Friday, October 14, 2005

The conquistadores got a bum rap

Culture cult doesn't think much of the Maya:

.... I don’t care if the Maya civilization did collapse. I don’t think we should shed a single retrospective tear. It might be interesting to know how or why it fell—whether from war or drought or disease or soil exhaustion—but I don’t much care about that either. Because quite frankly, as civilizations go, the Mayan civilization in Mexico didn’t amount to much.

Now I know this is a shocking thing to say. Gallery owners in New York and elsewhere will cry out indignantly about the glories of Maya art. They will show you terra cotta figurines and fine reliefs and paintings and tell splendid tales of “kings” and “nobles” and such. In deference to this view we shall gladly concede that Maya art is not uninteresting. But it is sheer romantic fantasy to mourn the passing, around 900 AD, of an aristocracy of hypersensitive native aesthetes—though anthropologists and art critics have written reams of such stuff.

Glamorous talk of “kings” and “lords” and “nobles” always sounds better than a realistic description of murderous and predatory chieftains with little but power, conquest, self-glorification, enslavement, and killing and torture on their minds. Yes: they wore spectacular feather head-dresses. Yes: they built sky-high piles of masonry. But their hands dripped blood—incessantly....


It is simply not the case that the Maya once lived in warm, loving, supportive communities, reciting nature poetry and drinking jasmine tea… and then somehow lost their way. Instead they were doing what bellicose tribal populations have always done—straining the carrying capacity of the land, warring with neighbours, and trying in grisly ways to appease their gods.

* * *....

“Captives were tortured in unpleasant ways depicted clearly on the monuments and murals (such as yanking fingers out of sockets, pulling out teeth, cutting off the lower jaw, trimming of the lips and fingertips, pulling out the fingernails, and driving a pin through the lips), culminating, sometimes years later, in the sacrifice of the captive in other equally unpleasant ways such as tying the captive up into a ball by binding the arms and legs together, then rolling the balled-up captive down the steep stone staircase of a temple.”

* * *

I suppose it all depends on what you expect a civilization to offer. The Maya, and the Aztecs too, offered barbarism plus pyramids. Personally I don’t think that’s enough.


Hat tip to Armavirumque.

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