The end of the world as they knew it

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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.)