I’ve spent the last three days in awe of the temples of Teotihuacan, Mexico, which are beyond description in size and scale, challenging even the pyramids of Egypt for inclusion in wonders of the world. They are all the more impressive because we can observe their geographic context as part of a large and once-thriving community, including the ruins of roads and housing complexes.
The age of the temples date from the 1st century and before, even long before, and the town itself was a massive cultural and commercial center until about the 8th century, when the population migrated elsewhere.
We like to find connections between our lives and theirs and we find it in the everyday ways of the people, who, like us, had families to feed, water to find and keep, and life struggles to overcome with the assistance of trading relationships, folkways, tools, community leaders, and traditions. It’s all very beautiful and remarkable, and also rather elusive at some level simply because the written history of these people and this period are sparse.
Of course, one terrible reality hangs over the entire apparatus: human sacrifice. That was the purpose of the temples, the very ones we admire and adore. It’s a truth we know and yet don’t like to think about it much and are not encouraged to do so. We would rather look at these pyramids as mighty achievements of a developed pre-modern civilization, which they are in many ways.
The grim horror of these religious rituals are impossible to deny as historical facts. It was 500 years ago. It’s long over. Surely today we can rescue the beautiful parts of a faith and history without obsessing constantly on the bad with unrelenting severity.
And yet the challenge is always there: Is it possible to celebrate these peoples and these monuments without reference to the overwhelming fact, the entire raison d’etre of the surviving monuments? Perhaps, and much depends on just how central the killing was in the life of the peoples, which my brief investigation did not illuminate enough for me to fully understand, if doing so is even possible.
Was human sacrifice periodic and bound up with confusion and crisis or was it daily, ongoing, and all-consuming for life in the Mayan and Aztec empires? We might seek, for example, to understand the religious basis of the whole practice. They believed that the gods had made great sacrifices for them to live in exchange for which sacrifices had to be made back to the gods. The high priests understood it, believed in it, and explained it to the people.
This is hardly a claim unique to these native religions. Some versions of the same can be found in every major religion in every part of the world. We give the best parts of what we have back to the gods to whom we give honor for preserving our lives and we seek some forms in which to appease them. Ideally it is not people or, at the very least, we find some way to port this longing for human sacrifice into more humane paths toward propitiation for our own failings, thus pleasing the gods in some other way.
One way to understand these systems is to look at them not as culture and religion – those are very often merely covers for a deeper motivation – but instead consider the dynamics of power. The system of human sacrifice was hierarchical in the extreme: it was the high priests and the political leaders, mostly one and the same, who themselves ordered and carried out the bloody practice. The victims were those with less power: members of captured tribes, for example, or others from the slave and working classes deemed less worthy of long lives.
Inevitably, of course, the ritualistic killings paraded before the masses took on a patina of valorization: those who gave their lives up for the gods so that others may live should be celebrated as heroes. Indeed, everyone should all be thrilled for the opportunity to do so. So yes, there was surely a popular appeal associated with these displays of despotic sadism.
Nonetheless, the dynamics of power here are impossible to ignore. Daily or at least periodically at some intervals, the people witnessed with their own eyes healthy human beings being slaughtered alive, their hearts held up as gifts to the gods as their heads tumbled down the stairs of the mighty temples and their bodies fed to the animals. This certainly reinforced the undeniable reality of who was in charge, should anyone dare to doubt or dispute it.
All governments in all times, ancient or modern, seek methods of maintaining control. Nothing works better than terror that is constructed to put on vivid display who or what rules. Democracy is a system that attempts to push this impulse to the background as much as possible, and yet there is always and everywhere the threat that whoever holds power now will deploy that power in a manner that terrifies the populace into compliance with the status quo, whatever it happens to be.
In the Victorian version of history which I’ve accepted and which is normal in Western historiography, the brutality of primitive cultural forms were ended once exposed to more enlightened ideals. Yes, with that came the introduction of new forms of brutality of the Spanish colonial powers, which required their own corrective about which I’ve previously written, and hundreds of years went by before we arrived at the Western consensus against slavery, for science and rationality, and for limits on power and constitutional government.
And yet a closer study of these ancient practices do shed a light on issues in the modern age. It should be obvious that the Victorian model of forever improvement in the human condition, under the guardianship of human-rights ideology and democratic control, is overly flattering to modernism in practice.
After all, in the 20th century, well more than 100 million people lost their lives due to governments and their overweening power. In the colonial and world wars of Western powers, which included the draft, those who killed, and were killed, are also valorized as having paid the ultimate price for the survival of the nation state as we know it.
A closer look at the practices of even “good” governments of our own time reveal vicious methods of eliciting compliance, including even dystopian schemes of human elimination in the service of the common good – with eugenics at the top of the list. And who invented that ultimate killing machine of the nuclear weapon, which is far more horrifying in practice than anything even imagined by the most bloodthirsty of the Aztec warlords?
Let us be careful in our judging of these ancient political cultures and their ways. Judging them harshly is surely the right thing to do and yet we should not put away the ethical scales when evaluating the practices of our times. Such contemporaneous flattery of our own systems of control is too easy. What’s hard is to look at the practices and institutions of our history with similar moral scrupulosity.
Only three years ago, most governments in the world, even those that proclaim fealty to democracy, divided their populations into groups deemed essential and nonessential, classified health needs based on political priorities, and channeled populational behaviors according to the whims of our own high priests, the sanctified Scientists and their findings and judgments. Their power to override our laws was awesome to behold, and the valorization of compliance was similarly on display. Those who masked up, isolated, and took their forced medicines were deemed virtuous while those who doubted and dissented were and are demonized as enemies of public well-being.
What did we sacrifice to the gods of our time so that we may survive? Freedom for sure. Human rights, absolutely. Democracy, it had to be put on hold while the administrators had their way, together with their propagandists and the builders of all necessary tools. Social media platforms, once seen as friendly and ennobling, became weapons of surveillance and cancellation, while states consisting of elected leaders were quietly overthrown in favor of the power and privileges of the permanent bureaucracy. And then there’s the children, many of whom lost two years of education along with social connection, all supposedly to keep the teachers and administrators safe.
The peoples of the Mayan and Aztec empires were surrounded by monuments to the greatness of their leaders and their faith, and they celebrated both. We too look back in awe at what they built despite what we know: their social systems were bloody and barbaric in ways we cannot imagine now. And yet when we study their histories in our own times, with the appropriate amount of humility, we face a similar problematic disorientation.
We live amidst the great achievements of humanity and yet increasingly know of the parallel barbarisms that accompany them. Human sacrifice, backed by violent servitude, is clearly not vanquished from the earth; it only takes a different form today than it did 500 years ago.
Where does this leave us in observing the grandeur of Teotihuacan, Mexico? We are both awed and repulsed. That contradiction, that sense of living with the antimonious coincidence of great achievement and great evil, should serve as inspiration to find our way to a future in which we maximize the place of human rights and minimize the role of violence. That is our task. It has always been our task. For all peoples, in all times.