Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.
— Jose Ortega y Gasset

Word of the day:  Mayaland.

Now that I’ve read Matt’s post I realize that I’m echoing him in deciding that the name of our hotel in Chichen Itza captures the paradoxical mix of nostalgia and casual commodification I see all around me. It’s the Maya’s  land as Disneyland.  As tourists we gaze, enthralled, at the monumental scale and beauty of Chichen Itza and wonder at the nobility and ancient wisdom of the Maya (we wonder also, a little less romantically, how they could stand to drag huge blocks of limestone around in this heat).

Mere hours later, their descendants serve us drinks and massage our feet.  One of the “Mayan rituals” on offer at this ecotourist spa is the hot stone massage, which involves–so the spa’s soothing website informs us–the sacred river stones of the Yucatan.  Since the Yucatan has neither rivers nor native stone anything like the igneous rocks used in the spa, this last bit seems unlikely at best, but we don’t say anything to break the spell.

Faced with paradox, I think about epistemology (well, yeah, we’re academics–what are you going to do?). It’s fascinating to see how each of us makes sense of the world through the lens of our disciplinary frameworks.

For example, there’s the (to me) vexing question of the human heart.  Again and again–in the site’s plaques, which are given in three languages; in the stories told by our mestizo-Maya tour guide; in the site’s evening lightshow–we are told that the Maya tore the heart, still beating, from each sacrificial victim as an offering to the gods (our guide also made much of the tales of virgins sacrificed in the sacred cenotes at Chichen Itza, but that’s another post).  What I can’t help but see here is the lure of a good story.  Skeptical as to its truth, I wonder if it actually originated with the Spanish, who obviously had a  stake in making the Maya seem as uncivilized as possible.

The typical tourist sources don’t seem interested in telling me where this version of events originated.  At the Temple of the Warriors, our guide shows us the frieze on the central temple’s face, where warriors as well as jaguars and eagles appear to devour large oval objects.  Human hearts, our guide announces, with relish.  But how do we know these are hearts, rather than–for instance–nice juicy mangoes?

Detail, frieze from the Temple of the Warriors (courtesy of, May 2011)

Our guide assures us that the proof exists in the site’s iconography, which he supports by showing us photos of the sacrificial rituals as depicted in the murals at another site, Cacaxtla; both sites, he explains, show sacrificial rituals using an object “the exact shape of a human heart.”   But poets have pondered for millennia the exact shape of the human heart.  And images can be interpreted in so many ways.  .  .

I find myself wondering whether the scene before us depicts a sacrifice at all.

Luckily, we have an expert in the archeology of these sites with us, and Heath is able to provide enough corroborating evidence, from a range of sources, so that I finally believe that the human heart really is what the Maya were after.

But as Wittgenstein taught us, to believe is not the same as to know.  On this trip, we’re all constructing knowledge, each from our own disciplinary perspectives.  Because we’re traveling together, we can exchange glimpses of our individual ways of understanding what we see–and I’m finding that exchange fascinating.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.