By Barbara Rogoff
The news was full of claims that the ancient Maya had predicted the end of the world with the winter solstice of 2012.
The solstice went by, and here we still are.
Related to the mistaken claims of those in the news, the ancient Maya and the apocalypse-predictors conceive of time and life in very different ways. Unlike the end-is-coming view, life and time are cyclical in Maya cosmology. An end is a new beginning, as many current Maya spiritual guides have been trying to clarify to the world.
On the solstice, Alma Temaj, a Mayan spiritual guide from Guatemala, explained the ending and new beginning of a 5,129-year cycle in the Mayan calendar:
In the Maya cosmovision, time is cyclical. Today, the long-count calendar culminates and planets align. It is not the end of the world, but the change of cycles, a new era, a new beginning. For us Maya, its the beginning of a cultural revolution that will enable us to recover our identities, traditions, and cultures. Spiritually, the change in cycles means a renewing of energies. Across Guatemala we are holding ceremonies and making offerings to mark the end of the old cycle and to receive the new era.
The life and work of a sacred Mayan midwife, Chona Pérez, and her Guatemalan Mayan town illustrate a cyclical theory of cultural change and continuity. Chona has built on Mayan birth and spiritual practices that are more than 5 centuries old and she has also adopted Western medical practices and added her own innovations.
New eras re-cycle the practices of prior generations, adapting to current circumstances and adding innovations. This process can be seen in the photo below of two Mayan healers. Sacred Mayan midwife Chona Pérez (with braids, wearing traditional white guipil) converses in the Mayan language with Western medical doctor, Angélica Bixcul (also wearing traditional clothes), as they sip their soft drinks.
A cyclical theory of change and continuity was offered by Nicolás Chávez, a leading Guatemalan Mayan artist. Chávez explained the process by which Mayan people have fused Mayan and Catholic deities over five centuries. With the arrival of the Spanish, the ancient gods and the earth died, in a process of death and rebirth of the world that has occurred many times across history, from before the arrival of the Spanish to today. Each time that the earth and the gods die, when they are renewed, the gods again attain their power, along with new gods. As he told art historian Allen Christenson, “The saints today have Spanish names because the old earth died in the days of the Spanish conquerors. When the spirit keepers of the world appeared again they were the [Catholic] saints, but they do the same work that the old gods did anciently.”
The process of time and history, in this view, is not linear, with beginnings and ends or ‘progress,’ but rather a cycle. Each individual is born to a particular time and place, continuing some patterns from prior generations, but with the new cycle of each generation renewing the pattern in a spiral of both change and continuity.
The recent solstice completed a grand cycle that began on August 13, 3113 BC, calculated by the ancient Maya with five interlocking base-20 measures of time. In explaining this system, the Collective for the Revitalization of Mayan Science indicated that renewal of this cycle at the solstice is an ennobling time for the revitalization of communities and peoples, all equal in dignity and meriting respect.
Let’s hope that the Mayan predictions — for a recovery and renewal of energies in positive directions — is true. Happy New Cycle!
Barbara Rogoff, a developmental psychologist at University of California, Santa Cruz, examined cultural change and continuities in her recent book, Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town. Her previous books include The Cultural Nature of Human Development and Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School Community. Her research focuses on how people learn by observing and pitching in to the activities of their communities, especially in Mexico and Guatemala. Author royalties from Developing Destinies are donated to the Learning Center and other projects in this Mayan town. See a six minute video with historical film clips and photos since 1941 and photos, interviews, and reviews for more information.