The end of the world as they knew it

Before this farce of an apocalypse spiritual awakening passes from memory, I’d like to take a little more time to think about what the end of the world means for a civilization. One of the odd things about the New Age obsession with misinterpreted Mayan “prophecies” is the unwillingness to actually learn from the Maya themselves, who are not only still with us but who have managed to preserve an impressive amount of their traditional knowledge, and have not been especially shy about sharing it with curious anthropologists. New Agers like to see themselves as freed from the shackles of Judeo-Christian thinking, and love to pay lip service to indigenous wisdom. But reading books like Time and the Highland Maya, by an anthropologist who apprenticed herself to K’iche’ Maya priests, or the Popol Vuh, translated by her husband with the same priests as consultants, might challenge one’s preconceptions, and definitely requires sustained grappling with a very different worldview.

This unwillingness to learn from other cultures is deeply rooted in Western Christian culture. There’s a good Christian/Greek word for that sort of willfully ignorant pride: hubris. And for at least one outpost of Western civilization, such hubris — along with rigid conservatism, extreme religiosity, environmental degradation and a changing climate — brought about the end of the world as they knew it. I’m talking about the Norse settlements on Greenland.

If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (which I don’t necessarily recommend — it’s full of facile argumentation and poor scholarship), you already know the outlines of this story. But this documentary, produced for the PBS series Secrets of the Dead back in the millennial year, does an excellent job telling the story in the words of the scientists who finally pieced it together. And it was great to hear from the Greenland Inuit, who arrived a little later than the Norse but survived the Little Ice Age just fine. “Apocalypse? What apocalypse?” Which, come to think of it, is probably also what the Mayan peasants were saying when their parasitic city-states were collapsing 1000 years ago.

(By the way, if you’re interested in documentaries about the vikings, there are a number of other good ones collected on the new sagalicious page over at Twisted Rib.)

8 Replies to “The end of the world as they knew it”

  1. My friend Dave, this bothers me. You’re a wide reader and ranging thinker, and I enjoy what you have to say, and I’m glad you survived the “apocalypse.” (Trala!) But to me this misfires.

    The invoking of the Popul Vuh as an example really hurts your argument, despite the plain fact that conquistadors destroyed a good portion of Mayan culture. How would we have the Popul Vuh, save for the recording work of a curious and dedicated Christian priest? Without Francisco Ximénez and his work, where are we? And you can find many other examples of such people who were–and are–excited by the culture of others, so to me this looks like a tired claim. Yes, there are hordes of people who don’t care. Of course. There are hordes of people who don’t care about many things you and I value (particularly poetry! XD.) But the passing down and dissemination of culture has ever belonged to the few who do care, and many times that has meant people like Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez, very much a part of “Western Christian culture.”

    As for “environmental degradation,” exactly that is thought by many scholars to be a key component in the decline of the Maya, as I understand it–exhaustion of farmland, excessive destruction of animal populations. I also think we could give a bit of slack to Europeans shocked by the Maya. We’re talking about a culture of enormous brutality. Europeans had dreadful practices in the area of punishment and torture, but they were not prepared for some rather widespread acts (human sacrifice with heart and head offered, blood offerings via self-mutilation, etc.) on the part of the Maya. To choose to ignore these things is to romanticize.

    1. I agree with your points; I wasn’t attempting to make a complete argument here. As it says in the documentary, the culturally very similar people in Iceland did survive, because for whatever reason they were more flexible and creative, and quickly added seafood to their diet. Also, virtually everything we know about pagan Norse culture is due to to the writings of Christian monks and priests in Iceland, where the church was not nearly as oppressive as it was in Greenland or most other places. Elsewhere in Europe, traditional bards and wisdom-keepers were generally put the sword and whole oral histories lost forever. Likewise in the New World among the Spanish, yes, there were a number of enlightened Christian priests in the first wave of conquerors who went about collecting native lore, and without them we’d know almost nothing. But attitudes changed and hardened within a generation, as the inquisition grew more fanatical and racist (to the point where descendents of conversos in Spain were hunted down). I dealt extensively with this culture-contact in my book-length poem Cibola.

    1. I haven’t done much to promote it. I think it’s a deeply flawed work, though there are parts of it I really like, and researching and writing it was a fantastic experience.

  2. Not much comment to make, but do you know Jane Smiley’s novel ‘The Greenlanders’ about that period? It’s a bit of an oddity, not much loved by Smiley fans and not quite sure of itself, starts off as a kind of pastiche saga then turns more into a conventional historical novel, but I’ve always found it haunting and memorable. (Rather like that other work of archaeological/environmental ‘faction’, Naomi Mitcheson’s ‘Early in Orcadia’ about the settlements at Skara Brae in Orkney.)

    Someone recently recommended Jared Diamond to me, can’t remember which book now. Something was hovering about in my mind that perhaps he was a bit unreliable…

    1. I know of it, but I haven’t read it. (I read and loved her satire about a Midwestern land-grant university—the title escapes me.) The other work sounds interesting as well, but first I need to read the Orkneyinga Saga…

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