Beliefwatch: Sacrifice

Let's get right to the point, shall we? About halfway through Mel Gibson's movie "Apocalypto," which opens this week, viewers are treated to a stomach-turning scene of human sacrifice, set in a Mayan city around 1500. It's not revealing too much to say that the movie's hero is captured by a gang of marauders, bound, marched through the jungle, painted blue, and forced to the top of a pyramid where heads roll.

In a smaller version of the outrage and skepticism that preceded the opening of "The Passion of the Christ"--is it historically accurate? is it anti-Semitic?--scholars who study the ancient Maya are concerned that Gibson's film will distort the great civilization and demean its descendents, six million of whom still live in Central America. Yes, the Maya sacrificed humans to the gods, but these rituals were part of a complex worldview: the Maya believed that their bodies, their blood, were created by the gods and that they occasionally needed to repay this debt with human life. "The gods need you," explains David Carrasco, professor of religious history at Harvard. "They depend on human life for their own existence, there's this kind of reciprocity." In sacrifice, he adds, the people are becoming like gods. Based on the trailer, Carrasco believes that Gibson has made the Maya into "Slashers," and their society a "Hypermasculine fantasy."

William Fash, Carresco's Harvard colleague, is irked about the pseudo ancient wall painting of a chief holding up a dripping, severed head featured in the trailer. Although a few Mayan murals do illustrate the capture and even torture of prisoners, none depicts decapitation. "That is wrong. It's just plain wrong," Fash told NEWSWEEK. Robert Hansen, the Idaho State University anthropologist who worked with Gibson for two years to ensure "Apocalypto" 's authenticity, concedes the wall painting is fake, an artistic choice that was entirely Gibson's. "The murals I recommended were rejected because this one made the point more clearly." Hansen hopes viewers will see the movie, as he does, as a contemporary allegory on the squandering of natural resources and the abuse of power, but he says that "the movie is designed for people who don't have the intellect to grasp the deeper concepts." No matter. With Gibson's generous seven-figure donation to his dig in northern Guatemala, Hansen believes he can do more to protect Mayan civilization past and present than the people he calls whiners ever can.

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