In 1492 Spanish explorers reached the American continent. This feat brought together again the two parts of the world that had been pushed apart by the tectonic reconfiguration of the planet that placed the Atlantic and Pacific oceans between Eurasia and America.
150 years ago, in the jungles of Central America, European explorers found the pyramids of an unknown civilization: the Maya. The Mayans shared with Chinese civilization the fundamental belief that humanity is not separate from nature but is part of the natural order. Yet at the heart of the Mayan view of civilization was an obsession with time, measured in cycles of hundreds of millions of years. The Greeks explored the cosmos through geometry, the Hindus through metaphysics, the Maya through the mathematics of eternity.
In the merchant town of Chchicastenango, the inhabitants still speak the language of the pre-Columbian civilization: Mayan. In front of the church of Santo Thomas travelers burn incense asking for the forgiveness of the Mayan spirits. When the mass begins, they participate in the ceremony with their fire inside the church organized by the Mayan brotherhoods. In the middle of the church there are altars for the ancestors and shamans. The brotherhoods repeat the rites of their ancestors within the church in an act of religious syncretism. However they leave the temple before the end of the mass. Their faith and beliefs are different. It was through the Mayan brotherhoods that Europeans were able to see and copy the only manuscript of the Mayan genesis: The Popol Vuh.
For the Mayans, the Earth is a sacred, benign and terrible being because their land was an area of extremes of heat and cold surrounded by volcanoes and plagued by frequent earthquakes. The Popol Vuh explains how humans came to this violent paradise where you need to cultivate the land and respect its divinity. Humans were given memory to count the days and bear the weight of time. They had the responsibility of maintaining the rites and if they stopped performing them the universe would no longer make sense.
In this Mayan mythology there is perhaps a distant memory of the migration from Asia of the ancestors of the peoples of the Americas. Today in Guatemala you can see rites and beliefs that they share with the peoples of China and East Asia: the use of jade in mortuary rites, the symbolism of the turtle, divination and the burning of prayers. This is pre-linguistic and is part of a common root of humanity.
The first capital of Central American civilization flourished in the first millennium of our era in the valley of Mexico and was called Teotihuacan, the place where men become gods. Here they built a huge city center of a commercial empire that spread throughout Central America. Here they also built great pyramids that rival those of Egypt. It is testimony that the human mind creates the same symbols although separated by the distance of two oceans. We find the same dreams to unite the earth and the heavens.
An extraordinary discovery has been made just below the Pyramid of the Sun: an elaborate map of the city as a cosmic symbol. The passage through the lava found a chamber with seven vertices just below the center of the pyramid. This was the original place of the pilgrimage, the departure of the first ancestors mentioned in the later Popol Vuh. The myth explained that humanity lived on earth and on this there was a celestial vault. The pyramid is the mirror of this celestial order.
Teotihuacan was the first urban civilization in Central America. If we compare its origins with those of the first cities in Iraq, India or the Zhang dynasty in China we get a common image. At the core of this shared vision is the city as the earthly pattern of the cosmic order. It is seen in this first Mexican city with its intersection plans in four directions aligned with the surrounding mountains, the constellations and the underground world, the cave under the pyramid of the Sun. It is a way to maintain the order of the universe. In Central America, cities maintain this function even if they become commercial centers. Mythology was one of the driving forces in the development of civilization that saw the mixture of religion, the social and the political.
The civilizing movement spread through Central America from the valley of Mexico to the jungles of Guatemala and the Maya. In Honduras the center was Copan ruled by a dynasty from the 5th to 9th centuries AD. Its public squares and playing fields were adorned with sculptures.
Now we can decipher the Mayan script independently invented here as in Eurasia, another common landmark of civilization. The great monument to Mayan literacy is the hieroglyphic staircase of Copan, a writing hill containing more than 1,200 signs. It counts the mythical and royal dynasties up to 755 of our era. The last king of Copan died in the winter of 820. The last day of the calendar was February 10. Later the site was abandoned and left to the jungle. About the same date Tikal was abandoned and soon all the classical cities of the Maya were gone. Why is a mystery.
With the collapse of the classical Maya, civilization returned to the valley of Mexico. Here was a plain surrounded by mountains and with a large lake with islets. Here in what is now Mexico City, a warrior tribe called Mexico settled in the 14th century, with its Aztec culture. The modern Plaza del Zócalo was the ritual center of the city. Excavations here have uncovered the foundations of the great Aztec god of war. Cortes and his conquerors saw horrible scenes here - sacrifices of thousands of people to these gods supposedly thirsty for human blood. All civilizations have used sacrifices in their religions and throughout history the theologian has been a close companion of the executioner. Spilling blood linked to the continuity of life is an idea rooted in the human psyche.
In the conquest of Guatemala the Spanish built their new capital in Antigua. It was a sample of the ideals of European civilization but the reality was a genocide, due to diseases brought from Europe or war violence. It was among Catholic clergy that European consciousness grew. Bartolomé de las Casas was a passionate defender of the indigenous people. In Cobán, his diocese, the mass is still sung in Mayan, not in Spanish.
150 years after the conquest the last Mayan city fell. In the remote jungle of northern Guatemala stood Flores, a fortified city on an island. The prophetic books of the Yucatan forests predicted that something catastrophic would happen in cycles of 256 or 257 years. The next cycle was to start in 1697. Knowing this, the Spanish attacked on March 13 and conquered the city with superior weaponry and perhaps with a psychological advantage. The myth of the 256/7 years possibly weakened the Mayan resistance that until today have accepted the conquest as an inevitable doom. Their weather calendar helped end their civilization.
Today the traditional tale of time continues. In 1954 an internal coup, aided by the USA, ended their democracy. It happened exactly 257 years after the fall of Flores. Does the mythical calendar foresee the future or does faith in it work to fulfill its predictions?
In the Creation myth the Popol Vuh says that human beings maintained the balance between the spirits of the ancestors and the spirits of war and heaven. The Mayans, invaded by modernity, still keep their old convictions secret and on selected days of the Mayan calendar, new shamans are initiated to bear the weight of time, the temporal count of their beliefs. Since the conquest the Mayans have externally lived a western calendar while keeping a different universe secret. It seemed that the ancient myths could have been the cause of its decline but at the same time they were guardians of its true history. In a more tolerant and plural future, perhaps these people can relive their own history in their own time.