Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Guatemala Prepares for the Mayan December 21 Celebrations

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This week, Guatemala is proudly calling itself the heart of the Mayan world. On December 21, the thirteenth b’ak’tun will end, concluding a 90-year academic struggle about the destined outcome of this cosmological event. While new discoveries such as the finding of a new calendar in the Xultún ruins this past May continue to shine new light on the debate, the accepted view is that the world will not end—as some apocalyptic people have speculated.

To ancient Mayans the numbers 13 and 20 were extremely important due to their significance to crop farming. The Mayan calendar was split into kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k’atuns (20 tuns), and b’ak’tuns (20 k’atuns).  In other words, a b’ak’tun consists of 144,000 days, or over 394 years.

The linear Mayan count of days is referred to as the Long Count, and its start date is August 11, 3114 B.C. on the Gregorian calendar; 13 full b’ak’tun cycles will occur on December 21, when many believe the full Long Count will be complete.

As tuns are five days less in duration than a solar year (365 days), the five-day difference is known as Wayeb—nameless days that are considered the most dangerous.  In Lynn V. Foster’s 2002 book Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, the author wrote, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.” To counteract this, Mayans would try to avoid leaving the house; others would not wash or comb their hair during the period.

The Popol Vuh, one of the most important collections of Mayan documents, indicates that humans are currently living in the fourth world, as Mayan gods created three failed worlds before. This is seen as the zero date for the Long Count circa 3114 B.C. 

How did the b’ak’tun 13 turn into a doomsday scenario that even Hollywood caught on to? One reason is a groundbreaking piece of literature by Michael D. Coe circa 1966, entitled The Maya, which said: “There is a suggestion […] that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b’ak’tun]. Thus […] our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”

This is how the theories started. In the 1970s, authors such as Frank Waters and Terence McKenna decided to interpret December 21 as the dawn of a new era. In the 1990s, scholars started to debunk Coe’s forecast. “There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesized a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012,” said Mayanist scholar Mark Van Stone. “The notion of a ‘Great Cycle’ coming to an end is completely a modern invention.”

Only two Mayan items refer to the end of the 13th b’ak’tun, the Tortuguero Monument 6 in Tabasco, Mexico, and the La Corona Hieroglyphic Stairway 12 in Xultún, Guatemala. The inscription on Tortuguero 6 reads: “tzuhtzjo:m uy-u:xlaju:n pik / chan ajaw u:x uni:w / uhto:m il / ye’ni/ye:n bolon yokte’ / ta chak joyaj” Sven Gronemeyer and Barbara MacLeod in their 2010 book, What Could Happen in 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak’tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6 translated: “It will be completed the 13th b’ak’tun / It is 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in / and it will happen a ‘seeing’ / It is the display of B’olon-Yokte’ / in a great ‘investiture.”

Given that the Mayans did not make prophetic declarations but rather looked to record history, it is impossible to state what the ending meant to them. The inscription in Guatemala has been extensively looted—meaning that a true translation is impossible. However, the parts that have decoded describe life in the royal court of Calakmul in 635 AD and compares the completion of 13 k’atuns with 13 b’ak’tuns.

The Xultún findings are significant in that researchers discovered new Mayan astronomical tables that plotted the movements of the Moon and other astronomical bodies over 17 b’ak’tuns. “The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue—that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,” said leader of the Xultún excavation team, archeologist William Saturno. “We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”

This has not stopped the doomsday scenario taking hold globally. In May 2012, an Ipsos poll of 16,000 adults in 21 countries found that 10 percent believed that the end of the Long Count marked the end of the world. The highest percentage of believers was in China with 20 percent, while Russia, Japan and South Korea had 13 percent and the United States with 12 percent. In Russia, the government has had to step in to quell fears.  “Ask an Astrobiologist,” a NASA public outreach website, has received over 5,000 questions from the public on the subject since 2007.

Guatemala Makes Arrangements

The Guatemalan media has been following the academic debate, but lately attention has switched to the lack of preparation and confusion on how to mark December 21. Talk of inviting various high profile musicians such as Bono and Sting for a concert fizzled out.  Last month, on November 19, the Secretaría de Comunicación Social de la Presidencia de Guatemala (Secretariat of Social Communication of the Presidency of Guatemala—SCSP) took over the role of organizing events from the ministry of culture and sport. This switch catalyzed preparations, albeit belatedly, with commemorative items such as stamps for sale.

Events will be held at 11 ancient Mayan cities around the country. But the largest concentration will be in the Tikal national park in Péten department. 

On December 20 and 21, President Otto Pérez Molina, Vice President Roxana Baldetti and Indigenous leaders will entertain visiting dignitaries with the backdrop of illuminated Mayan temples. Homage was paid to Mayans today with a message of peace and reconciliation, while Friday will see hundreds of Mayan priests join with government officials and business leaders to show unity. Every hotel within a 20-mile radius of Tikal is reportedly fully booked, while other hoteliers claim that they are at 30 percent confirmed occupancy. 150,000 to 200,000 tourists are expected for the celebrations.

Whatever the significance of the end of one calendar, Guatemalans who have had enough of negative domestic news such as high violence rates and the Totonicapán massacre have decided to focus on the b’ak’tun 13 as a positive event that will mark the start of a new cycle. However, the preparations leading up to December 21 have been hit by the earthquake in San Marcos and other setbacks such as mismanaged central leadership, as the SCSP switch indicates. For a country whose second highest earning industry is tourism, Guatemala is in need of the expected 12 percent increase in tourists and their hard currencies to offset a rising exchange rate.

“It’s sad that more people do not know what this is all about and the value it has,” said retired diplomat Ana Gil. “There’s been a lack of organization and facilities. It’s been a missed opportunity.”

There is, however, hope for the future.  As the Mayan proverb says, “We have to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, foot-to-foot with our faces pointed towards the sun.”


Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Tags: Mayan
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