Imagine for a moment, that the only way to express yourself was to create something tangible. That thing, be it a sculpture, or a poem, or a 10 tier-cake, would exist for no other reason than to mirror your invisible, yet very real, feelings. But, what if your feelings are big… really BIG? I’m talking, rope thousands of people into forced labor and demand they build a monumental structure kinda big. Like, let’s say… a pyramid.
There are many moments in our lives that are “larger than life,” when no words, music, dance, art, food, nothing can come close to manifesting and making tangible your feelings. This goes for both the good and the bad. All the rape, torture, and heart-wrenching cruelty we inflict on one another are poor attempts at expressing some pretty massive feelings of – I’m going to take a wild guess here and suggest things like: inadequacy, fear, rage, jealously and loneliness to name a few. Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I defending or condoning any kind of behavior here, but merely pointing out the problem that we humans have of self and collective expression.
We as a species have been trying to satisfy this need for expression for just about as long as we’ve been here, and evidence of this abounds. Shah Jahan forced tens of thousands into slave labor to build a marble shrine to his wife, Mumtaz (Taj Mahal). Qin Shi Huang Di had upwards of 8,000 life-sized soldiers sculpted to accompany him in the afterworld (Terra Cotta Army of Xi’an). Many of mans’ attempts at creating visualized expressions of size are what we now consider wonders of the world, and many of them have to do with death – what is surely one of the biggest impacts upon our inner world of emotions – be it the death of a loved one in Shah Jahan’s case, or of our own impending mortality.
Interestingly enough, on opposite sides of the planet two separate people groups came up with the same answer to this problem of expression – pyramids. The Egyptians were first to the party, building the pyramids of Giza around 5,000 years ago with the Mesoamerican pyramids sprouting up around 2,000 years later. Back then there were obviously not ways of communicating across great distances, let alone across the continents, so to have similar structures pop up in such different places absolutely blows my mind. Though they served very different purposes, it seems to me that both the Pyramids of Giza and the pyramids at Teotihuacan were attempts at satisfying the same need – to express on the outside what one feels on the inside. The Egyptians were visualizing the profundity of death (as so many of the world’s wonders tend to do), while the Mesoamericans were signifying the beginning of life – the birth of the gods.
São Paulo, Brazil currently holds the record for largest city on this side of the planet at nearly 12 million people, but several thousands of years ago, when upwards of 200,000 people roamed the streets of Teotihuacan they made up the largest congregation in the western hemisphere. No one knows who these people were, for their city was already an abandoned site of ruins by the time the Toltecs arrived to plunder the remains around 750, and again when the Aztecs stumbled upon it in the 1400s. Despite having hosted two previous peoples, this city went down in history with the Aztec-given-name of Teotihuacan (te-aw-tee-wah-kahn), or “the place where the gods were created.”
Many creation stories from Mesoamerica involve caves, and when the first peoples came upon this particular area to find a cave of decent size they assumed (we’re assuming) that this spot, this cave is where the Sun and the Moon were born – where the gods assembled to draw up their plan for humanity. Now, we know this isn’t true, but they totally thought it was, so, can you imagine?! Finding the birthplace of the freakin’ sun and moon?! Where it all began?? That’s HUGE! They must have been so overwhelmingly full of feelings, BIG FEELINGS, that they could’ve just burst! So, herein lies the problem – what to do?
I like to imagine that they first threw a party, a BIG and wildly fantastic party. This maybe satisfied and mirrored their feelings for a short while, but when the tequila ran out and the DJ went home, then what? Those big feelings were still there, still needing to be dealt with. So began the building of not just one monument, but three major monuments – the Pyramid of the Sun (build directly over the aforementioned cave), the Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (good luck pronouncing that, I still can’t get it right).
Several smaller temples of equal beauty and craftsmanship line the Avenue of the Dead, the one-mile long main road cutting through the center of the site (again, we see death’s mark on our ancient wonder). Sitting on one of these smaller temples looking out to the pyramids and watching hundreds of tourists and students mill about and climb over everything like it was nothing but a massive jungle gym left for them by the gods, I sat and tried to imagine what it must have felt like to have participated in the construction of such a terrifyingly huge thing. Sure, they probably felt proud of their work – I mean, my god, it took decades to build and with an average life expectancy of merely 25 years, if you were one of the lucky ones to witness it’s completion then a familial pride of knowing that generations of your family had poured into this site must’ve been overwhelming. But… was it enough? Did the pyramids do justice to the powerful feelings coursing through the veins of those who discovered the origin of the gods?
We’ll never know. What we do know is that they left. After finding this sweet spot on top of the mountain range, building an ode to their creators and establishing the largest city this side of the Atlantic, they took off. Scorch marks found on sides of the structures indicate that a catastrophe of some sort happened, forcing a mass evacuation and abandonment – what a bummer, eh? That must’ve felt terrible to have to leave such an important place, to leave behind your pyramids and temples. More BIG feelings, but of another kind all together. Rage, frustration, confusion, terror – not a good mix of things in a wandering group of hundreds of thousands of people. Another mystery, for we have no idea where they went or what happened to them. All we have is what remains of their city, the manifestations of some pretty big feelings.
I spent the better part of an hour sitting there on that temple, looking out and contemplating all of this – what it must’ve felt like to have discovered something so huge. Wondering, could I ever experience something worthy of building a pyramid? Worthy of rolling my sleeves up and breaking my back to make something that will last for thousands of years for future people to gawk at and wonder about? Sure, I’ve felt big things. I’ve loved, lost, discovered new things and have been outraged, but I don’t start piling stones up, I write papers, publish books even, write bad reviews or write letters of love and gratitude (obviously I have a type when it comes to expression – words are kinda my thing).
Sitting there, mulling over all of this while in the shadow of the the world’s third largest pyramid, on the exact spot where the Mesoamerican people believed to be the origin of the gods and of human life, I was filled with and rendered silent by a feeling of immense awe, of wonderment, stupefaction, amazement – sheer, and utter bewilderment!! Were these feelings left over from the original peoples who lived here? I do believe that places can hold energy, so perhaps the Egyptians and Mesoamericans where onto something! Maybe, just maybe, these pyramids not only reflect BIG feelings but house them as well!? Had I tapped into ancient wisdom? Was I feeling the remnants of early people’s energies?! Or… maybe, just maybe, it was all the tequila I had at lunch.