Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
31st July 2011

On Mesoamerican Civilization

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On the Devolution of Consciousness in Ancient Mesoamerica:

Or, The Victory of the Astral Plane Over the Human Ego

An Essay by John David Ebert

The Tyranny of the Ancestral Dead

In Mesoamerica, the realms of the dead and the living were never truly separated. In fact, of all the civilizations in world history, the Mesoamericans are the one society in which no such separation was ever even attempted. Indeed, there is a continuity from the early village traditions of the so-called Archaic period (8000 – 2000 BC), in which the dead were buried under the floors of the houses, right on into the Formative, Classic and Post-Classic periods, in which this practice continues into Aztec times, as Manuel Aguilar-Moreno comments:

Archaeologist Michael Smith points out that the placement of burials in and around the home provides insight into Aztec attitudes toward death. The dead were still considered part of the family, and they took their place within the household. It is likely that families conducted rituals or made offerings to their deceased members, much as modern Mesoamerican peoples do in the Day of the Dead ceremonies of early November.[1]

As a result, Mesoamerica remained one of the most conservative societies on earth, perhaps the most conservative society ever. We have the word of Ignacio Bernal:

Perhaps this is why we find a curious contradiction between great progress in some aspects and none in others. I refer principally to technology, which almost stood still in contrast with remarkable developments in art, writing and the calendric system.[2]

And, as Susan Toby Evans, in her magnificent study of Ancient Mexico & Central America remarks: “…in AD 1520 the tool repertoire was still basically the same ‘Neolithic’ assemblage that had emerged by the end of the Formative.”[3]

Thus, ‘technological evolution’ in Mesoamerica is an oxymoron. This is a society which remained at about the level of a late Neolithic village, technologically speaking, until the coming of the Spaniards. No wheeled vehicles, no use of metal until very late in its development, no plow, no draft animals, nothing, in short, fancy at all.

For the dead were everywhere, all the time, watching. As Linda Schele and David Freidel write:

Public monuments erected by the Maya king during the Classic period emphasize not only his role as shaman, but also his role as family patriarch. A large percentage of the texts on stelae focus on his genealogy as the source of his legitimacy. Not only were statements of his parentage regularly included in his name phrase, but pictorial records of all sorts show the parents of the king observing the actions of their offspring, even after these parents had died.[4]

For the dead, apparently, do not like change.

The Olmecs

One of the ways in which this becomes evident is by comparing the function of the Mesoamerican temple with the pyramids of the Egyptians and the ziggurats of the Mesopotamians. All three types of building are homologous structures within their respective societies, but whereas in Egypt the pyramids and mastaba tombs were located out in separate necropolises far away from the cities, the temple tombs inside of which dead Mesoamerican kings were buried were actually located in the downtown civic centers of their cities, in the same locations, roughly speaking, where we would expect to find the ziggurats and temples of the Mesopotamians, although the Mesopotamians never buried their dead inside such temples. The Mesopotamians, it is true, as the case of the Royal Tombs of Ur shows us, did bury their dead sometimes within city limits, but by contrast with the Mesoamericans, the tombs of the Sumerian dead were rather inconspicuous and unassuming structures located in a peripheral relationship to the city itself. In Mesoamerica, the temple tomb is the nucleus around which the entire city is built, just as the ziggurat or temple tower was the nucleus of the Mesopotamian city.

Mesoamerican cities, that is to say, were essentially necropolises inhabited by living people, just as in the ancient world of the Near Eastern Neolithic, where the living actually inhabited the realm of the dead. That is the key idea of the Mesoamerican city. It is, so to say, something of a throwback to the Neolithic in which the ancestors ruled the society.

Let’s take a look, then, at one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities as an illustration of this principle. The ceremonial center of La Venta was a great ritual and sacred center of the Olmecs, who are regarded generally as the founding members of Mesoamerican civilization. Their time in the sun spans the period from about 1600 BC to 400 BC, while the high period of La Venta dates from about 900 BC to 400 BC, although it is not the earliest Olmec site: that honor would go to San Lorenzo, located off the Coatzacoalcos River in Veracruz in a region that was not as swampy as La Venta in Tabasco.

San Lorenzo was apparently a civic ceremonial center – as was La Venta – the core of which occupied about 55 hectares and might have housed about 6,000 people, although the entire area surrounding San Lorenzo could have exceeded maybe 13,000 individuals. We don’t know that much about San Lorenzo, actually, since its archaeological remains have been poorly preserved, but we do know that the site was located on the top of an artificially engineered platform on a natural eminence rising 50 m (164 ft) above the surrounding landscape. There, the Olmecs cleared an area for courtyards and civic structures spanning 1,200 m by 600 m (3,937 ft by 1,969 ft).

It is at San Lorenzo that the earliest of the giant carved stone heads were found, dating from the so-called ‘San Lorenzo phase’ (1150 – 900 bc). Ten of these enigmatic heads, some as tall as 9 ft., carved from basalt and weighing many tons, were unearthed here.

Now, the site seems to have been attacked around 950 BC, at which time it was completely abandoned. This date happens to coincide nicely with the rise to prominence of La Venta, so it seems likely that there was some sort of rivalry between the two centers.

La Venta was built on a kind of island about 2 miles square that was surrounded on all sides by swamps. At its height, the site occupied about 200 hectares (or 494 acres).  It was laid out on a north-south axis[5], as was San Lorenzo and so also, it happens, were most other Olmec sites. Since the Milky Way during the month of August shifts to a north-south orientation across the sky, and since the Mayans regarded the present era as having begun on August 13, 3114 BC, it is possible that the Olmecs could have laid out their cities to conform with this axial alignment of the Milky Way in the month of August (which month, by the way, later became sacred to the Aztecs as the month of the dead).[6]

At La Venta, we find the earliest surviving Olmec tombs, which happen to have been royal tombs, five in number, and dating from sometime around 1000 BC. Due to the humid climate in this region of swamps and sluggish, muddy rivers, as well as the acidity of the soil, no bones have survived from these tombs, and they are the only known Olmec burials. These tombs were located at the north end of the site, just above the so-called “Great Pyramid,” while the rest of the site’s civic structures, which seem to have been mainly places for the gathering of crowds, were laid out to the south in a series of squarish and rectangular shaped mounds.

The Great Pyramid was built about the same time as the royal cemetery, and since it was never excavated, it is possible that it contains a royal tomb inside it. This was the prototype of the later Mesoamerican temple inside of which dead rulers were buried, so it would be no surprise if such a tomb was ever found within it. At the time of its construction, it was the largest pyramid anywhere in the New World, and its location in the city demarcates the northern area of the royal necropolis from the civic areas to the south.

The pyramid was over 30 m (100 ft) high, and contains 3.5 million cubic feet of earth fill. There was a protecting apron built up around the south, east and west sides of the structure, while on the south side was located a projecting earth ramp or staircase which opened to the forum below, toward what is known as Complex B. According to Richard Diehl, “six large stone slabs with carvings on one face (stelae) were firmly embedded in the apron floor at the foot of the Great Pyramid, while two multi-ton thrones rested on the south edge of the ramp. The stelae formed two sets of three, each forming a linear sculptural tableau that faced the plaza to the south.”[7]

Thus, we are to imagine the Olmec ruler descending the staircase of the Great Pyramid while performing a ritual, perhaps of autosacrifice, in which he would wear a white cotton robe while cutting himself with a stingray spine and perhaps spinning like a dervish to splatter his blood in all four directions of the compass. The crowd watching in awe below would have stood stupefied, perhaps, by his performance. Linda Schele imagines a similar scenario taking place at the early Mayan city of Cerros, c. 50 bc, where the earliest temple likewise faced south toward an open area where crowds would have gathered to watch the kingly spectacle.[8] (Forest of Kings, 111) I imagine something similar must have taken place at La Venta.

Thus, the ruler would have descended the staircase with the weight and authority of the ancestors buried in the northern part of the necropolis behind him, and the symbolic function of his descent might have been to inflect their ancient, eternal powers outward into the temporal area of the forum.

There are, as I have said, five tombs in the royal necropolis at La Venta, located on the other, northern side of the Great Pyramid, which archaeologists call ‘Complex A.’ They were closed off by a fence made out of rectangular standing basalt columns. Basalt was expensive for the Olmecs to use, since there was no stone in this particular region of Mesoamerica; the basalt had to be imported from the Tuxtla mountains far to the northwest.

On the north end of this fenced enclosure, then, there lay a large mound – possibly shaped like a sort of strawberry shortcake bun – which archaeologists call Structure A-2 and within which Tomb A was constructed. This tomb is rather unique in the Mesoamerican world, for it was built out of long, thin basalt columns.

12 such columns supported the sides, and there were 5 across in width, while the roof consisted of 9 columns supported by those on the sides, with an entrance enclosed by 5 more inclining columns rising from floor to ceiling as a sort of door. This type of basalt column architecture occurs in only one other place in Mesoamerica, and that is at San Lorenzo. It was never continued, because it was too costly, according to Ignacio Bernal.[9] Inside the tomb, there was found a few bone splinters and some teeth of two juveniles. Each cluster contained sets of exquisitely carved jadeite objects that included four standing figurines, a seated female figurine wearing a tiny obsidian mirror on her chest, two ear ornaments, a clamshell pendant, beads and a bloodletter in the form of a stingray spine. The burials had been placed on the floor and covered with red cinnabar.[10]

In tomb B, located a few meters to the south of Tomb A, there was found a stone sarcophagus shaped like an Olmec dragon inside of which was found a standing human figurine carved from serpentine, a jadeite bloodletter and two large jadeite ear spools.

Tomb E, which lay between Tombs A and B, was covered by a layer of horizontal basalt columns coated with red cinnabar (normally used by the Chinese in their burials) and clay. Inside this one was found 108 jadeite celts and some other ornaments.

Finally, Tombs C and D lay under Mound A-3. Tomb C was constructed of sandstone slabs covered with red clay. Inside was a layer of cinnabar where the corpse had once lain, while the furnishings had included three pottery vessels, an incised obsidian prismatic blade core, fragments of rock crystal and a collection of greenstone objects, which included 37 serpentine and jadeite celts, 2 decorated jadeite earspools and pendants, a large jadeite tubular bead, a jadeite perforator, 2 jadeite turtle carapace pendants, a serpentine figurine and 110 jadeite spangles. Tomb D, meanwhile, seems to have contained a child burial.[11]

This, then, is the collection of royal ancestors from which the ruling king seems to have derived his authority.

One more little detail is worth mentioning: further to the north of this complex, there was found three colossal Olmec heads arranged in a loose line, all facing out toward to the north. Another such, by itself, was found just to the south of the Great Pyramid, near the staircase. Thus, the heads seem to demarcate the entirety of Complex A together with the Great Pyramid as an enclosed sacred precinct protected by the ancestral dead.

For it seems likely that the colossal Olmec heads were ancestor figures, like the giant moai of Easter Island. The headgear worn by each, furthermore, suggest the type of headgear worn by Mesoamerican ballplayers, at the end of which game the loser was sacrificed, usually by decapitation. It is possible that the heads were portraits of dead rulers, as most archaeologists assume, but I think it more likely that the presence of the headgear and the fact that the portraits are confined only to the head suggests that they are meant to be representations of primordial ballplayers, the first such ballplayers, perhaps, like the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.

Thus, with the Olmec site of La Venta, we are presented with the blueprint and prototype for all later Mesoamerican cities: such cities tend to be laid out on north-south axes and they are, furthermore, always equipped with central pyramids inside of which dead kings are buried; most such cities, in addition, revolve around the central institution of ritual kingship, in which the king calls forth the ancestors through a rite of drawing blood, sometimes his own, sometimes those of human sacrifices.

The dead, at this site, as in all other Mesoamerican cities, are revered ancestors whose will must be called upon for blessings on all occasions, and they are, therefore, incorporated into the very idea of the Mesoamerican city. The entire city takes shape around them, and everything unfolds in accordance with their wishes, just as in ancient Mesopotamia, the cities had unfolded from the temple complexes which housed the gods of the city whose goodwill was necessary to keep the city functioning smoothly. In Mesoamerica, it is not the gods, but the revered dead, whose will must be anxiously invoked in order to keep catastrophes at bay. And this central mythic idea held Mesoamerican civilization together for nearly three thousand years, from San Lorenzo to Aztec Tenochtitlan.

The Signature Image

The comparison, so often used by scholars when speaking of technology, of Mesoamerican society with the Near Eastern Neolithic, is apt in more ways than one, for the case of Mesoamerican culture represents an almost complete tyranny of the realm of the dead over the living to a degree of thoroughness not seen in the history of civilization since the days of creepy Neolithic sites like Catalhoyuk or Nevali Cori. Just as we took note, while studying those village cultures, that human existence had seemed to have been actually submerged into the underworld, so that the walls of the living spaces routinely depicted imagery more appropriate to mortuary art (as at Catalhoyuk), so too, it seems to have been the case in Mesoamerica that the entirety of the civilization was actually swallowed up into the underworld itself – which the Mayans termed “Xibalba,” meaning “place of fright” – often depicted, indeed, in Mesoamerican art, as a monster with gaping jaws.

There is a motif in Mesoamerican iconography that is found obsessively reiterated from the Olmecs to the Aztecs in which a human being is shown peering out from the gullet of the open jaws of a beast, as in the case of the above pictured Aztec eagle warrior. The particular beast can vary: sometimes it is an eagle, sometimes a jaguar or a caiman or even some fantastic creature, but the obsessive repetition of the image indicates that it is the signature image of Mesoamerican civilization as a whole.

This image indicates that in Mesoamerican culture, the human soul has been swallowed up by the great beast Xibalba, or else by the astral spirits which populate Xibalba, which amounts to the same thing. In Mesoamerican civilization, then, the astral plane has been allowed to overtake the society completely.

The astral plane is the realm of ghosts, spirits, monsters and demons. It is often visualized in picture form as the underworld of a particular society. To be swallowed up by such beings is tantamount to the erosion and disintegration of the human personality, which is then hijacked by otherworldly entities.

The result?

An unending, and apparently unquenchable, thirst on the part of the dead and the realm of the gods, for the blood of the living.

The Myth of Blood

The symbolism of wearing such headdresses and costumes is meant to illustrate the fact that the hierophant or ruler has identified with, or in actual fact, has become the god he is depicting. The prevalence of such imagery in Mesoamerica is a vestigial survival from the bedrock cult of shamanism upon which the entirety of the Native American world was originally based and which confers upon it its rich orientation toward the display of masks. Mesoamerican society is the great civilization of the mask. No other can rival it for the ubiquity and magnificence of its masks and headdresses and costumes. And whereas the Greeks, by contrast, confined the wearing of masks to the performance of plays, the Mesoamericans wore masks or headdresses for every occasion whatsoever. Nowhere, in other words, did there exist a space in which a human being was allowed to be just a human being. He was always playing the role of a god, animal or spirit in whatever public role he undertook, be it ruler, noble, priest or even merchant. All wore masks of one sort or another, or else mask equivalents in the form of tattoos, ear spools, jade nose plugs, lip bones, face paint, etc. Everyone in Mesoamerican society pretended to be a spirit being at all times.

The mask depersonalizes. It flattens the human being out into a two-dimensional icon that no longer exists in a temporal flow, but rather dwells in an eternal latticework beyond spacetime, like Plato’s Forms. The human personality, with all its three-dimensional complexities, tics, idiosyncrasies, complexes and so forth, is submerged and stereotyped with the intrusion of the god, via the mask, like a stamp seal impressing its image onto fine red clay.

The macroscale result of an entire civilization’s complete depersonalization of its members through the almost continuous wearing of masks is the creation of a society in which the gods and spirits, not human beings, are always making the decisions. For when the human personality is eclipsed by the god, it is the god, and not the person playing the role of the god, who speaks. And the god is always hungry for blood.

Hence, the near total erosion of the human personality through identification with the god leads to the need for constant bloodletting, and it is, of course, well known that blood was the fuel upon which Mesoamerican civilization depended for its functioning.

Nothing, in Mesoamerican society, could take place without the letting of blood. The gods and the ancestors would not heed your summons if you did not cut yourself and offer blood, so kings and nobles are always depicted in Mesoamerican art as cutting themselves in order to draw blood, since it is blood that attracts the spirits.

The great carved relief from the city of Yaxchilan which shows the noblewoman Lady Xoc drawing a rope studded with thorns through her tongue is archetypal here:

The results of her bloodletting are depicted in another wall relief which shows her cowering on the ground before the apparition of a Vision Serpent which towers over her, its jaws open to emit an ancestral being who is thrusting down at Lady Xoc with his spear. This being is Yat-Balam, the ancestral founder of the city’s dynasty.

As Linda Schele and David Freidel explain:

“During the Classic period, the heart of Maya life was the ritual of bloodletting. Giving the gift of blood from the body was an act of piety used in all of their rituals, from the births of children to the burial of the dead. This act could be as simple as an offering of a few drops of one’s blood, or as extreme as the mutilation of the different parts of the body to generate large flows of this precious fluid. Blood could be drawn from any part of the body, but the most sacred sources were the tongue for males and females, and the penis for males. Representations of the act carved on stelae depict participants drawing finger-thick ropes through the wounds to guide the flow of blood down onto paper. Men with perforated genitals would whirl in a kind of dervish dance that drew the blood out onto long paper and cloth streamers tied to their wounded members. The aim of these great cathartic rituals was the vision quest, the opening of a portal into the Otherworld through which gods and the ancestors could be enticed so that the being of this world could commune with them. The Maya thought of this process as giving ‘birth’ to the god or ancestor, enabling it to take physical form in this plane of existence. The vision quest was the central act of the Maya world.”[15]

Now whenever we are perplexed by a society’s bizarre behavior, all we need to do is find out the myth that programs for that behavior and it suddenly makes sense, since myth is the DNA of civilization. The rationale for this particular aspect of Mesoamerican behavior can be found preserved in an Aztec myth that tells of the creation of the first human beings. At the beginning of the present age, the Age of the Fifth Sun, the creator god Quetzalcoatl descended down into Mictlan (the Aztec equivalent of Mayan Xibalba) where he tricked the god of the dead, Mictlantecuhtli, into allowing him to make off with the bones of the human beings who had perished at the end of an earlier age, that of the Fourth Sun. Quetzalcoatl emerged from the underworld and gave the bones to a woman named Cihuacoatl, who ground them up into a kind of flour and made dough out of it. But in order to make the forms cut from this dough come to life, Quetzalcoatl and the other gods all pierced their penises and dripped blood onto the dough in order to make it live.[16]

Thus, blood must be offered back to the gods because they gave their own blood in the beginning in order to create human beings. The myth and its attendant behavior illustrates the existence of a sort of covenant between humans and the gods.

The demand for blood is made by the gods, and in Mesoamerica, it seems, no real objection – except in one case, which we’ll get to momentarily – was ever made on behalf of its population. The entire society willingly acquiesced in this myth and performed accordingly, giving to the gods the blood which they demanded.

In other words, the Mesoamericans never developed much in the way of an immune system to protect them from psychological rape by the gods. And this is evident, furthermore, by the fact that Mesoamerica is the one civilization, in fact, which had no myths of monster slaying, dragon killers or even animal tamers.

No Dragon Slayers?

As I have articulated the idea in a previous book, Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons, myths of the slaying of monsters and dragons are tantamount to a society’s development of a psychological immune system. Such myths are both healthy and necessary, since they protect the developing ego against the corrosive forces of demons and spirits from the astral plane which would otherwise overwhelm and drown it.

Mesoamerica, however, developed no such myths and consequently had no defense against the astral beings which tend to seize possession of the human personality and use it as a vehicle for satisfying their own wishes. Nowhere – in the iconography on the walls of their temples, in the Mayan royal stelae, on their pots and pottery and cups, in their carvings or paintings –  do we find images of heroes killing monsters.

For the dragon, in Mesoamerica, is the Vision Serpent and, as illustrated by the relief carving of Lady Xoc, the Vision Serpent is never resisted, since it is the means by way of which the ancestral dead are enabled to communicate with the living. The Vision Serpent, in Mayan art, brings the summoned ancestor with it inside its belly.

Monsters, dragons, serpents and mythical birds carry the dead to the heavens or to the underworld or else they bring ancestors up to the realm of the living. There is no myth of killing them, for they are essentially shamanic spirit helpers which convey souls between worlds. To kill them would be tantamount to cutting off the means of communication with the otherworlds.

The problem, though, is that, lacking any such myths displaying the growth of the ego and its psychological immune system, the mind simply acquiesces without question to the will of the spirits, which end up tyrannizing over the society with their endless demands for blood.

Now, the only exception to this is the myth of the Hero Twins in the Quiche Mayan epic known as the Popol Vuh. In the opening chapters of that epic, the Hero Twins are depicted as monster slayers who shoot a blowgun at the Celestial Macaw at the top of the World Tree and then kill his two imperious sons, Zipacna, the earth monster and his brother, Earthquake. But I wish to point out that in this sole example of the killing of monsters in Mesoamerican myth, the images are illustrative of astronomical phenomena: when the Twins shoot their blowgun at Seven Macaw and he falls, the story is a code for the disappearance of the Big Dipper over the horizon at a certain time of year, for Seven Macaw was the Big Dipper and the world tree upon which he sits is the Pole Star.[18] His son Zipacna, furthermore, is the giant caiman that forms the roots of the world tree and the bumps of whose back represents the world’s mountains. Killing him and his brother is meant to rid the world of earthquakes and also possibly to prevent the pole star from precessing.

These are the only images in all of Mayan mythology of heroes slaying monsters, but the fact that they are allegorical of astronomical processes lends them a certain inevitability which tends to undercut the heroism of the Twins’ deeds.

But the story of the Popol Vuh leads us to our next point: the Mesoamericans did put up some struggle against astral forces in at least one case: the fight against Death and the Lords of Xibalba.

The Ball Game

The ball court is ubiquitous throughout Mesoamerica. As far as I know, there is not a single city that did not have one. (Even La Venta, right at the beginning of the civilization, seems to have had one or two). This tells us that, at a superficial level, at least, the Mesoamericans loved sports.

But then they did not play sports the way we moderns play them, for purposes of mere entertainment. The ball game was played to the death and the sacrifice of the losers was its inevitable outcome.

The game, furthermore, was a symbolic struggle of the forces of Light against those of Darkness and Death. The ball courts were usually I-shaped and the game was played with two to four players along a central narrow depression wedged in between two sloping artificial hills. The V-shaped furrow thus created very much resembles the cleft in the earth through which the Mayan Maize God is depicted as having emerged from the ground bearing maize plants. It is likely, then, that the design of the court was meant to replicate this V-shaped furrow, for the court is the world beneath the earth: Xibalba, in other words. Thus, with the layout of the court, it is as though someone had taken a wedge and split the earth open so that we could peer down inside it in order to witness the ball game that was being played in Xibalba, where human souls struggled against the Lords of Death for rebirth in the heavenly realm above.

The ball court, then, was the arena, the one arena, in which was depicted the attempt to rescue the fallen human soul from its captivity within the belly of the great beast, Xibalba. This is why it occurs everywhere, since it was meant as a corrective to the otherwise ubiquitous swallowing up of the human soul by astral beings. All media, as Marshall McLuhan never tired of pointing out, are unconscious attempts to correct disturbances in sensory ratios inflicted by the advent of new media. The ball court was the antidote to the image of the swallowed man peering out of the mouth of the beast.

The structure of the Popol Vuh will help to clarify what I mean here, since the Popol Vuh is essentially structured around the myth of the ball game. The fact that it is the one great epic to survive the holocaust of Mesoamerican literature is not accidental, either, for it is the central myth of Mesoamerican civilization, and its existence explains the obsessive prevalence of the ball court.

The story, in briefest outline, goes like this: Before the Hero Twins were born, there existed an earlier pair of twins, their father 7 Hunahpu and his brother 1 Hunahpu. The two were ballplayers who spent most of their time playing the game. Their playing, however, grew so noisy that the Lords of Xibalba, irritated by the commotion on their ceiling, sent messenger owls to summon the twins to the underworld to play ball with the Lords of the Dead (which is, of course, a euphemism for death itself. When one dies, one is summoned to go play the ball game).

The brothers accepted the challenge and descended into the underworld (at the point, I might add, where the Milky Way crosses the ecliptic at Scorpio, the very same entrance to the underworld in the Gilgamesh Epic). There they played ball with the Lords and were promptly defeated. The two were then killed and their bodies buried under the court, except that the head of 7 Hunahpu was decapitated and placed on a calabash tree.

One of the daughters of the underworld lords named Blood Moon happened to wander by and approached the head, fascinated by it. When she got close enough, the head spit on her and she became pregnant with twins. Fearful for her life, she fled to the upperworld, where she took up residence with the mother of 1 and 7 Hunahpu, who was slow to warm to her.

In time, Blood Moon gave birth to the twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who grew up to become ball players like their father and uncle. Once again, the lords of Xibalba were disturbed by the noise and summoned the boys to the underworld for a game. This time, however, things went better for the twins: they passed a series of ordeals imposed upon them in a sequence of “houses.”

The first station was that of the Dark House, in which they were given a torch and cigars that they were required to return in the morning good as new. But instead of burning the torch, they substituted the brightly colored tail of the macaw, which looked like fire to the sentries. And instead of smoking the cigars, they put fireflies on the tips so that it looked like they were lit.

The next test was the Razor House in which knives were supposed to cut them, but they told the knives to go and cut animal flesh instead, and the knives thought this was a better idea.

The third test was the Cold House, which they passed by shutting the cold out.

Then came the Jaguar House: when the jaguars approached to eat them, the boys simply gave them animal bones to gnaw on.

Then came a house of fire, which didn’t burn them as it was supposed to.

And finally, the Bat House, which was full of screeching bats, but they hid from the bats by climbing inside of their blowguns. At one point, though, Hunahpu got curious and stuck his head out and one of the bats swooped down and chopped it off. The following day, the Lords of Xibalba decided to use it as the ball.[20]

Xbalanque,  however, made a fake head out of a carved squash (like carving a pumpkin on Halloween) and put it on his brother’s neck. During the game, they managed to switch the heads back with the help of a rabbit and Hunahpu was restored to normal again.

Next, the boys summoned a couple of wise men and told them that they were about to die and that when they died the two wise men should advise the Lords to grind up their bones and sprinkle them into the river. The wise men agreed.

The boys then constructed a stone oven and threw themselves inside, while the Lords watched, delighted. When the boys were dead, they ground up the bones just as the wise men had advised and sprinkled them into the river. In the river, however, the boys were reborn as catfish (for in Mesoamerica, bones are like seeds from which the dead can be regenerated). Then they got out of the river and transformed themselves into a couple of traveling performers who could do magic tricks: for instance, they sacrificed people and then resurrected them again. The Lords were delighted. Then Xbalanque killed Hunahpu and brought him back to life.

The Lords begged them to do the same thing to them, and the twins obliged and killed them, but they didn’t bring them back to life. And that is how they triumphed over Xibalba.

Then they located their father’s head and put the pieces of his body back together and he was reborn in an apotheosis as the Maize God. Then the two boys ascended into the sky as the sun and the moon.

Thus, the story shows how the human soul (i.e. 7 Hunahpu’s severed head which winds up in the calabash tree) falls down into the belly of the underworld and becomes trapped there (this is equivalent to the image of the human face peering out from the depths of the animal’s gullet). The boys then descend down into the underworld where they defeat the powers of death and retrieve the fallen human soul (7 Hunahpu’s head) and return it back to the world of the light (7 Hunahpu’s rebirth as the Maize God).

So the story is an illustration of the central myth of the ball court, in which the human soul battles against the powers of the astral plane for deliverance into the afterlife. And moreover it is the only such example of a myth illustrating any kind of resistance at all to the powers of the astral realm in Mesoamerica.

The equivalent image, by the way, in modern Western civilization is the vision of the human soul fallen into the machine. In the opening scene of the movie A.I., for instance, we see a woman seated in a chair while a scientist is giving a speech about the creation of artificial life. The woman seems real until the scientist tells her to open her mouth, whereupon he touches a button inside of it which causes the woman’s face to split open and reveal the cool black chromium face of a robot underneath. In the Transformers movies, likewise, the car that opens up to reveal an anthropomorphic being inside of it is an exact equivalent of the animal that opens its mouth to reveal the swallowed human soul in Mesoamerica.

So in our civilization, we too have a problem with the fate of the human soul, only in our case the soul has fallen and become entrapped inside the machine, for the machine is the central problem which our troubled psyches must learn to adapt to, just as the spirits of the astral plane formed the main problem of relationship for the Mesoamerican mind.

Fatal tableau

I would like to conclude by describing a scene from a 16th century document known as the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. The scene depicts the Spaniards being attacked by the Aztecs inside the palace stronghold at the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards are shown trapped inside the palace riding on their horses and brandishing their long pikes against the Aztec warriors who surround them. We notice the cannon depicted in one corner firing its blast beneath the image of the Virgin Mary and an icon of the Crucified Christ.[27]

What I would like you to notice about this picture is how it depicts, albeit unintentionally, the contrasting relationships which the two peoples had to the animal world: the Spaniards ride on horseback; the Aztec warriors are on foot, wearing jaguar heads with open mouths through which their own heads peer out.

Note the difference: in the one case, the human being is depicted as hierarchically above the animal, riding on top of it; in the other, the animal has emerged victorious over the human, completely engulfing him.

In a way, this image says it all.

For the essence of the conflict between the Spaniards and the Aztecs was that here were the two civilizations confronting each other in history which were exactly opposed to each other in every conceivable manner, but most especially as regards the position of the astral plane within each of the two cultures. In the case of the Aztecs, we have the paradigmatic civilization in which a complete and total victory of the astral plane over the temporal world of human society had taken place; in the other, that of the Spaniards, we have the great exemplar of the one civilization in history that had gone, psychologically speaking, to the other extreme in totally expelling the astral plane from its purview. Western Christian civilization is the one civilization in history that declared total war against the astral plane, scouring and extirpating every demon, devil and witch that it could find. This process began with the coming of Christ, who was the first to declare war against the astral plane, but it was brought to completion by Western Europe, which spent the entire course of its unfolding chasing the devils away until, by the sixteenth century, it had attained a thorough separation of the realm of the living from that of the dead.

Indeed, Western Europe separated these two worlds, the realms of the living and the dead, as far as it was ever possible to separate them, and in doing so, created one of the most unstable societies in world history. Western Europe is the great exemplar of a society that bases its entire rationale upon change and novelty, and it was only able to do this by carefully and laboriously disentangling itself from the realm of the supernatural, of taboos and superstitions, which normally act as a sort of governor to keep change in ancient societies going at a slow and humanly manageable pace.

With the complete elimination of the astral plane from the field of its discursive formations, however, the West has created the most unstable society in history. Nothing can be relied upon to stay ‘true’ for more than a day or two at most, as the philosopher Zygmunt Bauman has written:

The ongoing effort to understand the world—this world, here and now, apparently familiar yet sparing us no surprises, denying today what it yesterday suggested was true, while giving little assurance that what we hold true at sunset today won’t be refuted tomorrow at dawn—is indeed a struggle…Life appears to be moving too fast for most of us to follow its twists and turns, let alone anticipate them. Planning a course of action and sticking to the plan is an endeavor fraught with risks, whereas long-term planning seems downright dangerous. Life trajectories feel as if they are sliced into episodes; any connections between the episodes, not to mention the causal, determining connections, are discernible (if at all) only in retrospect.[28]

This is the world we Westerners have built by declaring war upon the astral plane together with its entire realm of taboos which exist to prevent a society from becoming exactly what ours has become: a guessing game in which no one has any idea what is going to be considered “true” tomorrow and consequently can make no long term plans of any sort.

Mesoamerica, on the other hand, took things to the opposite extreme and paid for its complete submersion into all things astral by denying human freedom and building a gigantic industry out of human sacrifice. The modern West, though, has gone the other way and eliminated the religious world altogether.

The results, in both cases, have been equally disastrous.

[1] Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 170.

[2] Ignacio Bernal, The Olmec World, Doris Heyden, trans., 1969 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, p. 5.

[3] Susan Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, London: Thames & Hudson, 2008, p. 104.

[4] Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, NY: Quill, William Morrow, 1990, pp. 86-87.

[5] As are most Chinese cities.

[6] Ibid., Evans, p. 175.

[7] Richard Diehl, The Olmecs, London: Thames & Hudson, 2004, p. 65.

[8] Ibid., Schele, p. 111.

[9] Ibid., Bernal, p. 38.

[10] Ibid., Diehl, p. 70-71.

[11] Diehl, ibid., pp. 70-72.

[12] Roberta H. Markman and Peter T. Markman, The Flayed God: The Mythology of Mesoamerica, San Francisco: HarperSanfrancisco, 1992, p. 192.

[13] Ibid., Evans, p. 345 for illustration.

[14] See Mary Miller and Karl Taube, The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya, London: Thames & Hudson, 1993, p. 83 for illustration of an eagle warrior.

[15] Ibid., Schele and Freidel, p. 89.

[16] Ibid., Markman and Markman, p. 77.

[17] Ibid., Markman and Markman, p. 76.

[18] Dennis Tedlock, The Popol Vuh, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 238.

[19] David Carrasco, Religions of Mesoamerica, SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990, p. 35.

[20] In the vision of the Mesoamerican cosmos, the earth is thought to exist as a flat rectangle or square surrounded by an ocean. There are thirteen levels of the cosmos extending up above the earth, while below it, in the underworld, there are nine. Each of these levels, in Aztec cosmology, furthermore, has a name indicative of the qualities which the human soul is thought to experience at that level: the Place of Water Passage, for example, lies immediately beneath the earth; the next level down is the Place Where the Hills Clash Together; this is followed by the Place of the Obsidian Mountain; the Place of the Obsidian Wind; then the Place Where Banners Are Flourished; then the level Where Someone is Shot by Arrows followed by Where People’s Hearts are Eaten and the bottommost level, the Place of the Dead, Where the Streets are on the Left. (Markman, 157) The names of these underworlds do recall the names of the houses in which the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh were tested: the Dark House, for instance, recalls the Place of the Obsidian Mountain; while the Razor House suggests the level Where Someone is Shot by Arrows and so forth.

[21] Carrasco, ibid., p. 60.

[22] Markman and Markman, ibid., pp. 141-142.

[23] Carrasco, ibid. p. 61.

[24] Markman and Markman, ibid., p. 354.

[25] Markman and Markman, ibid., p. 372.

[26] Aguilar-Moreno, ibid., p. 167.

[27] Richard F. Townsend, The Aztecs, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000, p. 38.

[28] Zygmunt Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 1-2.

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  1. 1 On August 31st, 2011, Stu said:

    Hi David,

    Great essay, and it made me think of a few questions:

    1. Do you subscribe to the common view that the origin of large-scale human sacrifice is tied to the experiences of early planting cultures? You make a compelling case regarding how a society with death hanging heavily over its head will be inclined toward cultural and technological conservatism, but how do a people get to such a relationship with their ancestors as opposed to some other relationship?

    When I read Frazer’s Golden Bough, I noticed a story that brought up a question. In it, there is the story that J. Campbell quotes in Primitive Mythology (my lack of a classical education reveals certain holes in my game, such as having read Campbell before I had even heard of Frazer… now I’m playing catch up) about the Aztec ritual of sacrificing the Maize Goddess, Chicomecohuatl. She was the goddess of nourishment and plenty, with obvious connections to the idea of Mother. A young girl is dressed in all the garb of the goddess, led around town for a days long celebration, and finally she is decapitated, bled out, flayed, and her skin is worn like a suit by the high priest, along with the robes and adornments of the goddess, and he dances around town pretending to have become her.

    The whole scene made me think of Silence of the Lambs, and Buffalo Bill’s quest to make a suit of female skin as he danced around his house in drag, and of the inspiration for the character, Ed Gein. The American killer dug up graves of middle-aged women he thought resembled his mother and made various paraphernalia out of their tanned skins and body parts. After his mother’s death, he decided he wanted a sex change, and created a real life “woman suit”, which he would don and dance in under the moonlight, along with Leatherface-like human masks, pretending to be his mother.

    As students of the human story, we tend to make sacrosanct anything that has gone before and been important to a past culture, as if there must be some kind of beauty in it, even if it is impossible for our modern sensibilities to make the adjustment. Isn’t it possible, though, that an entire culture could go completely off the rails the way Ed Gein did? And I don’t mean by analogy; I mean by the exact same mechanisms of psychosis? The similarities between the Aztec ritual and Gein’s behaviors are striking, especially when you consider their origin in the relationship to an overbearing mother/dead ancestor. Certainly there is much to be learned about human nature from such cultures, as there is much to learn from Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, but perhaps it would appropriate to regard the Meso-American cultures this way, rather than through the rose-colored glasses afforded by a few centuries’ distance. (I’m not saying you look don’t look at them clearly, but I live in southern California and would be shot on the street – or thrown out of any university classroom – for saying that ancient Aztecs were psychotics comparable to Nazis.)

    2. What do you think of Julian Jaynes’s idea that a large part of ancestor rituals, from burial to pacification, stem from the fact that earlier men did not yet have concepts such as “thought”, “dream”, “voice in my head”, etc., but only knew experience, and could not have been expected to make the judgment that the memory of an ancestor telling them what to do or how to do it was “just” a memory and not “real”. Thus dead ancestors were giving commands and making injunctions in memory and dream that were every bit experientially valid as if the current king was standing in front of them giving an order. Jaynes also theorizes that, in a vacuum, the voices of the ancestors, or gods or whatever, might maintain their force and clarity indefinitely, and that it was the constant calamities in Mesopotamia – such as the eruption of the Santorini volcano in Greece sending floods of refugees, and constant warfare with barbarians and others – that created a situation in which the ancestral words no longer met the needs presented by the immediate crisis. As I understand it, when the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Aztecs knew nothing of the Mayans, and the Mayans knew nothing of the Aztecs, and so maybe the relative insulation of these societies contributed to the hold the ancestors had on their minds, and then that in turn contributed to the holocaust of sacrifice and the lack of technological and cultural innovation pursued or permitted.


    3. I am not quite sure where you stand with regard to gods, demons, spirits, etc… I understand, since people often ask me to explain myself on the issue and I have trouble. When you say that the gods demand blood, the ancestors do not permit innovation, etc., is it your position that these are merely subjective forces with an effect on behavior and experience (real insofar as they are experienced), that they are objective forces enforcing their autonomous will, that they have an independent ontological existence but depend on human belief to be sustained, or some other thing?

    I know you have to be busy and I feel bad making you read all this, but I guess if you didn’t want responses you wouldn’t have a Reply block!

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