For more than 150 years, Catholic pilgrims have traveled every Easter to a hill in Mexico City's rough-and-tumble Iztapalapa neighborhood to witness a theatric reenactment of the Crucifixion of Christ. Though many would claim to have always felt a strong spiritual connection to the site, until 2006 the devotees were unaware that ruins from the ancient Teotihuacán culture lay in the earth beneath the actor Jesus' feet. After the discovery of the remains of a 1,500-year-old temple, archaeologists and religious leaders were faced with the quandary of whether to continue with a century-old tradition or risk doing further damage to millennium-old artifacts.
This juxtaposition of ancient mythology and modern Catholicism is the perfect metaphor for the history of religion in Mexico. Before Catholicism arrived with the Franciscan order in the late 1500s, there was no specific concept of organized religion, but rather a universal set of beliefs so ingrained in everyday life that they were seen as one entwined experience. While different societies across Mesoamerica worshiped their own specific gods and had local ceremonies, three basic components were universal: a belief in a duality of forces of nature in the universe, reverence for the calendar, and human sacrifice.
Beg, Borrow & Steal
As different societies -- the Teotihuacán, Olmec, and Maya -- dominated their neighbors, they enforced their own rites and rituals and adopted those of their conquered. At the height of its power in the 13th century, the Aztec empire was a melting pot of conquered peoples and cultures. They took to wearing the feathered fashions of the tropical nations, Maya lip ornaments, and the colorful clothes of the Totonacs, and their belief system grew to include a vast number of gods and their manifestations, including at least 400 gods of drink and drunkenness.
Much like dominant indigenous tribes before them, the Spaniards were successful in converting the population to Catholicism because they cleverly integrated ancient beliefs into their own theology. They often built churches and shrines directly on top of former holy places; the Catedral Metropolitana in Mexico City's zócalo is perhaps the most stunning example, built on the ruins of the Aztecs' greatest temple.
In 1531, Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, an indigenous Mexican, was walking to a Catholic mass when he witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who bore a strong resemblance to an Aztec princess. Speaking in his native Náhuatl, she bade him tell the bishop to build her a home on that very site, but when Diego approached the Franciscan Bishop, Juan de Zumárraga, he told him he needed a sign. When Diego returned to relay this to the Virgin, she filled his tilma, or cloak, with roses that grew only in Zumárraga's native Spain in order to provide convincing evidence. Today the Basilica de Guadalupe is the second-most-visited Roman Catholic holy site in the world, after the Vatican. It was built upon the former site of the Aztec fertility goddess Tonantzin (the second-most-important shrine in Mexico, San Juan de los Lagos, occupies the land of a former shrine to the Aztec rain god, Tlaloc). The iconic Virgin de Guadalupe is now considered the patron saint of Mexico. Her indelible image, which to this day includes a mantle of roses, along with her prayer, can be seen on everything from key chains to tattoos -- she even makes the occasional miraculous appearance in tortillas.
Catholicism remains the dominant religion in Mexico, with adherents making up 76% of the total population (Protestants trail with 6% while pockets of Muslims, Mennonites, and Jews can be found around the country), and Mexicans continue to incorporate their own ancient traditions with the new. The modern Día de los Muertos holiday coincides with the Catholic All Saints' Day, and many of the elements, such as using marigolds and offering food to the dead, are similar to ceremonies held by the Aztecs in late August.
Many growing offshoots of Catholicism are not officially recognized by the church. The Mexico City suburb of Tepito is home to the shrine of Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, whose adherents look to her skeletal, scythe-carrying image for protection, not unlike the pre-Hispanic veneration of Mictecacihuatl, queen of the Aztec underworld.
Religion in Mexico thrives and evolves in the country's thousands of shrines, cathedrals, and churches, and the faithful continue to walk and crawl to Iztapalapa every year.
2012: Prophecy or Chicken Little?
Within the past 10 years, the year 2012 -- specifically, December 21, 2012 -- has morphed into a modern doomsday in popular consciousness. History and time have wiped out much of the ancient Maya's writings and scripture, making it near impossible for scholars to determine what the ancient Maya thought about the approaching date. One thing is certain: The predictions of cataclysmic solar storms, magnetic pole reversal, earthquakes, super-volcanoes, a galactic collision, alien invasion, or even the end of the world aren't coming from today's Maya.
Between the scarcity of actual references to the end of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar in the few surviving Maya sources, the obliqueness of those references, and the largely self-serving interpretations of contemporary pseudo-scientists and New Age soothsayers, it's rather like a global game of phone tag. December 2012 -- the date is unspecified -- coincides with the end of one 5,125-year cycle of the calendar, used by the classic Maya (A.D. 250-900) but not by contemporary Maya people. Modern interpretations have settled on December 21 primarily because it coincides with the equinox, though the importance of the equinox to the Maya is a matter of debate among serious scholars.
What significance the Maya attached to the end of the Long Calendar cycle is uncertain. They believed an earlier long cycle ended before their time -- with no mass destruction -- which suggests they expected another cycle to follow. Some inscriptions refer to future events or commemorations to come after completion of the current cycle, so we can safely rule out the end of the world as a Maya prediction.
Rather than fearing this date, those Maya today who recognize it at all regard it as a new dawn: a time for reflection on mankind's failings and an evolution, perhaps a change in consciousness or even a new social order. In some interpretations, the change of time might bring a reawakening of the ancient Maya world, with an appearance of ascending gods to lift the people back up. However much they might have stretched the evidence to make the date jibe with Western astrology and motley spiritual notions, New Agers who deem 2012 the beginning of a new era come closer in spirit to what the evidence suggests. Nowhere does the Western concept of apocalypse appear in surviving Maya inscriptions.
Remodeling that old Cold War-era underground bunker is, to put it mildly, an overreaction -- but there's no harm in aspiring to harmony with the universe, and no better place in the world to contemplate the early Maya's complex cosmology than in the heart of their ancient land.
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