Time Travel and Fictions of Science

In 1856, Edward Burnett Tylor, of inscribed with “Huitzilopochtli the god of war, Teoyaomiqui his wife, and Mictlanteuctli the god of hell” all compiled into a gruesome symbol of Aztec religion.  “There is little doubt,” Tylor opined, “that this is the famous war-idol which stood on the great teocalli of Mexico, and before which so many thousands of human victims were sacrificed.”  The famous sculpture, now surveying its victims in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Chapultepec Park, took on an early identification as a female divinity and passed into common culture as Coatlicue (“She of the Serpent Skirt”).  She is now, so a more recent theory holds, not simply the earth/mother goddess, but a representation of a tzitzimitl, one of any number of female sacred personages of ambivalent powers and actions.  At their worst, the tzitzimime (pl.) could be “star demons” descending to devour humans, but for the most part these female powers, in good Aztec fashion pivoted around duality, a complementarity that balanced threat with surety in their various avatars.

Tylor’s observations about the “war goddess” and Mexico overall, peering into its barbaric past through the residual survivals of a culture he predicted would fall to the United States, is a good mix of science and great deal of fiction.  While not exactly “science fiction” as we have come to know the genre, travelling forward from his time we can see how the spectacle and rudeness of Aztec ritual and human sacrifice aided Tylor in his scientific speculations on the evolution of cultures and the pre-modern human mind at work as it grasped to understand the natural world.  Ever the scientist, Tylor studded his travelogue with the best resources of his time, quoting Lord Kingsborough on Mexican antiquities, Humboldt’s meticulous measurement and mapping on Mexico a half century earlier, and he even provides the reader with a “Table of Aztec roots” to be compared with Sanskrit and related Indo-European forms.  Yet despite his best scholarly efforts, Tylor’s Anahuac is “fiction” in the same way that Europeans have drawn on their vast reservoir of myths, legends, and stories of Amazons and the Lost Tribes of Israel in their mastery of the Americas.  Columbus (in)famously believed he was near the Garden of Eden as he entered the Orinoco in 1498.  So, too, Tylor, while careful to dismiss any number of arguments claiming “supposed Aztec-Bible traditions,” cannot contain his wonder at the similarities between the Aztec and Hindu cosmogonies, and Aztec and Asian calendrics and astronomy (“resemblances in the signs used that seem too close for chance”).

Much, much later, or maybe much, much earlier – we will never know exactly when – Dr. Who and his companions dropped from the stars, landing smack dab in the middle of the great Aztec high priest Yetaxa’s tomb sometime in the 15th century.   We mere humans saw it in 1964, in one of the first serials of what is, arguably, television’s most successful franchises of any genre.  As far as science fiction television goes, Dr. Who is the gold standard for its quirkiness, kitschy but effective visuals, and astonishing insight into humanicity.  For Americans, the enigmatic but ever pragmatic Dr. Who remains the incarnation of British “clever.”

In Aztecs, one of the travellers, Barbara, is mistaken for a reincarnation of the dead priest Yetaxa.  And, never mind that Yetaxa, who was male reincarnates dw50revaztecs3as a woman, for as Barbara/Yetaxa notes, it is the spirit of Yetaxa, not the human form that counts (more on this later).   Because Barbara is a history teacher with, conveniently, a specialization in Aztec history she knows the Spanish will arrive and destroy the Aztec empire.  Thinking that if she can play out her ersatz goddess role she can rid the Aztecs of human sacrifice, preserving only the good in Aztec culture, and thus convince Cortes to spare them from destruction.  “You can’t rewrite history!” warns the Doctor.  “Not one line!”  Ultimately, Barbara/Yetaxa fails to thwart human sacrifice, and as they say, the rest is history.

What the writers of the Aztecs serial couldn’t know was that their fiction turned out to be closer to the idea of Nahua “divinity” than Tylor’s educated view.  Like most scholars of Aztec religion, Tylor believed that Aztec “gods” bore similarities with Indo-Europeans too close to ignore.  Like his comparison of Nahuatl words to Sanskrit and Greek, Tylor continued the common error of classifying the Aztec teteo to the Olympian pantheon.  Science fiction’s imaginative leap away from the pantheon model to Yetaxa’s spirit leaping from body to body is much more in line with our current understanding of how sacred power worked in ancient Mexico.

As scholars of religion engage the thought experiments in science fiction, we are forced to think and imagine beyond the building blocks of the previous generation’s knowledge.  Tylor might have benefitted from taking on the colossal Mexican Coatlicue monolith on its own terms rather than fall back on the work of earlier speculators like Kingsborough.  Maybe, like our ancestor ape-men confronting the black stela in 2001: A Space Odyssey and being catapulted a million years into space-travelling homo sapiens, Tylor would have made the leap from mere scientist into more provocative, certainly more compelling and lyrical interpretations of the stone goddess.  On a number of occasions, reading Tylor’s travelogue suggests that, indeed, he had found his way into Dr. Who’s TARDIS, travelled through time and space and landed in Mexico.  But unlike the curiosity and cleverness of the Dr. Who travellers, Tylor ‘s imagination was limited by his ethnocentrism and stodginess.  For him, Mexico continued its pitiable decline, a “second-hand” culture as he saw it.  Because Mexicans were “totally incapable of governing themselves” as he saw it, it was inevitable and positive that this failed state be swallowed up by the United States.  For Tylor then, travelling back to Aztec Mexico through the archeological remains at Cholula and Xochicalco, the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and displays of ancient objects in museums restored for him the glories of ancient Mexico which at the time were mostly fictions of science.



Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.


Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.