This Just in: World Doesn’t End in 2012 (or, the ROM and the Maya)

El Castillo

There's more to Mayan culture than this! (Photo courtesy Flickr user Herkie)

All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).

Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.


The Tower in the Palace at Palenque (Photo courtesy Flickr user Sachavir)

The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.

One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.

But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.

Coba stele

Stele at Coba; part of the Mayan calendar? (Photo courtesy Flickr user snackfight)

The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.

That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.

For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.

Mesopotamian Magic, With a Hint of Misogyny


Mesopotamian tablets

It wasn’t the good witches they were after, you understand – it was the bad ones. And yet…were there any good ones in the ancient Mesopotamian world?

Professor Tzvi Abusch, (The Rose B. and Joseph Cohen Professor of Assyriology and Ancient Near Eastern Religion, Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, Brandeis University) touched on this question and many others when speaking to a keen audience at the most recent lecture hosted by the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies: A Ceremony against Witchcraft: Mesopotamian Magic in Action. Guiding us through a ceremony against witchcraft, Abusch explained the ancient Mesopotamians’ view of magic. They felt it could either be used for good, in the case of herbalists or exorcists, or used for evil by sorcerers and witches. It was all magic; it just depended how you used it. At least, that was how it started.

Abusch took us through excerpts from nine tablets recording an Akkadian ritual conducted through a single night in July or August – the Maqlû, meaning “Burning” – in which a male exorcist worked on behalf of a very ill patient. At the time of these tablets, the view that every person’s fate was determined by the gods had changed to the idea that personal misfortune was caused by another person – a malevolent enemy who could work magic. And the only way to heal oneself was to call upon an herbalist, or in the case of this ritual, an exorcist, who could undo the evil spell and cast it back upon the witch or sorcerer instead. The gods were still very much in evidence – after all, the exorcist could only work by invoking their power – but human action had true significance.

The procedure involved creating a figurine that represented the evildoer, and then ritually burning it in a brazier to break the witch’s power. The flames were doused with water, which both cleansed the victim and carried the evil back to the perpetrator. Specific chants, calling upon the gods, were performed at each stage.

The Akkadian sun god, Shamash

Sun-god, Shamash, who played an important part in the Maqlu ritual

While it was fascinating to go through the ritual step by step and learn what it meant, the real fascination in Abusch’s presentation was what this and similar rituals reveal about the daily life of the ancient Mesopotamians. Incantations like this would have reflected a perceived need in society. In fact, Doctor Abusch took us through two versions of this ritual: an earlier shorter one, and the later nine-tablet version that had become much more elaborate and took much longer to perform. This had to have reflected a greater need to ease the troubles of people who believed they were suffering from the malicious attentions of enemies.


Equally as fascinating — though unfortunately predictable — was the status of magic practitioners themselves through Mesopotamian history. In the early stages, magic was regarded as a neutral tool that could be used either for good or evil, by men or women. But over time, it became more genderized: those casting these troubling spells were generally assumed to be women, while all exorcists who undid the evil were men. Herbalists could still be either male or female, and there was still the occasional male sorcerer. But on the whole, this formula became pretty standard: evil women caused the magical trouble, and good men repaired it.

One can ask why this change occurred, and try to follow the texts for hints. But the problem, Abusch said, is that we only have texts from institutional repositories – royal archives or training establishments for exorcists. Neither would retain tablets that contradicted the official view of things. So all we’ve got are tantalizing hints that situations were different and more egalitarian at an earlier time, with existing texts that developed in response to some kind of change whose nature isn’t clear.

Thanks to Doctor Abusch, we were given an intriguing glimpse into the worries occupying the Mesopotamian mind, and the remedies devised to alleviate them. We may think we’ve come a long way since then, though medical science still hasn’t entirely superseded the invoking of deities to solve our ills and punish our enemies. But when we look at how often women are blamed even today for the problems in the world, we might shake our heads and think, “The more things change…”

Kush and its Pyramids: Sleeping Next to the Elephant

Jebel Barkal Pyramids

What do people from Scotland, Canada, and ancient Kush have in common? They all know, or knew, what it’s like to “sleep next to the elephant.”

This phrase comes from a remark by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, when addressing the Press Club in Washington, DC, in 1969:

Living next to you [i.e., to the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Smaller countries, or countries with considerably less population, tend to feel and be affected this way by a larger, more powerful neighbour. And that, says Gayle Gibson of the Royal Ontario Museum, was exactly the experience of ancient Kush, or Nubia, in what is now northern Sudan. Being Egypt’s southern neighbour over the millenia was often uneasy, and sometimes even fraught with danger. Particularly because Kush had the luxury goods – not to mention gold – that Egypt craved. As a result, Egypt seemed to assume that it had the right to the resources of the land, and often exerted its military might to take them. (Canada and Scotland might again shift uneasily in their chairs, wondering if they’re hearing an echo.)

Gibson recently presented a slide show and a very informative talk, called “The Pyramids of Kush,” in an afternoon session at the Toronto Reference Library. This lecture was the first event in the library’s program to celebrate Black History month. And what a history lesson we got! The topic was indeed the many pyramids that the rulers of Kush, or Nubia, erected for themselves, influenced by what they saw in Egypt. Yet the discussion also encompassed a swift tour of all the great Kushite or Nubian kingdoms.

Meroe pyramids, with shrines

I had known that some of the people of this land had served the Egyptian pharaohs as warriors, since they tended to be physically larger and stronger than most Egyptians. What I didn’t realize was that there were at least three great Nubian civilizations, the second of which had actually invaded and ruled Egypt for a few generations.

Kush, Gibson told us, tended to rise to greater strength during periods when Egypt had become weak for some reason. But while Egypt’s strong periods often meant bad things for Kush, it wasn’t always the other way around. When King Piye of the second powerful Nubian civilization conquered Egypt, he actually brought a renaissance of art and culture into Egyptian society. Unlikely as it seems, said Gibson, the Egyptians liked and welcomed the overlordship of these Nubian rulers.

It was during this period, from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, that the Kushite pyramids first made their appearance. When you examine the caves and chambers carved into Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the mountain around which this civilization was centred, you see paintings and decoration much like that on the walls of Egyptian Pharaohs’ tombs. But the Nubian pyramids had their own character: smaller and steeper than their Egyptian inspirations. And rather than having tombs enclosed inside them, these pyramids sat on top of them as monuments and shrines.

Structure at the Karnak temple complex, built by Taharka

Even after the last Nubian ruler, Taharqa, was finally forced out — not by the Egyptians, but by the invasion of Sennacherib of Babylon — they rose once more in a third powerful civilization in their own land, about 150 years later, now centred at Meroe (pronounced “MER-oh-ay”; located northeast of present-day Khartoum). They continued building pyramids there, finally totalling about two hundred. The result is that there are actually more pyramids in Kush/Nubia/Sudan than there are in Egypt.

The Meroitic civilization was strong enough even to hold back attempted invasions by Emperor Augustus of Rome, and became a great trading nation. The only reason it finally faded was that camels became popular for taking traded goods straight across the desert. Since traders no longer needed to go up and down the Nile – which was the great source of Meroe’s wealth – trade on the river trickled to a fraction of its former volume. And Nubia was bypassed.

Ms. Gibson’s talk was a veritable feast for those of us who love to devour history. As an introduction to Black History Month, it also filled a serious gap in our knowledge of African history, a gap that most North Americans seem tragically to suffer from. And for those of us who sleep next door to a modern-day national elephant, it gave us a feeling of kinship with the Nubians, a fellow feeling that spans the millenia.

Tomb of Nubian King Tantamani, or Tanwetamani, at el-Kurru