Circular Time

In which I digress (much) further about the not-coming apocalypse.

This is long. Sorry. I tried to break it into two parts, but it just wasn’t happening. Thanks in advance for your kind attention.

The Popol Vuh is the Mayan creation myth. The version available to us today was written in secret between the years 1554 and 1558 by three anonymous philosopher-priests of the Maya religion, during the early years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, when Catholic missionaries under Friar Diego de Landa were systematically destroying all evidence they could find of indigenous religion and culture. In order to preserve it, the authors of the Popol Vuh spirited it away somewhere in the Guatemalan city of Chichicastenango (underneath a Christian altar, perhaps, as was a favorite tactic of the Maya, preserving the old beneath the new) until 1701, when it was discovered, copied, and translated from the original Roman alphabet transliteration of Quiché into Spanish by Francisco Ximenes, another Catholic friar. His copy is the only one that survives today.

All of which is to say that the contents of the Popol Vuh as we know them have been deeply, irrevocably compromised by the influence of a conquering culture. Some evidence mitigating against this has come to light fairly recently: a stucco frieze dating from before 100 BC has been uncovered in the ruined Mayan city of Mirador, which depicts in detail a scene from the Twin Gods cycle of the Popol Vuh myth. That’s some impressive continuity, considering what an incredibly diverse range culture and belief can be seen across mesoamerica—even from one Mayan sacred site to the next. Still, there is a huge gulf of uncertainty in the 1600 years between those two points, and in the 450 years between then and the winter solstice, 2012. And it’s exactly that kind of gulf from which new-agey doomsday conspiracy theories are born.

It used to be that the big source of mystery and wild speculation about the Maya was what happened to them—why, when Cortés and De Soto arrived in the 16th century, they found jungle ruins instead of thriving cities. Where did the builders of these cities go? They were abducted by aliens! They ascended to a higher plane of reality, like those Brahmins who set themselves on fire!

But that part isn’t really a mystery anymore. We know what happened to the Maya: they’re still there, still living in the same jungles, speaking in the same tongues, following the same traditions. What happened to them was the same thing that happened to the American settlers of the southwestern plains states in the 1930s. Their civilization “advanced” so far that it exhausted its natural resources. They used up their water supply through overpopulation and careless irrigation, exhausted the fertility of their soil through overfarming, undermined its stability with too much quarrying and monumental construction. They were living beyond their means. And when the droughts came, they suffered for it. Over the course of generations, they were forced to come to terms with their mistakes, step down off their thrones and the shoulders of their slaves and go back into the jungle, to live the way their ancestors had.

Sound familiar? Maybe it will.

Doesn’t make them sound particularly like the sort of people you’d look to for spiritual wisdom, does it? Let alone the unprecedented understanding of the nature of time and existence that would allow them to prophesy the end of days.

But look at it like this: they’ve already lived through it once. They’ve had the chance to learn from their mistakes the hard way. And they want to pass on what they know, through myth and story, for the next time history repeats itself.

The Popol Vuh opens like the New Testament: with god moving on the face of the waters, and with the Word. Sovereign Plumed Serpent, with the aid of his cronies, the deities of lightning, thunder, the hurricane and the sky, parts the oceans and raises the earth, creates the plants and animals. But this isn’t enough. The gods want to be believed in, worshipped, praised. They need these things. The world needs people to understand and keep the order by which it operates, to observe the patterns and cycles and assign them meaning. So we come to maybe my favorite quote from the Popol Vuh, which appears perennially in the upper left corner of The Mossy Skull as inspirational quote of the season:

“Our recompense is in words.”

— Hurricane, Sudden Thunderbolt, Newborn Thunderbolt and Heart of Sky, upon the creation of humans. The Popol Vuh

But the Maya gods aren’t perfect. It takes them a couple of tries. The current race of humanity, the ones who keep time with a calendar, observe the movements of the heavens, and write stories to explain the things they learn and see, are the third incarnation.

The first humans were made out of mud. They couldn’t do much more than walk and wave their arms and mumble. They weren’t intelligent enough to perceive the actions of the gods, the nature of existence, or to do much of anything at all. So the gods unmade them. The second humans were of wood. They were stronger, smarter, they lived, had families, worked and made tools. But they didn’t worship the gods. They were arrogant and forgetful. The story of their destruction is maybe the closest thing the Popol Vuh has to an apocalypse. The wooden people’s own serving animals and tools, their own houses, even their food rises up against them and overthrows them.

There came a rain of resin from the sky.
There came the one named Gouger of Faces: he gouged out their eyeballs.
There came Sudden Bloodletter: he snapped off their heads.
There came Crunching Jaguar: he ate their flesh.
There came Tearing Jaguar: he tore them open.

This goes on a long time, comprehensively brutal. And the second race of humans ends up as the monkeys in the forest, reduced to jabbering and swinging from the trees, which is where that quote from Dennis Tedlock’s introduction that I posted the other week comes in. I can totally see how it might inspire a CGI explosive doomfest—or, for that matter, an apocalyptic prophecy some people might actually believe.

Which brings me back to December 21st, 2012. The gods create the third race of humans out of corn. Those humans do remember to honor the gods and keep their calendar. And they keep it up until the present day. The Mayan people are still living in the jungle, as humble, poor and wise as they’ve been since they stepped down off their thrones back in the year 600. And meanwhile, a new “advanced” civilization has sprung up around them, and has already begun to desperately backpedal as they try to avoid screwing up their resources so badly that they too have to give up their iPhones and cheap Chinese imports and go back to the jungle. The current administration of Guatemala is allowing industry and uncontrolled population growth to pour waste matter into Lake Atitlan, a sacred Maya pilgrimage site mentioned in the Popol Vuh as one of the four corners of the Maya world, causing an algae buildup that, unless they stop, will kill off every other living thing in its waters and no doubt cause havoc for the kickass sunken Mayan temple residing on the lake bottom. The modern Maya are getting kicked off their land to make way for American nickel mining. I could go on. Logging in the Amazon. Individually-wrapped toothpicks. Toilet paper made from old growth trees. I am inclined to go on. But I’d rather you read the rest of this and not be driven away by my angry. You’ve heard it all before.

You’ve heard it all before.

“Circular Time” is the title of a 1941 essay by Jorge Luis Borges, in which, in three and a half fanciful, impeccably researched pages, he outlines the history of ancient and modern Western culture’s interaction with the notion that history repeats itself. Starting with Plato:

…who, in the thirty-ninth paragraph of the Timaeus, claims that once their diverse velocities have achieved an equilibrium, the seven planets will return to their initial point of departure in a cycle that constitutes the perfect year.

The Mayan calendar follows a similar logic. Using the orbital periods of Venus, Mars, the sun, moon and stars, their ritual and secular year consisted of a set of interlocking cycles—one 20 days long, another 260, another 365. I’m not going to get into the math, you can go read about that elsewhere. It’s enough to say that when all these cycles are fitted together, they generate one enormously big circle of time. Represented in the modified base-20 of the Mayan reckoning (with the dots between numbers representing a decimal place), day one, year one of the current 5,125-year cycle, which fell on August 6th, 3114 BC in the Julian calendar, is represented And December 21st, 2012, the last day of the last year in that cycle, is represented I think. Look it up. On December 22nd, it will be again.

However—even though the Long Count, as it’s called, only uses five decimal places, the Mayan calendar is actually designed to account for a much, much longer span of time: something like 26,000 years, the orbital period of the star grouping we refer to as the Pleiades, which the Maya refer to as the Four Hundred Boys, whose gruesome death in the Popol Vuh marks the final event before the first rising of the moon and sun.

In other words, the calendar doesn’t end on December 21st, 2012. It just resets. Time starts over at the beginning—the same way it does for us Westerners every calendar year on January 1st, only on a far larger scale. Looking at it that way, the 2012 prophecy starts to bear a resemblance to the Y2K prophecy. Two thousand years since the birth of Jesus! Shit! The antichrist! The whore of Babylon! Big ole computer glitches! As we know, that prophecy went out with something of a whimper.

But these things are all metaphorical—that’s what the 2012 doomsayers don’t seem to get. If we can find a meaning in these myths and apply them to the stories of our own lives, why not? That’s what myths are for. The world didn’t end in the year 2000, but in a sense, it was reborn. The world is reborn every year, and every moment for that matter. The present renews itself eternally, and we’re reliving the past all the time, starting over from scratch. Death doesn’t change, and neither does birth. Perception doesn’t change. Time doesn’t change. Yet everything is changing all the time.

So what will happen when time resets itself in 2012? Maybe our tools and food, our fossil fuels and copyrighted corn will rise up and overthrow us, as they did to the wooden humans, and Sovereign Plumed Serpent and his cronies the Hurricane will create a fourth iteration of humanity, a further refinement on the flawed mold of the third. Or maybe there won’t be a need. Maybe we’ll have learned from the warnings of our predecessors, handed down to us in the form of myth and ruined cities overgrown with jungle, listened to the ticking of the universe’s clock, marked the time, and understood that we needed to change.

But it won’t happen with a bang, nor with a billion dollars’ worth of CGI destruction. It’ll happen over generations, just like it did the last time, and the time before that.

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