Recently, a student asked me about "Apocalypto," actor-director Mel Gibson's 2006 saga of a Maya peasant in pre-Colombian Mexico. Is there a Latin American history professor anywhere who hasn't been asked about "Apocalypto"? Is there anything more sensationalized in Latin American history than human sacrifice? If one goes by "Apocalypto," the Maya hunted-down and sacrificed anyone they could get their hands on. In the film, a farmer with the physique and endurance of Superman is hunted down, captured, prepared for sacrifice but manages to escape despite what would be crippling wounds for anyone else, and outruns a jaguar as well. All of this is against the background of continual and unending human sacrifice; rows of captives painted blue and dragged to the altars to have their hearts ripped out while still alive, and their bodies tossed down the back side of the pyramid like so much firewood. Can you imagine the stench? The vermin?
I have always taught my students that religion is the incarnation of culture but some aspects of ancient cultures, like human sacrifice, are difficult for them to grapple with. Looking at Latin America's pre-Colombian history, the great tributary empires like the Maya, Aztec, and Inca, practiced human sacrifice not because they were inherently cruel and bloodthirsty but because they were trying to exercise some control over the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the natural world. The sacrifice was not random but part of a cosmology. Moreover, some empires, like the Aztecs were more centered on human sacrifice than others--like the Maya.
Why didn't the Aztecs sacrifice just anybody or everybody? They sacrificed warriors captured in battle because warriors, according to their belief system, were seen as the most powerful and valuable members of society and thus the best sacrificial offerings to the gods who they regarded as capricious and cruel. The stakes were very high: Without adequate appeasement, Tlaloc, the rain god, could withhold the rain that made their crops grow; Cinteot, the Maize god could produce an inadequate crop and they would starve; and Huitzilpochtli, god of the sun, would lose its struggle with the Darkness and all would be lost. Only the sacrifice of the best could ensure its victory. The sacrifices, contrary to popular misunderstandings, did not occur daily but only at special festivals. There were other special festivals where children were sacrificed. The ancient peoples of the Americas did engage in other activities besides human sacrifice!
The same impulse that has motivated cultures around the world to develop arcane and elaborate strategies for dealing with the capriciousness of life and the natural world motivated the Amerindians to perform human sacrifices. Religion is complex because we use it to engage the forces that threaten us and at the same time, to create a protective barrier around ourselves. The big question is (to those who care about these things), is religion humanly motivated, divinely mandated, or divinely inspired? Or is it just the expression of our need to do SOMETHING in response to our feelings of helplessness? From our 21st century perspective, we have no doubt that there are no gods of rain and corn and the sun; only the Aztecs' desperate attempt to appease the hostile and overwhelming forces of nature.
Atheists and humanists like Richard Dawkins, author of "The God Delusion," and Christopher Hitchens, author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" regard our modern religions in the same way that modern people regard the religion of the Aztecs. Is it possible to examine another's beliefs without feeling superior or patronizing?
The Spaniards, whose devout Roman Catholicism informed all of their actions, had little question about the religious practices they witnessed: To them, the Aztecs, Inca and Maya were simply savages, and there was no question that they were motivated by mere superstition rather than devotion to the "One True God." Their embrace of human sacrifice was the proof the Spanish needed. The tables were turned, however, when the Spanish massacred the indigenous people they came in contact with, generally for no apparent reason. When the dust had settled, the Europeans' massacres coupled with the diseases that they spread inadvertently, had killed 90% of the indigenous people.
I think about and struggle with how to present these issues every semester when I teach the conquest. I still tear up when I read the words of the Aztec account of the conquest, even though I have taught "Introduction to Latin American Civilizations" every semester for the last 17 years, , "Broken spears lie in the roads; we have torn our hair in our grief. The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood..." These are among the saddest lines in human history.
I make no apology for being a deist so I ask myself how could those who ostensibly worshiped a benevolent creator of life, massacre whole peoples with impunity? How? How? But then, that is the real "big question" of history for those who care about these things. How do religious people of any stripe justify the killing of those who oppose them? More fundamentally, why do people kill randomly and how do we stop it? Ironically, one would think that stopping the killing would be the proper role of religion rather than providing people with a sword and a crucifix to stand behind.
Mahatma Gandhi said, "The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has record have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives." Not to let religion off the hook, but Adolph Hitler (Germany), Josef Stalin (Russia), Nicolae Ceausescu (Romania), Slobodan Milošević (Yugoslavia), Pol Pot (Cambodia) and Roberto D'Aubuisson (El Salvador) balance the boat, for they remind us that men do not need religion as an excuse to kill people. Hitchens and Dawkins lay all the blame at the foot of religion and simply ignore the "equally noble motives" because, it seems to me, that they are more interested in scoring the point against religion than in looking honestly at humanity's propensity for violence.
By now you're probably thinking that you have landed in the territory of religionists of some sort who hate atheists. I'm a moderately religious secular Jew which means I'm not much of a synagogue-goer though I share certain core Jewish beliefs and values; and I love the melodies, and many of rituals of the Conservative movement in particular. I don't hate atheists; I hate intolerance which is a word much tossed about by liberals until they encounter people they really disagree with such as religious fundamentalists.
If I didn't teach Latin American history, I might ignore some of these questions completely but because that is my subject, I struggle with how to portray the Church fairly, with its persecution of Jews and its murderous relations with the native peoples of the Americas; and with the blood sacrifices by the indigenous people of the Americas that inspired the Spanish to think that they were dealing with demons, using that as an excuse for their own murderous impulses. From their perspective--and, incidentally, the traditional way of viewing the conquest--they believed that they "brought civilization" to the new world. If one ascribes great importance to the human sacrifice, then the Spanish did indeed bring "civilization" because it brought it to an end. If only someone had found a way to civilize the Spanish and other Europeans. (1231)