The world is ending next week, so let’s talk about the Maya.
We have only the archaeological facts to go on when it comes to many ancient civilizations, and in the case of the Maya, we don’t even fully know how their writing system worked. So we try to fill in the gaps by imagining that everyone in Maya society was well programmed to fulfill their social and religious roles, like wound-up toys. That Mayan citizens, slaves, priests and kings didn’t really have private thoughts about anything that they did, or watched other people do — that they were automatons concerned only with fulfilling ceremonial duties which they of course deeply and constantly believed were good and right.
What was good and right, to the Maya? (Actually, there were a lot of different Maya kingdoms that fought against each other at any one time, so presumably there were a lot of different ideas of goodness and rightness.) What was piety to them? How were the gods best served? It couldn’t have just been as simple as acting out rituals. In bed at night, Maya movers and shakers, and even ordinary slaves, must have had definite conceptions of why their people and way of life were better than all other Maya, and what had to be done and organized to ensure the survival of their way of life. Since we can’t decipher some of their writings, and because their writings were not personally expressive in any case (there were no Mayan blogs), we will probably never know for sure.
When it came time for the most important, God-affirming rituals of Maya society, there had to be special people to carry them out. Where did these special groups of people come from? Who chose them, back in the beginning? It’s probably safe to guess that as in any human society, the first priests chose themselves, although they might not have been called priests at the start. They studied the stars, read the most ancient writings, and came up with the ceremonial innovations, ones that had certain values at their core.
At first, the priests must have enacted these rituals alone. But as Mayan society grew bigger and more complicated and as the importance of faithfulness to the Gods deepened, they must have needed some help in keeping the holy rituals, which became more and more important.
By the time the holy rituals had evolved from sacrifices of food or animals and into human sacrifices of prisoners, some of those Maya in the audience must have had some private misgivings as to the turn things were taking – if we are to believe they were humans, and not just stone characters in an eternal frieze. They must have noticed that actual psychopaths were turning up in the ranks of the ceremonial executioners – people who liked the work because it satisfied their blood lust. And as the human sacrifices turned into child sacrifices, people might have become too afraid or too desensitized to question the desires of the gods. It was an enormous engine that fed on itself. It was a shame how the victims struggled, but the greater good meant they had to die.
So the little bodies piled up in the pits and behind the temples, and would be found by archaeologists a thousand years later. No record of thoughts or misgivings were ever found, so there are assumed to be none.
In 21st century America, even those who scoff at the idea of a God are often quite content to worship the U.S. Constitution. The Maya were opaque, their notions of goodness and rightness and human progress unknown, but Americans know what they’re about. The shining ideals of the founding fathers. Freedom, a light unto all peoples. Self-evident truths. And, if some psychopaths get in to the ranks of the guardians of freedom sometimes, yes, occasionally some batches of innocent victims will die, but… but… the Bill of Rights! The founding fathers! The American Way!
This all makes a lot of sense to a lot of people today. Or if it doesn’t, they are content to cling to the presumed will of the founding fathers and not think about it too hard. If the holy brotherhood of American semiautomatic weapon owners – defenders of the Faith – occasionally attract the odd psychopath who murders a score of innocent people, what of it, really?
But in a thousand years — even if human history is any guide, and that we can assume that neither stone obelisks nor data storage centers will be legible forever — some kind of evidence of what happened at the school in Connecticut today may be left behind for future people to puzzle over. They will have pieced together the rudiments of our religion, and they will assume that we were all unquestioning automatons fully devoted to our gods, without any inkling of what the American Way meant to us or what we thought about it, just like we have no inkling of what the Mayan Way was about. And they will look up from what record remains of these children, and say to each other,
“They must have been sacrifices.”