A Past That Makes Us Squirm

That’s the title of a New York Times op-ed piece, but it’s not what you think. For once it’s not whites and the loyal citizens of Western civilization who have to squirm about how terrible we’ve been to nonwhites for the last 500 years. It’s nonwhites and the champions of nonwhiteness who have got to squirm—about the truth of the human sacrifice cults of the Mayan and other American Indian cultures, reported with startling frankness by author Craig Childs. Since Times articles generally go offline after a while I’m copying the whole piece below. At the end of Childs’s article I have further comments.

January 2, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
A Past That Makes Us Squirm
Crawford, Colo.

A FEW years back, while traveling in the Sierra Madre Occidental of northern Mexico, I came upon a canyon packed with cliff dwellings no one had lived in since before the time of Christopher Columbus. On the ground were discarded artifacts, pieces of frayed baskets, broken pottery and hundreds of desiccated corn cobs—the ruins of an ancient civilization.

I reached down to pick up what I thought was a dry gourd, and instead found myself cradling the skull of a human child. As I turned it in my hands, I noticed a deliberate hole in the back of the skull, directly above the spine. The skull was not cracked around the hole, which means the child had most likely been alive when a spike or some other implement had been slammed into his or her head from behind.

This is not the only skull like this. Excavations from elsewhere in northern Mexico have turned up other children killed the same way, human sacrifices to an ancient water deity, their bodies buried under pre-Columbian ball courts or at the foot of pillars in important rooms.

With knowledge of such widespread ferocity, I recently saw Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto,” which deals with the gore of the Mayan civilization. I had heard that the movie’s violence was wildly out of control. But even as I winced at many of the scenes, as a writer and researcher in ancient American archaeology, I found little technical fault with the film other than ridiculous Hollywood ploys and niggling archaeological details.

Indeed, parts of the archaeological record of the Americas read like a war-crimes indictment, with charred skeletons stacked like cordwood and innumerable human remains missing heads, legs and arms. In the American Southwest, which is my area of research, human tissue has been found cooked to the insides of kitchen jars and stained into a ceramic serving ladle. A grinding stone was found full of crushed human finger bones. A sample of human feces came up containing the remains of a cannibal’s meal.

It could be argued that “Apocalypto” dehumanizes Native Americans, turning their ancestors into savage monsters, but I think it does the opposite. Oppressed hunter-gatherers in the movie are presented as people with the same, universal emotions all humans share. And urban Mayans are portrayed as politically and religiously savvy, having made of themselves a monumental, Neolithic empire, something more akin to ancient Egypt than the trouble-free agrarians who come to most people’s minds when they think of native America.

To further shatter that popular notion of Native Americans, there’s the scene in which a turquoise-jeweled priest stands atop a staggering temple yanking out one beating human heart after the next. That’s an image that nearly every archaeologist working in Central America has played in his or her head many times, only now it’s on the big screen for everyone to see.

Being told by screenwriters and archaeologists that their ancestors engaged in death cults tends to make many Native Americans uneasy. In Arizona, Hopi elders turn their eyes to the ground when they hear about their own past stained with overt brutality. The name Hopi means people of peace, which is what they strive to be. Meanwhile, excavators keep digging up evidence of cannibalism and ritualized violence among their ancestors.

How do we rectify the age-old perception of noble and peaceful native America with the reality that at times violence was coordinated on a scale never before witnessed by humanity? The answer is simple. We don’t.

Prior to 1492 it was a complex cultural landscape with civilization ebbing and flowing, the spaces in between traversed by ancient lineages of hunters and gatherers. To the religious core of pre-Columbian Mayans, a beating heart ripped from someone’s chest was a thing of supreme sacredness and not prosaic violence.

If “Apocalypto” has a fault, it is not with its brutality, but with us in the audience who cringe, thinking the Mayans little more than a barbaric people. The fault lies in our misunderstanding of a complicated history, thinking we can lump a whole civilization into a single response and walk out of the movie saying, “That was disgusting.”

Craig Childs is the author of the forthcoming “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.”

Having said such unadorned, non-euphemistic things about the pre-Columbian Americans, Childs in the last two paragraphs tries to relativize the damning truth. And what he says is true, up to a point. The human sacrifice practiced by the Mayans and Southwest Indians was not just unrestrained barbarism or gang violence. It was the way these people experienced the divine. But Childs doesn’t realize what he’s saying. These cultures found the sacred in monstrous inhuman violence. That’s the whole point. Just as the Muslim finds his supreme spiritual experience in the act of killing infidels in war, Mayans found it in carving up and eating helpless human victims.

Childs suggests that because it’s “sacred,” that makes it all right, or at least not deserving of our final moral condemnation. But all human cultures (with the possible exception of the modern West) make their central activities sacred. What differentiates human cultures from each other is not that some have a sacred and some don’t, but what kinds of things they make sacred.

Years ago, at an exhibit of Aztec artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I saw a huge stone head of an Aztec god. Its brutal inhuman features, its total aspect, expressed absolute cruelty, creating a sense of horrifying fear and terror. This was their god. The Aztecs worshipped and sacrificed to a god of terror because that was the way they saw the universe—they believed the cosmos had been created by the act of one god ripping open the body of another god. For the Aztecs, existence and horrible violence were one, and therefore horrible violence became their sacred.

With all due respect to Craig Childs, a culture that has such a horrifying sense of life and that worships such gods, is not the relativistic equivalent of a culture that says of its gods:

But when the twelfth dawn after this day appeared, the gods who
live forever came back to Olympos all in a body
and Zeus led them; nor did Thetis forget the entreaties
of her son, but she emerged from the sea’s waves early
in the morning and went up to the tall sky and Olympos.
(The Iliad, Book I, trans. Richmond Lattimore.)

Nor is it the relativistic equivalent of a culture that speaks of God like this:

And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. (Genesis 17:1)

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Jay M. writes:

From the Amazon review of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: “First published in 1970, this extraordinary book changed the way Americans think about the original inhabitants of their country. Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1860 and ending 30 years later with the massacre of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it tells how the American Indians lost their land and lives to a dynamically expanding white society. During these three decades, America’s population doubled from 31 million to 62 million. Again and again, promises made to the Indians fell victim to the ruthlessness and greed of settlers pushing Westward to make new lives. The Indians were herded off their ancestral lands into ever-shrinking reservations, and were starved and killed if they resisted. It is a truism that “history is written by the victors”; for the first time, this book described the opening of the West from the Indians’ viewpoint. Accustomed to stereotypes of Indians as red savages, white Americans were shocked to read the reasoned eloquence of Indian leaders and learn of the bravery with which they and their peoples endured suffering. With meticulous research and in measured language overlaying brutal narrative, Dee Brown focused attention on a national disgrace. Still controversial but with many of its premises now accepted, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold five million copies around the world. Thirty years after it first broke onto the national conscience, it has lost none of its importance or emotional impact.”

I submit that this volume changed a lot of minds in the 70’s about the Indians—it is purposely written to poison the minds of those who had no other knowledge of the American Westward expansion (90 percent plus of impressionable minds in college). The clowns who read this book and believed it are now running the country. I say it’s about time that Americans wake up to the fact that Indians were not American versions of the Noble Savage. There were atrocities against Indians, no doubt—but there were atrocities on both sides, which you won’t read about in this book.

After further reading in the 70s and 80s, my conclusion was “Why do you think they called them savages?”

Stephen F. writes:

I was recently reading the transcripts of Bill Moyers’ TV special on Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth” (which admittedly gives only an informal treatment of the subject), and was struck by Campbell’s total identification with the cultures he studied, including American Indian tribes such as the Iroqois. He describes rituals of human sacrifice, cannibalism, torture, etc. with a kind of rapturous delight in the sacred experience they represent.

The only mythological tradition that he is critical of is, of course, the Judeo-Christian one, which is flawed in its call for human dominance over nature, suppression of the feminine side of existence, unreasonable desire for immortality, and so forth (and equally implicated in human sacrifice, cannibalism, etc.). His preference, not surprisingly, is for the Gnostic traditions.

His conclusion is that a mythology for the West today should be one that teaches all people to “follow their bliss”—i.e., liberalism.

A reader writes:

How ironic. They look at this monstrousness and find a way to excuse it. But these same kind of libs and some dopey cons get all upset that God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. These people are idiots. First of all, they don’t seem to notice that God did NOT in the end require the sacrifice. But second, they are unable to read imaginatively. Don’t they realize that child sacrifice was endemic throughout the Mideast at that time, and this was a way of FORBIDDING it? There are other places in the OT that expressly forbid it, but the story of Abraham was the beginning of the change in mentality that the God of the OT was bringing about in the people with whom he was to be covenanted. The Scriptures are trying to capture the mentality of people who believe they must sacrifice their most precious thing, their children, and it’s showing that the sacrifice itself is not necessary, but the devotion to God that puts Him before everything is. That faith is what God will build on to make a great people.

Jeffrey S. writes from Chicago:

You say the following: “Just as the Muslim finds his supreme spiritual experience in the act of killing infidels in war…”

A simple question—what is the basis for such a claim? On its face this statement seems exaggerated and lurid…most Muslims seem to want to lead spiritual lives similar to Christian and Jewish spiritual lives (e.g. . get married, raise a family, worship God through prayer and celebration, etc.). Do you really believe that every humble Malaysian farming family prays every day that at some point in their lives they may get a chance to kill an infidel? Yes, there are radical Muslim leaders who preach some form of the above, but does every single Muslim imam and philosopher/thinker believe that their “supreme spiritual experience” can only be achieved through killing infidels? Does the Koran say this unequivocally? Again, I don’t doubt that there are violent passages in the Koran, but are they quantitatively and qualitatively different from the violent passages of the Old Testament?

LA replies:

Everyone today always misunderstands a general, paradigmatic statement about an idea or a belief system (e.g., “the Muslim finds his supreme spiritual experience in the act of killing infidels in war”) as though it were a description of the desires and feelings of individuals.

I’m not talking, at least primarily, about what Muslim individuals, let alone all Muslim individuals, desire and feel. I’m talking about what Islam, at its sacred core, is.

If you read parts of the Koran—I think Sura 8 made this impression on me but I don’t have exact verses to give you—there is a powerful sense that the highest thing for a Muslim is the total devotion of oneself to Allah in war. When one does this, one realizes how everything is Allah’s will, and there is a kind of spiritual bliss. When I read this, I felt I was starting to understand Islam from the inside. I saw what made Islam “tick,” what it means for its followers.

And this fits with the remarkable élan and courage of the Islamic army in its early conquests. They had given themselves over to Allah completely, unafraid of death, battle was a spiritual thing for them, and they were unstoppable.

And it fits what they’re doing today. Look at how Muhammad Atta and his band of fiends treated their mass murder as a religious, devotional act, praying and purifying themselves beforehand. Look at how each suicide terrorist in the Mideast treats his act as a spiritual consummation. And look at how even the Muslims who don’t themselves perform terror participate in it by identifying with it and having joy in it.

For Muslims, killing the infidel is a sacred experience that brings them into contact with Allah’s will.

You said:

“Again, I don’t doubt that there are violent passages in the Koran, but are they quantitatively and qualitatively different from the violent passages of the Old Testament?”

Anyone who thinks there is any similarity between the passages mandating violence in the Old Testament and those in the Koran, has simply not read the Torah and the Koran with any attention. The passages in the Torah mandating the mass killing of the Canaanites are summary and abstract, and the passages in Joshua summarizing the mass killing of the Canaanites are summary and abstract; “They killed this people and wiped them all out, they killed that people and wiped them all out, until there were none left in the land, etc.” This is done because God wants the Israelites to inhabit this land, as proof of his love and protection of them. As I’ve explained at length elsewhere (the linked discussion is a much fuller answer to your question that what I’m providing here), the Bible itself presents strong evidence, in Judges, that the mass slaughters portrayed in Joshua never occurred. As Voegelin says, they are paradigmatic of obedience to God. In any case, the Canaanites and Girgazites and Jebuzites haven’t been around for 3,000 years. And even if the Israelites did mass kill the Canaanites 3,000 years ago, the Jews have lived under Rabbinical law for the last 2,000 years, and the Talmud is not a war book but a book for a powerless diaspora minority people. By contrast, the commands in the Koran are eternally operative, the war instructions for a people whose divinely appointed mission is the rule of the whole world. The Muslims are to wage war on the infidel until all the earth is under the sway of Islam. And indeed the jihadists today are inspired by and actively following those commands.

What I’ve just said is really basic information. We’re never going to get beyond first base in defending ourselves from Islam if Westerners keep repeating this canard that the Bible is as violent as the Koran.

That canard has two, complementary effects, which together are fatal to us.

First, it tells Westerners that Islam is really no different from the Biblical religions, and therefore is not dangerous. Since the Bible has all this stuff about mass death, and Jews and Christians are not committing mass murder today, then the mandates for violence in Islam are also not defining of the nature of the Islam and therefore Islam is no problem and we should not do anything to protect ourselves from it.

Second, it tells Westerners that our own founding Scripture really is horrible, and therefore our whole civilization is guilty and we have no right to judge others or to defend our society from enemies or from the mass immigration of alien cultures, and all we can do is try to make up for our guilt by sacrificing ourselves for others. In other words, the suicidal liberal Western guilt trip.

Thus the simple statement, “The Old Testament is just as violent as the Koran,” is by itself a sufficient formula for Western suicide, just as the simple statement, “We should be tolerant,” is a sufficient formula for Western suicide. Liberals don’t need to know anything, all they have to do is keep repeating these mindless but extremely potent slogans which disarm any ability on the part of Westerners (1) to see negatives truths about the Other and act on that basis; and (2) to believe in and to defend ourselves, our nation, and our civilization.

(Note: my discussion of Bernard Lewis and the PBS show on Muslim anti-Semitism touches on the same theme as this discussion. To deny what Muslims actually did to their subject peoples, particularly Jews, and to blame Muslim anti-Semitism on Europe, as Lewis does, morally paralyzes the West in its face-off with Islam and ensures its continuing surrender.)

Vivek G. writes:

One must not confuse history with religious injunctions. Jews, Christians committed mass killings and Muslims committed (and are continuing) mass killings. So what is the conclusion? That the Torah, the Bible, and the Koran are all same? Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad are same?? Nothing can be further off the mark. I am not an expert on religious texts, but what I understand from my limited reading is:

Jews and Christians killed (mass killings) IN SPITE OF THEIR religious injunctions and NOT BECAUSE OF their religious injunctions. [LA notes: The only mass killings by Isrealites/Jews I know of off-hand are those recounted in the Torah and the book of Joshua, and those certainly were commanded by God.]

Muslims kill BECAUSE OF THE Koran and not against its injunctions.

As an example from current affairs: Even those (in America or elsewhere) who oppose the invasion of Iraq can scarcely claim that the “American Constitution” does even as much as condone, much less legitimize, and in the least mandate, invading foreign countries merely because they comprise of non-Americans.

However, in case Mr President of Iran, even if he does as much as intend to “wipe Israel out of world map,” it is not because Koranic Jihad “condones” it, or “legitimizes” it; but it is becuase Koranic Jihad MANDATES it.

LA replies:

Excellent point.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 07, 2007 05:00 PM | Send

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