The subject is the end of the world.
“Maya, Dawn of a Downfall,” an exhibition at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, highlights how modern masters of the universe can best avoid the looming catastrophe.
“The Mayans were a complex society, light years ahead of anything else in the Western hemisphere,” says Richard Hansen, professor of Mayan studies at Idaho State University, in a video presentation. “They were an advanced urban civilization.”
Even so, it has been quite some time since a Mayan corporate chieftain has sacrificed a virgin maiden to God of Business Bolon Yokte Ku, a demanding deity who has the ears of a jaguar and smokes cigars.
The exhibition -- held under the sponsorship of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom Caballeros -- occupies a floor filled with ancient luxury goods, and features a series of mesmerizing films. An hour spent eavesdropping on the armed merchant class that ruled the bloodthirsty Mayan empire is not all that different from watching a cable-television news cycle.
The Mayan elite focused on trade, war and religion. The luxury economy was mostly based on precious stones and metals, obsidian and bird feathers. Everyone else grew vegetables, cotton and cacao. Commercial transactions were ruled by “holy lords,” who employed priests and astronomers to figure out the best time to buy gold, sell corn and push children into sacred fresh-water “cenotes,” or sink holes, to assuage the gods.
“The religious ball game the ancient Mayans played also held commercial significance,” Yucatan University Mayan-studies professor Gualberto Zapata Alonzo explains during a tour we made last year of the Mayan metropolis of Coba in Mexico. “The blood of the sacrificed captain was used as fertilizer.”
Branly’s “Dawn of a Downfall” exhibition walks visitors through the culture’s chaos-with-cash-flow period, a stretch of time that begins around 2500 B.C., with the first use of obsidian as both a weapon and as a farm tool, until the empire’s demise in 1524 A.D.
At the show, Juan Carlos Melendez Mollinedo, director of Guatemala’s National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, says the Mayan empire collapsed because the holy lords got greedy.
“It was popular discontent toward the ruling class that would have sparked off the internal chaos,” Melendez Mollinedo says in one of the descriptive texts that guide visitors through the exhibition. “That happened against a background of incessant warfare that first caused the rupture.”
The next rupture is set for Dec. 21, 2012, the so-called 2012 Phenomenon that maintains the Mayans predicted a series of cataclysmic or transformative events taking place on that date.
The movie “2012,” starring John Cusack and Woody Harrelson, was released in 2009 and, according to Box Office Mojo, grossed $769 million globally. Depending on who’s doing the talking, the 2012 Winter Solstice will end with either the Earth being devoured by a black hole, a collision with a planet called Nibiru or the end of the Greek debt crisis.
But the marquee hobgoblin on display at “Dawn of Downfall” is Frenchman Constantine Rafinesque, a professor of botany at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. Back in the early 19th century, Rafinesque decoded the glyphs that constitute the Mayan numerical system.
He also figured out that the Mayans were the first to invent the concept of zero, using black glyphs to show profits and red glyphs to signal losses. Then Rafinesque had an affair with the wife of the university’s president and the school in 1826 revoked his tenure.
Legend says he put a Mayan curse on Transylvania University that occurs every seven years. Whether this annoyance is authentic is difficult to pinpoint, though members of Transylvania’s secret Hemlock Society swear it’s true.
“Dawn of a Downfall” takes the Mayan approach to the Rafinesque myth and what experts will acknowledge has a completely half-baked theoretical ring.
“Mayan philosophy is based on the belief that every individual has an impact upon the harmony of the universe,” reads the placard alongside a lower jaw bone ripped from a rich man’s skull, the teeth filled with jade stones. “Each action induces the divine response that it merits.”
“Maya, de l’Aube au Crepuscule” is at the Musee du Quai Branly, 37 Quai Branly, 75007 Paris, through Oct. 2. Information: http://www.quaibranly.fr or +33-1-5671-6000.