Monday, December 24, 2012

Oxlajuj B'aqt'un, part 1

So, it should be obvious to all that the world didn't end December 21. Instead, a 400-year cycle of the Maya calendar came to an end and the following day, December 22, a new cycle began. I decided to time this winter research trip to Guatemala to coincide with the celebrations of this occasion, in part because it had been hyped so much, and also because for many of my Maya friends, it promised to be an important moment. This has been a difficult  year, to say the least, for the Maya in general and for those involved in political struggle, or defending their own rights, in particular. The new government had barely taken power in January when it began to step up the  imposition of neoliberal economic initiatives, while seeking to dramatically rewrite the social contract in Guatemala (through a series of "financial reforms", a proposed constitutional reform), and at the same time stepping up the repression of those who challenged these measures. I have blogged previously about the military take-over of Santa Cruz Barillas in May and the massacre of the peaceful protestors at Cumbre de Alaska on the Panamerican highway in October. Cumbre de Alaska is the name of the community where the massacre took place, although those involved in the protest were primarily from Totonicapán, a municipality that has a very well-organized indigenous mayoralty in all of its 48 communities. There have been numerous raids on community radio stations -- the station at Doble Via was raided only a week after the massacre at Cumbre de Alaska. Throughout the year there have been displacements of people in rural communities that are slated for the construction of hydro-electric projects or the production of biofuels. Much of this has been met with resistance as communities have not been willing to lie down and let the state and foreign transnationals roll over them. There are a few other communities that have been sites of popular resistance, including San José del Golfo in the department of Guatemala.  

The government had been promoting the Oxlajuj B'aqt'un -- a b'aqt'un is a 400-year calendar cycle, and oxlajuj (pronounced "osh-la-hooh") is the number 13, a sacred number in the Mayan numerological system. So the ending of the 13th b'aqt'un is an especially auspicious moment in the history of humanity, according to the Maya cosmovision. Let me explain the significance of the number 13, as it was explained to me in the wee hours of the morning in one of the four ceremonies that I attended at Q'umark'aj, also known as Utatlan -- the capital city of the ancient K'iche' kingdom ("kingdom" is the best I can do in English for the Spanish word "reino") that was destroyed by the Spanish invaders. Although it is nominally under the control of the Ministry of Sports and Culture (under whose aegis archeological excavations and reconstructions are carried out), it is still used as a ceremonial site.  I will talk more about the ceremonies and all that in a little bit. I spent nearly 24 hours at Q'umark'aj between the 20th and the 21st, and both during and in between the ceremonies, the priests/spiritual guides (again, English doesn't quite have a word that corresponds to the K'iche' term ajq'ij -- "day keeper" is a frequent translation, but in Spanish people often use guia espiritual or sacerdote Maya) who were presiding over the ceremonies offered some reflections, and there were two interesting ones about numerology.

The Maya philosophy, spirituality, cosmovision, or whatever you want to call it, is based both on the natural world and human beings as part of that natural world. They believe that humans are complete in ourselves, and we are representations of the sacred at the same time. We have a physical self, a body, that has to be protected, nurtured and cared for. We have social selves, and so our relations with other people need to be taken seriously. And we have spiritual or cosmological selves. In this way, humans are conduits between "the heart of the sky" and "the heart of the earth" -- we stand as a gateway between "father sky" (or "grandfather sky") and "mother earth" (or "grandmother earth"). 

But in this context the human body is a representation and reflection of the cosmos. And much of the numerological system, which is at the base of the calendar, is based on the human body. The number 13 corresponds to the major articulations or joints in the human body: we have two ankles, two knees, two hip joints at the bottom. Starting with the hands, we have two wrists, two elbows, and two shoulders. That adds up to 12. And then the neck joint is the 13th. So that's where the significance of thirteen comes in.  Another important number is 20. This also comes from the human body: we have ten toes and ten fingers, 20 digits altogether. The number 20 in the K'iche' language is the word winaq -- which is the same word that means "human being". There are 20 nahuals (guardian spirits) and thus 20 sacred day-names in the Maya calendar -- a month consists of 20 days, one for each nahual. So a "year" in the sacred calendar, the ritual calendar, is 260 days (13 times 20). This also corresponds to the gestational period, the time between conception and birth. 

 Every 400 years, then, we begin a new "long cycle" in the Maya calendar.  But this one was especially significant because it was the thirteenth one. Throughout the year there were attempts to commercialize and turn this into something that could benefit the tourist industry. There were occasional photographs of the president and vice-president kneeling in front of an altar, surrounded by Maya priests. But many were concerned that all of this activity was going to be turned into a piece of "folklore" - a word that, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, has a very negative connotation in Guatemala, and that it would continue to marginalize the Maya communities that have suffered at the hands of governments, both colonial and national, for the last 500-plus years.  Some of the Maya organizations had taken this as an opportunity to try and correct some of the misconceptions about the so-called "Maya prophecies" predicting "the end of the world".  One of the more active political organizations, the Consejo de los Pueblos del Occidente (the Council of Western Peoples), which has organized the community consultations on mining and mega projects throughout the country, put out a call a few weeks ago, asking people to go to the sacred sites that corresponded to their particular ethnic group, starting on the 20th at noon, to reclaim the sites, and together with spiritual leaders, participate in ceremonies to mark the close of one era and the start of a new one. 

I contacted some of my friends who work with the CPO, who are K'iche's, and they were going to go to Q'umark'aj, so I decided I would go there as well. Although my current research project is not specifically about one Maya ethnic group, but since my original starting point was with the Maya K'iche' community in New Bedford and I lived in the department of El Quiché for a year, it made sense to go to Q'umark'aj. A little while later I received an invitation from another organization, Chilam Balam de los K'iche's, an organization that is more spiritual in nature, while CPO is more political. Both are political, in that while Chilam Balam includes mostly Maya priests in its membership and they sponsor ceremonies fairly regularly, they are also involved in advocacy work around sacred sites, trying to regain many sacred sites that are currently not readily accessible, or are under threat from development projects. Chilam Balam was also calling people to attend a series of ceremonies at Q'umark'aj, and since I had known people from Chilam Balam and attended both a few ceremonies and some meetings that they had organized last year, that was another indication that I should be at Q'umarkaj.  

So, I purchased my ticket for the 17th, figuring that I might have a few days (the 18th and 19th) for preparatory activities, or what have you (things turned out differently, as they often do), in order to be fully prepared for the 20th and 21st.

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