Monday, November 7, 2011

51. Maya Relief of Royal Bloodletting (Mexico, AD 700-750)

Mayans! Ancient American Savagery, Part Two. (Please go to the entry on the Moche Warrior Pot for Part One. More parts coming up when we get to Incas and Aztecs, keep your holt' on...)

This remarkable sculpture has a Mayan king and his queen—apparently it was a gift from him to her—and she’s pulling a thorny rope through her tongue, in a masochistic effort to cause herself pain. (See close-up.)

MacGregor can barely look at this object, you can tell from his podcast that it grosses him out and fascinates him in that upsetting way. Somehow, the queen’s suffering, her transcendental mastery of her own suffering, is borne in order to give her husband additional power. And indeed he was powerful, he reigned for 60 years in an out-of-the-way corner of Mexico. But you almost hear MacGregor going, “Now, I’m just a timid modern European...but what kind of a sick culture would not only allow this but make art out of it?”

I can’t really speak to the history, or even to masochism. But as one who grew up a coddled suburbanite, I can say that most of modern first-world life is effort spent to increase comfort and decrease discomfort. And it only goes so far. Eventually, you have to experience some discomfort, otherwise you aren’t really living life. This culture may have taken it to an extreme...but I wish somebody had told me that, when I was about 5, because I think I would have had an easier time maintaining my own health, etc. if I had really understood. It’s all there, in The Hobbit, the timid suburbanite who mostly doesn’t want any adventures because they’re deucedly uncomfortable and make you late for dinner. And then, once he toughens up a bit, finds out he can handle a lot of things he didn’t think he could survive.

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