The Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán is not the biggest monument you can imagine. In fact, it’s dwarfed by the hills around it that it is meant to reflect. It’s cut into four levels, each of which is about the same as a couple flights of stair in a New York apartment building.
But at 7,500 feet, any climb can be rough. The view at the top is totally worth it – something unlike any other monument on Earth. No, not the graceful sloping of the topography or the precision lines of a long-dead culture. No, what catches is eye is the endless stream of crystal-clutching hippies clustered around the center point.
Every day, the ancient city just north of Mexico City sees hundreds or thousands of tourists belonging to two camps. One (my camp) is fascinated by an enigmatic dead empire and also wants a shot of the pyramids so astounding all their friends will comment on Facebook. The other hopes to channel the power of the ancients using $5 crystals bought at the bottom of the pyramid
“Could you feel it? I could totally feel it,” said one happy customer the day I was there.
This phenomenon is most pronounced at the solstices and equinoxes – when the power of the ancients is apparently the strongest. I have not been yet, but I am told it’s a festive cross between group séance and Burning Man. This year, being the year that the Maya supposedly predicted the end of the world, officials are bracing for record numbers of crystal-wielders.
But here’s the funny part. Teotihuacán isn’t Maya – it isn’t even Aztec.
This whole business with the end of the world is just one big lesson in bad history lessons. The Maya (please don’t call them Mayan – that’s just their language) began a few hundred years before Christ, peaked a few hundred years after Rome declined, and declined in the 900s, about the time the Vikings were running havoc in Europe. They were obsessed with dates and were really good at mixing calendars in order to count thousands of years in the future.
The Aztecs started up around the time Notre Dame was being built and ended rather suddenly in 1521 when they met a guy named Hernán Cortés, who conquered Tenochtitlán (the largest city in the world at the time, not to be confused with Teotihuacán, by then an ancient ruin) and renamed it Mexico City. The Aztecs were obsessed with the end of the world and regularly tossed bloody corpses off pyramids to avoid it. Undoubtedly they would have thought 2012 was the end of the world. Except they had no concept of 2012. Unlike the Maya, they did not count long; 1978, 1878, and 1478 would have been roughly the same thing.
Oh, and they weren’t called the Aztecs. They were, in fact, forbidden from calling themselves Aztecs after they left the mythical city of Azlan. They were called Mexica (meh-SHE-kah).
So the Mexica didn’t have “long count” and the Maya didn’t believe in the end of the world. And they lived 600 years apart. And as for the Teotihuacán people (sorry, they did not leave us their name), no one knows, since they didn’t really write much down. The Maya knew them, since they lived at the same time but they didn’t say much beyond that they were good fighters. The Mexica knew nothing of them, but visited their ruins for the same reason we do – they are totally awesome.
So what are we to make of people that travel thousands of miles to channel the power ancients with pieces of pretty glass? Sure, it’s fun to make fun of nut jobs who, the day I was there, couldn’t even find the exact center of the pyramid. But less funny is the exotification of an indigenous people. Can you imagine someone trying to channel the wisdom of the Romans with incense in the Coliseum? Or touching the soul of Vikings by dancing around in one of those horn hemets? Yet in many ways the Maya and Mexica cultures were more advanced than these (the Maya invented the concept of zero, while the Romans had to borrow it from Asia). Trying to pretend that Ancient Mesoamericans had mystical powers colors over the very real history of how they lived.
More than that, it muddies the water of the indigenous people still grappling with how to honor their ancient culture in a modern world. Don’t forget, when the Spanish conquered the New World they did their darndest to obliterate all pagan religions. Essentially they burned all the books that people today would read to understand what those religions thought, leaving us to glean what we can from statuettes and reliefs of angry monsters.
Their descendants have to find their own way through their history. When I visited Tikal in Northern Guatemala, there was a group of modern Maya holding a ceremony around a fire under the Jaguar Temple (for Star Wars fans, that’s the rebel base at the end of Episode 4). Anthropologists working in the area tell me there was no such ceremony during era of the Classic Maya and that fires would likely have been forbidden in such a sacred place. But cobbling together the remnants of a culture after centuries of practicing in the periphery is a tough thing to do and I am pretty sure modern Maya and Mexica would prefer to see it without foreign lenses.
In short, the world is not going to end in 2012. The Maya didn’t think so and the Aztec didn’t either. Of course, it’s always possible that I am wrong about all of this. Worst case scenario: Despite the work of thousands of geniuses, the Large Hadron Collider opens up a black hole in Switzerland that instantaneously consumes the planet. If that happens midnight of December 21, two totally different groups of cranks will take that final moment to issue a global “I told you so.”
Erik Vance is a science writer who lives in Mexico. His last LWON post was about prehensile penises. He thinks the coolest part of Mesoamerican architecture is that buildings were built over other buildings, so buildings were nested like Russian dolls — the idea being that even if you couldn’t see them, they were still there.
Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán, hippies, and the jaguar temple in Guatemala (people gathered at the bottom are a mix of indigenous people and tourists), all by Erik Vance