In Search Of… S02E04 Mayan Mysteries

Something something Maya something
Something something Maya something

We open on a Mayan guy carrying a pack through the jungle. After last season's relatively sensible episode on the Inca, I didn't want to jump to conclusions about this episode. Buuut… While we’re watching Mayan people, Nimoy explains that their hearts are unusually slow, their teeth don't decay and their cranial cavities are weird shapes.

What the hell, Nimoy?

They are the descendants of a vanished people. Well, no. Mayan civilization vanished, the Mayan people didn't. If they did, they wouldn't have left any descendants. Duh. Nimoy asks where they came from and why their civilization flourished and then disappeared. The answer to the second one is easy: because that's what civilizations do, it's just a question of timescale. I anticipate serious silliness when it comes to answering the first question.

(Aside: just Googled 'Mayan teeth', and some really interesting stuff came up about ancient Mayan dental modification. Some ancient Mayans had gems set into their incisors, which is pretty cool. The same articles also mention evidence of other ancient Mayan dental practices, including filling cavities. If they had cavities I have to assume that, yes, they had tooth decay.)

Next up comes Nimoy intoning that the Book of Genesis and the Theory of Evolution agree that light came out of the void. I'm… I'm pretty sure that the Theory of Evolution doesn't have much to say about the origin of light. Pretty sure. Nimoy goes on to give a lovely -- if not entirely accurate – speech about the origins of the Earth and the development of land, sea and life. It's just filler, but there is some very pretty wildlife photography.

Now we're looking at a cell. And a human embryo developing into a foetus, and now a guy re-enacting being a caveman, building a rock house. It's beautifully put together, almost poetic television. There's a lovely shot where the fully formed man stands silhouetted with the sun behind him, framed both by the square of the image but also by a perfect circle of lens flare. It's an utterly gorgeous image, made not by great artists with a huge budget but by overworked hacks working on a shoestring.

But, as is so often the case with In Search Of… the beauty of the show's rhetoric is inversely proportional to the plausibility of the show's argument.

Most civilizations, we're told, developed gradually. But the Mayans of Guatemala developed quickly. Beautiful shots of the pyramids of Tikal. Shorn of bullshit, this is all fascinating stuff. There's a weird thing that people do where they compare Egyptian pyramids to Mesoamerican pyramids. They really don't look anything like each other. Mayan pyramids are complex and ornate, and were used for different purposes.

Now we're talking to Al Orisca (sp?), who is described as a pre-Colombian scholar and poet. Since I can’t figure out the spelling of his name, I can’t Google him. Well played, In Search Of… [Edit - I'm told that this guy is probably Alurista (b. 1947). I've put in a correction at the end of this post, but otherwise I'm leaving my dumb spelling where it is as a warning to myself to Google harder, damn it]

Nimoy claims that Orisca believes the Mayan civilization is the oldest in the world. Risca himself claims that the pyramids were centres of learning where people studied to be masters of matter and energy, and contained chambers where people were initiated into secret societies of astronomers.

I kind of like the idea of a secret society of astronomers. A meets B under a star-filled night sky:

A: What you looking at?

B: Nothing.

A: Looking at the stars, maybe?

B: No.

A: ‘Cause sometimes I see you guys in the weird robes looking at the stars, so…

B: I’m not looking at anything! Shut up! Your mama!

Over more beautiful footage of Tikal, Nimoy claims that 'no evidence has been discovered to explain Mayan advances in astronomy and mathematics." Uh… I don't even. You know that's true of a lot of civilizations, right? They didn't keep 'advancement logs' or anything, they just kind of, you know, did stuff. Nimoy goes on to talk about the Mayan calendar and numbering system, both of which are fascinating, but given very quick treatment. The 'Mayan calendar says we're doomed' thing that was so popular a few years ago isn't mentioned. Don't think that was a thing in the '70s.

Apparently in 1947 Charles Healey made a discovery about Mayan ceremony... We're looking at murals and holy crap! These murals are awesome! I've literally never seen these before. Everything I've seen on the Maya has focused on their stone art. This is extraordinary. The colours are very bright, so I assume it's a recreation or a restoration of the original. Sorry, got stuck on a tangent. Anyhow, the takeaway of this bit for purposes of this episode is that the priest-astronomers were important.

There's talk about the observatories the priests used and the libraries of books they wrote and used. Nimoy says that Mayan written language has not been deciphered, and I wonder if that's still true now. (Wikipedia: ‘yes it has been translated’) In the studio, Nimoy (dressed in a denim shirt) holds up a toy crocodile as proof that the Mayans had the wheel. My understanding is that quite a few Mesoamerican societies had wheeled toys but didn't use wheels for practical purposes. It's certainly something that seems baffling to the Western mind, but I guess it made sense to them.

The Mayans had straight roads, Nimoy wonders about the spiritual purpose of roads linking sacred sites. Usmal, a gorgeous site of earth mounds and stone buildings. Orisca chimes in to talk about Mayan mysticism and how energy doesn't move in straight lines. Didn't Nimoy just make a point about how straight Mayan roads were and try to link that to spirituality? Anyway, we're talking about the Mayan snake-cult. Nimoy says that the snake god Cucucan was depicted as a white-skinned, bearded man (represented here by a hippy in a white hat) who brought knowledge and wisdom to the people.

And just like that we're at the observatory of Chichen Izta, watching some Mayans hold a concert. Nimoy talks about how Cucucan built the observatories. "According to legend," Cucucan disappeared and evil magicians arrived. A well was found to be full of bones, Nimoy implies that 'imperfect' children were killed. A sporting match resulted in the death of the losers and massive rewards for the winners. We're kind of racing through 'aspects of Mayan society'. Leaving space for… what? Aliens? Atlantis?

The Count of Saint Germaine?

Then the priests vanished, Nimoy says. He wonders if they foresaw the end of the cosmic cycle, but I don't see what good it would do to run from that. "No one knows for sure." Huh. The Mayan cities were abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived. There's a charmingly stupid re-enactment of a bunch of monks marching along the beach and burning the Mayan books.

Orisca explains that this was bad, and suggests that the reason for this religious hostility comes from Christian misunderstanding the nature of Mayan serpent worship. Realistically, I think the monks would have burnt those books if the Mayans had worshiped puppies. Snake worship was just the icing on the cake. Nimoy laments the destruction of Mayan wisdom. Without it, we are left to speculate, he says.

Speculate away, Leonard. Speculate away.

Nimoy runs through a bunch of explanations to explain the Mayan collapse, before wondering whether they moved to avoid earthquakes. It seems mostly an excuse to show footage of the 1976 Guatemala City Earthquake. Sad shots of ruined buildings and funerals. Sad now.

Now Nimoy is wondering about crop failure. Some interesting footage of slash and burn agriculture. Orista says the Mayan collapse couldn't have been caused this way because the priests could predict earthquakes and weather too well. Fascinating, if true. Orista also claims that changing weather patterns couldn’t be the cause because the Mayans used psychic energy to make it rain, and also the ancient Mayans were Communists.

Can we stop talking to this guy please? Thank you.

But no, he's still talking about Mayan cities being built on energy grids. He says that the Mayans didn't 'leave the Earth' when their society collapsed. Well, no, their descendants are still right there. Orista claims that the Mayans left the Yucatan, and travelled to Egypt, crossed the Red Sea. It's a little hard to hear what he says next because of the intrusive electronic music, but I think he says something about Nepal.

At the Dead Sea, a Mayan colony was formed. Jesus' last words were misinterpreted because they weren't Aramaic, they were Mayan.

Almost makes me wish we had been talking about Atlantis.

Some Mayans hold a ceremony in a cave, while Nimoy bemoans the loss of their priestly knowledge. Now there's some shots of a Mayan guy carrying a dead deer, and a Mayan woman with a bucketful of corn. Nimoy starts talking about the Mayan calendar and… Oh! Okay, so the 'Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2011' thing was around in the '70s. Except in this iteration, an earthquake would end the cycle of civilization, new men of knowledge would appear and a world government would form. My memories of 2011 are a little hazy, but I'm pretty sure that's what happened.

Final shot of lens flare over Mayan observatory, end.

I guess the thesis of this episode is that it was the Mayans who were the ur-civilization that brought mystical knowledge to the world. This time. On previous occasions, it's been Atlantis or aliens, but this time, this time it was the Mayans, with their slow hearts and decay-proof teeth.

You know what? This theory is wrong, but I'm still going to call it a victory. At least the force behind world history this time was actual real human people. Makes a nice change.

Note: A friend of mine tells me that the scholar and poet in question is probably Alurita. Initially, I was going to go through this post and change what I'd written to reflect this new information. Then I realised how unfair this was. I make fun of the things that people said forty years ago, their words forever encased in the amber that is In Search Of… It doesn't seem fair that I can just wipe away the stupid things that I said. So I will leave what I wrote, together with this explanatory note.

Alurica is a Chicano activist. As such, I have to wonder if his theory about the Mayans being the first civilisation and inventing Jesus is a genuine belief, or a deliberate, satirical inversion of racist tropes in which all of Mesoamerican civilisation somehow comes out of the old world. I honestly don't know, but even if what he's saying is meant to be taken at face value, it's clear that what's going on here is a lot more complex than a lot of the Eurocentric pseudoarcheology that this In Search Of... usually presents. So, on the one hand, I don't agree with much of what Alurista says here, but on the other hand I do feel a little bad about being such a dick about disagreeing with him.

Best Quote

Nimoy: "The answer may be found in an incredible drama played in an obscure place by men who served a different god."

'Elsewhere,' Leonard. You can just say 'a drama played out elsewhere'.

Summing Up

Beautifully composed shots: 10/10, Intrusive electronic music: 6/10, Direct contradiction of several previous episodes: 8/10, Nimoyness: 8/10, Frequent mentions of Guatemala: 7/10. Overall: 39/50. Distinction.

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One thought on “In Search Of… S02E04 Mayan Mysteries

  1. John

    The Mayan episode would have been more topical to watch back in 2012. However, the Mayan Calendar that tin hat wearing doomsdayers claimed pointed to the end of times didn't account for Leap Years. So actually, the alleged end would have come on June 4th, 2016 (coincidentally my birthday - cue eerie music).
    But alas, the end of the world didn't occur. And even though there was a perfect square grand cross alignment of the New Moon with Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and the Nodes on June 4th last year, that Major Multicontextual Significance didn't keep the clouds from raining on the baseball game I was at. So much for my birthday having a cosmic meaning, never mind the world didn't end. Though maybe this part of my commentary belonged on that ultra boring "ASTRONOMY" episode. Then again, maybe if they had COMBINED the Astrology and Mayan episodes...

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