While I was taking a Non-Western Lit class at college I was introduced to a collection of Mayan mythology called the Popol Vuh. We only had a couple excerpts but those pieces were interesting enough that I went out to my local B&N and got a copy. (Allen J. Christenson's translation if any one's interested.) I read the first two-thirds right away. The story was weird and interesting, following these twin trickster-gods in and out of the underworld. Then, about two-thirds through the actual people came along and the twins pretty much disappeared out of the story. I got distracted by life and stopped reading for awhile.
I finally got around to picking the book up again. What the last third has (and maybe the numerous footnotes have something to do with this) is a sense of archaeological history. The people move through several named cities. They describe their battle against the surrounding tribes. It's interesting in a totally different way from the first part because of the sense that you've moved from strait myth in to actual memories.
When I was about eight or nine I wanted to be an archaeologist. Then I found out that archaeologists have to memorize the names and ages of different rock strata's, and that people who discover lost cities and ancient tombs have to study dead bodies. (Never on my top ten list of fun sounding things to do.) But even though I never went in for archeology, I still love the idea of finding windows to the past. To me, that's what mythology and older writings are. They allow you to see how people who lived hundreds of years ago looked at life around them, and at their own societies.
Here's the other thing Popol Vuh made me think about; while it didn't go into great detail, there was mention of the whole human sacrifice thing. Now, the Mayan civilization was incredibly advanced as far as technology, math and science are concerned. Just look at their cities with the ziggurats, the carvings, the calender stones. They were an absolutely amazing people. But the thing Western civilization remembers about them (besides ziggurats are cool!) is the human sacrifices. It's such a brutal way to go. Part of their reason for it was to make the nations they conquered fear them. I wonder how much the average citizen thought about the human sacrifice thing, and how much it was just part of society. I think it's easy to ignore the things that are horrifying to outsiders because, well, that's the way it's always been and hey, life's been great so far. I wonder about American society. I mean, we're advanced, right? Tall buildings. Good irrigation systems. Plenty of scientific and mathematical breakthroughs. What things do we see as normal that people of the future will consider barbaric brutalities? (As a pro-lifer, I admit abortion comes to mind. But I'm sure there are plenty of things I'm not thinking of that will shock our descendants.) I guess what I'm saying is, people are people. We'll always have blind spots when we look at our own culture.