In Guatemala, the birthplace of the ancient Mayan culture, the descendants of the inventors of the most accurate calendar devised before modern times are upset over the “commercialization” of what some are calling the ‘end of the world.’ December 21 marks the Mayan date of Baktun 13, which marks the end of a celestial cycle devised long ago by Mayan astronomers who observed the stars and were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses and thus make advances in agriculture and other sciences long before Europeans arrived in the 1500s.
On the upcoming date, a group from the Kakchiquel nation of Guatemala – one of the two main groupings of native Americans in the Central American republic – will erect carved stone stelas to mark the occasion. The ancient Mayas placed these elaborately carved columns to commemorate their rulers and significant events such as wars and conquests and are found at famous archaeological sites such as Tikal and Uaxactun. In this case, the committee of Kakchiqueles have commissioned two stelas: one each at the Mixco Viejo and Iximché archaeological parks.
Carved from limestone, as were many of the ancestral stelas, the two new sculptures measure approximately 10 feet in height. The project is being financed by several Kakchiquel cultural associations from throughout Guatemala. The Kakchiqueles were the first of the original Guatemalans over-run by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado in the early 1500s. A bellicose lieutenant of the conqueror of Mexico, Hernan Cortés, Alvarado was especially cruel and avaricious in a war of conquest noted for its acts of barbarity. Once the Kakchiqueles were conquered, Alvarado established a base of operations in central Guatemala from where he would conquer the remaining towns and peoples.
The new stelas recount in Mayan hieroglyphics the history, origin and life of the Kakchiquel people during the era when Spain controlled New Spain, as well as the genocidal war they suffered from the the early 1960s and into the 1990s when Guatemala’s security forces were pitted against democracy advocates and leftist insurgents. Kakchiquel cultural associations are noting the Baktun 13 date with alternative celebrations, complaining that the Guatemalan government had commercialized the coming end of a Mayan era.
The Guatemalan government, even while for years it had engaged in open warfare and non-judicial killings of native Americans for some 36 years, now recognizes that the worldwide interest in the Mayan calendar benefits tourism and business. Some 25 archaeological sites and national parks are involved in the official celebration of the coming end of an age, even while Kakchiquel and other Maya peoples are sitting out.
The Catholic Church in Guatemala, while it was for centuries very strong in Guatemala, has suffered losses of congregants to other Christian denominations while there has also been a rise of non-Christian cults. For Catholics, December 21 falls on the feast day of St Peter Canisius – a 16th century Catholic priest of the Jesuit order – and of St Thomas the Apostle. It also comes near the end of Advent, which is the period in which Catholics and Orthodox prepare for celebrating Christmas. Guatemala has long enshrined freedom of worship, welcoming missionaries of various Christian churches and other faiths. In the last few decades, approximately half of Guatemalans adhere to faiths other than that of the Catholic Church. The Church of Latter Day Saints, as well as various Evangelical churches, made great inroads into a population that was at least nominally Catholic, especially during the fratricidal civil war. Of late, non-Christian cults have seen an upsurge as well. The cult of Maximon - an idol that now attracts thousands of visitors each year - has grown especially.
Priests and religious, as well as lay catechists of the Catholic Church, were frequent targets of Guatemala's security forces during the civil war. Among the priests murdered during the war was from Oklahoma, Fr Stanley Rother, who was shot to death at his rectory in 1981. He was among 10 Catholic priests murdered that year in Guatemala.
As for fears that the world is coming to an end, Fr José Funes of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory says “not yet”, while affirming that no one should worry about the “prophecies” of a Mayan end-of-the-world scenario. “According to the prophecy, there will be an alignment of the planets and the Sun with the center of the Milky Way as well as an inversión of the Earth’s magnetic poles. It is not the trouble to debate the scientific basis of these affirmations,” said Funes, “which are obviously false.”
Nonetheless, Funes noted that a 2003 trip to the Mayan ruins at Copán in Honduras showed him that the ancient Mayas were indeed very astute observers of the heavens. According to Funes, the Mayas were not interested in whether or not the Sun was the center of the cosmos. They were more interested in finding “a repeating design of past observations that could be reproduced in the future, given that in that culture time had a cyclical and repetitive dimension.”
The Jesuit astronomer from Argentina said that the universe began some 14 billion years ago, according to reliable evidence, and continues to expand. Funes said that if that model of the cosmos is correct, then it can be said that “thousands of millions of years from now it will end by breaking up.” That is the only thing that can be affirmed with certainty from a scientific point of view, said Funes.