Tradition says that the Maya cycle of time will end on December 21, 2012. Should we prepare ourselves for the end of the world? The Maya calendar is slated to end on that fateful day but does it signal the end of time as we know it? The next presidential election is due to take place in October of that year—could the Maya have had a presentiment? Are the Republicans coming back in November 2012? Argh!! On the other hand, look on the bright side: if the world is coming to an end on December 21, they’ll never get a chance to actually come to power.
Not to put too fine a point on it, ancient Maya tradition also required human sacrifice for the sun to rise every morning so I wouldn’t place much faith in fear-mongers selling 2012 as the end of the world.
All kidding aside, I have been wondering where the deep desire for apocalyptic disaster comes from. The United States is one of the most religious countries in existence; over one-quarter (26.3%) of our population is made up of Christian Evangelicals who believe in the literal truth of the Bible including the visions of the Apocalypse and the coming Rapture; that is a huge number of Americans waiting eagerly to catch the train to the other world. While Evangelicals make up the the largest single group of believers in the United States, Roman Catholics come in at 22% and mainline Protestants are 16% by comparison.
However, one could hardly expect them to be spreading the word about ancient Maya writings; the ancient Maya represent the most “pagan” of cultures to the Evangelicals; would they give any credence to such a prediction?
The noise about “the end of time” is coming from some of the New Age believers in our midst. They combine religious beliefs cafeteria style, including whatever catches their fancy and they imbue them with significance. Religion in the United States tends to be an exercise in cherry-picking in any case because the traditional barriers between religious groups do not exist here. There are no ghettos confining the Jews; the RC Church may still preach hell and damnation but as many Catholics admit to having abortions as non-Catholic even though it is a practice strictly forbidden by the church on pain of eternal damnation; there are intermarriages between members of just about every religious group you could imagine.
Jews come in Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and atheist varieties. But you will also find “JewBu's” who are those born into Judaism who still have some identification with Judaism yet incorporate many Buddhist practices and beliefs into their lives.
Atheists and agnostics are allowed to live in peace in this country (as compared to Europe in the days of the Spanish Inquisition) and even to publish obnoxious screeds about all the religious groups surrounding them. (Though if, like Salman Rushdie, you publish something that is perceived as anti-Muslim, you will be in deep trouble.)
Some of the authentically ancient cultures of this hemisphere, the Aztecs, Maya, Inca, Olmec, and Toltec cultures (most of which were virtually eradicated by the Spanish), have been adopted by some of the New Agers, even if they have only a very slender reed on which to fasten that belief. We know next to nothing about Toltec culture, one of the oldest of the pre-Columbian societies, for instance, and scholars argue about the little we do know. Most of the New Age interpretation of these ancient cultures is, in my opinion, nonsense.
Some followers of the Toltec Way for instance, revere the writings of the late Carlos Castañeda, a 20th century anthropologist who went into rural Mexico during the 60s and not only studied their ways but became a bit of shaman. His use of the word Toltec, to mean generic sages or "spiritual warriors" contributed to the confusion over the culture. He died in the 1990s, to the shock and disappointment of his followers who could not believe that he would die, especially of something as pedestrian as cancer. His modern followers have taken up and expanded his practices. These gurus have quite a following.
I actually had a brush with Castañeda through one of his followers. I met NuryAlexander in the elevator at UCLA where she was in the same graduate program I was in. She was very elusive but eventually she told me that she was Castañeda’s daughter; I discovered that many of my classmates knew this fact. This was in the late 1980s and I was quite impressed by this information, particularly when she brought him around to UCLA for lunch on my birthday in December 1989. He gave me an autographed copy of his “Power of Silence.” I never questioned that she was his daughter; after all, who else would have been able to convince the secretive Carlos Castañeda to come with an autographed book to the birthday of a total stranger?
I knew Castañeda’s writings: Everyone of my generation did. I found them curious but had never been drawn into doing drugs beyond briefly sampling marijuana, and was less enraptured of him as were others I knew.
I remember at the time being tickled with the gift but disappointed that I was not invited to attend one of his circles. Nury told me that he said I was too “of the world.” I was not sure what that meant but I chalked it up to my dogged grounded-ness—I have never been in the airy-fairy crowd. Indeed, I studied history because I prefer things that are down to earth.
I lost track of Nury; she was very hard to keep in touch with. Then last week, things took a strange turn: As I was looking into "the Toltec Way," in preparation for this entry in my blog, I Googled “Castañeda”; the first entry that came up was a Wikipedia article about him. I read this passage:
A real girl was brought forward at various public sessions Castaneda and Tiggs and introduced as the Blue Scout, and Tiggs was referenced as her mother. This is strange because that girl was someone named Patricia Partin who had real, known biological parents other than Castaneda and Tiggs.
The remains of Partin, sometimes referred to by Castaneda as Blue Scout, Nury Alexander and/or Claude, were found in 2003 near where her abandoned car had been discovered a few weeks after Castaneda's death in 1998, on the edge of Death Valley. Her remains were in a condition requiring DNA identification, which was made in 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlos_Castaneda
Nury Alexander? Our Nury Alexander, my classmate? I am still in shock. I was so taken aback that I simply shelved this blog entry as I absorbed this news about my old friend.
I am deeply saddened that Nury was drawn into a cult that led to her untimely death. I knew her as Castañeda’s daughter; the truth is far weirder: She was his legally adopted daughter but also his lover. We, her classmates and professors at UCLA, did not know her real name nor did we know anything about her real life, neither as Nury Alexander nor as her previous identity, Patricia Partin. Reading all of the articles about her involvement with Castañeda, I feel a sickening sense of shock and disgust. How could have been going on so close to us and we never knew?
I have never given much thought to the members of my generation who were lost to drugs and cults; bad enough that 58,200 were lost in the jungles of Vietnam. I have known people drawn into the Moonies, and to Scientology, which is regarded as a cult by some people. Now that I consider the so-called gurus selling the Toltec Way as a mystical ideology, I am angry. How many more will waste their precious lives while making snake-oil salesmen rich?
Atheists see little difference between organized religions and cults like Castañeda’s but there is a difference. Traditional religions, while they are not without their problems, seek to answer the basic questions people have about life, to preserve a set of traditions and practices, and to sanctify familial relationships. They are not inherently destructive but rather, life-affirming. All cults cannot be lumped in the same pile but among the things they have in common are that they separate families and create a set of practices that isolate them from their families and native cultures.
I always wondered what happened to Nury. In a way, I wish I’d never found out.