Remaining in the New World, that treasurehouse of “mysteries” that most of his readers will find unfamiliar, Graham Hancock turns his attention to what he calls Central America (why do so many people not understand that Mexico, Guatemala and Belize are North American countries?). This region was the home to a number of spectacular civilisations, of which two—the Maya and the Aztecs—are likely to be known to his readers, but as little more than names. Both were active when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the second decade of the sixteenth century and although the Aztec kingdom was quickly defeated, resistance by Maya communities lingered long and the Maya of Yucatán rebelled against Mexican government a number of times during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
None of this recent history is of any consequence to Graham Hancock, of course. His is a “quest for the beginning and the end”. We must put to the back of our mind any thoughts about the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs that has allowed a history of individual city states to be read, about the chronicles written in indigenous languages after the Spanish conquest and about the results of more than a century of archaeological research. That would spoil Mr Hancock’s fun with the facts.
Chapter 13: those bloodthirsty Maya!
After reading this chapter twice, I still have the impression that there is very little to it. Perhaps I am doing Graham Hancock a disservice, but it seems remarkably data free. We are launched, without preamble, into a description of Chichén Itzá, one of the best preserved (albeit much restored) of the Maya cities of the northern Yucatán. It dates from the Late Classic to early Post-Classic period (around 600-1200 CE), although the surviving buildings belong to the later phases of activity at the site.
We start with a description of El Castillo, sometimes known as the Temple of K’uk’ulkan (after the snake god of the Maya), which Hancock refers to as a ziggurat, although most people refer to it as a pyramid. Somehow, he finds the 91 steps on each face and the additional step of the platform on top remarkable, in that they add up to the 365 days of the Haab’ year. He is also impressed by the illusion of a snake crawling down the northern staircase of the pyramid caused by the moving shadow of the north-western corner on the afternoon of the equinoxes. I’m not sure why the idea that the phenomenon lasts “for 3 hours and 22 minutes exactly” is meant to be so important.
Nor is it clear why he has to mention “the oft-repeated fallacy that the peoples of Central America had never succeeded in developing the column as an architectural feature” until we realise that it is an obvious bit of innuendo: the fearless Mr Hancock is telling his lucky readers what no-one else will tell them. Never mind that any description of the city in a standard tourist guide-book will mention the Group of a Thousand Columns that lies in three principal sections to the north and south of the Temple of the Warriors and east of El Castillo. Hancock has successfully muddied the waters with an implication that there are misconceptions about the archaeology of the Maya that only he can sweep away.
Climbing the steps of the Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors), he is confronted by a Chacmool, exuding “a fierce and pitiless energy… thin-lipped and implacable, as hard and indifferent as the stone from which they were carved”. He doesn’t seem to like the Maya: theirs was “a hybrid society… by no means exceptional in its addiction to cruel and barbaric ceremonies”. We can sense (and indeed empathise with) his distaste. To a twenty-first century westerner, the practice of human sacrifice, performed by ripping the still-beating heart from the chest of the victim, is horrific. What Hancock has not done is to place it in its cultural context.
Suddenly, with nary a train journey or an aeroplane flight, we are in Villahermosa, beside the River Tonalá west of the base of the Yucatán peninsula. There is an ominous subheading: Slaughterhouses. Clearly, we are not going to be spared further details of the Meso-American obsession with human sacrifice. To add to the horror, Graham Hancock is considering the “Altar of Infant Sacrifice”. He hasn’t told us that he’s not actually in Villahermosa, a Spanish city founded in 1564, but at La Venta, a kilometre or so to the north-west of the historic city.
We are still immersed in Hancock’s revulsion, as he describes what he calls “the Altar of Infant Sacrifice”, although stick-in-the-mud archaeologists, who refer to it prosaically as Altar 5, do not see priests carrying off “a healthy, chubby, struggling infant, whose desperate fear was clearly visible” but were-jaguars. Although the scenes have been thought to represent child sacrifice (and such did take place in Mesoamerican cultures), this is a minority opinion and it is thought more likely that they depict a myth about the origins of humanity or an allegory of spiritual development. Human/animal hybrids were commonplace in Olmec art, although their precise interpretation is unknown and is likely to remain so. Never mind that these structures are no longer thought to be altars, anyway: it is generally agreed that they functioned as thrones for Olmec rulers during religious ceremonies, as they are set up facing pyramid mounds. As ever, despite the purple prose, things are not quite the same as Hancock’s description.
Nevertheless, he is correct in stating that the Olmec culture is the earliest known complex society of Mesoamerica, although he strangely doesn’t give an absolute date. Instead, he leaps forward in time to the Aztecs, whom he places 2500 years later “at the time of the Spanish conquest”. Well, I suppose that 1000 BCE is during the period of the Olmec civilisation, which is generally reckoned to have lasted from around 1200 to 600 BCE, with a formative stage from around 1700 BCE. Is this reluctance to give calendar dates part of Hancock’s technique of making the well understood seem obscure?
There is no relief from bloodshed as we jump to the Aztecs, notorious even today for their love of human sacrifice, which, we are told, they performed “with fanatical zeal”. We have gory descriptions of their religious rites, with a stress on the vast numbers slaughtered at particular times. Yes, these were horrible ceremonies but Graham Hancock seems not to want them to be done in the name of a god: instead, they were “done to delay the coming of the end of the world”. We are clearly about to be immersed in an account of the Mesoamerican conception of cyclical history. Remember that all this was written before the fuss about 2012!
What follows is an exposition of the Aztec belief of the Five Suns: the idea that there had been cycles of creation, each ending in a destruction of the entire universe. Hancock gives a perfectly reasonable description of the Aztec beliefs, which seem to have been shared between the Nahua peoples, although he does not mention that they are known in a number of different versions. The generally agreed outline is that the first world, Nahui-Ocelotl (Jaguar Sun), was inhabited by giants who were devoured by jaguars; at the end of the second world, Nahui-Ehécatl (Wind Sun), people were transformed into monkeys when the world was destroyed by hurricanes; in the third world, Nahui-Quiahuitl (Rain Sun), the inhabitants were turned into birds when the world was destroyed; the fourth world, Nahui-Atl (Water Sun), was destroyed by floods and its people were transformed into fish (although in one version, a couple were transformed into dogs). Modern humans live in Nahui-Ollin (Earthquake Sun), which will be destroyed by earthquakes. The Aztec people believed that, as the chosen people of the sun, they could postpone the end of the world by providing it with tlaxcaltiliztli, the blood and beating hearts of human victims. Some versions of the stories say how long each sun had lasted: the first lasted for 4008 years, the second for 4010, the third for 4081 and the fourth for 5026.
Inevitably, we are introduced to the Piedra del Sol (the “Sun stone”), often thought to be an Aztec calendar, discovered during repairs to the cathedral in Mexico City in 1790. It is thought to be a symbolic representation of the Aztec year, as it contains glyphs representing the days of the month, but it is thought unlikely that this was its principal function. At the centre is a face, usually thought to represent Tonatiuh, the sun god, but possibly Tlaltecuhtli, an earth god; surrounding it, four rectangular panels depict the gods responsible for the destruction of the previous four worlds. Next comes a circle containing the glyphs for the twenty days of the Aztec month: Coatl (the snake), Cuetzpallin (the lizard), Calli (the temple), Ehecatl (the wind), Cipactli (the alligator), Xochitl (the flower), Quiahuitl (the rain), Tecpatl (flint), Ollin (movement), Cozcacuauhtli (the condor), Cuauhtle (the eagle), Ocelotl (the jaguar), Acatl (the reed), Malinalli (the grass), Ozomatli (the monkey), Itzquintli (the hairless dog), Atl (water), Tochtli (the hare), Mazatl (the deer) and Miquiztli (a skull). The next circle contains forty rectangular panels, each containing five dots. These are separated into groups of ten panels by a spike, with intermediate spikes resting on the outer edge of the circle, making eight in all. The next ring contains twelve jaguars and the whole design is contained by the bodies of two snakes, their heads at the bottom of the stone. The stone itself bears a date of 13 Acatl between the tails of the snakes, which is the date at which the fifth creation was believed to have occurred in 1011 CE. Most sources, though, think that it commemorates a later date in the 52-year cycle, perhaps 1427 or 1479. This is a much broader period than the 1479 accepted by Hancock during the reign of Axayacatl as King of Tenochtitlán (1469-1481), although it seems to be widely repeated on the web. However, it may simply be a reference to the creation of the current world. Once again, Graham Hancock is demonstrating a certainty that is not backed up by the evidence.
This discussion of calendars (and the Piedra del Sol is almost certainly not a calendar, even though it is decorated with calendrical data) brings us to the “Maya apocalypse”. Like so many westerners, Hancock is all too willing to conflate the beliefs of different Mesoamerican civilisations and to jump between cultures to make a point. While the Aztecs certainly subscribed to a cyclical view of history and believed that the current Age would end with cataclysmic movements of the earth, this is quite different from the largely invented “Maya apocalypse”. The Maya calendar expressed dates in terms of overlapping cycles, which would occasionally reset to a day zero; one such reset was due to happen—according to some calculations, at any rate—on 21 or 23 December 2012. Graham Hancock leaps at the apocalyptic idea (his “quest for… the end” taking over from his “quest for the beginning” at this point, no doubt) and finds himself “from time to time bothered by a nagging intuition that the voices of the ancient sages might deserve a hearing after all”. He is under the impression that the Maya “believed that they had worked out the date of the end of the world”, when in reality their calendar was coming to something akin to a contemporary change of millennium (which many of us also lived through unscathed). In this chapter, he’s turning out to be a real bundle of laughs.
Chapter 14: the Wiraqocha of the north?
However, it’s not all doom and gloom on the Mesoamerican front: Graham Hancock was “intrigued to discover” the Mexican twin of Wiraqocha, Quetzalcóatl. Unless this is a literary conceit (oh, the shock!), then his researchers haven’t been doing a very good job. The comparison—indeed, conflation—of Wiraqocha with Quetzalcóatl is a favourite theme of alternative historians. Erich von Däniken, for instance, seems not to understand that they are deities from different cultures; a discussion comparing them on David Icke’s forum ranks high on Google (third place when I checked); the wonderfully named Lunatic Outpost has a thread repeating much the same stuff. It’s all over the place, not just on the web, so how did Hancock only discover the alleged resemblances once he’d got to Mexico?
Just as we saw with Hancock’s treatment of Wiraqocha, he relies on Spanish accounts that describe him as a white, bearded man. For instance, he uses the Monarchichia Indiana of Juan de Torquemada (c 1562-1624)—no, not that Torquemada!—and cites that well-known scholarly work, Atlantis the Antediluvian World (1882) by Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831-1901), as a source for a statement in John Thomas Short’s (1850-1883) The North-Americans of Antiquity: their origin, migrations, and type of civilization considered (1880). Although the book is today used mainly as a quarry for data by believers in Atlantis, John T Short had been one of the prime movers of the Ohio Archaeological Society, founded in 1875. An ordained Methodist minister, he was appointed Assistant Professor in the newly formed Department of History and Philosophy at Ohio State University in June 1879, becoming Professor in September of the same year. John Short was clearly a well known individual and his book is still widely available: it is therefore amusing to note that Graham Hancock gets its title wrong and calls it North America of Antiquity! He has seen the citation in Atlantis and wrongly expanded Donnelly’s contraction “North Amer. of Antiq.”. We are seeing a recurring pattern in his “research”: the use of secondary sources, where the primary source is readily available, and introducing errors of his own making. Had he looked at Short’s book, he’d have found that the source for the statement about a civilising white man was… Juan de Torquemada, yet he describes it as an additional and confirmatory source. This is ridiculously sloppy and the sort of error that an undergraduate would be marked down for making.
We are next told that the same character appears as Gucumatz (more correctly Q’uq’umatz) among the K’iche Maya (Hancock, as ever, prefers to use the Spanish spelling Quiche, and I can’t help thinking of a French savoury custard flan), Ku’ku’lkan in Yucatec and K’uk’ulchon in Tzotzil. He repeats the often-quoted assertion that all three names mean “feathered serpent”, although it is more correct to say that Quetzalcóatl and Q’uq’umatz mean “quetzal serpent”, the quetzal being a bird native to the area. While a bird is certainly feathered, that’s not quite the same thing. His discussion of these deities is heavily dependent on Constance Henrietta Frick Irwin’s (1913-1995) Fair Gods and Stone Faces: ancient seafarers and the New World’s most intriguing riddle (1964). Constance Irwin was an eclectic writer, with many genres to her name, including children’s books—perhaps Graham Hancock can identify with her output—but she was by no means an expert in American anthropology or archaeology. An avowed diffusionist, she believed that there were widespread contacts between the Old and New Worlds long before the Viking voyages of around 1000 CE.
Using Irwin’s work, Hancock introduces us to Votan and Itzamná (whose name Hancock spells as Itzamana, a less usual form). We are told that the first was pale-skinned and associated with snakes, while both were bearded and robed. What we are not told is that Votan first makes an appearance in Constituciones diocesanas del obispado de Chiappa (1702) by Francisco Núñez de la Vega (1632-1706), Bishop of Chiapas, who said he had heard the story in the 1690s. De la Vega does not describe his appearance, which is something that comes into later versions of the story, which include fantastical additions and are clearly not based on indigenous traditions. It has been thought that Votan was a genuine Post-Classic individual, as de la Vega identified a number of people who used the name as a surname, claiming to be his descendants. At least we are spared the white supremacist fantasy that connects Votan with the Germanic Wotan/Woden/Óðinn! Itzamná appears to be the same as a deity referred to by Mayanists as God D, sometimes depicted as an old man with a large nose, hollow cheeks, wrinkled skin and no teeth, but no beard or robe, and sometimes depicted as a bird with a two-headed snake in its beak. While Diego da Landa tells us about his role in the calendar, Maya texts present him as a creator god and inventor of writing.
We are back in the realm of euhemerisation, the phenomenon I described when Hancock tried to make Wiraqocha an historical character rather than mythological. He notes with approval the opinion of Sylvanus Griswold Morley (1884-1948) that the “attributes and life history [of K’uk’ulkan] are so human that it is not improbable that he may have been an actual historical character, some great lawgiver and organizer, the memory of whose benefactions lingered long after death, and whose personality was eventually deified”. What Hancock is not telling us, of course, is that Morley (along with John Eric Sidney Thompson (1898-1975)) was one of the promoters of the now discredited idea of the “peaceful Maya”, a people whose cities were seen as largely empty ceremonial centres inhabited by philosopher priests. This view has been shown to be utterly wrong, particularly since the increase in our ability to read Maya hieroglyphs has made it clear that the city states were ruled by warrior kings; although the idea of a civilising K’uk’ulkan may appeal to Hancock, it distorts the nature of Maya gods.
To state that “[a]ll the legends stated unambiguously that Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan/Gucumatz/Votan/Itzamana had arrived in Central America from somewhere very far away (across the ‘Eastern Sea’) and that amid great sadness he had eventually sailed off again in the direction whence he had come” is to conflate stories about separate deities and to misrepresent those stories. I could just as easily conflate Abraham, Moses and Jesus of Nazareth by pointing out that the Bible states unambiguously that all three spent time in Egypt, had interactions with a Pharaoh/Pontius Pilate (whose role clearly is that of Pharaoh) and were buried in caves. That proves nothing, least of all that all three characters were the same historical individual. I wouldn’t get away with this if I proposed it in what purported to be a serious reassessment of the history of the Jewish people, so why should Graham Hancock be permitted to get away with the same thing in his “drastic re-evaluation of man’s past”?
Next, Hancock commits a ridiculous error. Quoting the Book of Chilam Balam as quoted by the journalist Peter Tompkins (1919-2007) (once again, he’s using a secondary source without checking), he tells us that “‘the first inhabitants of Yucatan were the “People of the Serpent”. They came from the east in boats across the water with their leader Itzamana, “Serpent of the East”, a healer who could cure by laying on hands, and who revived the dead’”. Now, this is conflating information from different parts of the work. The statement that the conquerors of Yucatan “came from the east” is found in Book V, but it refers to “the foreigners, the white men”, who came “in Katun 11 Ahau”. That’s 1513 CE. This passage is referring to the arrival of Córtez! The only mentions of Itzamna are in Book II, where it occurs as a placename, and in Book XVIII, which is a series of obscure prophecies (“The Katun is established at Kinchil Coba, Maya Cuzamil, in Katun 13 Ahau. Itzamna, Itzam-tzab, is his face during its reign”). There is no mention of boats until after the Spanish conquest, no mention of “People of the Serpent”. It would have been a simple matter for Hancock or his researchers to check whether or not Peter Tompkins was quoting accurately; it appears that he was not. This is one of the traps of relying on secondary sources.
Graham Hancock has spent an inordinate number of words trying to establish Quetzalcóatl (and the various deities with whom he is conflated) as a civiliser in the mould of Wiraqocha in the face of the bloodthirsty nature of Mesoamerican cultures. He’s not finished, but I have to admit that I am losing patience with the repetitious quotations from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spanish writers. It’s almost as if he realises the weakness of his arguments and is hoping to convince the reader by sheer weight of words.
Never mind, the chapter finishes with three mercifully brief sections. The first, Cosmic struggle, poses the questions “Why did Quetzalcoatl go away? What went wrong?”. Hancock’s euhemerised Quetzalcóatl is the victim of a bloodthirsty god, Tezcatlipoca (mis-spelled, as is Hancock’s wont with some Maya and Aztec names, as Texcatilpoca), who somehow defeats him at Tollan (which Hancock identifies with modern Tula-Hidalgo, although this is one of a number of places identified as Tollan). However, this is an oversimplification of the myths. According to the Aztecs, the rival gods Quetzalcóatl and Tezcatlipoca were joint creators of the world and, in some versions, alternated between ruling and destroying the world in each of the five cycles.
Of course, Tula-Hidalgo is introduced to enable Hancock to take a swipe at conventional archaeology (after all, it’s about time we had some archaeology in this chapter!): the city is “not believed to be particularly old—not much more than 1000 years anyway—but the legends surrounding it linked it to an infinitely more distant epoch”. Really? Are the legends dated? We’ll ignore the fact that the name Tollan was originally applied to Teothihuacán, a city in northern Mexico known in Maya texts as puh (“Place of Reeds”, which is the meaning of Tollan in Nahuatl), founded c 100 BCE. No matter that “[a]ll the traditions agreed that it had been at Tollan that Tezcatilpoca had vanquished Quetzalcoatl” when these traditions are almost certainly not referring to Tula-Hidalgo. Hancock doesn’t want you to know that.
This, of course, is leading to the penultimate section of the chapter, Fire Serpents, in which Graham Hancock, sitting atop “the flat square summit of the unimaginatively named Pyramid B” contemplates the Toltec city. Those dreadful archaeologists, coming up with unimaginative names for monuments. Why couldn’t they have called it The Pyramid of Ripped-out Hearts or The Pyramid of Indescribable Cruelty. No, they lack the daring imagination of Mr Hancock, who shudders internally at the “terrible gladiatorial games” performed in the ball court and who is intimidated by the “hard, implacable faces… without sympathy or emotion” of the four monolithic statues on top of Pyramid B. Incidentally, this pyramid does have more romantic names—The Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl or of The Pyramid of the Morning Star—but to tell the reader that would deny him the opportunity to berate archaeologists.
These statues were supports for the roof of the now missing temple on top of Pyramid B. By claiming that “[a]rchaeologists admitted that they didn’t really know what these objects were but had tentatively identified them anyway”, Hancock makes the objects in their hands mysterious. They are generally agreed to be atlatls, spear-throwers, and he does not cite any references to show that archaeologists are in fact puzzled by them. As happens so often, he proceeds by innuendo as he “had the distinct sense” that they sculptor was portraying “devices which had originally been made out of metal” and “looked like pieces of technology”. They reminded him of “the equally mysterious objects in the hands of the idols in the Kalasasaya” at Tiwanaku and he “remembered legends which related that the gods of ancient Mexico had armed themselves with xiuhcoatl, ‘fire serpents’”. Thanks to his clever technique of avoiding definite statements about his unorthodox interpretations, he manages to leave an impression without saying anything that can be refuted. That’s the advantage of journalistic training!
Finally, we reach the Serpent Sanctuary. Well, that’s how Hancock translates Coatzacoalcos, although the Nahuatl means “place where the snake hides”, which is subtly different. The site appears to have been founded around 200 BCE and to have remained a major population centre until the time of the Spanish conquest. However, for Hancock, it is the place of departure for Quetzalcóatl after his defeat by Tezcatlipoca; this is a variant of the usual legend. According to the principal version, Tezcatlipoca made Quetzalcoatl drunk and either tricked him into sleeping with a virgin (his own sister, in some accounts) or then held up his magic mirror that showed Tezcatlipoca’s face instead of his own. In shame, he threw himself onto a funeral pyre and burned himself to death; his heart was taken up to the heavens, where it became Venus, the morning and evening star.
Summary so far
This is taking me a long time to get through. In part, this is a reflection of my scanty knowledge of Mesoamerican mythology, which underpins so much of these two chapters. That same lack of in-depth knowledge made this the most convincing section of the book when I first read it (although it didn’t convince me that Hancock’s arguments are correct, it did make me wonder how reliable our knowledge of the origin of Mesoamerican civilisation is, quite wrongly). However, it is also a reflection of just how tedious I am finding Hancock’s book. There is too much repetition; too often, he has the impression that something is the case without stating it outright; too often, we are not supplied with all the evidence and are not told that there are alternative versions of stories or alternative interpretations. The reason I failed even to start my intended analysis of the entire book in 1996 is being brought back to me: the book is boring!
Nevertheless, I am persevering with this. My analysis of Part III (part 2) will appear eventually.