Ancestral Knowledge or New Age BS?

Kurly Tlapoyawa

Not too long ago, I mentioned on Facebook that I held a deep appreciation for the beautiful symbolism of being “cleansed” with Copal smoke prior to participating in ceremony. I was trying to make the point that, despite views to the contrary we do not need to ascribe supernatural properties to our modern ceremonial practices in an attempt to have them appear more valid. Needless to say, not everyone was thrilled with this observation.

One individual in particular (I honestly don’t remember who it was) went so far as to tell me that not only was I wrong, but that Copal was a “living relative” that possesses its own “will.” Others made similar claims. Some were shocked that I would even dare suggest such a thing. Frankly, I found such a response to be unfortunate, If not entirely unsurprising. Though to be fair, a decent amount of people did agree with me.

hunbatzmenWell known fraud and “Maya Elder” Hunbatz Men holding up one of his favorite props

Let me be clear. I love participating in ceremony. I love the beauty of the music and song. I love the complexity of the ritual, the smell of copal, and the sound of the rattles. I love the symbolism and metaphor contained in the raw collective energy of our synchronized movements. Is this not enough? Isn’t the communal experience of coming together with our families and friends in order to participate in an act of cultural continuity enough? Can’t we just enjoy the inevitable array of food, music, and laughter that follows the ceremony without adding magical thinking to the mix? And what about the fact that participating in ceremony is FUN? Isn’t this enough? Why do we feel the need to associate mystical properties with something so characteristically human?

“But wait a minute, Kurly. Didn’t our ancestors have a supernatural view of the world?” Sure, at some point they most likely did. This is pretty common among ancient cultures. But let’s not allow our culture to remain frozen in time. To do so is to ignore the philosophical advancements that were taking place in Anawak at the moment of the Spanish invasion. In fact, historians such as Miguel Leon-Portilla have argued that the tlamatinimeh (teachers and philosophers) were actively moving their cosmovision away from myth and towards a more scientific worldview based on rational discoveries.

MayanHunabKu This distorted symbol is said to represent Hunab Ku
(it doesn’t)

Theirs was a worldview that can be interpreted as a non-theistic pantheism, in which the language of myth was being adapted to explain philosophical observations about the world around them. (For an excellent examination of the Mexikah cosmovision, I highly recommend the book “Aztec Philosophy” by James Maffie). In fact, I honestly believe that left undisturbed, this worldview would have evolved into something resembling pantheistic atheism rather than the blend of new-age pseudoscience and Catholic dogma that permeates much of our community today. In our rush to appear more “legitimate” and satiate our thirst for “sacred” knowledge, we have embraced all manner of magical thinking while ignoring the fact that this is exactly what our ancestors were moving away from. Surely we can preserve our ritual and ceremony while also recognizing myth, symbolism, and metaphor for what they are.

Ultimately, the reality is this: it is entirely possible to have reverence for the interconnectedness of life and for the planet we live on, without being required to hold a worldview shaped by superstition and magical thinking. In fact, this should be the norm. Unfortunately, the allure of “sexing up” our worldview with mystical mumbo-jumbo in hopes of appearing deeply profound and “spiritual” has proven too strong for some to resist. Personally, I can think of no greater betrayal of the philosophical and scientific advances made by our ancestors than a blind embrace of superstition and magical thinking.

sfsfFake “Mayan” codices said to represent ancient acupuncture. Suuure…

The solution? We need to open our minds and drop the emotion-driven response to having long-held “traditional” beliefs challenged. I realize that nobody likes to be told that they are wrong. Especially when some of the “traditional” teachings they hold so dear to their hearts were passed along by someone they respect. But the fact is, quite a few of the so-called “traditional” teachings being bandied about today are relatively new inventions – many of which sprang from the new-age movement of the 1970’s. And we deserve to know what is what. As followers of Yankwik Mexikayotl we need to embrace a perspective that demands skeptical inquiry, critical thinking, and scientific literacy. This will bring us knowledge. This will honor our ancestors.

Interested in learning more? Check out my book “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” available on In it, I discuss basic themes of Nawa philosophy, and how these themes can be practiced in the modern age.

Click to Purchase

Kurly Tlapoyawa is an archaeologist, author, and ethnohistorian. His research focuses primarily on the interaction between Mesoamerica, Western Mexico, and the American Southwest. Kurly has lectured at UNLV, University of Houston, and Yale University on topics related to Mesoamerica. His recent book, “Our Slippery Earth: Nawa Philosophy in the Modern Age” was published in 2017. In addition to his work in Archaeology and Ethnohistory, Kurly is a professional stuntman with over 35 credits to his name.

Follow Kurly on twitter @KurlyTlapoyawa

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About Kurly Tlapoyawa (1010 Articles)

2 Comments on Ancestral Knowledge or New Age BS?

  1. Read both of your books this week.

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