Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 14, 2024

The ghost children

It's often difficult to look at other cultures, especially ones in the distant past, in a dispassionate way, without making value judgments about them based on the way we do things in our own.

I've written recently about the Roman Empire, which is a culture a lot of people in the western world revere for its dedication to art, architecture, and literature.  The fact remains, however, that they were (from our standpoint) classist and sexist, had no problem with slavery, and punished people for minor offenses in a way most of us would describe as extremely brutal.  You can't laud them for their (very real) accomplishments without simultaneously opening your eyes to the many ways in which their culture, from a modern perspective, breaks all manner of standards for conventional morality and ethics.  Those practices were as much an integral part of Roman society as were the beautiful things they created.

I'm not saying we should condone what they did, but it's important to try to understand it. 

Another example, and the reason the topic comes up, is the Classical Mayan civilization, which lasted from the third to the ninth century C.E., at which point the government collapsed from what appears to be internecine warfare triggered by a massive drought and famine.  The Mayans had some traditions that are difficult for us to comprehend -- a good example is the ritual ball game.  It was played on a court ruled by the Lords of Xibalba (the underworld), and so was considered to be a liminal space somewhere between the real world and the spirit world.  The losers were often sacrificed -- but it was considered to be an honor to lose your life in a ball game, and it assured you a high place in the next plane of existence.

Strange, perhaps.  Although given our adulation of sports superstars, maybe it's not as far away from our culture as it might appear at first.

Even further from our norms is their practice of ritual child sacrifice.  A paper in Nature last week describes the discovery in Chichén Itzá of 64 skeletons, mostly young boys, who were apparently sacrificed to the gods -- most intriguingly, the DNA evidence shows that many of them were closely related to each other, and a few were pairs of identical twins.  There's a legend recorded in the Mayan sacred document Popol Vuh of a pair of hero twins fighting (and winning) against hostile deities, and it's possible that this is why the twins were chosen for sacrifice.  The children died toward the end of the Classic Period, and the conjecture, based upon inscriptions in the tunnels where the skeletons were found, is that the sacrifices were to the rain god Chaac.

Understandable considering what was unfolding climatically at the time.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Juan Carlos Fonseca Mata, Escritura maya, CC BY-SA 4.0]

Unfortunately, too little is known for sure about pre-contact Mayan practices to be all that certain about the context in which these sacrifices were made.  The Christian missionaries who came into what is now Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala did far too thorough a job of stamping out indigenous beliefs and destroying the Native people's artifacts and writings to have very much to go on.  But what's certain is that child sacrifice was widely practiced -- and not of captured children of conquered enemies, but of their own offspring, leaving behind these pathetic remains, the ghost children of a long-gone civilization.

It's hard to fathom.  "Protect your children" is one of the foundational moral values of most of the world's cultures.  But what I wonder is, what if they believed this was protecting them -- dedicating them to the gods, assuring their place in the afterlife, just as the losers of the ball game believed?  Belief can make people act oddly -- at least, oddly from our perspective.  If the climate was careening toward drought, crops failing, wells and sinkholes drying up, maybe parents felt it was an honor to offer their children up, both for the sake of improving their fate in the next world but for the good of the entire community.

I'm not saying I understand it, not really.  This sort of thing still strikes me as the darkest side of what superstition can drive people to do.  But you have to wonder how an advanced alien civilization would view our own culture.  How many of our own accepted practices would horrify and disgust them?  We routinely turn our faces away from homelessness, poverty, and hunger in our own communities.  The same people who proudly call themselves "pro-life" and follow a deity who said "Let the little children come unto me" regularly vote against programs to help our own society's poor children obtain access to food and medical care.  We shrug our shoulders at famine and war and suffering, as long as the ones affected are The Other -- a different skin color, language, ethnic identity, or religion than our own.  We marginalize people -- in some countries, imprison or execute them -- because they are LGBTQ+.

Once again, perhaps we're not so different from the cultures of the past as we'd like to believe.


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