Contemporary Maya Prophecy: The Old Woman of Mani

by Paul Worley

Mural of Old Woman in Mani

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the end of the Maya calendar means the end of the world is upon us. I, for one, am therefore glad my collaborators and I got the website up successfully!

During this inescapable crush of the “end-of-Maya-calendar,” recently I’ve been thinking a lot about a story Mariano Bonilla has told me many times, one roughly entitled “The Old Woman of Mani.” (For a complete version of the story, please refer to Allan F. Burns’s excellent  An Epoch of Miracles). The short version is that when the end times have arrived, there will be no water on the face of the earth save in the town of Mani. In the cenote there will be an old woman (perhaps the sorceress mentioned at the conclusion of version #1 of “The Dwarf of Uxmal” on our index) who will give you a gourdful of water in exchange for a small child. The water will not slake your thirst and she will feed the child to her feathered serpent (Kukulkan).

If you go to Mani today you can find not only the well but also the mural above depicting this offering, and local children will line up to tell you the story by heart. Last summer Mariano and I went to the well on a trip looking to record more storytellers.

As we left Mani, he said, “You know, this has already come to pass. Do you want to hear about it?” He then gave the following interpretation of the text: until recently people could freely draw water from cenotes and other wells throughout the region. However, after a certain hurricane (he didn’t say which one) the groundwater became polluted and people began to buy water, something that people still must do today. According to Mariano, in paying for a daily necessity, water, people must sacrifice their children insofar as they spend money that could otherwise be used to pay for things like schooling. That is, their children’s futures are “sacrificed” for the sake of current expediencies. The old woman represents the townspeople who benefit from this trade, i.e. local storeowners. Those who benefit most, however, are the multinational corporations who receive the lion’s share of the profits from bottling and distributing live-giving water in the countryside, and who also have a vested interested in not cleaning up the wells. They are the ones who figuratively consume the children one has to pay for the water.

When he was finished Mariano turned to me and stated, “See, it’s like with the Bible, you can’t be so literal about these things.” When people ask me about the “end-of-the-Maya-calendar” or even the relevance of Maya oral literatures, I think back to Mariano’s exegesis of this well-known oral text, its connection with the “end times,” and how it has become a powerful way through which to read and interpret contemporary reality. Indeed, these texts are constantly being born and reborn, interpreted and reinterpreted.

The Western need to co-opt such texts and silence these voices and textual traditions is nowhere more prevalent than the 2012 hysteria. Indeed, why the need to be so literal?


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