there is a stark compartmentalization, reenforced by the complicit media, that these officials are above the fray of the violence they foment. This is completely contrary to traditional Mayan ideology; I’ll leave it to you to guess which approach I think is more healthy.

And yes, times of peace did exist in classic Mayan times. According to the history recorded at Palenque, even though Pakal was born at a time when the city was experiencing continual attacks from the Calakmul faction, there were no immediate acts of retribution. Once his mother and he had restored stability, their focus went towards bringing the community back together, making it a desireable vibrant cultural epicenter, with values placed on sacred ritual and intellectual development. It wasn’t until around the age of 60 years old, after half a century of peace, that Pakal finally, and very deliberately, exacted his revenge. Even then, it would be hard to argue that this revenge constituted any kind of indiscriminate massacre. No, it was a surgical strike that targeted those few belligerents that had the intention and power to threaten Palenque’s autonomy. These individuals were captured, brought to Palenque, and sacrificed.

Here’s where we get to another sensationalistic subject: cannibalism. According to the texts, the war captives were sacrificed at a banquet, and were then eaten by the gods, and Pakal himself. So was Pakal a cannibal? No one really knows, but it is possible. However, we should be careful reading this too literally, since, according to the colonial era Books of Chilam Balam, in the section known as “the interrogation of the chiefs”, cannibalism is not meant to be taken literally; it is part of the metaphorical Zuyua language. In fact, the ability for the king to interpret the act of cannibalism in metaphorical terms is prerequisite to access to the throne; if you think that you will be literally entitled to kill and eat people, you will never even come close to passing the examination.

“Then, son, go bring me the green blood of my daughter, also her head, her entrails, her thigh, and her arm; also that which I told you to enclose in an unused jar, as well as the green stool of my daughter. Show them to me. It is my desire to see them. I have commissioned you to set them before me, that I may burst into weeping.” “So be it, father.” He come with the left ear of a wild bee. Then let him go.

This is the green blood of his daughter for which he asks: it is Maya wine. These are the entrails of his daughter: it is an empty bee-hive. This is his daughter’s head: it is an unused jar for steeping wine. This is what his daughter’s green stool is: it is the stone pestle for honey. This is what the left ear of the wild bee is:  it is the moisture of the wine. This is what the bone of his daughter is: it is jthe flexible bark of the balché. This is the thigh of which he speaks: it is the trunk of the balché tree. This is what the arm of his daughter is: it is the branch of the balché. This is what he calls weeping: it is a drunken speech. Then let him go and give these to him. Let him seat himself tranquilly; let him wait for him to speak; let him salute him as his lord when he arrives.
(Chumayel)

This is of course a colonial document, and may be a later interpretation of events in which the king did literally engage in cannibalism; but even then this shows us that Mayan culture was self-evolutive. They had ways of gleaning the symbolic value of their ancient history and heritage without necessarily engaging in its darkest aspects. This is something with which every human generation must come to terms.

Think about it — do you agree with your parents, grandparents, and ancestors further down the family tree on matters of politics and social justice? Does this disagreement keep you from loving and honoring them for the gifts they have given you? This is a univeral timeless dynamic of the human species; each generation has the task of evaluating it’s cultural heritage and adapting it to suit its own time. Indeed, the Mayan understanding of cyclical change encouraged just this type of generational development. At the same time, regardless of how depraved some actions of past generations may seem, they were never so disrespected as to have been forgotten or completely demonized. For instruction in these dynamics we need only look to the Popol Vuh.

One of the principal divine powers of the Popol Vuh is the creator couple Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, Grandfather and Grandmother, who, at least in some respects, can be equated with the binary unity of Hunab Ku. Xpiyacoc and Xmucane are without doubt worthy of great respect and veneration, but they are not completely above reproach, and their values are not to be taken as the final say on human behavior. The following quotes from an episode of the Popol Vuh illustrates this point most clearly:

THIS, therefore, is the account of their birth that we shall tell. When the day arrived, the maiden Lady Blood gave birth. The Grandmother did not see it when they were born, for these two arose suddenly. Hunahpu and Xbalanque were their names. They arose in the mountains, but when they were taken into the house they did not sleep: “Take them away and abandon them, for truly shrill are their mouths,” said the Grandmother.

Thus they were placed on an anthill, and there they slept blissfully. Then they were taken out again and placed on a thornbush.

They were not loved by their grandmother, nor by One Batz and One Chouen. Nor were they given any food. When meals were prepared for them, One Batz and One Chouen would eat it all before they returned.

With treatment like that, one might expect the twins to have planned a brutal retaliation against their elders, but such is not the case; they make an appeal for love instead:

“We tried, our grandmother, and at first they came back. We have tried to call them back again. But do not grieve. We are your grandsons, and we are here. Just love our mother, O grandmother.

“Our older brothers will be remembered. Thus be it so. They were given names and also given titles. One Batz and One Chouen shall be called upon,” said Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

And since that time they have been called upon by the flautists and the singers. The ancient ones also called upon them, they who were the writers and the carvers. A long time ago, they became animals. They became spider monkeys because of their pride, for they had abused their younger brothers according to the dictates of their hearts. Thus they were ruined. One Batz and One Chouen were lost, becoming animals. Thus their community and their home is now among the flautists and the singers. For great were their accomplishments when they dwelt with their grandmother and their mother.

In his notes to this translation, Allen Christenson writes the following (emphasis added):

Loq’oj is to “love, esteem, appreciate, value, honor, or regard.” Thus the twins seek to replace the treachery and jealousy of the household with love and respect. In Quiché view, this is not merely the establishment of a more comfortable home environment, but an essential prerequisite for the proper expression of divine will. In contemporary Quiché thought, ancestors and deity do not tolerate open anger, jealousy, or pride and punish such severely. Until these characteristics are eliminated from the house of their mother and grandmother, the twins would not be able to act in concert with Heart of Sky, identified in the text as the inspiration for the twins subsequent actions in defeating death and restoring their father/ancestor to power. Note that even in victory, Hunahpu and Xbalanque show a degree of honor and respect for the legitimate accomplishments and titles of their older siblings, acknowledging that they will be remembered.

Hun Batz and Hun Chouen offer us a direct parallel to the ancient sages (emphasis added):

Las Casas wrote that in the early Colonial period, these two brothers were the patrons of all the arts: “All the skilled artisans, such as painters, featherworkers, carvers, silversmiths, and others like them, worshiped and made sacrifices to those younger sons called Huncheven and Hunahan, so that they would grant them the skill and mastery to carry out their work in an accomplished and perfect way; but although they worshiped them as divine men, they were not held as gods in general, nor superior to all others” (Las Casas 1967, III.ccxxxv, 506. Translation by author).

I hope this goes some way to illustrate a proper respect for and understanding of the continued presence of the spirit of the ancestors among their living descendants. Furthermore, we can put aside the racist notion that indigenous people somehow needed Europeans to come and rescue them from a violent, inhumane way of life. We might do well to also keep in mind, that for the past 500 years the Maya have not been the perpetrators of any kind of policy of violence, but rather the targets of such. And those of us living within the stifling confines of modern industrial civilization might do well to turn a critical eye towards our own inherited savagery, rather than projecting it upon the guardians of the living Earth.