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‘The Living Maya’
‘The Living Maya’
Robert Sitler’s new book (2010), subtitled ‘Ancient Wisdom in the Era of 2012’
Robert Sitler

December 21st. 2012 and the Maya World (1)

We publish here an intriguing background article on this famous date kindly provided for us by Robert Sitler, Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, where he also serves as Director of the Latin American Studies programme. This is an abridged version of Professor Sitler’s essay of the same title that first appeared in the book ‘The Mystery of 2012’, published in 2007 by Sounds True. Our thanks to all concerned for permission to upload this piece, which we publish in two parts...

Dawn at Tikal, Guatemala
Dawn at Tikal, Guatemala (Click on image to enlarge)

Hundreds of internet websites in dozens of languages together with a rapidly growing assortment of books, videos, international workshops and electronic discussion groups speculate wildly about the significance of the Maya calendar and of the year 2012. In general, this excitement focuses on an approaching period of huge planetary transformation that will include cataclysmic changes and humanity’s subsequent emergence into a new age of expanded consciousness. Predictions concerning how this global shift will take place include spectacular scenarios such as a sudden inversion of the Earth’s magnetic poles, the descent of a spiritually uplifting galactic beam and even the arrival of master spiritual beings from distant stars...

The Long Count creation date, Quirigua Stela C
The Long Count creation date, Quirigua Stela C

Discarding the hype for a moment, the December 21, 2012 date is simply the last day of the current pik (pronounced “peek”, more commonly known as the b’ak’tun cycle), a period of 144,000 days in the ancient Maya Long Count calendar roughly equivalent to 394 years. Perhaps more significantly, it marks the end of the thirteenth pik, the final period of what some believe was a far larger calendar cycle measuring 1,872,000 days that began on August 11, 3114 B.C.E. and that will come to fruition more than 5,125 years later on the 2012 northern hemisphere winter solstice. It is important to point out that even this so-called Great Cycle in the Long Count represents merely a minor component in far larger Maya time periods that theoretically extend backwards and forward in time in a system of ever increasing cycles of time without beginning or endpoint. The date is hardly, as some mistakenly claim, the “end” of the Maya calendar.

‘New Dawn’ Magazine; the ancient Maya site of Palenque
‘New Dawn’ Magazine; the ancient Maya site of Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)

Although the 2012 date itself is indeed part of the Maya heritage, surprisingly, careful investigation of the major trends within the 2012 issue reveals few solid connections to the Maya world. Even the authentic links that do exist between Maya culture and 2012 beliefs can get lost in a confusing patchwork of poorly documented competing New Age theories that are sometimes based on inaccurate facts and misinterpretation of Maya traditions. For example, in spite of the claims of some 2012 believers concerning the centrality of December 21 in ancient Maya culture, the 13 pik date only appears on a single occasion in the entire known body of Maya hieroglyphic texts. Even in this tiny text (Monument 6 at Tortuguero in Tabasco, Mexico), there is no mention of the events described in current popular writings. Similarly, the varied and elaborate sets of “Maya prophecies” found on-line, the majority of them in Spanish, are largely New Age creations lacking solid basis in Maya sources.

Crowd attending a Maya new year festivity
Crowd attending a Maya new year festivity (Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps the relative absence of authentic Maya cultural material in the 2012 question should not be surprising since, apart from several notable exceptions, those most actively promoting the significance of the date are not Maya and have had few chances to meet and interact with Maya people today. These Westerners do not speak any of the 30 Maya languages and have minimal familiarity with Maya traditions. While there are now probably more than ten million Maya living today, they have thus far participated little in the 2012 phenomenon since only a very small number have had any prior exposure to the topic.

The Observatory building, Chichén Itzá
The Observatory building, Chichén Itzá (Click on image to enlarge)

The Long Count calendar from which the 2012 date emerges fell into disuse well before Spanish invaders arrived in the 16th century. Knowledge of its rediscovery by Western academics in the late 19th century has reached extremely few Maya living today. School curricula in the Maya world do not typically reflect native values and include little emphasis on the Maya cultural heritage. As a result, few Maya students have the opportunity to learn formally about their own culture except for the relative few at the university level. Those exceptional Maya who actually know of the 2012 date, must have learned of it directly or indirectly through contact with non-Maya sources. While many Maya have long spoken of a time of coming great changes, the specific references to 2012 are a recent addition. Such reclaiming by the Maya of their own cultural heritage is yet another step to their eventual freedom from oppression by their Hispanic fellow citizens.

Rock crystal skull (British Museum) alongside a modern Mexican papier maché sull
Rock crystal skull (British Museum) alongside a modern Mexican papier maché sull (Click on image to enlarge)

The few individual Maya who actively participate in the 2012 question tend to associate strongly with foreigners, work mainly in Spanish rather than a Maya language, and live a decidedly non-traditional lifestyle. Not surprisingly, their contributions often blend traditional Maya beliefs with a hotch-potch of New Age spirituality that includes visits from extraterrestrials, prophetic crystal skulls, and origin stories going back to lost Atlantis. Confusing matters further, several non–Maya individuals pose as Maya elders, spreading their own versions of 2012 lore. While all involved in the 2012 question seem well intentioned and promote noble aims, some Maya resent that a few may also benefit from personal financial gain and notoriety within New Age spiritual circles.

Monument 6, Tortuguero site, Tabasco, Mexico
Monument 6, Tortuguero site, Tabasco, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

While little content in the 2012 issue has solid basis in Maya culture, there are at least two legitimate historical sources and several minor social currents within the Maya world that do actually refer to world era change and planetary renewal, the core themes of the 2012 phenomenon. The older of the two historical sources is an ancient hieroglyphic text found on Monument 6 at the site of Tortuguero in the Mexican state of Tabasco. Monument 6 contains the only ancient Maya text thus far discovered that refers unequivocally to the 2012 date. The legible parts of this extremely brief text say that, “the thirteenth pik will be finished (on) Four Ahaw, the third of K’ank’in. (An undeciphered event). The descent of Bolon Yokte K’u “Nine Foot Tree God(s)” to (undeciphered place).”

Bolon Yokte K’u may be represented here (Codex Dresden, Villacorta edition, p. 28); the deified crocodile-tree (left) is the Milky Way
Bolon Yokte K’u may be represented here (Codex Dresden, Villacorta edition, p. 28); the deified crocodile-tree (left) is the Milky Way (Click on image to enlarge)

The primary event predicted for that day, the arrival of the deity Bolon Yokte K’u, is suggestively similar to some currents in 2012 writings. John Jenkins has pointed out that the god Bolon Yokte K’u has strong connections to both warfare and Maya creation mythology. He further suggests that this deity can sometimes take the form of the World Tree, symbol of the Milky Way, and a key astronomical feature in ancient Maya creation lore. The Monument 6 hieroglyphs unfortunately provide us with extremely little information concerning 2012 and not one of the thousands of other ancient Maya texts even mentions the date. Even so, we at least know with certainty from this tiny passage that some ancient Maya actually did, in fact, see 2012 as significant and that this 13 pik date had associations with both warfare and creation events, occurrences that presumably could herald the dawn of a new era.

Chilam Balam Chumayel manuscript, Princeton University Digital Collections
Chilam Balam Chumayel manuscript, Princeton University Digital Collections (Click on image to enlarge)

The only other historical source for authentically Maya predictions possibly related to 2012 is the collection of colonial-period texts from the Yucatan Peninsula known as the books of Chilam Balam. While the cryptic nature of these deeply esoteric texts has lent itself to highly creative speculation by several New Age teachers, the Chilam Balam books do, in fact, contain at least one minor reference that has a legitimate, if weak, link to the 2012 date. The books describe prophecies linked to a series of successive k’atun periods, each measuring 7200 days, slightly less than 20 years. The text states that, “4 Ahaw k’atun is the eleventh k’atun according to the count. Chichen Itza is the seating of the k’atun. The settlement of the Itzas comes. The quetzal comes, the green bird comes. He of the yellow tree comes. Blood-vomit comes. K’uk’ulkan shall come....” Yukatek Maya oracle scribes named k’atuns in accord with the period’s closing date in their 260-day ritual calendar. The current k’atun, the one ending in 2012 on the northern hemisphere winter solstice, is a 4 Ahaw k’atun since it ends on the day 4 Ahaw.

K’uk’ulkan, Codex Dresden p. 49
K’uk’ulkan, Codex Dresden p. 49 (Click on image to enlarge)

However, K’atuns named 4 Ahaw recur approximately every 256 years and the Chumayel Chilam Balam text explicitly ties this prophecy to the immediately previous 4 Ahaw k’atun in the middle of the 18th century. Still, many scholars believe this prophetic text refers primarily to the arrival of a historical figure known as K’uk’ulkan in the Yucatan in a far earlier 4 Ahaw k’atun that ended in November of 987 CE. However, since the Maya focused constantly on the cyclical nature of time, any 4 Ahaw k’atun would share similar qualities. Thus there is a remote possibility that the passage refers to the 4 Ahaw k’atun ending in 1500 around the time of the Spanish invasion into the Maya world and the numerous diseases they brought with them. Presumably, since the December 21, 2012 date closes a 4 Ahaw k’atun, the text implicitly could refer to the current k’atun cycle, even though its more obvious connections to the earlier k’atun periods in Maya history are much stronger. In today’s context, these colonial Maya references to violence and sickness plus the green renewal image of the transforming Feathered Serpent, K’uk’ulkan, echo the cataclysmic and new-beginning themes at the heart of the 2012 phenomenon.

The site of a Macewal shrine
The site of a Macewal shrine (Click on image to enlarge)

Apart from this indirect reference to 2012 in the Chilam Balam books and the single, short hieroglyphic passage on Tortuguero Monument 6, there are no other historical Maya texts that clearly refer to the year. Even the sacred Popol Vuh, arguably the most sacred of all Maya texts, makes no mention of the year 2012 or of future world change. However, within several Maya communities today there exist several significant references that parallel ideas central to the 2012 movement. While these sources are practically unknown among most 2012 believers, these authentic indigenous beliefs are similar in that they point to an approaching period of significant, even catastrophic, world change and subsequent renewal but without explicit reference to the year 2012. For example, within the prophetic tradition of the Macewal Maya in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, there has long existed a strong belief in a rapidly approaching cataclysmic period of warfare that will lead to the destruction of their current world and the creation of a new Maya society. In 1930, for example, one Maya man in the village of Chemax declared:

A Macewal Maya ‘daykeeper’ consults seeds and crystals
A Macewal Maya ‘daykeeper’ consults seeds and crystals (Click on image to enlarge)

I guess I’ll tell you the story of beautiful holy Lord for you to hear, because I have read the testament (a sacred almanac) of beautiful holy Lord, where he says (that in) 2000 and a few more years it will end on earth. But if they have been very good Christians on earth, he will not end it.... He begins to diminish, beautiful holy Lord, His merciful grace (corn), the end of the road.

Maya altar offerings
Maya altar offerings (Click on image to enlarge)

In a similar vein, according to Paul Sullivan, Maya of the Macewal village of Xcacal Guardia believed in 1989 that war was “not much further off than the year 2000 and that it is inevitable.” One Mexican anthropologist familiar with the Macewal communities states that, “the wait for fulfillment of the promises of the Cross, the imminent arrival of the end of the world and the creation of a new Maya society are dynamic elements that are present, strong, alive and active.”

Maya imagery of the conflict between Spanish and native peoples
Maya imagery of the conflict between Spanish and native peoples (Click on image to enlarge)

I recently visited with prayermakers and guardians at the five principal Macewal shrine sites in the Yucatan, including the new one in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. While not a single person was aware of any predicted events connected explicitly to the 2012 date, nearly every individual I spoke with made quick reference to an imminent period of severe difficulties that might include warfare. Without exception, they emphatically avoided predicting a precise date for the cataclysm, insisting that, “only God knows” when it will occur. The Macewal Maya dream of an apocalyptic end to Hispanic domination of their world seems a natural consequence of their historical circumstances. They have suffered severe injustices at the hands of first Spaniards and then Mexicans, including a full-fledged campaign of extermination during the 19th century Caste War. Coincidentally, their hopes for world renewal mirror those at the heart of the New Age 2012 movement.

Lacandon Indians, 1933-34 (photo by Georgette Soustelle); it’s believed that the first man on the left could be Chan K’in
Lacandon Indians, 1933-34 (photo by Georgette Soustelle); it’s believed that the first man on the left could be Chan K’in (Click on image to enlarge)

Similarly, among the few remaining Lacandon Maya traditionalists in Chiapas, there has also been a belief that the end of the world is at hand. In 1978, the late well-known spiritual leader of Najá, Chan K’in stated, “Our Lord Hachakyum will make everything die .... The grass wishes to die. The seed, the animals all wish to die. And the True People also [the Lacandon] – we all die. In thirty years Hachakyum will destroy the world.” The tradition of world end and renewal is so strong among the Hach Winik (Lacandon) that they have a special word for it, xu’tan.

Deforestation within the Lacandón Biosphere Reserve
Deforestation within the Lacandón Biosphere Reserve (Click on image to enlarge)

Even though at this point nearly all of the Hach Winik in all three of their principal settlements have converted to various Christian denominations, recognition of the term the xu’tan persists. Several Lacandon men recently made clear to me that the Christian Apocalypse they have learned about in their local churches and the Maya xu’tan are not the same thing. Xu’tan particularly implies the cutting, burning and destruction of vegetation. As in the case of the Macewal Maya beliefs concerning world renewal, those of the Lacandon reflect their own peculiar historical circumstances as witnesses to the virtual elimination of their traditional homeland, the Selva lacandona, once one of the largest rainforests in our continent. The living green world that nurtured Lacandon culture for hundreds of years is now almost completely gone. Having witnessed this on-going deforestation, the Lacandon beliefs in impending world destruction seem quite logical. Coincidentally, they also parallel the cataclysmic dimensions in the 2012 movement.

Graphic portrayal of discrimination against the Maya under Spanish rule
Graphic portrayal of discrimination against the Maya under Spanish rule (Click on image to enlarge)

Recently, a Mam Maya traditionalist in Todos Santos Cuchumatán, Guatemala, drew my attention to prophetic traditions persisting among highland Maya that also predict a new world era. He said that he believes that Maya are approaching the culminating period of a divine trial in which they have had to endure nearly 500 years of oppression under Guatemala’s non-indigenous population. He stated that Maya are currently witnessing a process of purification that will prepare them for what he called in Mam the Ak’ah Sqixa or New Dawn. According to his understanding, the light of this New Dawn will return the Maya to their rightful place as rulers in their own lands. Once again, as with the Macewal and Lacandon prophetic traditions, the world renewal traditions among the Mam, K’iche’, Kaqchikel and other Maya in highland Guatemala tend to reflect their own particular historical circumstances, in this case, their brutally harsh experience in the region since the arrival of the first Spaniards in the early 1500s.

Timeless landscape enjoyed and respected by the Maya for centuries
Timeless landscape enjoyed and respected by the Maya for centuries (Click on image to enlarge)

Balance is a core Maya value. Just as Maya culture seeks balance between hot and cold, between male and female, its orientation towards equilibrium implies that there will inevitably be a reversal of the centuries of repression suffered by highland Maya under rule by the Spanish-speaking minority. (Emphasis added)

Since use of the Long Count on which the 2012 date is based ended many centuries ago, specific references by contemporary Maya to the date are rare and appear only among those recently exposed to the Long Count through formal or informal academic study.

Cemetery in Rabinal, Guatemala
Cemetery in Rabinal, Guatemala

Gaspar González, a Maya novelist and prominent cultural activist, is one of those few Maya who have spoken explicitly about the year 2012. González referred to the recent Guatemalan civil war as part of an extended period of severe tribulation that would prepare his people for the next cycle in human experience. He said that the current age of the human beings made of corn was ending, and that beginning after 2012, there will be a societal rebirth into what he called “una nueva era de la luz” (a new age of light).

Picture sources:-
• Dawn at Tikal: photo by Robert Sitler
• Quirigua Stela C images: from members.shaw.ca/mjfinley/calnote.htm
• New Dawn/Palenque: newdawnmagazine.com and photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Maya crowd: photo by Robert Sitler
• Observatory: photo by Robert Sitler
• Crystal and papier mache skulls: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Monument 6, Tortugero: graphic by Sven Gronemeyer, from www.alignment2012.com/bolon-yokte.html
• Codex Dresden images scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1975
• Chilam Balam Chumayel manuscript image: Princeton Mesoamerican Manuscripts No. 4. Courtesy of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library
• Macewal shrine, Macewal ‘daykeeper’, Maya altar offerings, images of discrimination/repression against Maya people: photos by Robert Sitler
• Lacandón Indians: from www.geocities.com/RainForest/3134/winik/soustelle/index.html
• Deforestation: photo courtesy Gerardo Carreón/Naturalia, A.C./ParksWatch
• Lake landscape: photo by Robert Sitler
• Cemetery in Rabinal: from Wikipedia

Read Part 2 with conclusion

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Monaem, we don’t believe the world will come to an end then, simply that it’s an important date in terms of calendar cycles, and it’s a superb opportunity to reflect on the idea of a new beginning, of starting afresh, at that time - after all, the world could do with a new start, don’t you think? Far from it being a frightening time, we here think it’s time to encourage everyone to begin afresh, and strive to bring more balance back into the world...