We Came-We Saw-We Ruined?
As a schoolchild in grade four, our geography material was presented in the guise of an around-the-world airplane trip. Each person in the class had a job connected with our “flight”. A few were travel agents, some were hotel owners in the cities were visited, others were museum guides in the countries were visited, several had the job of tourist, two lucky girls were the stewardesses (I was one!) and two boys thought they had the dream jobs of pilots, that is until they had to do the math involved with number of suitcases per traveler, etc. Since it was quite a few years ago (No, I am not telling exactly how many!), it clearly was a memorable way to present world history.
One of the things I remember the most about that trip around the world was how different other cultures were and how much trouble my fellow students found themselves in when they mocked these cultures. Our imaginary airplane had a time machine in it that would take us back to the earliest times of each country. In England we had a mock jousting contest; in Spain we built a cardboard ship celebrating the Spanish Armada; in Italy we made our own plaster and “painted” a fresco.
It is very easy to read these myths I’ve briefly presented from the world’s cultures and laugh. That would be doing them and us a grave injustice, though. It may seem like these myths were the imaginings of a primitive people but these were actually very sophisticated cultures for the most part. While the Incans did not have a written system for communication, they developed a highly complex and effective roadway system that was the great-great-grandfather of many highway and autobahn systems today.
The Mayans lived in what is now called the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala. The land is so fertile that farming was easy and their main crop of corn or maize was in surplus each year. Without concern for their food sources, the Mayans spent their time on other endeavors. They were excellent mathematicians and astronomers and developed a hieroglyphic system of writing that was used in the printing of books.
In 1524 the Spanish conquered the Mayans. Spanish missionaries encouraged the Maya to use the Latin phonetic alphabet that comprises Spanish in recording their own history. While their cities and temples had been destroyed, this allowed a continuance of their history and culture. Today over three hundred thousand people speak the Maya language, one of the largest number of native-speaking groups in the world still using their ancient dialect.
The Mayan recorded creation myth was written anonymously somewhere between 1554 and 1558 ACE. In 1700 it was translated into Spanish by a Roman Catholic missionary. Shortly thereafter, the manuscript disappeared and resurfaced around 1850. Entitled “The Popol Vuh”, this Mayan creation myth is a literary masterpiece of lyrical poetry and beauty. There is evidence of Christian influence and some of the wording is reflective of the beginning chapters of the Old Testament. Here are a few sentences. “In the beginning, only the sky above and the sea below existed in the eternal darkness, and they were calm and silent, for nothing existed that could move or make noise.” Further on is written: “Hidden in the water under green and blue feathers were the Creators. These great thinkers talked quietly together in the water, alone in the universe, alone in the darkness of the eternal night.”
“The Popol Vuh” is a beautiful story and probably one of my most favorite creation myths. It is not a series of grunts and banging of sticks, what one would expect from cave men portrayed in cartoons. It is the story of a sensitive, intelligent people. All too often we think of missionaries as having to go in and explain modern civilization to the people they are supposedly “saving”. I do not discount the importance of missionaries. However, we need to remember that we are all brothers and sisters and if we have value, so do the natives of the areas to which these missionaries are going.
Hopefully, as aid arrives and progress is made, culture is not sacrificed. Google the Mayan creation myth and read it for yourself. It is a beautiful story and, although William Shakespeare is a favorite of mine, I think you will find “The Popol Vuh” easier to read and just as lovely. We all need saving at times. We just don’t all need to throw away our past. It is a part of who we are and teaches us so very much about the present and the future. Towards the end of this creation myth, the Creators exclaim “So let it be! … In the dawn of the universe, let the light of early morning shine upon all that we have created!” My wish for today is that you respect all that was created and that the light of creation shines upon us all.