The Seating of the New Bak’tun in Yaxhá National Park on December 21, 2012.

2012-12-21 04.58.12By now we’ve all just about forgotten the hoopla and excitement about the winter solstice in 2012 and the supposed last day of the Maya calendar. As the world moves on to the next apocalyptic meme, I thought I’d take a moment to write about the ceremony I  had the great honor to witness marking the end of the last Bak’tun and the seating of the new one.  My friends at Yaxhá National Park in the Petén, Guatemala invited me to witness the ceremony with them and I am deeply grateful for all the generosity they have shown me over the last few years. The ceremony was performed part in Spanish and part in Mayan. It was very simple and staid. At times it was almost like being in church, only this church had the star-saturated sky as its ceiling. Although a much larger event occurred at Guatemala’s largest tourist site in Tikal the night before, one that included a light show, dancing and music, at Yaxhá things were much more subdued. The crowd and the location seemed better suited to contemplation.

We hiked up to the site arriving at the plaza in front of Temple 216 at about ten minutes to 5:00 am. Already a fairly large group of people was gathered watching the Shaman and his assistants prepare the ceremony.

The Shaman dressed all in white. He wore red kerchief around his head and a Maya style belt swirling with colors. With him were four assistants, another shaman in white, two boys and a girl no older than 14 or 15.

In the dark, using only the light from a burning piece of husk, the Shaman drew a circle made of sugar in the center of the altar. Then he divided the circle in half with a line down the middle, also made of sugar. He then covered the sugar with round blocks of copal incense.  Again he made a line through the circle with sugar going the other direction. After completely covering the circle with blocks of copal he placed the four candles at the four cardinal points (red to the east, yellow to the south, black to the west, and white the north). A green candle marked the center of the circle.

I saw what I thought were large cigars, but I never smelled any tobacco so I can’t be certain they were in fact cigars.

At the side of the altar he placed bottles of Fanta (yellow & red), vodka (white) and coca cola  (black) along side the candles of the same colors.

When the Shaman lit the candles and the copal incense in the center, he asked us to make a large circle around the altar in a single line so no one would be in front of anyone else.

The smoke was dark and heavy, but not impossible to breath around.2012-12-21 06.05.50 Smoke

The Shaman told us that he would perform his ceremonies at the base of the temple, not at the top.  He explained the Maya believed that the sun, at that moment was making its passage, through the underworld and that it would soon rise. He compared each stage of the sun’s passage through the sky to the life a human being. Infancy, youth, wise elder and death.

The Shaman first knelt toward Temple 216 said some prayers in Maya (which I could not understand) and kissed the ground. He then began by explaining the intricate interlocking nature of the calendar and how the Maya paid very careful attention to the movements of the sun and the stars. Then, beginning with the first day name he explained the word’s meaning, which god ruled over that day and all the gifts that god is responsible for sharing with human beings. Then he offered thanks to the god, and as we all counted to 13 together, the Shaman threw a pinch of ajonjoli (sesame) seeds into the fire with each number. He explained that we were naming each of the gods and thanking them for having stood steadfastly for the last 13 Bak’tuns.

At different points, the Shaman gave each of us a handful of seeds to throw into the fire.  At other times he and his assistants passed out small candles of red and yellow (some people received black and blue) to throw into the fire.

We listened as he went through each of the day names and we solemnly helped him count to thirteen. Occasionally he would kneel toward Temple 216, behind which the sun slowly rose, and muttered prayers in Maya that I did not understand

The ceremony lasted about an hour and a half, and the Shaman spoke almost continuously, the whole time, explaining what he was doing and why.

As the sun came up he explained that the new era would begin at the moment of dawn. The new day would be numbered zero, not 1.

The shaman came from a nearby village and had been invited by Yaxhá to perform the ceremony for them. He told me that he often performed ceremonies at the site.

When I returned to the base of Temple 216 later in the day, the altar was still smoking.2012-12-21 06.58.12 View from the temple

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Tulane Opens An Exhibit highlighting the Extraordinary Accomplishments of the Ancient Maya

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Just had to share these: Your Maya Travel Photos — National Geographic

Your Maya Travel Photos — National Geographic.

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So Maybe the Maya weren’t actually all that worried, after all

This recently announced discovery in Guatemala will, hopefully, calm some of the fears. Not even the kings who talked about the 2012 Solstice Date thought anyone needed to worry. Read about the New Maya 2012 Inscription found in Guatemala at Sci-News.com.  Spread the word. You can stop stock-piling canned goods.

The more amazing thing about this ancient culture, though to my mind, is the precision with which they mapped the stars and planets. Imagine what the night sky looked like to them. When you live in a light-soaked city, it’s hard to visualize how densely packed the stars are. But the scribes and priests of the Maya could accurately follow the movements in the sky of a single, tiny point of light and they built an entire calendar around what they saw. That is no easy feat.

So if you are up early in the next few weeks (July 2012), you just might be able to spot The Morning Star (Venus, the star of Hun Hunahpu, one of the Hero Twins’ fathers) as it makes its way up from the underworld before the sun. Enjoy the show.

And the Maya did this all with no calculators, telescopes or computers. Is it any wonder people find them so fascinating?

 

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Just what will happen on December 21, 2012?

Chances are, nothing. That’s right folks. The hype is just that, hype. But the Maya calendar is not meant to predict future events, but to keep track of the amazing pantheon of gods that ruled their lives.

What is really amazing about the calendar, though,  is that the Maya were able to create it in the first place, Without the use of calculators or telescopes the Maya were able to calculate the exact position of the planets and the stars to a level of precision that is remarkable. But of course you don’t need a telescope to see brilliant stars and spot the planets when sky watching among Maya ruins in Guatemala, Belize or Mexico. The stars look so close it seems you could pluck them from the sky. Maybe that’s why I love it so much there.

So the question is what did the Maya say about December 21, 2012? Well, not much, actually. There are two, maybe three places, were the date is mentioned. One is on a monument in Totugero, Mexico, and that one isn’t even entirely readable. For a very intelligent discussion of what the Maya believe about time and the 13th Baktun end date, check out this blog by Norbert at Globetreks.com. It will calm all your fears.

Another stone monument recently discovered in Comocalco, Tabasco, Mexico, says the  last day of this baktun is December 23, 2012.

Either way, the day should prove to be just like any other. A day that, even for the modern Maya, will me one more day to get out of bed and get on with life.

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Graphic Novel Preview

The Graphic Novel Art by Sergio Drummond. Coming soon!

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Celebrating the release of The 2012 Prophecies: Heir of the Jaguar

Looking for information about the release of L.P. Simone’s new book.

Check out www.lpsimone.com

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The Maya Ballgame: When the term “Sudden Death” has a whole new meaning.

Imagine the scene.  The stands are packed. The crowd is glued to every move made on the court. Elite athletes focused.  A ball hurtles toward the dirt, your hero dives for it, deflecting the heavy rubber ball with his shoulder. His opponent springs into the air, and the ball comes right back.  Again he dives.  The ball slams into his hip. He grunts at the heavy thud of the ball against his skin.  He twists and wriggles in the air, defying gravity.  You watch. mezmorized as the ball sails over the opponent’s head, out of reach.  The crowd erupts.  Score!

Sound like the nail-biting finish of a world-class soccer game?  How about the winning play of an ancient Maya sport called pitz, in which the stakes were life and death.  As more and more of the Maya hieroglyphic texts are read, new insights into their civilization come to light daily.  Few aspects of Maya culture reflect their beliefs as concretely as the ball game.  Such games were central to cultural life in ancient Mexico.

Archeological evidence throughout southeastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras suggests that people there played a game with a rubber ball beginning about 300 BC.   Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortés witnessed the descendants of the ancient Maya playing a game with a rubber ball in 1528.  He and his men were so fascinated by it that they sent two full teams back to Europe to play for King Charles V.

Much of what we know about the ball game comes to us from chroniclers who witnessed the game being played in Maya cities at the time Europeans first encountered the ancient people of Mexico.  Although the rules of play may have varied, Mayanists agree that the ball game was an important part of both the spiritual and communal life of Maya society.

Archeologists have found the remains of ancient ball courts in every Maya ceremonial center.  The Maya built them big and small, in cities carved out of the rainforest.  Some have plain stone walls while others are adorned with elaborately carved murals.  Often the murals showed the mythical Hero Twins Hunapu and Xbalanque, who played the game against the lords of the underworld.  All over the Maya and Aztec region, Kings built ball courts right in the middle of their cities.  All of them look like our capital letter “I” or” T”

 

The Court

         The court had three parts.  The main alley was marked by stones or bounded on both sides by walls or tall benches.  At the ends were wider sections that served as end zones.  Players passed the ball back and forth between the two teams using only their hips, arms, chests, and buttocks.  If the court had walls, they could use the walls to make it harder for the other team to return the ball.

A team scored a point in one of three ways: If your opponent used his hands, feet or head; If the ball went into your opponent’s end zone; And, the hardest way of all, if your team shot the ball through one of several rings, high up on the walls of the central alley.  When that happened, the game ended and the team that made the shot won.

The Ball

The Maya made the ball by boiling the sap, or quiq, of certain local trees in water mixed with herbs.  They rolled the mixture into a sphere.  When it hardened, depending on its size, the rubber ball could weigh up to eight pounds.  Players wore special equipment to protect themselves from the ball as it hurtled around the court.  Leather straps on the backs of their hands and covering their buttocks protected the skin.  They wore chest protectors, stone belts, and collars to protect their stomachs and throats.  Some players even wore helmets and goggle-like eye protectors.  Playing the game in the most important matches required great skill, and the most successful ballplayers were local heroes.  They were respected members of the society.  Their names were written on ceramic vases and stone inscriptions so they would be honored for all time.

The ball game served many different purposes.  Boys and young men often played in their spare time for fun.  Teams from different villages and cities competed with each other in regional rivalries much like sports teams do today.  Hundreds of people watched these matches and the spectators bet on the outcome of the games.  The losers and their supporters often went home without their jewelry, clothes, and shoes.  Sometimes the losers were forced into slavery.  Most games played in the cities of Mesoamerica were played for sport and the enjoyment of the spectators, but the purpose of the most important games had religious meaning.

Those games commemorated the game played by Xbalanque and Hunaphu, twin hero gods of Maya mythology, against the cheating lords of the Maya underworld, the Xibalbans.  In that game, Xbalanque and Hunahpu beat the unsportsmanlike Xibalbans, using their skill as ball players, their wits, and the help of animals and insects of every kind.  To honor the victorious twin gods, ritual games were played in which the outcome was predetermined.  The losers, usually kings or nobles captured in wars, were sacrificed in a ceremony following the game.

The Maya and human sacrifice

To the Maya, the gods’ most precious gift was human life.  It was a sign of supreme respect to offer a human being to the gods in sacrifice.  Rarely, however, did they sacrifice people from their own communities.  Usually, prisoners captured in wars with neighboring kingdoms were offered to the gods as evidence of the king’s power and his right to rule.  In fact, acquiring captives for ritual sacrifice was one of the main reasons Maya kingdoms went to war. Victories in battle were almost always followed by a ceremonial ball game in which the prisoners played the final game of their lives.

In modern Mesoamerica, communities play a game similar to the one played by their ancient ancestors, with one important difference.  After a modern game,everyone goes home with his or her head still on.

Check out this link to an ancient sculpture of the crowds a

http://www.worcesterart.org/Collection/Precolumbian/1947.25.html

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Glossary

These are some of the words used in stories and other works about the Maya that you might come across.

GLOSSARY

baktun  — A period in the Maya long Count of 144, 000 days or approximately 394.5 years.

cacao — Ka Ka Wa – the plant from which chocolate is made. The Maya didn’t eat it with sugar so it tasted very bitter.

Calendar Round  — A complex calculation of a day’s place in the interlocking Maya calendars

cenote  — underground well where water accumulates in the geological areas of karst. Often found in the the Maya region of Mexico

censor  –A delicately carved ceremonial apparatus for burning incense.

ceremonial center  — Maya cities where temples, the king’s palace and burial sites are found

codex  –modern name given to the few remaining Maya bark-paper books.

comal  –A flat clay or metal plate for cooking

danta — a large boar like animal found in the forests of Guatemala, and Mexico

ex  — (loincloth) Cloth worn by Maya priests and kings. Usually of cotton.

Hieroglyphics — A form of writing in which pictures and symbols form syllables in a spoken language

huipil Maya blouse worn by women, usually delicately embroidered with multicolored traditional symbols

Itzamná — Maya creation god

karst — a type of porous stone that is found in many areas of Mexico

katun  — a period of 7,200 days in the Maya Long Count

kin — one day

limestone  — a kind of porous rock that is found in many areas of Mexico.

lineage — the tracing of a line of ancestral decent, important especially among royal families

loin cloth  — see ex – Cloth worn by Maya priests and kings. Usually of cotton.

Long Count  — A count of starting with the first day of creation according to the Maya, August 11, 3114

maize —  the Maya word for corn

mano — (Spanish for hand); also the lon cylindrical stone used by Maya women and girls to grind prepared corn kernels into dough.

metate — used with the manao; the stone tablet used by Maya women and girls to grind prepared corn kernels into dough

myth — stories in which cultural religious or foundational beliefs are recounted.

rainforest — a type of forest found in tropical areas of the world characterized by high levels of rainfall

scribe — a person trained to read and write with glyphs; see hieroglyphics.

stucco — A type of whitewash or plaster used throughout the Maya region to coat the walls of buildings, both interior and exterior.

tapir  — a large boar like creature found in the Maya region.  See danta

tribute — a gift given to the ruler

tun –a period of 360 days in the Maya Long Count

unial a period of 20 days in the Maya Long Count, similar to a month in our calendar

vague year — the five-day period at the end of a tun, much like a Leap Day, but occurring every year

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Rainforests into Milpas

Rainforests into Milpas

Aj Kun Aya crouches in the near silence of dawn and stares towards the east. The bitter smell of smoke and burnt wood lingers on a heavy mist left behind by the last night’s rain. The forest is freshly burned. At his feet moist ash mixes with black dirt. He grasps the heavy stick with the sharp point that is exactly like his father’s. His father and his father’s father and for many generations before them, all the men have used dibble sticks to poke holes in the ground to plant seeds.

Planting today would be so easy if the gods were to appoint today as the proper day to plant. But he and every other man and boy in the village waits. When the morning star, the God Hunahpu himself returns to the morning sky, it will be the sign they are looking for. The sign that it is time to sow the spring crop. The leaf cutter ants are moving their eggs to higher ground, and the falcons laugh all day in the trees. They know the rains are coming. The rains that will nourish the soil and help give the people the food they need to live.

Already the sky in the east grows blue. The screaming monkeys have awoken the birds. Hunahpu, the god of corn has not returned.

The boy rises, kicks a clump of the moist dirt with his toe. His father’s voice pierces the stillness.

“We will wait another day, Kun Awa. It is not yet time. The gods know better than we do the proper moment to plant.”

The pair moves silently toward the ring of unburned forest around the perimeter of the family’s milpa. The rains have not started in earnest. There is still time to plant. The gods will not let the people starve.

Kun Aya, follows his father silently through the trees. The words of the ancient story the priest made the children memorize roll through Kun Aya’s mind. Maize is essential to the life of the gods and the people they created. Hunahpu will return.

Kun Aya smiles as, slowly, syllable by syllable, the story the priest tells f the creation of human beings unfolds in his memory. In his minds eye Kun Aya imagines the skinny high priest, draped only in his loin cloth, sitting on the raised platform in the center room of the temple residence. The priest’s wrinkled face turned toward him. He seemed to speak directly to Kun Aya.

“When the great gods Itzamná, the Bearer and Begetter, and the Plumed Serpent, Kul Kul Kan finished creating the beautiful sky-earth and lake-sea, and had filled the forests and the valleys with animals and birds, and the lakes and the oceans with fish, they stepped back and listened. They waited for the creatures, the plants, the mountains, and the rivers to sing their praises, and give them sustenance. But they heard only silence from the mountains touching the sky, the endless babble of the rivers, the nonsensical chatter of the birds and the howling of the animals. Something bothered the gods, as they looked upon their wondrous creatures and creations. Why did they fail to sing the praises of the gods? Why did they not thank the gods for all that they had done?

They looked at each other and something else occurred to them. Who would harvest the maize? Who would grind the corn to make their tortillas? Who would watch them and worship them as they moved through the sky? Was not this creation they had made grateful?

Disappointed in their creation, the gods counseled one another. With their heads together they whispered and nodded agreement. Itzamna spoke. “We must make people.”

So the gods gathered the sturdy trunks of trees they had so recently created and carved people out of wood. The gods gave their wooden people thick arms and sturdy legs. They gave them strong backs so they could plant. The gave them eyes to watch the stars, the sun, and the moon. And they gave them mouths and voices so they would sing of their creators’ goodness and the beauty of creation.

And the people of wood walked about. They planted maize. They talked, and they sang, and they peopled the earth with their children. Their sons and daughters multiplied and grew numerous all over the land. But soon the gods noticed something that troubled them. Their creations had much to say, but empty heads. They had full bellies, but empty hearts. They forgot their duty to the gods. They sang songs but not of thanksgiving and praise to the gods. They counted days and nights, but not the cycles of the moon and the stars. And worst of all, they failed to feed the gods. The hungry and disappointed gods knew that their first attempt to create people had failed.

Angry, the gods sent a great flood to destroy the people of wood. They set all the creatures of the earth against them. The dogs clawed their skin, and the birds pecked at their eyes. Even their grinding stones, the metates and manos, crushed and splintered their faces. When the water receded, no people of wood remained.

Days passed. The time of harvesting the gods’ maize approached. The gods knew they must hurry. They needed someone to worship them, to sing songs of praise to their names. And they grew hungry.

The gods tried again. They gathered up the rich dark clay that lay in the beds of the rivers and modeled people of clay. They set their creation down on the river bank, but the clay would not hold together. The creatures’ heads sagged. Their flesh crumbled and their limbs fell off. But worst of all, the people made of clay had no voices to praise the gods. Their faces could not move for them to speak and sing. Their tongues were silent. Their eyes could not see the gifts the gods provided for them.

So the people of clay melted back into the river beds.

Once again the gods gathered together. They wrung their hands, and rubbed their chins as the dawn of the appointed day for harvesting approached, and still they had no one to gather the maize. Their bellies grumbled.

Once again, the gods put their heads together. Once again they spoke in quiet voices. What kind of people did they need? What kind of people would stand strong, sing songs of praise to the gods for creation. But more importantly, who would feed them?

Even as the gods whispered to one another, the coyote, the parrot, the fox, and the crow watched in the distant mountains at Paxal as the maize grew taller and plumper, nearing ripeness. The faithful animals gathered a handful of ripe kernels of corn and brought them to the gods. Only then did the gods know what they had to do.

They ground the white kernels and shaped the dough into bones. With yellow corn, they made flesh to cover the bones. They scooped clear cold water into their people’s mouths to make blood. They formed the people out of maize.

The people stood up, strong and tall. They looked around. They marveled at all that the gods had made. They watched the sun move through the sky. They counted the days and the cycles of the moon and the stars. With melodies of praise they thanked the gods for all that they had created. And they harvested the maize.

The gods sat back. Soon they could rest. Soon their bellies would be full.

And the Men of Maize harvested the corn. The women of Maize ground the kernels, and patted the dough into tortillas. The children of maize sang songs of thanks, and watched the sky as the gods came and went, day, after day, year after year, generation after generation.”

A bird tweets above him and Kun Aya stumbls on a root. He had been daydreaming. In front of him Kun Aya’s father pauses. He stoops low and dips his hands into the flowing river and drinks. This is the water that Kun Aya and his father will use to grow their maize. Kun Aya drops to his knees and cups his hands. The water speeds past making his hands dance in the river. He drinks also. Thinking back on the story the priest told he imagines the gods cupping their hands and pouring water down the throats of the first maize people. How sweet that first drink must have tasted.

Kun Aya smiles. How delicious that first maize harvest must have tasted to the hungry gods.

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