October 09, 2012

Maya sacrifice in The Simpsons

Sunday's episode of The Simpsons (airdate: 10/8/12) opened with a Maya sequence about--what else?--the "end" of the calendar in 2012. You can see it here:


The characters all have tan skin, meaning they're supposed to be Indians, not white folks playing Indian. The art, architecture, writing, calendar, and numerical references (baktun) are reasonably accurate, especially for a cartoon.

With a few exceptions, the characters' appearances are good too. But Marge is wearing some sort of slinky savage-girl costume. A few of the others have too much skin showing. The working classes may have gone half-naked in the heat, but I think the elite mostly covered themselves.

Moe, Chief Wiggum, and the other officials have masks painted over their eyes. This kind of look seems more like a movie fiction than a reality. It serves to make the officials seem scary.

The execution

For starters, the Aztecs were the ones known for human sacrifice, not the Maya. Human sacrifice was relative rare among the Maya, so focusing on this makes their civilization seem more barbaric than it was.

Though Mayor Quimby says a prisoner is to be sacrificed to appease the gods, this is a gross simplification of the complex Maya religion. As Wikipedia explains:

Sacrifice in Maya cultureBlood, and by extension the still-beating heart, is the central element in both the ethnography and iconography of sacrifice, and its use through ritual established or renewed for the Maya a connection with the sacred that was for them essential to the very existence of the natural order. Julian Lee’s observation that the Maya "drew no sharp distinction between the animate and the inanimate" and the remarks by Pendergast and others that sacrifices "ensouled" buildings and idols indicates a social meaning, as Reilly suggests, most akin to Transubstantiation--a literal rather than symbolic transformation on which the fate of the world and its inhabitants depended.Moe is led off to be sacrificed in place of Homer. An executioner cuts off his head with a curved broadsword. I'm not sure anyone was sacrificed this way. From what I've read, most sacrifices were thrown into cenotes (wells), had their hearts cut out, or were shot with arrows. Showing a decapitation with Moe's head bouncing down the stairs is somewhat more gruesome than the reality.

The destruction

Using a clever Maya slide-rule, Professor Frink calculates that the calendar will end in 2012. We flash-forward to the present where three Maya gods smash everything.

First, I'm not sure the Maya gods even exist in human form. My impression is that they're more like forces that take on aspects of humans or animals. In other words, amorphous shapeshifters, not beings with a standard appearance like Zeus or Odin.

More important, no one has claimed the Maya or their gods would themselves cause the "prophesied" destruction. The Maya supposedly predicted the end, but it's not as if they wanted it to happen. They're the messengers, not the instigators. If the world were to end in 2012, it would happen via a natural cataclysm, not a godly temper tantrum.

Finally, as I've noted before, the world's ending in 2012 is a myth:

Maya mural contradicts "doomsday" myth
World won't end in 2012?

The calendar rollover signifies, at most, a symbolic turning point in history. If anything did happen, it would be a process of change and renewal, not destruction. For instance, if people started to care about climate change, it would "destroy" the old mindset of greed and selfishness.

So the Simpsons' scenario is doubly wrong. It implies the Maya expect the world to end and, worse, are causing it to end. Neither claim is true.

This destruction conveys the same idea as past centuries of stereotypes: that Indians are savage barbarians with no regard for life. That they exist primarily to crush, kill, and destroy things. That despite their art and architecture, they're little more than animals in human guise.

That's stereotypical if not racist. Many Maya Indians would disagree with this characterization of their ancestors. They're alive and well and some of them probably watch The Simpsons.

The Maya sequence gets points for starting off with a decent depiction of the culture. It loses those points and more for presenting a human sacrifice. And worse, for fabricating the meaning of the calendar's end. For portraying the Maya deities as cruel and inhuman enough to destroy life on earth. The Old Testament God may be a genocidal maniac (see the Flood), but Native gods aren't.

For more on The Simpsons, see Navajo Boy in Brother's Little Helper and "Arapaho Ghost Dancer" in The Simpsons.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but "Some scammer in the 80s interpreted the Mayan calendar this way because people in Hollywood, to borrow from Henry Miller, treat the word 'esoteric' as divine ichor." doesn't have the same "scary" ring to it.

RM said...

Yes, there's a lot wrong with that Simpsons episode. The Maya aren't causing the end of the world, there's some misinterpretation of the whole calendrical system, and, if you want to add to the list, Chichen Itza wasn't the height of "the Mayan civilization"; it was the tail end of the prominence of loosely connected city-states. Yes, the episode is definitely oversimplifying ritual/religion.

But so are you! First of all, PLENTY of visual culture exists that suggests that Maya city-states sacrificed humans. All you have to do is look at wall murals at Bonampak, to name just one site, for evidence of that. Your statement that they weren't barbaric like the Aztecs perpetuates a view of the Aztecs established by European invaders of the continent. We "know" what the Aztecs did because the Spanish wrote it down. That's not true of Maya city-states.

Second of all, there is no monolith of "Maya Indians"" - the Maya that live throughout the Americas today have very different identities, much like those that lived in pre-Columbian times.

If we're going to correct myths and misconceptions, let's be right about it rather than loosely cobbling together other factoids that we've heard throughout the years. It does no good.

Rob said...

Since I linked to and quoted Wikipedia's "Sacrifice in Maya Culture" page, it's silly to claim I don't know about sacrifice in Maya culture. I said human sacrifice--especially the adult kind depicted in The Simpsons--was relatively rare, not nonexistent.

I didn't claim the Maya were a monolith. I did generalize about them like I do about every Native culture: Lakota, Navajo, Cherokee, et al. If a statement is generally true, it's good enough for a superficial analysis like this one.