Saturday, February 19, 2011

Depictions of Violence in Ancient Mesoamerican and Christian Religious Traditions

Images of violence pervade the media.  In works of fiction, violence may used as a plot device or for metaphorical purposes, or perhaps as we see in Blood Meridian, violence may be depicted seemingly for its own sake.  The new is filled with visual and textual depictions of actual violence.  Violence is depicted often and for a variety of means, but rarely is violent imagery intended to inspire actual acts of violence.  Instead, we are often shown violent images to denigrate the act of violence; to inspire us not to commit violence but to repress any animalistic urges towards violence that we may possess.

To the civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica, death was not feared but rather embraced as an important part of life on Earth.  The Aztecs believed in the concept of teyolia, a divine energy that animated the human body, giving it the powers of thought, sensibility and all other uniquely "human" traits.  It was not one's life on Earth that determined his or her place in the afterlife, instead the fate of one's teyolia was determined by one's death.  Through ritual sacrifice, one's teyolia could be released and absorbed by a god.  Death in battle was likewise a most honorable fate, landing one's teyolia in Tonatiuhican, the house of the sun god Tonatiuh and the highest level of paradise.  In the ancient Mesoamerican worldview, violence was a central aspect of life, a fact that was shocking to Christian European explorers.

The ancient Mesoamericans were the only civilizations in the Americas that were in possession of an elaborate system of writing before European colonization.  A number of writing systems were developed for different purposes, i.e., religious, historical, or economic.  These writing systems did not have an alphabetic script, instead employing elaborately drawn pictures and logophonetic systems capable of fully emulating speech. 

Only a number of precolumbian Mesoamerican manuscripts remain extant.  In an effort to eradicate the heathen traditions of the new world, the Europeans and the Catholic Church embarked on a book burning campaign, attempting to forever erase from existence all documentation of ancient Mesoamerican religious practices.  While all genres of Mesoamerican manuscripts were targeted for destruction, the destruction of the ritual and divinatory manuscripts was prioritized.

The European explorers, coming from Christian traditions, were appalled by the ancient Mesoamerican religious practices.  Sacrifices made to appease gods were a highly visible affair, littering the steps of grand stone temples with the mutilated bodies and free-flowing blood of sacrificial victims.  Complex rituals surrounded the sacrificial practices and their methods were described in detail in their religious texts.

Page 71 of the Codex Borgia. Source 

The above scene is from the Codex Borgia, an extant ritual and divinatory manuscript believed to have been written not too long before the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, somewhere near what is currently the state of Puebla, Mexico.  Within the document lies information on the divine nature of the universe.  Such a manuscript would be consulted by priests and soothsayers to read the future, to understand the nature of deities, and as a reference for conducting rituals.  This scene depicts the sun god, Tonatiuh, sitting upon his throne and receiving blood from a decapitated bird being offered by an otherworldly creature, probably intending to instruct an Aztec priest on how to perform a sacrifice to appease Tonatiuh.  Scattered throughout the scene are logograms providing information on the time and location to make such a sacrifice.  The Aztec calendar made use of repeating units of twenty day-signs, each represented by a symbol such as grass, wind, death, or house and qualified by aspects of a certain deity.  A persons day of birth was believed to have profound consequences on their personality and fate, and individuals were referred to by the number and day sign of their birth, i.e., 4 Eagle.  Therefore, the sacrificial victim in this ritual may be literally taken as a bird, or perhaps a person born on a day such as Eagle or Vulture.

Rather than depicting violence for its own sake or as an aspect of some fictitious story, these ritual manuscripts provided directions on how to commit violence and indeed promoted acts of violence under religious pretenses.  Unlike violence in modern works such as Blood Meridian, where violence is shown for the purpose of telling a story or for raising philosophical questions of the nature of reality, the Mesoamerican religious manuscripts encouraged actual violence, giving the reader justification for and instructions on how to commit a violent act.  Violent scenes in these manuscripts were not depicted through an abstract alphabetical script, but rather drawn out in all of their gory and violent glory.  

The Christian European nations sought to eradicate the Mesoamerican religions because of their violent practices, and the destruction of religious manuscripts such as the Codex Borgia was seen as a means to this end.  However,  the Christian tradition they came from was perhaps no less violent than the religions of the new world which they so vehemently decried as heretical.  The Bible is no stranger to violence, and indeed, in some instances encourages violence and ritual sacrifice under religious justifications:

And he shall kill the bullock before the LORD: and the priests, Aaron's sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5)

And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. (2 Kings 2:23-24)

And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the LORD. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons; and half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD hath said will we do, and be obedient. And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, Behold the blood of the covenant, which the LORD hath made with you concerning all these words. (Exodus 24:5-8)

Christians often state that verses such as these, and indeed much of the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, are not meant to be taken literally.  However, the language in some of these verses, such as the instructions for animal sacrifice, seems to me to be clear directions to commit violence in the name of God.  Even if some see the Bible as a collection of parables and not meant to be taken literally, the book has been the source of inspiration for some of the most violent periods in history, for example the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition.  It is truly incredible that the European conquerors of the Americas considered themselves above the practitioners of ancient Mesoamerican religions, when they were clearly no more peaceful, coming from a tradition that is arguably equally violent and rarely hesitating to employ violent means to enforce their will in the region. 

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