My Mystic Lands tour continued yesterday with a journey to the ruins of the old Maya empire. This post of my impressions is a little difficult for me to write. As you can see from the title of my post - which slightly alters the program's actual title Maya: Messages In Stone - the lingering emphasis on Mayan bloodletting and human sacrifice made this a less than overall enjoyable journey.
The long and close-up shot of the altar where still warm and probably still twitching human hearts were burned in sacrifice to the gods is a lingering image, as is Cenote Sagrado, or "Well of Sacrifice," where human offerings were made to Chaac, the god of rain.
It's not as if I hadn't already encountered the shocking old religious practice of human sacrifice before in this series of programs. I did last week when I visited Peru. However, it seems that human sacrifice was more central to the Mayan religion and certainly it made up a good portion of the discussion in this program as the various sacred sites were examined.
The Mayans were good old polytheistic nature worshippers. They were deep into astronomy, and, yes, we visit the temple calendar of El Castillo, a representation in stone of the Mayan Calendar, where there are as many steps leading to it as there are days in the year, and which was aligned with the rising and setting of the sun during the summer and winter solstices. All beautiful and no doubt useful to the ancient people as they consulted this great stone almanac for the most advantageous times for planting crops and then harvesting them.
Yes, we are introduced to their grand concept of The World Tree that, we are told, is used by the gods and deceased ancestors "as a bridge to listen to human prayers within the temples." Impressive!
Yes, we are introduced to their holy book the Popal Vuh, which contains their interesting creation mythology.
But as the narrator explains:
These people created a culture that filled their folklore with epic beauty and their altars with blood.
Sacrifice was a way of feeding the gods. Just as man benefits from acts of the sun and the rain, so should the Mayan feed the gods.
Now don't get me wrong. This is a good program. This is a beautiful place of ruins to examine. The architecture is, again, mind-blowing. The people were surprisingly gifted in this area, no doubt in part because of their mastery of mathematics. The story of the Mayans, who flourished between 250 A.D. and nearly 1000 A.D, and whose civilization encompassed most of Central America, is nothing short of fascinating. And I know we can't sweep under the rug the darker side of the human religious quest. Slavery, religious wars of conquest, human sacrifices, all these and other unsavory ideas were a common part of ancient religious cultures, as was devotion to kings and a lack of democratic thinking. This is depressing upon reflection.
This program opens with a Catholic mass (Catholicism being the nominal religion of the modern era) and once the mass has ended, the priest steps down to allow for the celebration of Dia de los Muertos (or, The Day of the Dead). That same inconsistency is how this program ends as well when again we see the attempted merging of Roman Catholicism with the old ways.
Perhaps that isn't so strange when you think about it. After all, Christianity is founded upon the concept of human sacrifice, God offering "his only begotten son" as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of humanity.
It's all a bit much for me.