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Religion, Violence, And ‘Apocalpyto’

Revising Mel Gibson's bloody 2006 drama about human sacrifice and the end of a Mesoamerican civilization
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A new discovery from pre-Spanish Mexico:

Mexican archaeologists have discovered what they say is the first temple of a pre-Hispanic fertility god known as the Flayed Lord who is depicted as a skinned human corpse.

The discovery is being hailed as significant by authorities at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History because it is a whole temple, not merely depictions of the deity, which have been found in other cultures.

… “Priests worshipped Xipe Totec by skinning human victims and then donning their skins. The ritual was seen as a way to ensure fertility and regeneration,” according to the AP.

Xipe Totec was widely worshiped by Aztecs at the time of the Spanish conquest. From the Wikipedia entry:

Various methods of human sacrifice were used to honour this god. The flayed skins were often taken from sacrificial victims who had their hearts cut out, and some representations of Xipe Totec show a stitched-up wound in the chest.

“Gladiator sacrifice” is the name given to the form of sacrifice in which an especially courageous war captive was given mock weapons, tied to a large circular stone and forced to fight against a fully armed Aztec warrior. As a weapon he was given a macuahuitl (a wooden sword with blades formed from obsidian) with the obsidian blades replaced with feathers. A white cord was tied either around his waist or his ankle, binding him to the sacred temalacatl stone. At the end of the Tlacaxipehualiztli festival, gladiator sacrifice (known as tlauauaniliztli) was carried out by five Aztec warriors; two jaguar warriors, two eagle warriors and a fifth, left-handed warrior.

“Arrow sacrifice” was another method used by the worshippers of Xipe Totec. The sacrificial victim was bound spread-eagled to a wooden frame, he was then shot with many arrows so that his blood spilled onto the ground. The spilling of the victim’s blood to the ground was symbolic of the desired abundant rainfall, with a hopeful result of plentiful crops. After the victim was shot with the arrows, the heart was removed with a stone knife. The flayer then made a laceration from the lower head to the heels and removed the skin in one piece. These ceremonies went on for twenty days, meanwhile the votaries of the god wore the skins.

Another instance of sacrifice was done by a group of metalworkers who were located in the town of Atzcapoatzalco, who held Xipe Totec in special veneration. Xipe was a patron to all metalworkers (teocuitlapizque), but he was particularly associated with the goldsmiths. Among this group, those who stole gold or silver were sacrificed to Xipe Totec. Before this sacrifice, the victims were taken through the streets as a warning to others.

Other forms of sacrifice were sometimes used; at times the victim was cast into a firepit and burned, others had their throats cut.

Here is what sacrifice two other Mesoamerican gods was like:

Xiuhtecuhtli is the god of fire and heat and in many cases is considered to be an aspect of Huehueteotl, the “Old God” and another fire deity.

Both Xiuhtecuhtli and Huehueteotl were worshipped during the festival of Izcalli. For ten days preceding the festival various animals would be captured by the Aztecs, to be thrown in the hearth on the night of celebration.

To appease Huehueteotl, the fire god and a senior deity, the Aztecs had a ceremony where they prepared a large feast, at the end of which they would burn captives; before they died they would be taken from the fire and their hearts would be cut out. Motolinía and Sahagún reported that the Aztecs believed that if they did not placate Huehueteotl, a plague of fire would strike their city. The sacrifice was considered an offering to the deity.

Xiuhtecuhtli was also worshipped during the New Fire Ceremony, which occurred every 52 years, and prevented the ending of the world. During the festival priests would march to the top of the volcano Huixachtlan and when the constellation “the fire drill” (Orion’s belt) rose over the mountain, a man would be sacrificed. The victim’s heart would be ripped from his body and a ceremonial hearth would be lit in the hole in his chest. This flame would then be used to light all of the ceremonial fires in various temples throughout the city of Tenochtitlan.

A Harvard historian has more information about Mesoamerican human sacrifice.

When you hear people condemning the Spanish conquest for what it did to the native inhabitants, think of the fact that within a decade of the Spanish conquest, human sacrifice ended. That is something to be grateful for, and indeed proud of. We do not need to believe that the conquistadores were saints — they certainly were not — to recognize this.

Too few people saw director Mel Gibson’s stunning 2006 film Apocalypto, which is very violent (it’s Gibson, after all), but as an adventure and suspense movie, is terrific. Gibson fudged historical facts, and acknowledged that. It’s supposedly about the Mayas on the eve of the Spanish conquest, but the kind of human sacrifice depicted in the film was an Aztec thing, and anyway, Mayan civilization had already faded from history before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish conquered the Aztecs, and other Mesoamerican peoples. Nevertheless, the film (which is not about the Spanish!) is a gripping depiction of the terror of that culture of death.

At the time, Apocalypto was read — misread, I think — as an apologia for colonialism. It’s understandable, given Gibson’s fervent Catholicism. But the truth is almost certainly more complicated. Keep in mind how violent Gibson’s films are (the ones he’s directed, that is), and how Apocalypto, his most violent, begins with this Will Durant quote:

A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.

Aztec civilization — the one that resembles the civilization in the movie; I can’t figure out why Gibson called them Maya — was obsessed by death and violence. Given how spectacularly Gibson blew up his marriage, his career, and his life, in the years around the film’s release (his drunk driving arrest, the collapse of his marriage, etc.), it’s interesting to consider this unusual movie as a window into the soul of a man whose inner violence eventually bested him, and destroyed him.

[In what follows, I’m going to reveal a spoiler about the movie. Don’t read on if you don’t want to know it.]

Reading the film as a simple account of Christian and colonialist triumphalism at the hands of a traditionalist Catholic filmmaker is too reductive. In 2006, David Van Biema of Time magazine wrote an essay about Gibson and the movie,  in which he wonders why  Gibson ended the film as he did. Specifically:

For the Christian viewer, the biggest question about Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto is: why does its hero turn away from the Cross at the end?

The movie tells the story of a peaceful 16th-century jungle-dweller named Jaguar Paw. The first quarter of the film presents his idyllic village as a kind of Eden. The second quarter is a vision of Hell, as a raiding party for the nearby Mayan empire torches the town, rapes the women and drags the men to the Mayan capital as featured guests at a monstrous and ongoing sacrifice to the gods. JP watches in horror as a priest has several of his friends spread-eagled on squat stone, then hacks out their still-beating hearts and displays them to a howling crowd. JP narrowly avoids the same fate, escapes, and spends most of the rest of the film picking off an armed pursuit party, one by one, in classic action-film fashion.

It is only at the very end that Christianity makes a brief but portentous appearance, aboard a fleet of Spanish ships that appears suddenly on the horizon. JP and his long-suffering wife watch from the jungle as a small boat approaches shore bearing a long-bearded, shiny-helmeted explorer and a kneeling priest holding high a crucifix-topped staff. “Should we join them?” asks his wife. “No,” he replies: They should go back to the jungle, their home. Roll credits.

He concludes that Gibson, who was also known for being alienated from mainstream Roman Catholicism, understands that the end of one violent civilization means the coming of one in which man’s propensity to violence and domination does not end, but simply takes new forms. Van Biema talks about the film in context of a visit he made to an exhibition in NYC. Any kind of modern sentimentalizing of the Aztecs will not survive an encounter with their artifacts:

The third possibility, it seems to me, is that Gibson does know — and wants no part of it. I tend toward that last one because it reflects a learning curve of my own. About a year ago I visited an exhibit on another Mexican civilization, the Aztecs, at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The show was cleverly arranged. Visitors walked up the Guggenheim’s giant spiral, the first few twists of which were devoted to the Aztecs’ stunning stylized carvings of snakes, eagles and other god/animals, and explanations of how the ingenious Aztecs filled in a huge lake to lay the foundation for Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

It was only about halfway up the spiral — when it had become harder to run screaming for an exit — that one encountered a grey-green stone about three feet high. It was sleek and beautiful — almost like a Brancusi sculpture, I thought — until I read the label. It was a sacrifice stone of the sort in the movie. Not a reproduction, not a non-functioning ceremonial model, but the real thing. People had died on this. I felt shocked and a little angry — it was like coming across a gas chamber at an exhibit of interior design.

But I kept walking, and at the very top of the museum I encountered another object that might be considered an answer to the sinister rock: a stone cross, carved after the Spanish had conquered the Aztecs and were attempting to convert them to Catholicism. Rather than Jesus’s full body, it bore a series of small relief carvings: his head and wounded hands, blood drops — and a sacrificial Aztec knife.

How striking, I thought. Here was a potent work of iconographic propaganda using the very symbols of a brutal religion to turn its values inside out, manipulating its images so that they celebrated not the sacrifice, but the person who was sacrificed. Visually, at least, it seemed an elegant and admirable transition. And after seeing Apocalypto, I wondered why Gibson hadn’t created the cinematic equivalent: an ode to the progression out of savagery, through the vehicle of Christianity.

Van Biema then talks about how the Spanish did end human sacrifice, but ended up enslaving Aztecs (those they didn’t kill), and in any case there was a mass die-off when the Spanish inadvertently introduced smallpox into the native population. Van Biema:

So here is the conundrum. If you had to choose between a culture that placed ritualized human slaughter at the center of its faith, but that only managed to kill 4,000 people a year, and a culture that put the sacrificial Lamb of God at the center of the universe but somehow found its way to countenancing the enslavement of millions and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the same neighborhood, which would be more appealing?

Read the whole thing. 

To be clear, from the point of view of a believing Christian, it really, really matters that the Gospel is true. The Spanish, whatever their grievous faults and wicked motivations, nevertheless carried with them true religion. If you don’t believe that there is any such thing as true religion, well, I respect that, but I’m not really interested in having that discussion here. The more interesting discussion is why Mel Gibson — a self-tortured, radically alienated, but believing Catholic — had his heroes run away from the people who would be his deliverers.

Has anybody seen a Girardian interpretation of Apocalypto? I’d love to read it. I found this short one from the Catholic bishop Robert Barron. It’s a great encapsulation of Girardian theory, and why Apocalypto is a film explaining it:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FM0blhmRLKY]

If you don’t have time to watch that five-minute video, here’s the core of Girardian theory: Primitive humans controlled the violence that threatened to overwhelm their societies and civilizations by means of the “scapegoat mechanism.” That is, they convinced themselves that the cause of the disorder was a scapegoat, and that only the sacrifice of the scapegoat would restore order to the civilization. In some civilizations — like the Aztecs’ — this turned into human sacrifice. Aztecs didn’t have the ritual slaughter of human beings because they enjoyed it, necessarily; they believed that the blood of human victims was necessary to keep the gods sated and the fertility cycle going. In Apocalypto, the protagonist, Jaguar Paw, is a tribesman who is hunted by the Maya, who intend to sacrifice him to propitiate their gods.

The scapegoat mechanism is at the core of cultural anthropology, says Girard. Anyway, Christianity, alone among all religions, unmasks the lie of the scapegoat mechanism. In the Christian myth (I say “myth” in the technical sense), the god himself becomes the innocent victim, and throws down the scapegoat mechanism. The CBC, in a short piece on Girardian theory, explains:

Jesus is innocent, the Gospels insist, and his innocence proclaims the innocence of all scapegoat victims. He reveals the founding violence, hidden from the beginning, because it preserved social peace. A choice is posed: humanity will have peace if it follows the way of life that Jesus preached. If not, it will have worse violence because the old remedy will no longer work once exposed to the light.

Keep in mind that Girard, a Stanford scholar who is considered to be one of the greats of the 20th century, didn’t make these claims as some sort of Christian apologetic. He was making an objective claim about human nature and culture. As Bishop Barron says, Gibson’s movie is a manifestation of Girardian theory. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek word meaning “unveiling.” In Apocalypto, the title does double meaning: because of the Book of Revelation (also called “The Apocalypse,”) the “unveiling” leads to the end of the world. This is why the word “apocalypse” has come to mean “end of the world” in popular usage. Gibson’s movie portrays the end of a violent primitive civilization at the hands of a higher Christian civilization, one whose religion unmasks and defeats the scapegoat mechanism that had upheld the dying civilization.

It may be the case that Gibson has his heroes turn away from the cross-bearers because that’s what any Indian would normally do in that situation. Jaguar Paw doesn’t know who these strangers are, and that they might save him. It makes sense that he would want to hide out in the jungle and see what happens. Gibson’s decision to have them run away from the cross might not be a theological commentary, but might simply have been an artistic decision. After all, showing the Indians, who had been chased through the jungle for the entire movie by other Indians seeking to take them for ritual sacrifice, ending the film by running into the arms of Spanish Christians would have been seen as aesthetically cheap propaganda.

Whatever Gibson’s intentions, a case could be made for a more ambiguous interpretation. It is undeniably true, as a historical matter, that the Spanish ended human sacrifice, and conquered the civilization that depended on human sacrifice. But it is also true that the Spanish were much better at controlling and deploying violence than the Aztecs were. Maintaining Spanish colonial civilization required immense violence. When a person or a civilization becomes Christian, they are still human, and still have to struggle against the “old man,” as Scripture says. There are no utopias. The anthropological and cultural value of Christianity, in this context, is that it does not allow even the Christian to scapegoat victims. Oh, they do! We do, all the time! The Christian faith, though, says: Stop. Look at what you are doing. It’s not right. You are making innocent people suffer. 

In the US in the Civil Rights Era, Martin Luther King confronted racist white Christians with the Christian message, which was radically incompatible with the unjust social order they had created in the American South, and maintained through violence. Again: Christianity doesn’t mean that sin ceases to exist; it only explains it, and shows a way out of the cycle of violence and retribution.

So, look: I have no respect for the view that the native peoples of Mesoamerica were living a tranquil life until they were set upon by Spanish Christian colonialists, who subdued and immiserated them. That is sentimental claptrap. But the Christian analogue to this fairy tale — that the coming of Christianity on the sword tip of the conquistadores led to a kingdom of peace and justice — is also sentimental claptrap. We are not required to believe falsely that there is no moral difference between the Aztecs and the Spanish, and the civilizations they represented. A civilization that practices mass human sacrifice is objectively worse than one that outlaws it. And, for Christians, a civilization that, however grievously flawed, proclaims the truth of Christ is objectively better than one that denies it.

But we have to come to terms as well with the violence and darkness that persisted, despite Christianity. After the bloodshed of the 20th century, the West — Christian and post-Christian — should consider exactly how we stand in relation to the bloodthirsty Aztec empire. St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that all of creation struggles as in labor pains. And so we will until the end of time, until the real Apocalypse.

Here’s something truly ominous. Girard died a few years ago. In 2009, near the end of his life, he published a piece in First Things, titled “On War And Apocalypse” Excerpt:

Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure. This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation. This is why no one wants to read the apocalyptic texts that abound in the synoptic gospels and Pauline epistles. This is also why no one wants to recognize that these texts rise up before us because we have disregarded the Book of Revelation. Once in our history the truth about the identity of all humans was spoken, and no one wanted to hear it; instead we hang ever more frantically onto our false differences.

Two world wars, the invention of the atomic bomb, and all the rest of the modern horrors have not sufficed to convince humanity, and Christians above all, that the apocalyptic texts might concern the disaster that is underway. Violence has been unleashed across the whole world, and our paradox is this: By getting closer to Alpha, we are going toward Omega; by better understanding the origin, we can see every day a little better that the origin is coming closer. Our fetters were put in place by the founding murder and unshackled by the Passion—with the result of liberating planet-wide violence.

We cannot refasten the bindings because we now know that the scapegoats of sacrifice are innocent. Christ’s Passion unveiled the sacrificial origin of humanity once and for all. It dismantled the sacred and revealed its violence. And yet, the Passion freed violence at the same time that it freed holiness. The modern form of the sacred is thus not a return to some archaic form. It is a sacred that has been satanized by the awareness we have of it, and it indicates, through its excesses, the imminence of the Second Coming.

For readers unfamiliar with the Christian texts, the Book of Revelation — The Apocalypse — predicts a time to come when Christianity will have failed, and the world will be plunged into an abyss of violence … and then Jesus Christ will return. The mass apostasy underway now in the West is a harbinger of the End.

Girard says that the Christian unveiling “is wholly good, but we are unable to come to terms with it.” Think of the Spanish conquistadores, who could not come to terms with the religion they professed. Think of the whites of the pre-Civil Rights South. Think of the black, brown, and white Christians today, who sin and exploit others, in defiance of the religion they profess. Think of yourself.

More Girard:

Few Christians still talk about the apocalypse, and they usually have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.

Violence is a terrible adversary, since it always wins. Desiring war can thus become a spiritual attitude. We have to fight a violence that can no longer be controlled or mastered. More than ever, I am convinced that history has meaning, and that its meaning is terrifying.

Girard then takes the essay into a consideration of the meaning of Islamic terrorist violence. Read the whole thing. It’s not easy to understand, I must tell you. Here is one outstanding point:

Western rationalism operates like a myth: We always work harder to avoid seeing the catastrophe. We neither can nor want to see violence as it is.

All too true. Apocalypto is not about Good Spanish Christian Colonialists and Evil Aztec Pagans. It’s about violence, civilization, and religion. The civilizational catastrophe it dramatizes is not just that of the Aztecs. It is, as Girard might have said, our own, because it is the story of blind humanity.

(Funny: I started this post last night as a quick entry about the new archaeological findings, and ended up going down quite a rabbit hole.)

UPDATE: What’s funny about some of the comments is that there are people who are certain that Donald Trump is a fascist monster, but who can’t bring themselves to say that a civilization that bans human sacrifice is better than one that mandates it. Ah, modern progressives.