Friday, January 7, 2011

The Real Temple of Doom

It's said that the "Lost World" literary genre began with H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. It took me years to find his She in a used bookstore and it was worth the wait. You have to give the Victorians credit for their adventure yarns -- Conan Doyle, Stevenson, Poe -- followed closely on by Edgar Rice Burroughs, movies and comics. Then you spend a lifetime, antsy with curiosity, trying to find any true historical or geographical touchpoints; they've given you an adventure of your own to pursue. "Treasure Island" was modeled on Norman Island in the British Virgins (turned 90 degrees to disguise it), but we still don't have any confirmation of a factual basis for Burroughs' Princess of Mars, darn it.
I don't think the Indiana Jones movies really do the genre justice. A work which attains worldwide popularity has to have the attractive qualities (sympathetic stars, flashiness) amped up and the rough edges smoothed over, and in the cleaning up loses the shocking freshness of the original. Does any splashy novel or disaster movie stand up to (the real original "Lost World" story) Plato's Atlantis for spooky unresolved mystery? Check back in 2300 years and we'll see.
We can work on understanding ancient foreign cultures and their strange ways if there is a written record, as for the Romans or Chinese, and living remains (the language, peoples, traditions). Great states dissolve into mist and mystery when there is no written language; they have nothing to say to us and are truly dead, not just past and prologue.
The Chavin civilization, a precursor of the Inca, built the temple complex called Chavin de Huantar in the Andes beginning in about 1200 B.C.; it finally faded away around 500 B.C. Like Stonehenge, human occupation on the site can be traced much farther back (to around 3000 B.C.). In both cases, it is the stone monument built at some point between the unknown beginning and the equally unknown end that has rescued tens of thousands of unnamed souls from total oblivion.
Fiction is entertaining and somewhat informative; the real Temple of Doom is just frightening and unsettling. From what archeology tells us, the Chavin were much like the later Inca in their mastery of control over the population. They manipulated the people with all-encompassing religious ritual. Unlike the Inca, they did not seem to be concerned with military offense or defense in the least; inward-looking, not conquerors, their attention was focused on divine protection. While there seemed to be no individualism or freedom as we think of it for anyone, at least they were not pressed into the service of murder: an unusual societal model. The only similar one of any size I can think of is (was) Tibet.
Thousands of pilgrims walked in processional lines to the temple, to dance, perhaps to receive word from an oracle (Greek Delphi comes to mind), and, for the chosen or most devout, to be initiated into hallucinogenic intimacy with the divine. A flat-topped pyramid dominated the site. A long, completely dark labyrinth under it led to a room inhabited by a stone obelisk of their deity, all fangs and claws, with a human body and a feline head. Speaking of heads, theirs would be reeling with visions after ingesting mescaline obtained from the San Pedro cactus.
These people had migrated from the Amazon to the central Andes and had brought with them a pantheon of sacred animals. They would have loved the San Diego zoo!


  1. Nice one! Never heard of the proto-Incans before, so I'll have to do some research. Glad you're a fellow Burroughs fan -- the novel I just finished was heavily influenced by ERB.

  2. The civilizations before the well-known Aztec, Maya and Inca are so mysterious they give you a shiver. If we knew half what the Toltecs knew, we wouldn't be in such a mess today.

  3. Across the street there is a Holiday Inn, but the ice machine doesn't work and the customers are getting testy.