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[First published in PhotoStatic #33, November, 1988.]
In Tiahuanacu, an ancient ruined city near Lake Titicaca in South America, there are found numerous statues of a nameless, weeping god. These statues were made by an unknown group of pre-Incan indians, as was the city of Tiahuanacu itself.
South Americna history before the Incans, and much of Incan history too, for that matter, is simply lost. We have only recently realized that the Incans had a written language, and have not yet learned to read it. The Incan forebears who carved the weeping god apparently had no written language at all, and so there are no records of what they did or thought. And since the Incans enjoyed claiming that they were the first people in the region to develop a civilization, although many ruined buildings exist that belie their claim, whatever oral stories may have still been told about those who came before them were suppressed.
And so the origins of the weeping god are unknown.
I have a magazine photograph of one of the weeping god statues that I find myself examining at odd moments, as if the image will somehow reveal its meaning to me if I study it carefully for a long enough period of time. I know that this will not actually happen. I know that the only way the story of this god will be found is through the work of archeologists. But I have great faith in my ability to decipher images. And faith is what any god, even a long-forgotten one, requires.
I examine his squat little figure, his great gaping eyes (almost bug-eyes), and the two vertical lines that run down each of his cheeks, between which have been carved a number of small circles representing tears. Very abstract tears, really. They look like the sprockets on the sides of film. I think to myself how it must be to stroll about Tiahuanacu where hundreds of such statues are propped up on pedestals here and there, crying for what lost reason, imploring or grieving or in the midst of pain. What a city that must be. How it must overwhelm its visitors. How even the most hardened and insensitive tourist, off to South America on a binge of international solidarity, must pause for a moment to question this god. Why are you weeping?, the tourist might ask the carved features. For whom are you weeping?
That is the beauty of this god, really, at least for me. That he is a mystery that has no solution, may never have a solution. He is therefore tantalizing. And his mystery is made all the more acute because it is unintentional. At one time several thousand years ago he had a perfectly legitimate reason for his existence, perhaps it was even a mundane reason that, if known by jaded cultural thrill-seekers like myself, would render him common and uninteresting. But this reason, this rationale for existence, is now lost. This god's purpose, his name, even the name of the people who fashioned him into existence?none of these things is known. And so I find him fascinating. And so I strive in vain to discover his meaning.
Perhaps what is most needed is not the uncovering of the truth about such enigmatic historical finds but a re-imagining of them, the creation of contemporary truths they can embody. Perhaps we should claim this weeping god as our own, as a symbol that can be used here and now, in our lives.
For me, one of this god's possible meanings is this: that he represents the lives of the unknown human beings in the distant past who created him, human beings whose lives are irretrievably lost to us. This weeping god symbolizes for me the passing of time and all the horror embodied in that idea. He represents the loss that occurs again and again throughout history, the vain strivings for communication between our species across the barriers of time, our inability to preserve and pass on those things which we find most important, the unnerving way in which we become mysteries to our own children, how our parents become mysteries to us.
I have a difficult time remembering my grandfather's face, and he only died a few years ago. I speak to my father on the phone about twice a year. I see my sister a handful of times each year. My mother, I don't speak to her at all.
Fill in that same blank in your own life.
And so in this way the weeping god can become a usable icon in our lives, regardless of what he may have been to the ancients. Like a hook on a wall, we can hang whatever we please on him, whatever suits out purposes.
The weeping god of the Andes, the product of a lost people, can speak today for other lost people as well.