Mayan days in global consciousness

Editors Report
12/28/05

It was not so long ago, perhaps as recently as 30 years, that Maya
Daykeepers kept their knowledge of ancient and deeply spiritual traditions
very quiet, often completely secret. It is of course still a thing of quiet
respect for many today, but certainly enough information has been
circulated on these alive and comprehensive Indian spiritual cultures that
a much wider circle of people have come to appreciate and incorporate the
Maya lifeways.

The Maya Daykeepers are the people, mostly from traditional, corn-growing
Maya villages of the highlands of Guatemala, who sustain the active
religion of the sacred Mayan calendar, the Cholq'ij, in their daily lives.
This is an ancient practice of cosmological interpretation of what the Maya
know as "the medicine of time itself," as revealed by the characteristics
of a complex, interrelated set of day spirits. The 20 Maya day spirits are
closely linked to Maya cosmological creation, to lineage ancestors and to
mountain altars, down to the present generation of 6.2 million Maya people
in Guatemala alone.

The ways of the days is a tradition that "works in the practice," and which
has been maintained in perpetuity over the generations by core indigenous
Maya extended families, cofradias (co-fraternities) and Pueblos, even
through times of great violence and genocide. (As late as 1987, in the days
of severe repression, we have a recorded case of the torture and murder of
a Maya Daykeeper as a guerrilla brujo by a government squad.)

Nevertheless, this religion of the sacred days is deeply felt and used
consistently by the Maya population of some 22 related language-nations to
balance worldly and spiritual life. This spiritual-philosophical system is
the flower of cultural resistance to annihilation and acculturation by the
indigenous peoples of the hemisphere.

The old-timers of the Mayan calendar had plenty of reason, from the
assaults of the Spanish conquest through to the massacres of whole villages
in the 1980s, to hide their deepest cultural traditions. It certainly
occurred to many as well that beyond the violence, the evangelizing of
Christian sects plus modern individualism could wreak havoc upon their
spiritually sensitive communities.

With the peace accords of the mid-1990s a new, more reflective and
expressive approach seems to have been signaled. Movements to revitalize
the Maya culture from the inside were emerging as the Guatemalan civil war
began in the late 1970s. These Indian movements have grown in Guatemala and
have reinforced the discussion of Maya religion through the holding of
public ceremonies (burns) and the increasing willingness by Daykeepers to
reveal themselves.

In mid-December, a Maya circle conducted a sacred burn in a Guatemala City
park. They asked for relief from daily violence against the indigenous
women in the city and elsewhere in the country. Frequent murders blot the
beauty of Guatemala, a wonderful country gone sour from the violence
inherited from war and state terror -- with guns available by the ton.
Indigenous Maya women and bus drivers, who refuse to submit to extortion,
pay the deadliest price these days. The impunity of the army in the days of
community massacres sustains even today in many of the country's police
systems, evidently corrupted by narco-traffic and the violence that is
tolerated and feared by both the population and the politicians.

For Maya people, the assertion of cultural continuity and existence is
crucial. Even a people this large and obvious to the naked eye anywhere in
Guatemala can be shunted aside and marginalized, out of sight and out of
mind. From the community level, pre-and post-literate, culture-bearing
systems and people, an authentic wisdom and ancient knowledge is palpable.

Over time, Native traditionalists conducted affairs in private as two
fundamental lines of inquiry prevailed. One, the academic research, is as
rich as it is confounding. Among the best of a huge selection has been the
participatory research of anthropologists such as Dennis and Barbara
Tedlock (State University of New York at Buffalo), who delved quite deeply
into the culture of the ancient calendar and divination systems and have
accurately and brilliantly written about it. The other line is of the "New
Age" variety, and here many have stepped forward to pronounce the
revelation of prophesies and their "readings" of the times as foretold by
Maya this and that. Prominently, self-actualized mystic Jose Arguelles,
with his declarations of harmonic convergences, has led the way in this
line of presentation, which sometimes includes actual Maya people but
originates in a Western conception of the Maya reality.

Significantly and fortunately, the Maya-Quiche creation story survives both
as written literature (in a text from the early conquest) and in the
symbols of daily life in the Maya communities. Fragments and quite a
substantial range of traditional oral knowledge follows the patterns in
traditional weavings, as well as in the story of the sacred 20 days, which
recalls the travails and victories over death by the creator twins of the
Maya founding narrative.

Not long ago, on a mountain altar overlooking Guatemala City, a Maya family
(father, daughter and uncle) put forth their own ancient and contemporary
prayers. The steps leading to this altar, one of the hundreds if not
thousands to be found throughout Guatemala, climbed high up the steep
mountain to open onto the platform of a tall cave, its inside walls and
ceiling blackened by the copal smoke of prayer ceremonies conducted there
since time immemorial. There, first one and then another family, who came
up as one, humbly put forth their individual fires, making very private and
solemn prayers: prayers relative to health and ailments of particular
people and requesting, via intense concentration, the protection of
particular lines of children. Quietly, individually, day after day, the
families climb up the steps to make their prayers of natural thanksgiving.

Major Maya ceremonial prayers can now occasionally be seen in public plazas
and even on television, while books on Maya cosmology crowd out the shelves
even in Guatemalan bookstores -- a sure signal to their own country and to
the world that the Maya nations exist.

Then, too, Maya Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu not only
represents the country internationally, but has established a chain of
pharmacies for the poor. "Medicinas Similares" features less-expensive
generic drugs for the poor and providing a great example with which people
can help themselves and create new visions of the future. Despite
substantial social and political violence, the Maya people carry on. And on
a sacred Maya mountain, where families without political intent but with
the faith of generations sustain an ancient prayer way, the core of their
identity as human beings is revealed. It's how you know the Maya, too, will
prevail.

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