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Nearly 90% of Mexicans subscribe to Roman Catholicism, but Mexican Catholicism is laced with pre-Hispanic spiritual tradition. You need only to visit the curandero section of a market (where you can buy such talismans as copal, an incense agreeable to the gods; rustic beeswax candles, a traditional offering; and native species of tobacco used to ward off evil) or watch pre-Hispanic dances performed at a village festival to sense the supernatural beliefs running parallel with Christian ones.

Spanish Catholicism was disseminated by pragmatic Jesuit missionaries who grafted Christian tradition onto indigenous ritual to make it palatable to their flock. Nearly 500 years after the conquest, a large minority of Mexicans -- faithful Catholics every one -- adhere to this hybrid religion, nowhere more so than in Chiapas and the Yucatán.

The padres' cause enjoyed a huge boost when a dark-skinned image of the Virgin Mary appeared to an Aztec potter near Mexico City in 1531. The Virgin of Guadalupe, fluent in the local language and acquainted with indigenous gods, provided a crucial link between Catholic and native spiritual traditions. She remains Mexico's most beloved religious figure, smiling from countless shrines, saloons, and kitchen walls. Millions of pilgrims walk and crawl to her Mexico City shrine on her December 12 feast day.

The equally pragmatic native people chose the path of least resistance, dressing their ancestral beliefs in Catholic garb. They gave their familiar gods the names of Christian saints and celebrated their old festivals on the nearest saint's day. Thus we find the Catholic feasts of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day superimposed on the ancient Day of the Dead celebration, and the cult of the "Black Christ" -- an amalgam of Jesus Christ and the cave-dwelling Maya god Ik'al -- entrenched in the Yucatán, Chiapas, and Tabasco. In one of the most dramatic examples of this spiritual hybridization, the Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula in highland Chiapas carpet their church with pine needles, kneeling among candles and Coke bottles to pray in an archaic dialect under the painted eyes of helpful saints. They bring offerings of flower petals, eggs, feathers, or live chickens prescribed by local curanderos (medicine men) in an effort to dispel the demons of disease.

Common themes in the Catholic and Maya belief systems also made the Jesuits' task easier. The Catholics had the Bible, the Maya had the Popol Vuh. Both had long oral and written traditions (although Bishop Diego de Landa burned the Maya codices of Maní in the infamous auto-da-fè of 1562). Ceremonial processions with elaborate robes and incense were common to both religions, as were baptism by water and the symbol of the cross.

But the differences intrigue us most. The Maya's multitude of deities, 166 by most counts, is just the beginning. The Popol Vuh's creation myth, similar to Genesis in making man on the last day and striking down imperfect creations with an apocalyptic flood, departs from the Genesis plot in striking ways, not the least of which is fashioning man from corn after failed tries with mud and wood. Maya mythology is a collection of convoluted tales, full of images placing nature on a level equal to man, that attempt to make sense of the universe, geography, and seasons.

The tall, straight ceiba tree was revered as a symbol of the cosmos. Its leaves and branches represented the 13 levels of heaven, the tree trunk the world of humans, and its roots the nine-level underworld -- not hell but a cold, damp, dark place called Xibalba.

Foremost among the Maya pantheon were those who influenced the growth of corn. The Maya worked hard to please their gods through prayer, offerings, and sacrifices, which could be anything from a priest giving his own blood to human sacrifice. They were obsessed with time, maintaining both a 260-day religious calendar and a 365-day solar calendar that guided crop planting and other practicalities. In fact, religion, art, and science were so entwined that the Maya might not even have perceived them as separate pursuits. So from a kernel of corn grew some of civilization's earliest and greatest accomplishments.

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, supervolcanoes, 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 -- significantly, 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 December 2012 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 ancient Maya's complex cosmology than in the heart of their ancient land.

The Maya Pantheon

Every ancient culture had its gods and goddesses, and their characteristics or purposes, if not their names, often crossed cultures. Chaac, the hook-nosed rain god of the Maya, was Tlaloc, the squat Aztec rain god; Quetzalcóatl, the plumed-serpent Toltec man/god, became the Maya's Kukulkán. Sorting out the ancient deities and beliefs can become a life's work, but here are some of the most important gods of the Maya world.

Itzamná -- Often called the Supreme Deity; creator of mankind and inventor of corn, cacao, writing, and reading; patron of the arts and sciences.

Chaac -- God of rain, striking the clouds with a lightning ax; sometimes depicted as four separate gods based in the four cardinal directions.

Kinich Ahau -- Sun god, sometimes regarded as another manifestation of Itzamná; appeared in the shape of a firebird.

Kukulkán -- Mortal who took on godly virtues, sometimes symbolized as Venus, the morning star.

Ixchel -- Wife of Kinich Ahau; multitasking goddess of the moon, fertility and childbirth, water, medicine, and weaving.

Bacab -- Generic name for four brothers who guarded the four points of the compass; closely associated with the four Chaacs.

Yumil Kaxob -- God of maize, or corn, shown with a crown or headdress of corn and distinguished by his youth.

Balam -- One of numerous jaguar spirits; symbol of power and protector of fields and crops.

Ixtab -- Goddess of suicide; suicide was an honorable way to die, and Ixtab received those souls into heaven.

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