Best wishes for the End of the World (and what the Mayans really believed)

Working my way though the photographs from 2009’s Mexico trip I realised that today is THE DAY and that I might not actually get the chance to finish them after all. However, it seems that the “2012 phenomenon” is nothing more than a piece of pop culture; one which has taken certain facts out of context and spread them around the world at the lightning speed of cyber-ignorance. The highly complex, Long Count Mayan calendar is cyclical in nature and so, if anything, the world is more likely to be renewed than destroyed.

Touring some of the most important Mesoamerican sites gave me only a cursory introduction to pre-Columbian civilisation. Many cultural themes run pretty much uninterrupted through the various groups and make it all the harder for the newcomer to distinguish Olmec from Zapotec, Mayan from Aztec but it is only from the Mayans that we have any written records. Those few that the Christian missionaries didn’t burn, that is. But before we throw up our hands at the horrors of the conquest it is best to be reminded that whatever was going on with human development in the New World before the arrival of the Senor Cortez, at its core was the practice of tearing still-beating hearts from an ever increasing numbers of human victims. Those elegantly shaped pyramids with such steep steps were designed to ensure that bodies flung from the top would reach the bottom in one go and let’s not even think about what happened on the ball courts.

Of course, we know that life was often nasty, brutish and short for many of the inhabitants of the Old World as well and that some especially unpleasant atrocities were also frequently practised much closer to home but I’m not sure that any other societies were quite so comprehensively founded on blood-letting as those of Central America. By the time of the fifth Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, his elite cadre of Jaguar Warriors were regularly engaged in the not-so-noble campaign of taking thousands of captives from the surrounding countryside for ceremonial dismemberment. The heritage of ancient Mexico may have fused with Roman Catholic iconography to produce some of the most brilliant and dramatic artistic styles to be seen anywhere in the world but it is no wonder that human skulls still feature so prominently.

If the world isn’t going to end tonight because Huitzilopochtli hasn’t had enough haemoglobin, then it might be wiser to look at some of the more serious Rapturists, Jihadists and assorted Armageddon-ists that we find ranged against each another on either side of the Atlantic as we speak. In their narrow-minded certainty of paradise after death for themselves and a select few co-believers they are in danger of hastening an end for all the rest of us.

Hopefully there will be time for me to finish sorting the pictures, though.

Post script:

The Gods have permitted me enough time to compose this colourful gallery of photographs although I had to go back to the reference books in order to add the appropriate captions. I’m sure that several inaccuracies have crept in, I just hope none of them betray too much ignorance. Back in the world of the Aztec and the Maya I have been re-entering the long debate over the significance of a civilisation (some still refer to it as a culture) that possessed neither the wheel nor any but the most basic of metallurgy. The parallel development to that of the “Old World” seems at times extremely alien (widespread human sacrifice and ritual cannibalism) and yet so familiar (wholesale destruction of the environment for building materials) it probably defies categorisation. Yet if the true meaning of the word “civilisation” means “living in cities” then we must remember that the bustling and ordered streets of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) at the time of the conquest were home to as many as two hundred thousand people. In 1521 that made it one of the largest cities in the world.


Categories: Latin America


  • Chris says:

    What is a rapturist?

  • Nicola says:

    “The Rapture” is a term now commonly used by fundamentalist (usually American) Christians to describe their final assumption into the clouds to meet the Lord while the undeserving are left on earth to undergo continuing “Tribulation”. Look it up on-line if you must but expect lots of stuff from the Book of Revelations about seven headed serpents and the moon turning to blood but do be aware that someone might be checking your browser history. It doesn’t matter about me, I’m already a lost cause.

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