Culture and Climate Change – Arts

The Quest For A New World? – Indian Myths About The End Of The World Are In At The Moment

Ausschnitt aus dem Poster zu dem Film „Avatar“; © 20th Century FoxExtract from the poster for the film “Avatar”; © 20th Century FoxIn Hollywood’s new cinema d’auteur Indian myths about the end of the world and alternative lifestyles seem to be abounding at the moment. The question is – what is their message and what have the Indians got to do with it?

In his Hollywood blockbuster 2012 (2009) the German director, Roland Emmerich, once again invoked the apocalypse. He had already had huge hits at the box-office with Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Now, with 2012, he has become the world’s number one sci-fi director when it comes to wreaking global destruction. According to Emmerich, the film, which is bursting with special effects that have never been seen before, is to be his last disaster (movie).

In 2012 scientists register unusually strong solar radiation directed at the earth’s core, causing it to overheat and melt the earth’s crust, which, in turn, triggers shifts in the tectonic plates of the planet and causes the earth’s crust to break asunder; mega-tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, meteoric rain and earthquakes are the result. A visual delirium of collapsing skyscrapers, huge gaping fissures in the ground and swamping tidal waves is hot on the heels of the hero as he crosses the continent and makes his way to the Himalayas – a hero by the way who, although divorced, goes above and beyond himself as he tries to save his family. Even the peace and quiet of the Himalayas, however, does not seem to be able to escape the mayhem – the trembling of a teacup in the hands of a Buddhist monk serves as a harbinger of the coming calamity.

The day when everything is supposed to end is still ahead of the audience – it is the winter solstice, 21st December 2012. A magical date that is of great symbolic importance in the calendar of the ancient Mayas. It is the day their calendar ends and the perfect way to start the film with the staggering statement – “The Mayas knew about it (…..), the Bible (….), it is the end of the world, my dear friends (….).”

What exactly is going to happen then on 21st December 2012? Are the Mayan gods going to descend from the heavens, as it says in the prophecy? Will it be the end of the world? Or will it be the dawn of a new, enlightened age?

The Indian message at the beginning gives this Hollywood action flick a mythical message, an air of mystery, and is grist to the mill for the conspiracy theorists. This delving into the treasure chest of Mayan myths has turned out to be a brilliant marketing coup for Emmerich – all over the world talk shows and internet forums seem to be avidly discussing the accuracy of the Mayan calendar and a possible collision with a planet called Nibiru. All the hullabaloo has prompted NASA, the American space agency, to make an official statement on its website that refutes the theory.

Indian prophecies and parallel worlds

There is in fact nothing new about end-of-the-world prophecies in Indian cultures. They are being predicted all the time, because they stem from a cyclical concept of time in which the beginning and the end are causally connected with each other. Mythical images in times of crisis can be virulent and lead to reactions of fear. The Apapocúva-Guaraní Indians of Brazil, for example, viewed their future with great pessimism at the beginning of the 20th century. Their sagas of the end of the world are of a highly poetic quality. Tragically, however, it was neither global conflagration nor mega-waves that brought the apocalypse upon them, but the visions of their priests which forced them to their doom as they fled across the continent. They were more or less wiped out, the remaining few being turned into slaves or incarcerated in pitiful reservations.

Whenever people run out of ideas, they always love to resort to ancient wisdom. In a world in which the threatening scenario of the apocalypse in the meantime has become an everyday memento mori and in which our economic wise men have proved to be unreliable prophets, people are looking for alternatives. This is why the “lost civilisations of bygone times” and those “children of nature” tribes that still live “in harmony with nature” are also enjoying a surge in interest.

The descendants of the “Ancient Mayas”, on the other hand, who today eke out a meagre existence on the Yucatan peninsular, do not enjoy any esteem, as their lifestyle is no longer in line with the heroic ideal of man bonding with nature – an ideal that we project into them. The descendants of an “extinct” culture are in fact more of a disruptive factor. Their reality is that of unfair prices on the global markets for cocoa and coffee, loss of tradition and exploitative working and production conditions – of no interest whatsoever for either Hollywood or esoterics.

Escapist counter-worlds

In times of crisis there is always a boom in romantically escapist imagery. Any realistic image of what life is like for the modern-day Indian – like that of Birdwatchers by Marco Bechis – does not fit into the formula. This contemplation of Indian civilisation that supposedly has no history and that represents an authentic and good way to live is also a form of hefty, sledge-hammer criticism of our present culture – back to the knowledge of the ancient cultures, back to the “aboriginal peoples” of the world!

The smash-hit Avatar by James Cameron, clearly shows an alternative to our corrupt, unscrupulous world that greedily devours raw materials. This is where the Na’vi live – a future vision of an aboriginal people. With their steely blue super-bodies they live in harmony with an esoterically enchanted nature that is only lethal for the ignorant. It is not only the special effects that have enabled Avatar – also a vision of a new world – to eclipse 2012. The end of the world was yesterday and is now passé – we are now back in the future!

What good however will that do the descendants of those “extinct cultures”? It was only recently that Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, known as the Dalai Lama of the rain forests, said that his people, which was exploited by mine workers, were very much like the Na’vi in Hollywood. It is depressing when the message threatened peoples are trying to get across has to come in the form of a warped, romanticised Hollywood vehicle to make itself heard. They have learnt from us, but will we ever learn from them?

Ulrike Prinz
is an editor of “Humboldt” magazine

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion [Diese Zeile nicht übersetzen]
March 2010

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