From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Pre-Columbian Cultures in Film

In a recent interview with MTV News, director Rob Cohen revealed that the next installment in The Mummy franchise might take place in Mexico. The Aztecs, apparently, liked to practice a bit of mummification in their free time.

Cohen’s knowledge of the Mexicas (commonly and erroneously referred to as Aztecs) seems to be taken from the campy Aztec Mummy series. If you want to check out what Mexican exploitation cinema looked back in the 50’s give the Aztec Mummy a try. But I’d steer away from it if you are in search of historical information.

The truth is the Mexica did not engage in funerary rituals involving mummification: high-ranking Mexicas were cremated.

But reality has never stopped eager filmmakers and the big screen has been filled with inaccurate and bizarre depictions of Pre-Columbian cultures.

The most common mistake is lumping characteristics from different cultures into a confused whole. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the adventurer with the signature hat explains that he learned Quechua when he was kidnapped by Mexican revolutionaries. Although many indigenous languages are spoken in Mexico, Quechua is not one of them. Quechua is a language from the Andes which was widely spoken throughout the Inca empire. Indy might as well have said that he learned Russian while hanging out with Henry VIII.

The fourth installment of the Indiana Jones series also showcases the Mexica calendar-stone, a temple that looks like the Mayan pyramid of Chichen Itza, and several other architectural features from Maya and Mexica architecture including serpent-heads and painted murals. All of these in the middle of the Amazons.

It’s not the only movie which seems to suffer from a sudden case of geographical displacement. Aztec Rex has Mexicas running around the jungle near a Mayan temple. The Mexica presided over their empire from the powerful city of Tenochtitlan which was built upon a lake in the middle of the Valley of Mexico. If anything, Tenochtitlan at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards resembled Venice with its network of canals and bridges.

The result of such representations is a random sampling of culture with an implicit idea that all pre-Columbian cultures are interchangeable. After all, one loin-clothed savage is pretty much the same as another loin-clothed savage.

On the subject of dress and behavior: were Pre-Columbian people, like the Mexica and the Maya, prone to walk around in bikinis like in Aztec Rex or bare-breasted like in Apocalypto? The answer is a resounding no.

For Mayan and Mexica women weaving was an important part of their daily lives and their dresses reflected their skill at the loom. But they were definitely dressed in skirts and blouses, neither of which were specially saucy or revealing.

Characters such as Chel, from the animated Road to el Dorado, with her two-piece outfit perpetuate a notion of the exotic, barely dressed savage which did not exist. What’s worse, this seems to be the only way women are represented, even when they are not starring in a completely campy romp. The animated Pocahontas and Chel could both be dancing in those outfits next to Satanico Pandemonium, the priestess/vampire/stripper in the From Dusk Until Dawn movies.

Misrepresentation is not restricted to a character’s wardrobe but extends to their psychology. Chel, for example, has a very weird take on gold. Gold did not have the same value for the Mexicas, Mayas or Incas as it did for Europeans, yet Chel displays an unusual lust for it. In fact, if Chel had been Mayan, she should have been lusting for cocoa beans which were used as a form of currency. The Mexicas found things like bird feathers more valuable than gold. Similarly, the Incas did not grant value to gold until it had been turned into a functional object such as a vessel.

“Aztec” gold coins, like the ones which appear in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, did not exist in Pre-Columbian America.

Neither did crystal-skulls like the ones that appear in House II and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The Mexicas and the Mayans did not use crystal skulls in their rituals. Mexica art depicts skulls frequently and Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the Mexica underworld, was represented as a skeleton or a person with a skull. But that’s as far as it goes.

Other common misrepresentation of pre-Columbian people include depictions of religion and spirituality. In these films, when natives encounter a group of strangers their first step is usually to mistake them for gods. It happened to the Spaniards in Road to el Dorado and Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. The natives also mistook aliens like the ones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Alien vs Predator for gods.

This idea probably springs from the encounter between Moctezuma, leader of the Mexicas, and conquistador Hernan Cortes. It is extremely unlikely that Moctezuma thought Cortes was a god. The Florentine Codex, written 50 years after the fall of Tenochtitlan, includes a speech supposedly made by Moctezuma peppered with affirmations of admiration towards the Spaniards. But politeness was an important part of Mexica culture. Moctezuma’s gifts to the newcomers, his efforts to behave as a good host, were all meant to show his superiority.

So no mummies, no skulls, no gold coins and no mistaking foreigners with gods. Which would bring us to human sacrifice. Ah, those crazy priests and their weird ideas. Always looking for a nubile virgin to stab in the name of their gods.

A botched human sacrifice takes place in House II. Victims in pseudo-Mexica garb are sacrificed to the aliens in Alien vs Predators. The Spaniard heroes in The Road to El Dorado encounter a blood-thirsty priest who is also a part time sorcerer. The Mexicas eagerly sacrifice people to their dinosaurs in Aztec Rex. In fact, the Mexicas were so sacrifice-happy that a cape used in Mexica human sacrifice rituals renders the wearer violent in I’m Dangerous Tonight.

Although human sacrifice was not exclusive to the Mexica culture, it is associated with it in most movies. Even the rituals depicted in Apocalypto, supposedly about a Mayan man trying to save his family, look like they were borrowed from the Mexica.

Human sacrifice was a very important element of Mexica life. The Mexica believed that human sacrifice sustained the universe and most of their religious rituals included some sort of sacrifice. Many of their stories dealt with the importance of sacrifice: when the world was being created Nanahuatzin volunteered to jump into a bonfire and became the sun.

But a sacrifice was not performed out of a desire for random slaughter and it took many forms.

The most common type of sacrifice depicted in movies is the one where a prisoner is placed upon a stone, his heart torn out and held up by a priest. But there were other rituals which might involve fire or water, as well as self-sacrifice by piercing body parts like the ear lobes, tongue or arms.

None of this makes it into movies. The pre-Columbian people that inhabit movies are far removed from reality. Two-dimensional, without a real culture or language, their accomplishments in art, astronomy or mathematics are ignored. Instead, they wander the screen clad in clichés.

When they are good, they are presented as child-like, primitive but harmless people like the chief from Road to el Dorado. A visit from a kind conquistador is all it takes to rectify their ways. But sometimes they are naughty and they decide to bring a stone jaguar to life (like that movie’s evil sorcerer). When that happens they’re appropriately punished.

Most of the time pre-Columbian people are just in the periphery. They’ll chase the random white guy and shoot poisonous darts at him, but that’s about it. With some luck they’ll get a snippet of dialogue, but more often than not they just kind of stand around–like in The Ruins where a group of modern-day tourists go visit a pyramid and get on the bad side of the Mayans’ descendants patrolling the area with bows and arrows.

There are very few movies that offer interesting portrayals of pre-Columbian characters. The Fountain has a sacrifice atop a pyramid but with its musings on time, life and death, plus its imagery of a tree taken from Mayan mythology, it approaches Mayan cosmology and philosophy more accurately.

You might also want to try Cabeza de Vaca, which chronicles the journey of a shipwrecked Spaniard through Mexico. It’s not a fantasy film per se, and it deviates from the real Cabeza de Vaca’s experiences, but it has a fantastic, surrealist quality.

Granted, there will probably never be such a thing as an autochthonous leading voice in modern cinema, yet there’s also no ancient Romans or Greeks making movies and they generally get better portrayals than the average indigenous culture. One can only hope that one day movie makers will decide it is more interesting to explore rich, complex worlds than have a dozen men in chicken feathers and body paint worshiping a white dude who just landed in the area.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes and lives in beautiful British Columbia with her family and two cats. Her work has appeared in Fantasy Magazine, Futurismic, Shimmer and Zahir.

Tagged as: