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Inventions and Fantasies of Mesoamerica
Around 1510 a Spanish reconnaissance expedition from the island of Cuba made contact with a small group of Maya Indians on a beach bordering territory that the people called the Land of the Turkey and the Deer. Attempting to figure out their location the Spaniards shouted, "What is this place called?" The natives replied, "Uic athan," meaning, "We do not understand your words." In an ironic turn of meaning characteristic of many changes that were to follow, the Spaniards decided to call this area Yucatan, a place name that is now the permanent designation for this eastern part of Mesoamerican.
Mesoamerica is a term given by scholars to designate a geographical and cultural area covering the southern two-thirds of mainland Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. In this area the powerful processes of urban generation began with sophisticated agricultural production in the second millennium BCE and ended with the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century CE. Extensive research shows that Mesoamerica was inhabited by a wide spectrum of social groups with various levels of social integration; but the permanent, extensive ceremonial centers at the heart of social worlds resembling small-scale city-states became the most powerful social unit in a few different regions beginning around 1500 BCE. It is also clear that the earliest and most influential institutions contributing to the organization of peoples into urban centers were sacred ceremonial precincts. Therefore it is usefulto approach the study of Mesoamerican religions through the continuous patterns and presence for cosmovision and ritual action created and celebrated within these ceremonial centers and their city-states.
As the naming of Yucatan suggests, however, knowledge of these places and peoples was subject to inventions and fantasies that have had long-term influences. Unless we acknowledge their presence, they can silently distort our understanding of religion in Mesoamerican cultures. In fact Mesoamerica was a powerful European fantasy long before it was mapped or lived in. It was believed to be at once the Garden of Eden and the land of wild men, monstrosities, and devil worship. As the quote that opens the preface to this book indicates, there was excitement and even euphoria in Europe at the news of Columbus's landfall. This excitement extended beyond the Italian humanist Peter Martyr, as indicated by the fact that Columbus's first letter to the crown was published nine times in 1493 and twenty times by 1500. However, it was not easy or comfortable for Europeans to fit the incredible news of entirely unknown lands, peoples, empires, souls, gold, into their intellectual horizon. America became, for centuries, a "strange new world" with different languages, customs, symbols, cuisines, philosophies, manners, and landscapes. Juxtaposed to Peter Martyr's happy announcement is the cleric Cornelius De Pauw's claim, three hundred years later, that the "discovery of the New World was the most calamitous event in human history."2
Europeans struggled in diverse ways to observe, perceive, and understand the New World of America. In the process they produced many inventions and fantasies. The many inventions and fantasies concerning Mesoamerica can be divided into two groups: fantasies about Mesoamerican geography and inventions about the nature of human beings. It is important to review these fantasies and inventions before we study the religions of the Aztecs, Mayas, their neighbors, and contemporary religious expressions. This will help us see how Mesoamerican peoples and places were both attractive and threatening to European consciousness. It is important to be aware of this powerful ambivalence concerning religions and peoples in the New World so we can lessen its influence in our approach to Mesoamerican cultures, religious practices, and creativity. It is also important to recognize the religious themes that were woven into the European inventions about Mesoamerica.
Mesoamerica as an Earthly Paradise
From their first sightings of the "Indies" to the end of the sixteenth century, Europeans hoped they had discovered an earthly paradise filled with the Garden of Eden, the Seven Enchanted Cities of Gold, and the Fountain of Youth. These wonderful images had been deposited in European traditions for centuries, and it made sense to compare the exotic reports of the explorers with these fabulous places. It is significant that two major English literary works, Shakespeare's The Tempest and Thomas More's Utopia, reflect the fantasy that Europe was going to be renewed and transformed for the good by the settlement of the New World. We see the energy of this fantasy in Miranda's lines to Prospero in the last scene of The Tempest. In describing her "vision of the island" (at once Naples and America) she states,
MIRANDA: O Wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is.
O, brave new world, that has such people in't.
PROSPERO: Tis new to thee. (Act 5, Scene 1)
While classical and European society had long dreamed and written about ideal social societies where human possibility could be fulfilled, Thomas More's image of Utopia (meaning "good place" and "no place") reflects the renewed sense that the dream was about to be realized in America. In fact the narrator of Utopia, Ralph Hythloday, was portrayed as the companion of Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who was credited with concluding in 1507 that the landmass of South America was not part of Asia, but was in fact a new continent. For this insight America was named after him.
The voyages of discovery stimulated both great interest and defensiveness on the part of Europeans, whose maps of geography and of humankind were being quickly and radically challenged. On the one hand there seemed to be "newness" coming in many forms. New lands, peoples, languages, colors, animals, vegetation, and religions were appearing on the European frontier. On the other hand these novelties appeared so "other," different, and--in Europeans' views--undeveloped that the Europeans felt the peoples of the New World of America had not evolved or progressed as they believed their own culture had.