This August Fatima and I are heading to Tulum, Mexico. As I very much love to travel, I also like to research the historical significance of the places I visit. The Yucatan in Mexico has no shortage of this.
Ruins on the beach: Tulum Mexico.
The first book I have read is Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 by Inga Clendinnen.
The book is split in two. The first section gives the richly documented perspective of the Spanish conquistadors and the second attempts to give a Mayan perspective cobbled together from historical accounts and archeology. There is little to go on for the Mayans because the Spanish purposely destroyed most of their historical writings and artifacts.
I have been quite fascinated recently by the history of first contacts. Every account I read is soaked in blood. Humans can be truly ugly and violent creatures. Ironically, this violence is primarily motivated by religion. It should be noted that the Spanish were extremely savage in their treatment of the so-called “savages”. Still, most fascinating is the human and animal sacrifices practiced by the Maya.
Diego de Landa, a Franciscan monk, was in charge of bringing the Roman Catholic faith to the Maya peoples after the Spanish conquest of Yucatán. In 1562 he lead an inquisition over the Mayans, torturing them to confess idolatry and human sacrifices. As Clendinnen points out in her book, many confessions were fabricated in order to prevent further torturing. One such confession yielded this ‘supposed’ eyewitness account of the human sacrifice of a young boy:
Diego Peche, chief, spoke to the one they wanted to kill, who was weeping, ‘Strengthen and console yourself because what we are doing to you now is not an evil thing nor are we casting you into an evil place or into hell, but to heaven and to paradise according to the customs of our ancestors..’ And to this the boy they wanted to kill replied, ‘Do what you wish, for god who is in heaven will help me.’ … And so they untied the youth and threw him down to the floor on to the mat, and the ah-kins [chiefs] put down the candle they were holding and… [they] threw him on his back and they seized him by the feet and hands, and Pedro Euan came and took up the flint knife and with it struck open his side to the left of the heart, and when it was opened he seized hold of the heart and with the same knife cut away the entrails [arteries] and gave the heart to the ah-kin, Gaspar Chim who lifted it on high having first given it two little cuts in the shape of the cross, and this witness does not know what part it was he took out of it, and put in the mouth of the greatest of the idols there which was called Itzamna.
Some examples of the very colorful Mayan Artwork
If you can find them, it is fun to watch movies relating to the places you will visit. Since I was so interested in first contacts I decided to start with Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Although it is not the Mayans who were encountered, it is a very fascinating story and a good background on the discovery of the Americas.
Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise
Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto
To follow up on Columbus’ adventures, and mirroring the dual perspectives in Ambivalent Conquests, a good movie to watch is Mel Gibson’s very bloody Apocalypto. This portrays the Mayans just before the time of their first contact with Europeans. This article in Harper’s says that Gibson’s “portrayal of Mayan culture at the time of the arrival of the first Europeans is remarkably accurate. Particularly the scenes with human sacrifice.”
This is a great scene from Apocalypto (spoiler alert):