Writing From Guatemala City — The world may not end two years from now, despite Internet predictions and this week's blockbuster disaster movie, "2012." On screen, the final day in the 5,126-year Maya calendar brings global destruction, and Los Angeles slides inexorably into the sea.
Here in the cradle of Maya civilization, however, shaman/priest Calixta Gabriel said Mother Earth -- Madre Tierra -- would suffer "hunger, wind and thunder," but rumors of its demise are greatly exaggerated.
This is relatively good news coming from an ajq'ij, a "calendar keeper" or spiritual guide among the indigenous Maya people, whose traditions and astronomy-based cosmology originated more than 2,000 years ago. Maya today number about 7 million in Central America and Mexico. One million Maya live in the United States. Their Long Count calendar, which began Aug. 11, 3114 BC, ends on Dec. 21, 2012.
During Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996, the Maya were suspected of supporting insurgents, and they were "disappeared" by the thousands. Their religion, which had survived the Spanish conquestwith influences from Catholicism, was practiced discreetly, far from non-Maya eyes. Gabriel, 52, fled into exile in California after death squads murdered three brothers in the 1980s, returning as the war ended to her "gift" as a shaman through study with elders.
Now some Maya priests have moved their rituals from caves and remote mountain locations to public areas, including temple ruins frequented by tourists. Calendar keepers perform ceremonies using fire, pine incense, colored candles, chocolate and other elements, petitioning for a community good, such as rain, or protection. The religion matches certain days with certain spirits, and interpreting time and the calendar in daily life is the main responsibility of a Maya priest.
More than a thousand years ago, astronomer priests determined Long Count dates of kingly reigns, inscribed on Maya monuments along with dates of royal births and deaths. Kings and queens had priestly duties by virtue of their position, and might sacrifice their own blood to communicate with the gods. Today, believers ask the shaman/priests to determine the propitious day to marry or travel, or to bless efforts. The signing of the 1996 peace accords was preceded by a Maya ceremony at the ancient site of Kaminaljuyu in Guatemala City and public prayers at the National Palace.
For these purposes, Maya priests use a 260-day calendar called the Short Count. The Long Count tracks Maya millenniums, centuries, years, months and days, starting with the supposed date of Maya creation and extending thousands of years into the future. A third way of reckoning approximates the 365-day calendar.
Some Maya spiritual guides say they have been consulting among themselves on the significance of 2012, traveling informally by foot and bus, including to Mexico. (There is no pope or central doctrinal authority to whom ajq'ijab look for counsel, although some elders command particular respect.)
Some experts on the Maya believe Dec. 21, 2012, merits no great attention, pointing out that only one inconclusive mention of the date appears among thousands of deciphered Maya texts. It's simply the end of an era -- of about 5,000 years -- with another one beginning the next day.
"The scale of Maya time-reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude," wrote epigrapher David Stuart on his blog devoted to ancient Maya script.
Gabriel said she was cautious about magnifying the 2012 date's significance in a way that may be misunderstood. "We do not want to commit the error that some Christians made at the turn of the millennium," she said, referencing much-hyped doomsday predictions about the year 2000, which passed quietly. Nevertheless, she said, we live in "a time of transition" between epochs, when men and women will realize -- or not -- how to pull back from "destroying" the Earth with pollution and by cutting down forests.
"Conditions could be severe," she said. "It depends on our answer. The universe responds according to the treatment it is given."
Another ajq'ij, Gregorio Chayax, 70, wears a baseball cap, T-shirt and pants rolled above rubber sandals. He serves as a spiritual guide among the towering temples of Tikal, the most visited Maya site in the Guatemalan Petén rain forest. (Tikal has a cameo in "2012.")
Chayax has already seen his familiar world disappear, well before 2012. He is one of only eight remaining speakers of Petén's once predominant Itza Maya tongue, according to the Guatemalan Academy of Maya Languages.
From 1991 to 2001, about 815,000 acres of protected Petén rain forest were lost to unlawful settlers, drug traffickers and cattle ranchers. Since then, the rate of loss has accelerated, according to Edin Lopez, technical director of the government's National Council of Protected Areas in Petén. "We are not going to speak badly of cows," Chayax said. "But the ranchers have no heart."
Chayax suggested that a transition between eras, signaled by the end of the Long Count calendar, started more than 20 years ago and would continue for at least another 20. "We are going to suffer more heat than now," he said. "We are out of balance. We have become excessive in what we demand."
Yet he said the actions of men and women might head off deterioration of life on Earth.
"Roots are still there, if we know how to find them, and make them live again," he said.
Mary Jo McConahay's "Maya Roads, Travels through Space and Time in the American Rainforest," will be published in 2011.