Of Civilization, or Lack Thereof

November 30, 2009

If someone asked you to describe what you think the natives of the new world looked like, the kind of shelters they lived in, what their clothing looked like, what would you say? Would you describe naked heathens who lived in huts.  If you did you'd only be partially correct.

(Image from the movie The New World by Terrence Malick)

There was another side to the new world that included civilizations who had built cities, erected grand monuments, written books, were fully clothed in beautiful garments and jewelry, and valued scholars and knowledge as much as the neighboring cannibals valued chaos and war.  Of course now that 2012 is upon us you may already have recognized the culture of which I speak, the Mayans.

(Photo: Hansjoerg Klein-The Pyramid at Tikal)

In 'the Eight Decades' I have read the first written accounts in English of Mayan civilization.  The Spaniards were amazed to find that the Mayans were not only amiable and welcoming but also very intelligent (arguably more so than most of the sailors who first encountered them.)  Apparently upon landing at the shore of the Yucatan the Spaniards were greeted by natives.  With no interpreter present the Spaniards tried to glean the name of the land by gestures to which the natives replied "Yucatan, Yucatan."  The Spaniards assumed this was the name and it has been called that ever since.  However, 'Yucatan' in the native tongue meant roughly "I do not understand you."  The actual name of the land according to the natives who lived there was Eccampi.

It is a sad fact that contact with the Spaniards brought about as much destruction as construction.  Libraries of books were destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa, a nasty little book burner brought to the Yucatan to teach the natives about the Catholic Church.

He gained the trust of the Mayans by showing interest in their culture and heritage.  They allowed him to view their sacred texts, which he then had burned deciding that they were full of nothing but superstition and the devil.  The number of books burned is argued over, some say thousands others say a more exact figure of 27, but even if it was just one, oh what a loss!  Only 3 or 4 books survived.  The Mayans tried to recoup their losses by rewriting from memory what they could but just imagine if someone burned the only copy of the bible and it then had to be rewritten by memory.  All those teachings and observations done by different people over years and years...the amount lost would be unimaginable. Thus it was this way with the Mayans.

But wait! What would a history lesson be without a little blood? And as in all stories pertaining to the new world, there will be blood.
As fabulously advanced as the Mayans were, they still believed in the seemingly primitive act of human sacrifice.  Sacrificing boys and girls to the creator was a regular practice done at harvest time and other necessary times of the year.

(Image: Encyclopedia Mythica)

Boys and girls were encouraged to volunteer for such a treat and if no one did then a slave was taken and fattened up like a Christmas goose before being offered up.  The Mayans feared if they didn't do this then the creator would let loose a plague of locusts (they pop up all over the place don't they?) or hail on them destroying their crops.  An odd correlation between that belief and the Christian belief of revelation don't you think?  Considering this civilization was completely separated from the bible and yet both believe in a creator who wanted proper adoration or else humans should feel the wrath!

On a lighter note, the Spaniards did observe a baptismal like practice amongst the Mayans.  At the age of one year boys and girls were carried to the temple in a grand ceremony where they were then sprinkled with water over there heads.

To be continued...

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