The contradiction goes all the way back to 1562, when Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa ordered some 5,000 Maya cult images and a number of codices in Mayan to be burned in the city of Mani in Yucatán (see illustration below). Yet, four years later, this same Diego de Landa preserved an incredible amount of Maya culture in his book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, without which it is doubtful we would have learned to read the Mayan language. So what is the verdict on de Landa? Only history will tell.
In his book Mornings in Mexico, D. H. Lawrence wrote:
The Indian way of consciousness is different from and fatal to our own way of consciousness. Our way of consciousness is different from and fatal to the Indian. The two ways, the two streams are never to be united. They are not even to be reconciled. There is no bridge, no canal of connection…. The sooner we realize, and accept this, the better, and leave off trying, with fulsome sentimentalism, to render the Indian in our own terms.
Yet we cannot seem to ever “leave off trying.” I certainly can’t. In my reading and in my travels I revisit this primitive world. I have been numerous times to the Hopi and Navajo Reservations, and visited many of the Pueblos of New Mexico, from Acoma to Zuñi. I have eaten their food, purchased their crafts, even given rides to their hitchhikers.
I have just finished reading Victor Perera and Robert D. Bruce’s The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest, which tells of the doom in store for the Lacandon Maya of Chiapas. The doom begins with visits from foreigners, continues with ecological disaster (building roads, cutting down or burning forests), and ends with the end of a culture which has survived for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.
The old spiritual leader of the Lacandons, the now deceased Chan K’in, predicted this xu’tan, or end of the world:
“The world is going to die,” he said, with the bright obsessive gaze that overtakes the younger Lacandones when they speak of the world’s end. “It is too old already. The flesh is also old. It is exhausted. The world will burn up soon. The sun will stop, not move in the sky, and it will burn everything down. It will burn everything until the world is naked. It will burn for three weeks. Then it will rain. It will rain for three weeks without stopping, until everything is flooded. Then, above, in the upper heaven of the minor gods all will be dark, and they will cut off the heads of the people and Ts’ibatnah [the god of the graphic arts] will paint the houses with the blood of the good people. Their blood is bright red and smells very good, like nthe tuberose. But the celestial jaguars will eat the people with dark blood, which will be spilled on the ground….”
The details become ever more bizarre and remote from the experience of people like me, however much we like to study primitive civilizations.