Human Sacrifice in Cancun: Then and Now … A widely circulated photo showed Greenpeace's "aerostatics balloon" emblazoned with the message "Rescue the Climate" floating near the ancient Mayan pyramid temple in Chichen-Itza. As I look at it, it seems a fitting image for the United Nations' Climate Control Conference that began November 29 in Cancun, on the coast about one hundred twenty miles to the east. After all, Chichen-Itza was the center of Mayan Earth religion and of human sacrifice. Let me explain. According to a post on the New York Time's "Post Carbon" blog, when Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, opened the conference, she began by invoking the ancient Mayan goddess Ixchel. Ixchel is the ancient Mayan moon goddess and also, in Figueres' words, "the goddess of reason, creativity and weaving." [But] it is a city of temples and sacrifice. – Cornwall Alliance
Dominant Social Theme: O, mighty, ancient empires. Hear our plea. Let us aspire to your greatness and realize the grandeur of your architecture!
Free-Market Analysis: The Cornwall Alliance, which apparently has something of a Western religious orientation, has presented an important point in the article excerpted above. The excessive worship of ancient empires, as embodied by Christiana Figueres invocation of the Mayan Ixchel, is part of a larger elite dominant social theme having to do with ongoing celebration of ancient authoritarian societies.
The point of celebrating these ancient nations (often despotic) – the Aztecs, Incans, Mayans, Romans or Egyptians – is apparently to impress upon people that the glories of civilization lie in its outward (architectural) accomplishments. We can point out the intellectual bankruptcy of this meme simply by making the point that had Hitler won his war Berlin would have been one of the architecturally grandest cities every built; and perhaps in a thousand years, a futuristic History Channel would have celebrated the "lost" glory of the Reich.
It is just ludicrous, in fact, to equate urban environments with civic greatness. Our elves are old enough to remember when archeologists considered the Incan and Aztec empires to the "bad" empires and the Mayan empire to be the "good" one. That's because there was no way of reading Mayan iconography and one of the original explorers of the lost Mayan cities made a persuasive case that the Mayan's were a peaceable people most interested in charting the passage of time as it was reflected in the stars. In fact, the Mayans were indeed obsessed with astronomy because various star formations anticipated human sacrifices.
Recent "breakthroughs" in how to interpret Mayan iconography have opened up a window into city-states that were always at war with each other and constantly on the lookout to capture prisoners for human sacrifice. When not enough blood was being spilled to water the crops, leaders would coat a piece of string with thorns and run it through their tongues or lips, letting the blood drop down onto sacred papers that were then burnt in an offering.
Blood, blood, blood. Really, it should have been obvious. What kind of archeologist looks at the great Mayan cities with their gigantic, precise avenues, vast palaces and enormous, lavish temples and assumes that this was a community of peace-loving star-gazers? Of course we could ask another question as well: When did you ever, dear reader, hear an archeologist specializing in one of these major, urban cultures refer to the "political economy" or attempt to chart the daily existence of the common man?
Turn on History Channel (one of the greatest offenders) and you may watch dozens of university-funded "experts" rave on about this or that dynasty and the intimate details of a given royalty. There is simply an assumption that because it is big – highly decorative and generally impressive – that it must be part of an "invaluable" cultural heritage. The Temples (Pyramids) of the Moon and Sun, for instance, are regularly raved about; but we wonder how a given narrator would feel standing at the top of brutally steep stairs just before the knife thrust down, sending his bloody body tumbling toward the savage crowd beneath.
There is of course the point to be made that we can judge these societies too harshly – that human sacrifice was a religious ritual designed to ensure the crops were watered and the larger community had food for the winter. But we think we may have some disagreements with this point of view as well. There is, in fact, just as good an argument to be made that the high priests and nobility of ancient cultures that practiced human sacrifice CHOSE these sorts of spiritual approaches because they allowed for maximum social control.
Certainly this was true of ancient Mayan and Aztec cultures. The cult of human sacrifice meant that each city-state was constantly on the prowl for neighboring warriors to capture. Warfare was perpetual – and then as now "war is the health of the state." The great, ensanguined temples and vast, ceremonial avenues were part and parcel of an embedded blood lust that was purposefully perpetuated by the elites of the day. Such city states must have grown to be increasingly uncomfortable places. Aztec inscriptions apparently tell of a time before the Spaniards arrived in which major Aztec cities sacrificed captives steadily for three days!
We have our own tiny fantasy when it comes to History Channel. How about an hour devoted to the "Greatness That Was Rome" that starts with the narrator peeling away the layers of civilization from the city itself to reveal the "seven hills" beneath. The narrator then explains that Rome, like so many major civilizations, got its start as a number of separate communities. It was the competition between the seven hills, then, that built the foundation for what would become the republic of Rome.
If an inhabitant of one of the hills was feeling oppressed by his government, he could up and leave – the narrator explains – travel to a neighboring settlement where he could pick up his life once again, still speaking the same language but presumably free of whatever had bothered him previously. As a result, the governments of these hill towns cultivated restraint and observed limits that became culturally ingrained. Later on, when the seven hills merged into "Rome," the habits of governmental rectitude remained; the traditions of limited governance were observed and Rome prospered for several hundred years (at least until it turned into an empire).
The narrator, in making these points, would observe that the true greatness of Rome was built on a foundation of limited government stemming from separate settlements where the same language was spoken. The narrator could even make the point that the same sort of foundations for greatness were laid in Greece via its city-states, the Italian Renaissance (via its city-states) and even "these united States," pre-Constitution. In every instance, it was competition between governments that allayed tyranny; in each instance consolidation eventually precipitated society's gradual ruin.
This is just a fantasy of course. In the real world, major archeological magazines and news programs, natter on about grand palaces and even grander temples, as if these sandstone or granite outcroppings were the evidence of a civilization's greatness. In fact, they are evidence of its decline, as was noted recently in a Bell editorial entitled "Will the Market Do What Western Leaders Cannot? You can read it here:
We are told that the Mayans and others abandoned their fabulous cities because of drought and other environmental factors. But it is just as likely that the sophisticated tribes that provided the labor finally tired of the incessant warfare and bloodletting of the day. Each city was, at times, a mini-nation, battling with all the others. After a point, perhaps, "civilization" became too much; the tributes became too much; the regulations became oppressive. Were the cities, then, simply abandoned … their inhabitants refusing to support societies that demanded so much but gave so little in return? And where are the descendents of these tribes today? In fact, they still exist throughout South America, farming and worshipping as they always have; the vibrant survivors of great, but oppressive cultures. Yes, they have survived and life goes on. The markets work; people prosper. Only the cities have crumbled.