Maya vs Aztecs

Aztec Warriors in Battle

Yesterday evening, I got into a discussion with a friend of mine about the fierceness of the Aztecs as compared to the Mayans. Unfortunately, it was during an intermission at a Christmas concert which was about to start up again before we came to any resolution. So I decided to marshal my arguments here in print.

Two Archeologists Weigh In

Some years back, I attended a symposium at UCLA including two eminent Mesoamerican archeologists, Michael D. Coe and Nigel Davies. At one point in the discussion, they mused whether they would rather be prisoners of the Aztecs or the Mayas. Both quickly agreed that they would fare better with the Aztecs. After all, they fearfully accepted Cortes and his conquistadores despite the fact that they outnumbered his forces by thousands to one. Also, the Aztecs were an empire: If the emperor (Moctezuma) said the Spanish were welcome, then the welcome mat was unrolled for them everywhere in the empire.

The Maya, on the other hand, lived in decentralized city states which, in the Postclassic period, were ruled by merchants and nobles. If Tiho (present-day Merida) accepted the Spanish—which they most certainly did not—there were other Maya city states nearby such as Mayapán, Cobá, and Calakmul which may or may not. The Maya were never unified. Even today, there are some twenty-eight Mayan dialects among the eight million Maya living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Who Was Stronger?

Cortes didn’t take long to conquer the Aztecs, only about a year or two. After that, the Aztec culture went into a precipitous decline. Today, there are few speakers of the Nahuatl language around, and few Aztec religious rituals practiced by those Nahuatl speakers.

The Maya were eventually conquered by the Spanish, but only after almost two hundred years of warfare. In 1697, Martín de Ursúa y Arismendi attacked the last Maya sate, Tayasal, with hundreds of Spanish troops and native auxiliaries.

Kneeling Maya God/King Running a Sting Ray Spine Through a Hole in His Tongue

Who Was More Fierce?

The Maya were a tough people. Imagine the lives led by their god/kings. On certain ceremonial occasions, they punctured their tongues or their penises with sting ray spines and let the blood drip onto pieces of paper which they sacrificed to the gods. And the various Maya polities frequently fought wars with one another. When a king lost, he was sacrificed in a bloody ritual.

The Aztecs also went in for human sacrifice, but the Maya have been known to resort to cannibalism of their victims.

I think that Coe and Davies were right: You’d have a much better chance of surviving with the wavering Moctezuma than with the Maya.

 

The War Between the Archaeologists

The Hieroglyphic Stairs at Copán

When I first started visiting the Maya ruins in Yucatán and Chiapas, I had picked the losing horse in the race to interpret the glyphs that were to be found at so many of the ruins. The archaeologist I followed was John Eric Sidney Thompson, better known as J. Eric S. Thompson. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, he had a number of books in print that I studiously pored over, including Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, Maya Archaeologist, Maya History and Religion, and The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization.

Essentially, Thompson believed that, beyond significant calendar dates, the glyphs didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t until after Thompson died in 1975 that such pioneers as Linda Schele, Michael D. Coe, and David Stuart suddenly discovered that the glyphs at Palenque not only had calendar dates, but also the names of rulers and a description of events being commemorated. Quite suddenly, the Maya had a history. And what worked at Palenque also worked at scores of other Maya sites in Yucatán and the jungles of the Petén.

Maya Archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson

The problem was that Thompson was not only uninterested in languages (he never learned Mayan), but he stood like a watchdog to make sure that no one who had the right background would not endanger his conclusions.

When last I went to the Maya archaeological zone, the Maya lacked a history. Thanks to the pioneering work of two Russian researchers—Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov—the Mayans of the Classical Period now have not only a history, but a rich one as well.

 

Star Wars and Axe Wars

Fresco at Maya Site at Bonampak in Chiapas

I have just finished reading Peter D. Harrison’s The Lords of Tikal: Rulers of an Ancient Maya City. During the reign of the kalomtes, or divine kings of the Classic period of Maya history, wars were almost constant. They were of two kinds:

  • “Star Wars” are wars whose timing is mandated by the positions of the planets, especially Venus. These do not usually involve massive destruction or conquest.
  • “Axe Wars” are wars of conquest or revenge.

In all my postings on the Maya, I have neglected to note one important fact: the Maya were never an empire of diverse peoples, such as the Aztecs in Northern Mexico and the Inca in the Andes. Instead, there were powerful city/states that rose into prominence and just as often fell to other Maya city/states. Tikal in Guatemala was probably the largest; but at different times such cities as Palenque, Calakmul, Chichen Itza, and Cobá in Mexico; Copán in Honduras; Caracol in Belize; and El Mirador, Dos Pilas, and Quirigua in Guatemala were first among equals.

With so many hundreds of Maya cities spread across Southern Mexico and Central America, the number of possible wars numbers in the hundreds or even thousands. When I think on this, I realize that the Maya were probably pretty happy to get rid of their kings and concentrate on survival rather than fighting in astrologically dictated conflicts or axe wars against powerful entities like Calakmul.

Then, too, it was hard work building all those temples and pyramids when none of the people of the Americas had the use of the wheel. Stones had to be shaped and carried long distances by men. There was probably a massive sigh of relief throughout the Maya world when all this war and labor was mostly behind them.

 

 

Dia de los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos Celebrants at Cabot’s Museum in Desert Hot Springs

In the Catholic liturgy, today is All Souls’ Day, which the Mexican culture has enriched with its Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. The Mexican feast day is much healthier than our own Halloween: Families go to the cemeteries with a picnic lunch, which they eat by the grave of their loved ones. Years ago, I was on a bus between Mazatlán and Durango on November 2 with a number of villagers headed to celebrate. The bus was full, so I helped a young mother hold her baby from time to time as she tended to her other children.

We see death as an embarrassment, some kind of failure. Too bad, because we all die; and that death is part and parcel of our lives. We deny it at our own risk, because when we least expect it, to springs out like a jack-in-the-box and catches us all unawares. One of the strengths of Mexican culture—and I believe there are many—is that people do not try to sweep the inevitable under the rug.

The Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, at Chichen Itza

The Aztecs and Maya used to fight wars among themselves and their neighbors for the sole purpose of capturing prisoners who were sacrificed to the gods. At Chichen Itza, there was a large platform called the Tzompantli, or Skull Rack, to hold a pyramid of skulls of these sacrificial victims. There were a number of grisly rituals connected with these sacrifices, such as cutting out the heart of victims with an obsidian knife and kicking the body down the pyramid steps, skinning the victims and having the priests wear the skins. There was even some cannibalism. Eventually, with the Spanish invasion, these rituals were suppressed; but the celebration of life’s fragility became a part of the culture.

Maybe this is what Trumpf is afraid of by these “invasions” from Latin America. He’s afraid for his own head, perhaps. They can have it.

 

A Nostalgia for Evil Empires?

Ruins at Mayapan in Yucatán

You can see the prejudice even in the naming of the archeological periods of Maya civilization. There is Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Classic Period ended around AD 800, while the English were struggling with Viking invaders, and while Charlemagne ruled in France. The Classic period was when most of  the big pyramids and temples were built—some 700 years before Cortés and the Spanish decided to muscle in on the action.

When we travel in Yucatán or the jungles of Petén, what we marvel at are the Classic ruins of places like Tikal, Copan, Calakmul, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. In our simple way of admiring the wrong things. The Classic period was great for the divine kings who wasted their subjects in massive construction projects and endless wars.

After the Classic period, the Maya actually improved their lot: In place of pharaonic dictates to abject slaves and massive tragedies when one of their divine kings bit the dust, the new emphasis was on trade and multiple sources of power. Of course, there were no more huge pyramids, but the Maya could spend more time on agriculture, trade, and a slightly less domineering religion.

When the Grijalvas and Alvarados began attacking the Maya, the Maya resisted. The Aztecs lasted only a couple of years under the onslaught of the Conquistadores, whereas the Maya held out until 1697, some 175 years after the Aztecs fell. Today, there are about a million speakers of Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztecs. The Maya today number about six million in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and they speak some 28 dialects of the Mayan language! While the Aztecs went down in flames, the Maya survived in greater strength despite multiple attempts to curtail their numbers and their power.

 

Tikal

Temple 1 at Tikal in the Petén Region of Guatemala

I had always wanted to visit Tikal. In the 1980s, when I visited Yucatán several times, I wanted to swing south through Belize to the ruinsat Tikal. Unfortunately, a murderous religious madman named Efraín Ríos Montt was in charge at the time; and the State Department was recommending that American tourists stay well away from the massacres and disappearances that were plaguing Guatemala at the time.

Tikal is huge, 575 square kilometers (222 square miles) in area. It almost defined the Classic Period of Mayan archeology, from approximately 200 AD to 800 AD at its height. The area in which it is located is a monkey jungle, pure and simple. With my hared of mosquitoes, I am thinking of spending three nights in nearby El Remate, where the hotels have electricity 24 hours a day, and not just sometimes. If there is air conditioning, or at the very least a functioning ceiling fan, one can escape being bitten to death and coming home with Zika or Malaria or Dengue, to name just a few baddies.

The Shores of Lago de Petén at El Remate

Although Guatemala is not a large country by North American standards, the road from Guatemala City to El Remate takes twelve hours or more on good roads. One has to go all the way to the Atlantic Coast before cutting north. There is a little matter of some high mountains preventing a direct route. If I took the mountain route, it would take at least twenty hours and several buses. I am actually thinking of flying from Guatemala City to Flores, which is within a few miles of El Remate. (I could stay in Flores, for that matter, but if I wanted to spend two days at the ruins, I want to be a bit closer to Tikal.)

There are sunrise and sunset tours at Tikal, but I don’t want to lose sleep just so I can gamble on a perfect sunrise or sunset. I’m willing to take pot luck.

 

The Long Shadow of Egypt

Torso of Harchebi (Archibios), Ptolemaic, 170–116 BC, Granite

The most interesting special exhibit at the Getty Center currently is the one entitled “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World.” And the one work that caught my interest was a strange sparkling granite torso of Harchebi. I tried to take a photo with my camera, but was prevented by the guard, who pointed out that this was one of the items in the exhibit that bore a small cartouche in the corner of the description forbidding photography. No matter, I hijacked a photo from the Getty website.

The above photo does not do justice to the statue, which actually seems to sparkle. Was there mica in the granite? Perhaps.

Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II or III Making Offerings

I loved this exhibit, even though it was excessively crowded. Saturdays at the Getty, particularly during the summer months, can be trying. In any case, the exhibit concentrated on Egyptian art during the Greek and Roman rule of Egypt. The works were gathered from a number of sources, including the Vatican Museum, and were of consistently high quality. I may sneak back to the Getty on a weekday to take a second look.

What draws me to Egyptian art is the simplicity of the figures. When I compare them to the comparable Mayan figures, which also accompanied by hieroglyphs, the Mayan images are usually more ornate, and their hieroglyphs are more difficult to read.

Lintel 16 Yaxchilán, Mexico. In The British Museum