Equal Day, Equal Night

Viewing the equinox in Mayan Guatemala, ancient and modern.
By Mary Jo McConahay

In the beginning, the earth we know slept under watery darkness, like the view before dawn from the island of Flores. Standing on the balcony of my hotel, I saw the Petén sky rippling down to the horizon on all sides. Still lake, rippling sky. This brought a feeling of standing on one’s head or reeling. When Cortés came upon Lake Petén Itzá in 1525, he thought he had reached the sea. The waters can still appear rimless at times, especially in the dark.

A horn like a klaxon ripped through the air. I scrambled down two flights, groped for my pack in the dark lobby, stepped out to a waiting shuttle and into the front seat, next to the driver. In the rearview mirror, I saw other bleary-eyed passengers. Maybe they, too, had trouble sleeping on this island, not from noise but the quiet. The driver turned from the island onto the causeway that connects to the mainland. We were heading toward Tikal, the huge kingdom once conquered by Dos Pilas, the Pre-Columbian site of the Maya civilization. The autumnal equinox was not far off, and I wanted to know where I should be when light broke that day. There was someone I might ask at Tikal. I wanted to pay my respects to Maya cosmology, which began three thousand years ago and continues among modern Maya.

Now in 2009, I wanted to put the question about the equinox, and other things on my mind, to Don Domingo Chayax, from whom I had learned much in the days I spent with him and his wife, Teresa. Stepping off the boat at San José, I had looked up at the place where the wonderful old house had been and knew something out of joint had occurred. In place of the wooden house stood a bright, whitewashed police post manned with officers who did not look local.

“Don Domingo died three years ago,” said the first person I asked.

“Doña Teresa died a few weeks after Don Domingo,” said the second.

Relatives said Domingo’s nephew, Gilberto, was among the Itzá speakers. They said he too was an ajq’ij, a Maya spiritual guide, as Domingo had been. Gilberto Chayax, they said, might be at the old Maya city of Tikal, where he performed ceremonies. If I found him, I wondered if he would advise me to stay or tell me to push farther into the rainforest to Uaxactun, where a famous ancient observatory stood. I hoped he was there.

Once into the precincts of Tikal, the air became cooler. Trees grew thick on both sides of the road, which narrowed. The shuttle slowed, and my ear became attuned to a new landscape of sound: cries of spider monkeys, cawing toucans. We were solidly inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where the government forbade hunting and cutting trees all the way to the border with Mexico.

The shuttle dropped passengers on a stretch of concrete that was still a working airstrip when I first came to Tikal in 1972. Propeller planes severely shook up the ancient structures, however, and soon after, take-offs and landings stopped. Few tourists came then, anyway. Today six hundred arrive daily, by bus and car.

At the entrance gate, freelance guides sent me in the direction of a trail that led to the abode of Don Gilberto Chayax. I walked for less than an hour on quiet paths to the Great Plaza, turning east into a passage between the towering Jaguar Temple and the Southern Acropolis.

The last part of the trail ran through a maze of full-grown trees, vines, enormous surface roots. I recognized a thin trunk, spiny as a Goth choker. Fishermen used its thorns to make hooks. The forest sounded with the buzz of unseen bees. Insects the size of a pencil eraser, and nearly the same shape, lifted and dipped in a single cloud ahead of me, making no sound at all.

I saw light ahead and figured the trail was ending. But instead it was an island in the forest ruled by palms—huge, unusual palms with wide-spread fingers inviting sunlight. Rays fell brightly on the tallest, fell dappled on young palms close to the earth. A fading wooden sign said: in this place existed a Lacandón Maya village.

Lacandón, the magic name that first drew me to the rainforest. In the early 1970s the Lacandón Maya lived only in Metzabok, Naha, and a couple of other jungle villages on the Mexican side of the Usumacinta, so deep in the jungle few ever saw them. But as recently as the early 1900s the Lacandón lived so widely dispersed, mostly in Guatemala’s western Petén, that they were not found at all unless they wished to be. A large, extended family might settle in a place like this, among palms, self-sufficient, needing only water and good hunting.

Past the Lacandón grove, the path became straight. I saw a sprite of a man striding toward me, wearing a baseball hat and floppy pants. A woven cloth bag hung from one shoulder, the kind an ajq’iq might carry to hold ceremonial objects.

I took off my sunglasses so he could see my eyes. “Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning.”

He stopped, as if to let me pass. He seemed the right age, about seventy.

“Don Gilberto?”

“Yes, I am,” he said.

He wore a T-shirt bearing the logo of a defunct environmental organization, with a message that advised caution when using fire. His faded dark pants were rolled at the bottom above worn black shoes.

“I am looking for you,” I said. “For a visit.”

“Of course,” he said, without surprise. He turned and headed back up the trail in the direction from which he had come. “We will go,” I heard him say, already several paces ahead of me.

We came to a corrugated metal building carved into tiny single rooms, far inferior to the archaeologists’ freestanding cabins on the other side of the ruins. Gilberto Chayax lived with maintenance men and gardeners, he told me, each cooking for himself, sharing the fire.

Chayax brought me a molded-plastic chair grained with cracks, the good seat, and for himself a three-legged stool. Sheltered under a patio roof of tin, we sat for a while and watched the rain. “The calendar,” I said. “The Maya calendar. I want to go to Uaxactun, to see the equinox.”

Gilberto Chayax adjusted the bill of his cap. He brightened. This was where he shone, where certainty replaced doubt, where the past flowed unbroken into the present, and the present into the future.

The 260-day Maya calendar, called the tzolkin, is the same used by his ancestors, Chayax said. Its year is made of thirteen months, each with twenty days. The days of the month have names, indicating which nahual, or powerful spiritual being, influences it, and have a number between one and thirteen. The tzolkin is a divinatory table, in which the Maya priest can read elements important to the psychic and spiritual well-being of individuals, beginning with the day and time of their birth. He knows which days are propitious, which call for caution. Often the guia may be illiterate, despite managing such a deep and complex system. The calendar is sacred, and thus the work holy. One of the spiritual guide’s other names is Keeper of the Days.

Besides the sacred tzolkin, Maya use a 365-day calendar for planting, the haab, based on cycles of the sun. Dates inscribed on stelae and painted on vessels, however, are based on a third calendar, measured from the year zero of the Maya historical cycle in which we live, the fourth era. Commonly called the Long Count, the era cycle is 5,126 years long. In our counting, it began August 11, 3114 BC, and comes to an end on December 21, 2012. We know cycle endings are important events from evidence of glyphs describing the attention given to them by the rainforest Maya. The years and months before the end of an era, and after, may be charged with special significance.

Chayax drew from his pocket a datebook of the tzolkin. He showed me the glyphs for the current month and day. He placed the book on his lap and studied a page.

“Uaxactun,” he said. “Yes, to be present for sunrise on that day.”

“Uaxactun is good because an old observatory is there?” I asked.

“Uaxactun was the college, the house of studies when our ancestors studied the movement of the sun,” Gilberto said. “They had to know the movements, so they could find the balance, to measure the time of planting, to measure time.”

In other words, Uaxactun was the place the astronomer-priests, over centuries, worked out calculations of time marked by the movement of stars and planets that ruled lives all over the Maya world, even today. Chayax seemed to take my mulling for a struggle to understand.

“Balance,” he said. “You have to weigh yourself to get on a plane, don’t you? Because the plane must keep its balance so you can arrive.”

Don Gilberto must have flown on small aircraft where the pilot noted the weight of both cargo and passengers to gauge the fuel requirement. If “balance,” as Don Gilberto saw it, was so important for an ordinary mortal to arrive safely at his destination, how significant balance must be in the movement of the universe. How transcendental the work of the calendar keepers, like him, who know which spirit rules each day, who follow the way time operates in maintaining the balance on earth.

“It is a good place to be, Uaxactun,” he said.

The rain stopped, becoming a wall of mist between the place we sat and the edge of the forest. As the wall thinned, the trees took on their palette of greens once more, moist and fresh.

In the Mayan sacred book Popol Vuh, when the Lords conversed about creating “the human work,” they wanted beings capable of honoring their names, keeping their days. Otherwise there could be no praise for the creators, no appreciation. First attempts did not work out well. Mud men melted. Other creatures—deer, rabbits, foxes—turned out to be squawkers or barkers who could not voice praise or prayers. Wood mannequins looked and talked like humans, but they only thought about themselves, kept no memory of the Heart of the Sky, the designers and creators; they were crushed, ground down, and destroyed. Only monkeys remained in the forest to remind us of the failed attempt.

Listening to Gilberto Chayax speak, it occurred to me that the old book was saying that if it weren’t for men and women like him, continuing to perform ceremonies, remembering the days and the spirits to which they belonged, the “human work” would not exist. Like the cloistered nuns and monks I heard about in my childhood, who spent their days praying for the rest of the world or working at baking or farming as a form of prayer, the ajq’ijab’ were covering for the rest of us. His realm of knowledge was the “Short Count,” Don Gilberto said, the 260-day round, the tzolkin.

“The other calendar, the long one, the one which is in its end, that is not the one we use in ceremony,” he said.

“Many think there will be world war or that the world will disappear at the end of the long calendar.” But his view was more complex, even puzzling.

“The earth will not bear the cold. We are going to suffer more heat than now.”

“How can that be?” I asked. Heat and cold?

“The sun and moon will come in contact with the surface of the earth,” he said. “We must see how the earth handles the lowering of the sun and the moon, the being out of balance.”

This had “happened before, many years ago,” his grandparents had told him, when water dried up and there was “a scarcity of sacred food.”

“Like now,” he said, and indeed newspapers had been full of stories of malnourished children, some dying, in the Guatemalan countryside. “It’s not that God is not good,” he said. “But now we’ve gone beyond the measure, gone overboard, become excessive. How many are killing each other? God is the parent, the former and creator. He wants his children to grow with obedience.”

It didn’t seem right for God—whether you saw him singular or plural, him or her—not to give second chances. But soft-spoken, humble-looking Don Gilberto sounded unequivocal.

“We have to revive what we have been killing,” he said. “If not, everything is smashed.”

I felt a chill in spite of the muggy air. Until now, everything I had read about the 2012 date spoke of astronomical phenomena, wondrously predicted by ancient Maya. Or of one mythological cycle ending and another beginning, like an odometer turning over. Perhaps because I felt afraid at the concreteness of his words, I asked him if feeling this way, knowing these things, did not make him fearful. He said no.

“Fear humiliates us,” Don Gilberto said. “We can die thinking of it.”

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of Maya Roads by Mary Jo McConahay, published August 2011 by Chicago Review Press.
From the Winter 2011 Taste issue of California.
Image source: David Parsons/iStockphoto
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