North Central College - Naperville, IL

North Central scholars experience calendar celebration in Guatemala, not doomsday

As the media warned of impending doom on December 21, 2012—supposedly the end of the world as predicted by Maya calendars—scholars of Maya culture like Matthew Krystal, associate professor of anthropology, knew that the doomsday hype was a hoax. So did Haley Kirk ’13, who has a double major in Spanish and global studies. She had extended a North Central College research trip in Guatemala to attend a special ritual on December 21. The atmosphere that day among the Maya people was one of hope and celebration, not apocalypse, she says.

“They didn’t talk about death but instead about opportunities for rebirth,” says Kirk. “On that day, they conducted a special ritual with offerings, incense and music. The rituals involved all the senses and were giving thanks for 20 different energies they celebrate.”

Krystal was also in Guatemala during December, traveling with North Central College students as part of an annual visit with coffee growers and artisans who provide goods to Enactus, formerly Students In Free Enterprise. Leading up to December 21, the group attended two traditional ceremonies conducted by Maya “daykeepers.” Daykeepers are religious practitioners who maintain and celebrate the Maya ceremonial calendar. The rituals the group attended included both foreign guests and local residents. “Without us even asking, the daykeepers said to us, ‘The world is not ending. There may be changes coming but the world is not ending,’” says Krystal.

No one disputes the fact that December 21, 2012, was an important date in the Maya calendar. It marked the end of a 394-year cycle called a “baktun;” this was the end of the 13th baktun. (The numbers 13 and 20 are very significant in Maya culture. Twenty names rotate in the calendar with 13 numbers, creating a cycle of 260 uniquely identified days.) Krystal explains that there was never a link between the baktun and the end of the world. However, the end-times concept was introduced into the culture by Franciscan Catholics in the 16th century and more recently, by Evangelical missionaries. New Age followers also had some role in spreading a doomsday myth.

“The ‘Pop Wuj,’ the Maya creation story, tells of a sequence of human forms, first made from mud and then from sticks,” explains Krystal. “These forms were not in reciprocity with their surroundings and the gods and extracted resources without the gods’ permission. As a result the human forms were destroyed. In the contemporary folklore, people who don’t treat the land and animals properly experience bad things. There’s an environmental message for modern times.”

Kirk and Krystal stressed that the media portrayal of Maya people predicting the world’s demise negatively affects perceptions. “It misrepresents their culture and feeds stereotypes of native peoples as backward and irrational,” adds Krystal.