December 21, 2012: An Introduction To The End Of The World

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]

Sunrise At Izapa, Mexico: The Place Where Time Began

WINTER SOLSTICE, 2011 – The darkness enveloped us like a warm blanket as we walked carefully toward the center of the ancient ruins of Izapa. We carried a flashlight but did not turn it on, believing our eyes would adjust to the dark. With no warning, from the direction where I thought the royal throne should be, light shot into our eyes, blinding us to a halt.

“Make some moves with the flashlight,” Robert said. Someone must have arrived before us. “Turn the thing off and on a couple of times, so they don’t think we’re sneaking up on them.”

Our daughter quickly did so, and the other light fell away. We waved our arms in the air, but it was too dark to see if there was a response. I had not expected company. Izapa is off the beaten path even for Maya trail travelers, on the Pacific coast where Guatemala and Mexico come together. It’s not Palenque with its grand temples, or the intimate painted walls of Bonampak. I hoped the light hadn’t come from a drug trafficker. Maybe an early-rising farmer.Hungry families plant corn and beans right up to the ruins, errant stalks and tendrils invading old stones. But 3000 years ago Izapa was a powerful city-state, much bigger. An archaeologist told me that sometimes a peasant farmer, acres away from the center, is clearing brush with his machete and – clang! – he hits the stony remains of an old staircase, or a sacred altar.

I wasn’t worried about who was behind the flash of light that stopped us. At one time I would have turned back, worried or not, out of concern for our daughter; but she is in her 20s now, travel-wise and a good runner, should the need arise.

We started again, taking small steps, the three of us, and the memory returned. As a child she would tell people dolefully she never had a “real” vacation.

“My parents always want to see something,” she said, “usually ruins.”

She would be leaving us soon; these few days together were the end of a certain epoch for our very small family. I could taste my regret. Perhaps we should have gone to more theme parks or beaches over the years. Done something a different way.

“This is probably the birthplace of the Maya Calendar,” I said to her.

“I know, Mom. Cool.”

The calendar is 5,126 years long. Its last day is December 21, 2012. The culture that built Izapa gave birth to the Maya civilization, and both were obsessed with time. Izapa’s layout, its temples and sacred ball court, is not accidental, but strictly aligned with the movement of the stars. Some epigraphers say the end of the calendar, properly called the Maya Long Count, is merely like a certain moment on an odometer, when the date will turn over to 0000, and we will go forward another 5,126 years. Others say as the calendar ends, we are in for cosmos-size troubles, soon, or in the near years ahead.

I go for the odometer theory, but I am not surprised at what are now called weather events, signs of our broken pact with Mother Earth. Even an odometer will stop counting when a car is destroyed beyond repair.

We took seats on a step behind a thick, flat stone that was the royal throne; we made out lines of a long court where a heavy rubber ball was once kept in motion by the fittest young men, a re-enactment of the struggle of the Hero Twins against the Lords of the Underworld. The tale is familiar in these parts, found in the Popol Vuh, a Maya telling of the creation of the world. We kept our eyes on the far end of the court, where the sun was supposed to rise.

Our daughter climbed the mound behind us by light of the stars and moon. Eventually three other observers, a man and two women, descended from the mound and stood nearby, from where they could see the ball court, too. Ah, those of the bright light. They greeted us formally, but kept to themselves, speaking Spanish in hushed tones. Robert and I spoke quietly, too, as if in a church out of respect, even though we were all keeping watch in the full outdoors.

When our daughter came down, she whispered, “Two of them are astronomers. The lady in the poncho is the mother of one of them.”

At any other time, I would have approached the astronomers and asked endless questions. It is said the sun crosses the dark valley of the Milky Way, which Maya think of as a womb, at the time of the winter solstice that marks the end of the calendar. Is it true this transit of the sun happens only once every 26,000 years? Could the Maya have known?

Instead, I stayed quiet and tried to absorb the venerable feeling of the old stone walls, the hieroglyphic tablets around us carved with the first written language in the Americas. Outlines of three distant volcanoes emerged from the dark. Stars faded; the first birds called. Slowly, hypnotically, the eastern sky turned pearl grey, pink, and finally, the palest yellow.

Then, something unexpected. Before coming into view, the sun we had been waiting for sent out an astonishing ray of light, rich yellow edged in glowing orange. The beam illuminated the trees of the horizon until their very branches came to life, traveled toward us up the narrow length of the ball court and fell, squarely, on the seat of the throne of stone. I heard the astronomers and the lady in the poncho take in breath. I didn’t need to see their faces to know they looked like ours, with expressions of awe and delight at the workings of the human mind that could construct its surroundings just so, in harmony with the stars.

In the Maya creation story, the Hero Twins defeat the Lords of the Underworld. One twin becomes the moon, the other the sun. Our daughter touched my hand and nodded up to the sky. The moon, one brother, still hung there, just a few degrees south of his twin, the rising sun.

“Mom.” she said, “Remember when I was really small and you and Dad were looking for ruins and you let me climb that boulder in a cornfield and it turned out to be a huge carved head?”

“You remember that?” I said.

“Of course. Olmec, I think. Maybe 600 B.C.? I tell everyone that story.”

Robert caught my eye, contentment on his face, and she caught the look between us. “Whaaat?” she said.

The path out of the ruins ran through a grove of trees bearing pendulous cacao pods, holding seeds from which chocolate is made. Occasionally a farmer passed and touched hand to forehead, a silent hello. At the foot of something like a ruined temple staircase, we found remnants of a recent Maya ceremony, stones in a circle, feathers, fresh ashes. Farther on, a woman outside her house making chocolate candy for sale showed a profile like the ones carved on the stelae, the upright stones.

“The cocoa-pods have always been here,” she said, nodding to a tree. Under its branches a toddler, armed with a stick and unencumbered by clothes, speared dead leaves. “My abuelos, the ones who came before, have always lived here.”

Walking toward the main highway that led to the rest of the world, I found myself not overwhelmed by the end of things, but feeling the continuity of past with present. The odometer, I told myself. It gave me the nerve to ask that absurd question, “Well, what did you think? I mean, the sunrise and all?”

“I imagined what it would have been like in the Maya days,” our daughter said. “The king on that throne, and the ball court full of people, like it is in the markets.”

“I felt the silence,” she said. “Even with the birds singing.”

Veteran journalist Mary Jo McConahay is the author of Maya Roads: One Woman’s Journey Among the People of the Rainforest (Chicago Review Press).