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Betraying the Maya Volume 60 Number 2, March/April 2007
by David Freidel

Who does the violence in Apocalypto really hurt?

[image]Typical Maya were peasant farmers who worshiped the maize god depicted here on a burial urn, and not the jungle-dwelling hunter-gatherers of Apocalypto. (©Justin Kerr)

King Kan B'ahlam of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, commissioned three beautiful temples in the late seventh century A.D. Inside each is a smaller one, just big enough to house a large relief framed by long inscriptions. Written in verse, the inscriptions recount the births of the kingdom's three patron gods and show that they were the beloved of the king; nurtured as a mother suckles a baby; and given new homes, revived, and healed after a terrible desecration at the hands of enemies almost a century earlier. The story weaves the history of the kingdom and Kan B'ahlam into the fabric of the cosmos.

In Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, a Maya ruler sits silently as his priests butcher captives in the fashion of the Aztecs of highland Mexico. He has no words, no songs, no history, no name. He is a rich, powerful, sadistic brute. In stark contrast, the people of the forest in Apocalypto, the defenders of nature, are funny, wise, handsome, beautiful, and profoundly naive. They are primitives, innocent of the corruptive influences of civilization and urban society. But no such people existed in the Maya world. Gibson has several engaging natives in his tableau macabre nightmare of civilization versus nature, but they bear only superficial resemblance to Maya peoples, ancient or modern, despite speaking the Yucatec language.


The colorful frescoes at Bonampak, among the finest examples of Maya painting, depict occasionally bloody court rituals and ceremonies. Here, the ruler Chan Muawan presides over the torture of captives. (©Justin Kerr)

Apocalypto is a violently grotesque and surreal work, crafted with devotion to detail but with disdain for historical coherence or substance. It is a horrific and gripping vision from the mind of its maker. Most film critics and moviegoers probably will not see that the film is a big lie about the savagery of the civilization created by the pre-Columbian Maya. As one who has devoted his life to bridging the gap between the Maya and Americans, I wish Gibson had chosen other victims to sacrifice for his art. Allegory and artistic freedom are well and good, except when they slanderously misrepresent an entire civilization. Gibson insults his audience's intelligence if he thinks it could not grasp or be entertained by a subtle depiction of Maya culture, religion, and social organization. The sad irony is that, in the wake of the most recent research, really good films about the Classic Maya, and the period of the Spanish conquest, have been waiting a long time for a director of Gibson's talents.

In the first week of its release, Apocalypto provoked many eloquent and detailed critiques among professionals who work with and for the modern Maya, and for fair representation of the Maya past. Reaction among educated modern Maya will be worth contemplating. Modern Maya leaders have been speaking out against racism and oppression for generations, and Apocalypto will likely strengthen the depressing sense that their voices are drowned out by the self-absorbed fantasies and deep denial of privileged people. Ordinary Maya, with their hard lives and bleak futures, may see Apocalypto as another bizarre action flick, no more connected to them than comparable action films from China. Or maybe not. Some may be angered and saddened.


At El Perú-Waka' archaeologists found the remains of a Maya Its'at, or king-scholar. Modern Maya working at the site made offerings and prayed at the grave of their ancestor. (Courtesy David Freidel)

How modern people depict the ancient Maya matters because we use the past to reflect on the present and the future. Jared Diamond, drawing principally on the work of Maya archaeologist David Webster, features the case of the Classic Maya in Collapse, his latest contemplation on human history. But the dark lessons of antiquity are not the only ones. In the twentieth century, the Maya have emerged in public consciousness as master mathematicians who invented place notation and the concept of zero, brilliant astronomers whose calendars were as accurate as any in the Old World, and revered architects--Frank Lloyd Wright is reputed to have declared Puuc-style architecture in the northern lowlands the best in the Western Hemisphere. We newcomers to the Americas, with our shallow roots in this old place, could hold up the Maya with pride to our contemporaries elsewhere and their millennia-old cities and institutions. Our continent is rich in ancient accomplishment, too, and our admiration has been earned through clear-minded appraisal of the material record, and increasingly the historical one. The Classic Maya wrote history, scripture, and poetry that contain knowledge of the human condition and spirit, as well as wisdom that compares favorably with that of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other hearths of civilization. Finally, the accuracy of modern depictions of ancient Maya matters deeply and personally to those of us who care about the millions of people who speak a Mayan language and the societies that they call home in Mexico, Central America, and the United States.

David Freidel is University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America