Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

The fourth in a guest series about the “Mayan Apocalypse” predicted for Dec. 21, 2012.  The first three posts are herehere, and here.

In this post, I’ll consider the 2012 phenomenon in relation to time and otherness. Naturally, I’m hedging my bets and posting this before the potential end of the world. Although no one can seem to decide when the Maya are, they appear to be sometime between Aug 11, 3114 BC and Dec 21, 2012 AD.

This time frame has less to do with the Maya themselves than with how they are invoked by Westerners (both believers and debunkers). I realize that “West” and “Westerners” — just like “the Maya” —  is an overambitious gloss, but indulge me for a moment.  For the record, my perspective is based largely on the American, British, and Spanish public spheres in the press and internet.  (While there seems to be 2012 interest in Russia and China, I’m not in a position to comment on that in any detail. Please leave a comment if you can.)

In the rhetoric of the West, “the Maya” appear to take quantum leaps between historical moments.  In my previous post I focused on the “otherness” of U.S. spiritualists in the eyes of apocalypse debunkers. It goes without saying that the Maya are also “other” in ways that anthropologists have long objected to.  The precise relationships between The Maya (abstract) and the Maya (ethnographic, historic) is a matter of debate, but regardless they are invoked constantly when it comes to apocalyptic expectations for 2012.  

For some in the West, the Maya — along with many others — are a “People Without History.” Eric Wolf used this ironic title for his book because he wanted to emphasize just the opposite; all peoples do have history, even though Western societies often fail to see that or actively ignore the fact. This pattern holds when it comes to supposed Mayan prophecies.  Some believe that the ancient Maya were trying to tell us something, as if all those intervening centuries of history didn’t exist, and then performed an improbable Mayan Vanishing Act at the end of Classic period.

And it’s not just the Maya who are said to speak to us from the deep past before conveniently “disappearing.” Prophecies of apocalypse are not rare in western societies, and most are legitimated on the basis of ancient texts (the Bible, I Ching, Nostradamus, etc). The temporal and cultural distance between those believed to be predicting the apocalypse and those waiting to experience it is precisely what legitimates the prediction. (In other cases that distance is created by technology, such as with Y2K. I’ll leave those parallels  for another time.) Many scholars respond to this by insisting that we must consider Classic Maya texts in their historical and cultural context, and they are absolutely right.

But if we stop here, we miss some of the contradictions  that emerge in arguments about when the Maya are. Despite claims to historical specificity when it comes to interpreting Classic period stela, many debunkers invoke contemporary Maya to convince believers that Dec 21, 2012 will be a non-event. If arguments about stela translations or astronomical observations do not convince you, they imply, then at least you will agree that if the Maya are not worried then you should not be either.

The Penn Museum “Lords of Time” exhibit, for example, employs this method. After multiple rooms of careful and convincing analysis of Classic stela and archaeological evidence, the exhibit leads to a corridor with multiple video screens. Each is dedicated to a different Maya individual, identified by name, ethnic group, and profession. The viewer can choose to hear their answers to one of several questions, including about 2012. None of these individuals believe that the world is about to end.

Other scholars, such as Johan Normark, echo this.  Such claims about non-believing Maya have also appeared in newspaper accounts (see examples in Slate, National Geographic, International Business Times, among others.)

This move is effective on multiple levels.  It re-positions the Maya as our contemporaries, rather than as “vanished” others.  They become People With Histories, both collective and individual, who can comment directly on their own cultural texts. It acknowledges Maya-speakers as having a long historical presence spanning from before the construction of Palenque to after the Guatemalan Civil War.  It invites their opinions on what might happen on Friday.

But there are contradictions here, too. Calling on contemporary Maya to debunk beliefs legitimated by invoking the ancient Maya relies on forging a temporal connection between the two. It suggests that contemporary Maya should be able to interpret the meanings of Classic Maya despite the centuries of colonialism, cultural change, and historical events that separate them.

This might be seen as a deliberate and strategic move meant precisely to address the beliefs of those who see the Maya as timeless. Certainly it is not because scholars are naive about these issues. Anthropologists are well aware of the dangers of assuming unbroken cultural continuity. While there are certainly links between the past and the present, these are not unmediated by current realities.

Ironically, some western spiritualists emphasize cultural discontinuity to suggest why contemporary Maya might be less aware of ancient Maya wisdom than themselves (which is its own kind of arrogance).  They point to the same historical ruptures that anthropologists do: the Conquest, the massive demographic declines of the 15th and 16th centuries caused by disease, and colonialism. They simultaneously suggest that the ancient Maya may have been predicting events thousands of years in their future, while the contemporary Maya are unaware of that.

What is at stake in these arguments by both believers and debunkers is which Maya — past or present — can legitimately speak for the Maya as a whole in the eyes of Western interlocutors.  In either case — whether we believe that contemporary Maya have a privileged knowledge of their ancestors beliefs, or whether we posit that ancient Maya had important messages for the contemporary world — the Maya are made into a single group that transcends time.

Humor me for a moment while I compare this situation to another western cultural phenomenon that uses the title “Lords of Time”: Doctor Who. I think there is something here about how westerners think about time, and what it means to dominate it.  (This also allows me to follow in the established western tradition of bringing the Maya into science fiction.)

What makes Doctor Who a Time Lord? He cannot control time; time continues moving just as it would without him (season finales aside). He is a Time Lord because he is not bound by time. With his ship the TARDIS, he can jump between places and times, interacting briefly with those spaces before moving on. (Interestingly, he usually moves both temporally and spatially at once.) Within each moment he is bound by conventional understandings of time: time moves forward, and he with it. He does not appear to experience time differently from those around him, although he sees temporal possibilities hidden from others. He just has the option of leaving (so long as there are no Daleks in the way).

This may seem like a digression, but I do not think it coincidental that the Maya have also been termed “Lords of Time.” Like Doctor Who, The Maya — as invoked by the 2012 phenomena — are not bound by time.   In western rhetoric, they make quantum leaps between historical moments and spaces. They are both timeless and historically grounded. They link times and places: Classic Guatemalan stela with Chichen Itza tourism, pre-Columbian texts with Jose Arguelles, and ancient rituals with contemporary fears about climate change.

Being a “Lord of Time” involves space as well as time, technology as well as tradition, and connection as well as alterity.  But most importantly, this says far more about how those in the West view time and what it means to dominate it.

Clare Sammells

Clare A. Sammells is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Bucknell University. She has conducted research on archaeological tourism in Tiwanaku, Bolivia and on foodways among Bolivian migrants living in Madrid, Spain.

3 thoughts on “Lords of Time: The Maya, Doctor Who, and temporal fascinations of the west

  1. Dear Clare
    An excellent article, if I may be so bold.
    I spoke with Don Ajlehandro, Elder of Elders and spiritual leader of six million Maya people, who had spoken on behalf of the Maya at the United Nations many years ago and it was quite clear that although he had an affinity with nature far in advance of we “Westerners” and held Sun Ceremonies and Ancestor Worship at Chitchenitza, He had no idea how his ancestors had practised astronomy.or understood the geometry necessary for the construction of the pyramids.
    He was clear that there was a threat of destruction by fire but that is in direct opposition to the Dresden Codex.
    Mostly he was concerned with the dispossession of his people by the Conquistador 500 yeras earlier and to get an ear of Western Rulers was tantamount to rectification in his view.

  2. As an interesting aside, the celebrations that were held at Chicen Itza today were dominated by ‘concheros’, dancing troupes who originated in the 1930s in West-Central Mexico and claim various forms of continuity with the pre-columbian Mexica (Aztecs). They have gradually become the ‘living’ face of a generic, performative kind of Mexican indigeneity that is particularly visible in key tourist-frequented sites.

    Their presence in Chichen was anything but accidental: they represent highly organized troupes who are seen with a mixture of ambivalence and short-term economic interest by most municipal authorities across Mexico, who see them as a convenient tourist attraction.

    By contrast, the ceremony held at Tikal was apparently more official (State-sponsored, organized), and in turn dominated by a strange mixture of indigenous Maya and exogenous ‘generic’ Amerindian motifs. I was especially struck by the actors, who mostly seemed to be white mestizos with no clear connection to local Maya communities, and by the music, which seemed to be mostly inspired on Mexican neo-indigenous/New Age interpretations of Mexica instrumentations.

    Finally, in the small village of Tortuguero (southern Tabasco state), where the ‘end-of-the-world’ stela was first unearthed, there was a group calling itself the Guardians of Olmec History who carried out their own sort of ceremony – which involved asking forgiveness to Mother Earth for the damage caused to the local landscape by recent extractive industries.

    The point of all this being that there was a panoply of interpretations, expressions and performances across the Maya region, all of which offered peculiar variations on the various invocations that you have so accurately identified in this post.

  3. Thank you both for your comments! Crichton, I completely agree that most indigenous peoples (including the ones that I did research with in Bolivia) are deeply concerned with the issues of poverty and political marginalization. That isn’t to say that they aren’t concerned with spiritual or religious issues (I’m not making an argument for Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, heavens forbid!), but if there is a political battle to be fought, what foreigners think about 2012 probably isn’t the most pressing cause in and of itself. It might, however, prove a useful mechanism to create interest in the causes that they do care about.

    Carlos, thank you for this information from Mexico, that’s fascinating. I am very interested in this question of multiple audiences for these events, based on my own work on Solstice and Equinox ceremonies in Tiwanaku, Bolivia. I think too often there is a tendency to ignore those people who don’t fit neatly into “local” and “outsider” categories, such as national citizens from elsewhere. Solstice ceremonies in Tiwanaku are almost entirely made up of urban Bolivians, for example, who aren’t local to Tiwanaku itself. Like the mestizos you mention, urban Bolivians have varying levels of connections to indigenous culture, and attending events such as the Solstice is one way to perform those connections. I wonder if attending a Solstice event at Tikal might be similar for some of the participants.

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