Posted by: Johan Normark | June 18, 2012

2012: The cosmological trap

If there is some connection between academic Mayanist research and the New Age/pseudoscientific field that Hoopes calls “Mayanism” it is within the “cosmological field”. An academic would claim that Maya cosmology is a cultural or social construct, etc. A New Ager, like Jenkins, sees Maya cosmology as revealing some sort of truth, ancient wisdom, and file it under “perennial philosophy”, etc. I usually do not agree with any of these positions as they simply are mirror images of each other. New Agers undermine objects. Graham Harman describes undermining as a form of reductionism. It destroys objects in favor of something more fundamental, something spiritual that is more “true” or “real” than simple objects. Academic Mayanists more often overmines the object where it becomes a nickname for social or cultural relations. Neither approach really care about the objects themselves which actually interests me (and please do not make the mistake of labeling me “materialist” because of this since even an idea is an object). If we skip the object-oriented ontologies discussing these issues, how are objects treated among the Yucatec Maya today? Can we learn something from them (the ethnographic analogy problem set a side for this post)?

The part of Mayanist academia that focuses on cosmological issues has unfortunately been influenced by Eliade’s ideas, ideas that straddle the border to ideas prevalent in New Age literature. A good example here is “Maya Cosmos” from 1993, a book that has influenced Jenkins. In Mayanist and New Age literature alike Maya artefacts, buildings, places and calendars are described as divine, holy and sacred (from different perspectives I must add). Eliade set up a binary distinction between sacred and profane. However, the contemporary Maya make no such binary distinction. Their emphasis on location has to do with ritually quadripartioning everything. Yucatec words like kich, k’ul and k’uyen are glossed as sacred but actually mean “something good, of good character, pleasant, and well-behaved in humility and personality” (p 21). K’uyen refers to humans, objects and processions and is associated with the movement of the sun after passing zenith.

Eliade upheld an “incredible fixation on what he called sacred space, sacred time, sacred symbols, sacred myths, sacred this and sacred that, whereupon, according to him, all human actions concentrate on seeking divine hierophantic manifestations” (p 7). The baggage of Eliade’s armchair research and connection to fascist ideology is something one also should confront. Eliade’s “shamanism” is therefore seriously flawed. The Maya did not have any supernatural portals that corresponds to Eliade’s axial “doors of the gods”. In his model, shamans in an altered state of ecstasy master and control spirits through the cosmic portal that Eliade calls axis mundi. This view has been filtered through into Jenkins’s “galactic alignment” theory where Eliadean ideas remain strong. Given Jenkins’s aggressive attitude towards people disagreeing with him and demands that other people should be censored, we can sense how this particular form of Deleuzean microfascism works. Jenkins wants to be the only dictator in his own narrow territory. This may be the reason why Jenkins has misunderstood most of what “Maya cosmology” is about.

Contemporary ritual specialists communicate with non-corporeal persons by tethering them to objects. Astor-Aguilera describes a contemporary ritual in the Cochuah region in which pigs are sacrificed. The heads of the pigs are indexes of the sun, moon and Venus. During this ritual the sun person is brought down to earth whereas its physical part remains overhead.

The smashing of pottery or termination of buildings in the past were most likely the untethering of incorporeal persons. Some nonhumans are stronger and have better skills than others so for this reason it is no problem in discarding or breaking communicating objects that one seeks to disassociate oneself from. Thus, buildings, caves and perhaps even sites and timeperiods were “untethered” this way.

When Jenkins claims that December 21, 2012 involves transition to a new era, transformation and renewal, this is nothing new at all. Contemporary Maya do this all the time. Objects are transformed and are being renewed through the tethering of incorporeal persons. Transitions to new eras/periods occurred and still occur. When Jenkins claims that the transition demanded a sacrifice of a “deity”, what the Maya probably meant was the untethering of a incorporeal person (Bolon Yookte’ K’uh). Remember that the “deity” is said to descend. I suspect the people of Tortuguero expected Bolon Yookte’ K’uh to become tethered to an object (statue or human impersonator?) and perhaps sacrificed/untethered at some later point, perhaps during the same ritual. There is nothing particularly sacred or important with this event that make it different from the baktun ending in AD 830 (apart from the additional effects from centuries of Colonialism, capitalism, etc). Same, same but different. Jenkins is trapped in cosmology and cannot escape. He will not even chew his leg off.

Astor-Aguilera, Miguel Angel (2010). The Maya World of Communicating Objects: Quadripartite Crosses, Trees, and Stones. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

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  1. For any potential commentators, in the near future I will not be moderating the blog as often as I would like to. Your comment may be awaiting moderation for quite some time.

  2. Re: lack of distinction between divine & nondivine. This may be true for the modern Maya, but I wonder if it was equally true during the historical periods of high monarchy, when social status among the Maya was much more stratified. There was apparently a strong socio-religious division between royalty and commoners, with the former being considered divine in a particular sense that the latter weren’t. Might this not have extended to a parallel perception of strong hierarchical divisions in the supernatural world?

    In the Popol Vuh, one of the major themes is the establishment of who has a legitimate claim to deity — the rivaltry between Hunahpu/Xbalanque & Seven Macaw being an obvious example. The rise of Hunahpu’s dynasty among the gods is paralleled, in the later sections, by the Quich’es asserting their claims to nobility & supremacy among the other tribes. If not as absolute a binary as in the Christian religion, there does seem to be an emphasis on spiritual exclusivity which mirrors the political order.

    Of course, this relates to the idea of an “elite” versus “folk” version of a religion or philosophy, such as is found in other ancient high civilizations. The folk version is typically more “animistic” with multiple gods & spirits everywhere; the elite variant more centralized, abstract & literate. With the fall of the Mayan kingdoms (and the destruction of nearly all the precolonial Maya’s written literature), only the folk variants seem to have survived in actual practice.

    This, of course, is not to say that the “elite” version is actually more legitimate, or ontologically superior to the folk philosophy — nor that religious beliefs are “nothing but” representations of the social system. However, in a world with actual living god-kings, I would not find it surprising if people found the sacred, in general, more remote from the lives of other humans who were not so privileged.

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