Jaguar Blood and Drab Materialists

One of the best things about not being a materialist is that the world becomes a lot more interesting.

For example, I visited some Mayan ruins yesterday, one of the most astonishing archaeological wonders of the Western Hemisphere: the ruins at Copán. A friend of ours, a local, told us to “be prepared for the magic,” which we found to be a humorous way to phrase it.

When we got to the ruins we found that they were, indeed, magic. I wandered among the temples, through the tunnels dug by archaeologists, and among the stelae with their strange-faced kings. Flights of macaws lifted suddenly from the surrounding forest and screeched as they poured overhead in a streak of red, blue and yellow. I saw the altars on which jaguars were sacrificed and their blood burned to the Sun God, to give him strength in his underworld sojourns. I saw the ball-field, whereon strong young men strove to defeat their rivals. After the game, the best player, the winner, was sacrificed before a crowd of thousands, and under the watchful eye of the king and queen.

There was a dark power in that place, but faded and shadowy. The Mayans that built it came from the heart of their civilization further north around 400 AD. Within 400 more years, their great city collapsed and passed into ruin and was lost to memory.

As I sat on top of one of the temples, overlooking the altars of sacrifice, I imagined a dark power, a local god, that had arisen from the seething jungles of Central America. The people built a massive complex of temples, rendered all in white stone and blood red paint (the paint came from the bodies of insects, millions upon millions of them squashed to make the blood-red temples).

With grim determination they sacrificed year after year. They burnt the blood of the jaguar. The whole region pulsed with the power of the god: dark, hot, mysterious, and stern.

Then, as quickly as it had arisen, it passed away. Plague took the population: old and young died, food became scarce. When the last king of Copán died, the remnant took his harem and traveled back north to what is now Guatemala and Mexico, leaving the altars and temples and ball fields behind. The surrounding jungle slowly grew back, engulfing the stones and stripping their color. Roots of trees cracked apart the faces of the stone gods. The power subsided back into the earth, where now it lurks low and quiet, breathing through the strange tropical plants, lashing out in petty resentment now and again, taking people silently with snake bites and plague.


My companion, a nice and respectful person with a generous heart, is also a materialist and (basically) a Leftist, in the non-strict sense in which most Westerners are Leftists today.

He made several comments on the “magic” of Copán. He seemed to want to acknowledge the grandeur of the brown Other. As a white Leftist, he needed to express awe at the culture of a non-Western people.

And, as the place was spooky, I’m sure he felt something too. But there was an odd detachment in his talking about the “magic.” I wanted to press him:

Do you think the place is literally magic, or do you mean that figuratively?

If you don’t believe in literal magic, where do you suppose the strange feeling you get is coming from?


Ironically, I’m not ideologically bound to “respect” other cultures and yet I believe I take the Mayans of Copán far more seriously than my friend. For a materialist, all religion must be viewed through a lens of ironic detachment. Even when one is ostensibly “appreciating” the “magic” of a remarkable place like Copán, one is aware that it’s not really magic and the Mayans were, after all, rather silly for having built all these temples and sacrificed all those jaguars and humans.

What a dull way to live!

Let me add a disclaimer: I don’t mean to assert that the Mayans did not have superstitions that might have been baseless. I assume that all people at all times make category mistakes of one kind or another.

Neither do I assert that my imaginative account of the rise and fall of a dark power is definitively what happened (though I believe it’s probably much closer to the truth than any strict materialist interpretation). I’m just imagining things here. I’m neither a Mayan, nor a scholar of Mayans. And I have no desire to start sacrificing jaguars to see if it calls some demon out of the warm, dark earth of Honduras.

But I can imagine these things, and can do so from a non-ironic, non-detached sort of way. Putting aside all truth value of allowing oneself to exist on the spiritual plane (and there is immense truth value, in fact infinite truth value), it’s also just more fun to believe. More interesting, more spooky, more terrifying, more joyous, more liberating, and more real… more alive.

The materialist will respond that my beliefs amuse him, and that he simply can’t believe in a patent falsehood merely for the sake of fun.

I say, what a shame.


5 comments on “Jaguar Blood and Drab Materialists

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    ‘And I have no desire to start sacrificing jaguars to see if it calls some demon out of the warm, dark earth of Honduras.’

    I greatly desire to sacrifice jaguars, but my limited budget constrains me.

    If religion/spirituality/magic is meaningful, then there is SOMETHING to be done that will change the world. Perhaps one can sacrifice a jaguar. Perhaps one can sacrifice one’s cigarette habit. But there is ACTION to be taken.

  2. nk says:

    Given that the ruling culture of the west is leftist in the sense you described the fascination of Harry Potter, Lord Of The Rings and others for the larger public shows an unfulfilled desire to believe in the supernatural even on the side of the left, I presume.

  3. bgc says:

    This is one of the deep inconsistencies of modernity – the conviction that the Mayans were *objectively* deluded (and therefore pitiable), in the context of a world view which denies any objectivity – and regards all societies (incluyding our own, from which this judgment emanates) as *equally* deluded.

    It doesn’t make logical sense, but this is the mainstream way modern people think of things – and it does have the effect of destroying any possibility of real magic, of real contact with reality.

  4. Pechorin says:

    “it’s just more fun to believe. More interesting, more spooky, more terrifying, more joyous, more liberating, and more real… more alive.”

    I was surprised to see the argument of this post coming from a traditionally minded Christian. You object not to materialism per se, but merely to its consequences. Once you fall into the trap of believing things merely because you prefer to believe them, without bothering one’s head about truth or rational justification, you must ride that train to its inevitable conclusion. One still believes, for one needs warmth. This is just watered down Nietzsche – see for instance Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 1:

    “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it: it is here, perhaps, that our new language sounds most strangely. The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life- preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing, and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions (to which the synthetic judgments a priori belong), are the most indispensable to us, that without a recognition of logical fictions, without a comparison of reality with the purely IMAGINED world of the absolute and immutable, without a constant counterfeiting of the world by means of numbers, man could not live–that the renunciation of false opinions would be a renunciation of life, a negation of life. TO RECOGNISE UNTRUTH AS A CONDITION OF LIFE; that is certainly to impugn the traditional ideas of value in a dangerous manner, and a philosophy which ventures to do so, has thereby alone placed itself beyond good and evil.”

    Aquinas is rolling over in his grave. To believe in the god of the Mayans because one prefers to do so is to sacrifice one’s claim to rationally grounded belief.

    • outofsleep says:

      Read more carefully, Pechorin:

      “Putting aside all truth value of allowing oneself to exist on the spiritual plane (and there is immense truth value, in fact infinite truth value), it’s also just more fun to believe.”

      I’m explicitly stating that this “fun” factor is ultimately beside the point. There’s no contradiction, you realize, despite what Herr Nietzsche might want to say. Things can be fun AND true, you know.

      “You object not to materialism per se, but merely to its consequences.”

      Incorrect. A better statement would be: “In general you object to materialism per se, but in this particular post you focus on one of the oddities of its consequences.” Please try and read things with a little more nuance. I can’t make every post be the proof of some point or other of theology. Sometimes I just talk about phenomena… you know, life as it actually happens.

      “To believe in the god of the Mayans because one prefers to do so …”

      To believe that some demonic power existed and ruled over the Mayans and to worship such a power are two entirely different things. Does not Aquinas himself deal extensively with demons and angels? Do you suppose that these beings do not exist? And if they do exist, is it logical to assume they have never interacted with people in ways that manifest themselves historically (like in the jungles of Copán)?

      The supernatural (both angelic and demonic) did not spring into a materialist universe with the coming of Christ, nor even with the Jews. The world has never been a strictly material place; it has always been supernatural. This includes places like pre-Christian Meso-America. Aquinas is not rolling over in his grave, not over this blog post.

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