A charismatic and talkative man of Maya descent approached me one lively Friday evening just outside of La Plaza Grande in Merida, Mexico. With infectious enthusiasm, he discussed the history of the Maya in the Yucatan and Merida with me; his face gained color and animation as each topic rolled over into a new one. My Spanish isn’t very good, so my husband, who is half Mexican, translated that which I did not catch the first time around.
I had a bowl of Tortilla Soup for dinner that night. As I blew my breath onto each steaming spoonful, my husband recounted for me the story he’d just heard regarding the origin of the word, “Yucatan.” According to the man we’d just spent time with on the street, Hernan Cortes first told this story in a letter to Charles V, The Holy Roman Emperor. According to Cortes, when the Spanish first asked natives of the peninsula what the region was called, they responded with “Yucatan.” In the Yucatec Maya language, “Yucatan” translates as “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” Nearly 500 years later, the truth is still lost in translation, muddled by time, language, personal beliefs and motives.
%Gallery-173647%With December 21, 2012, only a few days away, the hype surrounding it and its Maya roots has been amplified. Throughout my recent trip to the Yucatan, a stark contrast between the local and foreign opinion of this date was blatantly observable. As Jacob Devaney discusses in an article on the Huffington Post, prophetic fiction is powerful. Our tendency to take written words literally, no matter the gap between written and oral tradition, is also powerful. Our imaginations are worlds of their own, holding both the thread and ability to weave intricately detailed narratives with climaxes and resolutions that are tailored to suit our individual stories. When these stories happen to reflect the facts, they usually do so in varying degrees. The burden of proof for 2012 storytellers is often skirted by those who, to begin with, want to believe. What we have as a result is swampy literature thick with blurred lines between fact and fiction. Predictions for December 21 are abundant. To fully grasp both the intentions and present impact of the Maya, we must first become acquainted with the popular beliefs regarding this date.
The End Of The World
Some believe December 21 will be the day the world ends or the beginning of the end. Believers predict that the date will wreak catastrophe, particularly astronomical catastrophe. The arrival of the next solar maximum, interference at the hand of our galaxy’s center black hole, a collision with an unconfirmed hidden planet, an alignment of the planets, a pole shift and increasing disasters are some of the ways in which believers say the world might dissipate on December 21. Some have developed conspiracy theories on a massive government cover-up operation; an attempt at shielding the masses from the truth of the “end times.” Many who believe that the world will end on December 21 have linked their beliefs to the Maya calendar, claiming that the end of the Long Count calendar coincides with this date. In truth, the calendar does not end on December 21 – it simply moves into its next cycle. As expressed by Joseph L. Flatley on The Verge, this kind of information would normally go unnoticed were it not for our cultural preoccupation with The End. But rather than remain an ‘obscure piece of trivia,’ as Flatley puts it, the calendar’s ending cycle has been at the center of current mainstream and underground conversation.
According to the SETI Institute’s “Doomsday 2012 Fact Sheet,” some opinion polls are suggesting that a tenth of Americans are concerned about whether or not they will survive December 21. Teachers have reported that their students are fearful of the impending date. The mother of Adam Lanza, the young man responsible for the recent massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, has been identified as a “Doomsday Prepper.” The guns used in the shooting belonged to his mother, who had been stockpiling both weaponry and food for what she believed to be the approaching apocalypse. This date has been manipulated, exploited and profited from in most imaginable ways.
Professional scholars and scientists have worked to debunk the rumors and slow the rampant spread of doomsday theories. Maya scholars maintain that dark predictions for December 2012 are not referenced in any classic Maya accounts. Astronomers have disputed apocalypse theories tied to this date, explaining that the theories at hand conflict with basic astronomical observations. But the date holds significance even for those who don’t believe that it will usher in the end times.
A New Beginning
Some New Age beliefs imply that this date marks a period of time during which we will all undergo positive physical or spiritual transformation. Every Mexican I spoke with during my recent trip, including those of Maya descent, believed that this date simply marks a new beginning. December 21, our winter solstice, represents the shortest day of the year and the beginning of winter. Of course in this sense, the date will be “a new beginning” just as it is every year – the beginning of a new season. But perhaps the date will represent another kind of new beginning – a new beginning for the modern perception of the Maya civilization. For far too long, the great achievements and fascinating facets of Maya culture have been overshadowed by fear-mongering hoaxes. Perhaps with the coming and passing of December 21, we can continue where we left off on our journey of Maya exploration and understanding.
This is just the first post in a series on what I learned in the Yucatan about December 21, Maya Culture and the general region. Stay tuned for more.
[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]