Interview: Kenneth Johnson, Author of Jaguar Wisdom
This interview with Kenneth Johnson was conducted on 4 Net, February 2011, in San Pedro la Laguna, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, by Shay Addams.
How did you first get interested in the Mayan Sacred Calendar—the tzolkin, or chol' qi, as we call it in Guatemala?
Around 1987, I used to lecture on astrology regularly at a New Age center in San Diego, California. And they asked if I could do a lecture about this Harmonic Convergence thing that's going on. I said okay, and then I came back to them and said that from the point of view of astrology, there is actually nothing remarkable about this time [August 16-17, 1987]. "So what should I say?" I asked. And they said, "You've got to say something, because we've already scheduled it.
So inasmuch as I love archaeology and anthropology, I went to the library and looked up the actual Mayan calendar. And I gave a lecture about the structure of the 260-day Mayan calendar, the 365-day haab solar calendar and the Long Count calendar. From that moment on, I was passionate, I was interested. It fascinated me.
So it was the Harmonic Convergece, which Jose Arguelles did, that got you involved with the Mayan calendars?
A lot of people were interested in that around that time. It was perfectly obvious even back then that if you really looked at it, Mr. Arguelles was using a variant count, which was not the real Mayan count. So I became very interested in learning what is the real Mayan count.
Five years later, in 1991 or 1992, I finally got in touch with Don Alejandro and had some very interesting conversations with him on a three-way international phone call. Alejandro was the one who actually got me interested in learning the formal Ki'che' day count as well as the five-sign horoscope [also known as the Tree of Life]. He was the first person who really turned me on to it.
Could you give us some background on Don Alejandro?
For many years now, he has been one of the most visible faces of the traditional Maya. Some people call him the high priest of the Maya, but I personally—and with all due respect to Don Alejandro, who is a perfectly wonderful individual—I found that that the Mayan spiritual system is actually very democratic. They don't need a Pope, they don't need a Dalai Lama. People just adjudicate all these matters for themselves in open council. However, I do regard him as a truly extraordinary individual who has done a great deal for his people.
When did you first visit Guatemala?
In 2009. For several years going back, I was familiar with Don Rigoberto's material. After the second edition of Jaguar Wisdom was published in May of 2009 I received an e-mail from Don Rigoberto inviting me to come to Momostenango and study. And if you are really serious about the calendar, you do not turn down an invitation like that.
So I pretty much put my life on hold. Most of my life is still on hold. About a year ago I came down here and spent—well, in the last year I've spent six months in Guatemala. Mostly in Momostenango.
What other books have you written?
I actually started out as a singer/songwriter in Los Angeles nightclubs. We did original music, but it turned out my lyrics were always better than my music. And after being in lyrics for many years, I started thinking that maybe I should write books.
And in addition to writing books such as Jaguar Wisdom and your next one, you also do Mayan astrological readings?
Some. Personally, my own feeling is that in terms of world astrology, where we now have all these paradigms – the Western paradigm, the Chinese, the Vedic – I believe that Mayan astrology is just barely starting to come into its own right now. There are some of us, including yourself, who are real pioneers in the art. I think it's going to become more popular as time goes on.
And do you follow the calendar by scheduling activities according to the nawales?
I try to. Even if you go to such a traditional community such as Momos [Momostenango], people will just tell you: Hey! The world goes on, the banks do what they do, the landlords do what they do. You can only follow it so far. Inasmuch as it is possible, I try to do it as much as I can.
Can you think of anything specific that has made you say, "Wow! Mayan astrology really works."
Yes. Sometimes my most difficult days I've found over the past ten years or so are Etznab [Knife] or Chicchan [Snake] or Kan [Net]. This kind of stuff I find is normal. When I meet people in a really wonderful way, I often find this is happening on a Chuen [Monkey] or an Akbal [Night] day. Which would also be perfectly logical in terms of the basic teachings. Personally, I regard this as sort of linking yourself in with a more Earth-centered, indigenous way of regarding time.
Kenneth Johnson (center) at a Haab ceremony at Lake Atitlan
We do everything in a certain way, business is business. But to really live in a place like Momos, where people do, in fact, run their lives as much as they possibly can according to the ancient calendar, after awhile it becomes like a very natural rhythm which in fact will benefit many people. If we could slow our Western minds down far enough to access this ancient rhythm, I think it would be extremely valuable.
My first books were the Mythic Astrology series, in which my writing partner and I tried to combine Jungian philosophy with modern astrology. This turned out to be a really good thing for me, since the book survived for 15-16 years. Meanwhile, I wrote a few books about Celtic mythology. I also went to Russia and studied for awhile with some of the shamans there. And my academic background is in comparative religions. So I've always been interested in traveling to foreign countries and communicating with traditional people who just have all this fabulous mystical and shamanic knowledge about the world. Whatever their tradition may be, it's kind of like what Don Rigoberto says, "Respeto por todos." Respect for everyone. I'm a universalist when it comes to religion. I prefer to visit many places, talk to many people, and try to perceive the connections that are universal between all of it.
The calendar is usually depicted in two dimensions. Have you seen Mark Elmy’s three-dimensional calendar, which puts it onto a big tube with spirals?
Well, Jean Molesky-Poz, in Contemporary Mayan Spirituality, says the reason people have the energy of a specific day sign is that when you are born, arriving here from the spirit world, you pass through a matrix. So could you combine those two concepts by mapping the calendar onto a sphere that would encircle the planet, maybe even the solar system? Couldn’t that be the matrix she is talking about?
It could be. Personally, and I don’t want to take this comparison too far, the Mayan calendar is almost like a New World Kabbalah. Almost everything in human consciousness and human history can be encompassed by this extraordinary metaphysical system. Consequently, I think that what Mark has discovered, and what Don Rigoberto teaches, all these ways of seeing it are perfectly valid. I also feel there are many other ways of seeing it which we have not discovered but probably will in the forthcoming years.
Has it changed your life in any way?
Everybody used to say that I run slower than most Americans. But I find now, after working with the calendar—and other people have said this to me—that I have slowed down a lot more. I wait for the natural rhythm. I almost need some bank operator or something like that, saying, "We have to do it right now," in order to break my rhythm. I try to do things as much as I can by the ancient rhythms of the calendar.
What is the most important thing you have learned from the calendar and the spiritual system that it represents?
That’s a bit difficult to say, because I honestly feel there are many important things that I’ve learned from it. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the most important thing is to just slow down, take life easy and try to live with natural rhythm rather than with the artificial rhythms that Western civilization has created.
What do you think of contemporary Mayan scholars like Batz, who say that time moves counter-clockwise? Because our clocks go clockwise, so doesn’t it seem that we are actually struggling against time?
There are many different ways that you can take a three-dimensional paradigm, such as the calendar, and try to remand it into a single diagram or something like that. So perhaps it’s all just a circle which runs in each and every different way. I will say that I’ve seen any number of calendar diagrams among the shamans in Momostenango, and they all do it counter-clockwise. There is absolutely no variation upon it. That’s just how they do it.
In some ways, I think it’s just a two-dimensional paradigm for a multi-dimensional reality. And in that sense, I think it’s kind of arbitrary as to how we represent it. For example, in our culture, when we make a map we put North at the top. But Mayan maps show East at the top. And this is all a matter of preference. It doesn’t represent anything real, it’s just a cultural reference. And so I sort of think of the counter-clockwise thing in the same way.
You mentioned the Kabbalah, which is very interesting, because the Maya have a Tree of Life and so does the Kabala.
The Path of the Plumed Serpent appears in the expanded Mayan Tree of Life known as the Constellation [a nine-nawal chart]. And the Kabbalah has a red serpent running in another direction.
The Kabbalah also has three pillars, just like the nine-sign Mayan horoscope. Many people, including any number of folks familiar with their own Jewish heritage regarding the Kabbalah, will say that there definitely seems to be something universal that is going on here in terms of human consciousness and the way we perceive reality or the way we receive and perceive the whole consciousness behind reality. There’s definitely a similarity.
What about 2012?
2012 is an important transition. I have also heard from many people, and this goes along with a statement which was released by Don Alejandro, in which he says he doesn’t necessarily support any particular date for the end of the Long Count. He says it is speculative. I have found this to be a very common opinion among the Maya. Maybe these Western scholars got it right about the Long Count and maybe they did not.
But one way or the other, you will hear any number of people in the traditional Maya highlands say that the last Long Count date was written in something like 937 AD. "We haven’t practiced this in a thousand years," they say. "It is no longer part of our tradition." I think that many Maya people do perceive 2012 as being some sort of important transition in terms of the multiple cycles that they perceive.
I think that when we make statements such as, “2012 is the end of the Mayan calendar,” that we are coming from Judaeo-Christian thinking, from a paradigm in which time is linear rather than cyclic. I do not believe that the Maya, back then or right now, have ever perceived time as being linear. They perceive it as cyclic. And I believe that there are many different cycles. There is one cycle that “ends” not in 2012 but in 4772. So consequently I would see 2012 as an important transition in terms of time cycles, but not by any means an end product.
How many calendars did the Maya have?
Mr. [Carlos] Barrios lists about twelve, and Hunbatz Men says there are eight. One also has to take into account the fact that the 260-day calendar is not just the Mayan calendar, it is the Mesoamerican calendar. It was used by Toltecs, Aztecs, Olmecs, and throughout time they used basic calendar mathematics—the 13s, the 20s, the 52s—to design any number of different potential cycles in human history. So I’m not really comfortable about resolving this into just one.
Which would you say is the earliest?
As far as anyone knows, and I notice that in your own book, you have mentioned a scholar named Vincent Malmström—and he feels that the 260 days constitute the original calendar, and that it was invented in Izapa, which is just north of here in Mexico. I more or less agree with Dr. Malmström, that this was the original calendar. I do think that the chol q’ij, more commonly called the tzolk’in, is the earliest part of it, and that all these visions of cycles of history may very well be speculations which were based mathematically upon the original.
With all the calendars of the Maya and other Mesoamericans, why didn’t any of them have a Mayan calendar girl? What’s the deal here?
(Laughs). I don’t know. But now that we have been able to decipher over 75% of the hieroglyphic record, there are some really fabulous women listed among the Maya. The most well known is probably Lady Xoc. Xoc is where our word "shark" actually comes from. Buccaneers down in Belize were the first to say "shark." That's one of only two words which have been borrowed into English from Maya. The other is hurricane, from the word hurakan. So women seem to have been respected as political leaders. But I am not aware of any that were made into calendar girls.
Not carved into stone, anyway. Have you visited many sacred sites?
I've been to most of the major places in the Yucatan. Uxmal, Tulum, Chichen Itza, Coba, and Palenque in Chiapas. I'm still waiting to get to some of the sites here in Guatemala.
What's your current project?
I'm working on two books. One is an astrology book, and the other is a prophecy book. The astrology book is actually easier, because of my resources among the traditional Maya community. The prophecy book is very difficult, because the prophecies were all recorded in the Books of Chilam Balam, and these are regarded as among the most difficult literature in all of the world. They speak in poetic metaphors.
For example, in hieroglyphics they will say something like, "That was when his white wind withered." So what does that mean? Actually, it means he died. Because white is spiritual, and wind—as you know, as you said very nicely in your own book—wind, the day sign Ik, is also our spiritual breath. So when one's spiritual breath withers, that means you have died. So these prophecies can be very difficult to interpret, because it's all written like that.
I understand there is a certain Spanish influence, too.
In the Chilam Balam, at least a little bit. That's argued about. You can find any number of scholars who will say it's mostly Spanish influence, and others who say, "No, no, no. It's actually very ancient.” This is still—I mean, if you want to open a big can of worms among Mayan scholars, you can ask something like that and just listen to them.
Any other prophecies you consider important?
There still are some Maya who keep the original manuscripts of the Chilam Balam books. And they say that our present time—and again, they do not commit themselves to a particular date, such as December 21, 2012 or something like that—but they say these are changing times. That we may see Earth changes, we may see gigantic political changes that impact the entire world.
Like what is happening in the Arab world today? If that's not a transformation in consciousness....
And it happened on 1 Imix, which everybody is now talking about. It happened on 1 Imix. Isn't that interesting? I was never trained that Imix is the beginning; in Momostenango, I was trained that Chuen [Monkey or Thread] was the beginning.
And 6 Imix was the day of 9/11.
Okay. Yeah, I do think it's interesting, and I have seen this many times, that a lot of changes in this world do seem to be targeted in terms of these important dates in the tzolk’in or cho’l q’ij. And I would not disagree with that by any means.
In fact, I was told that you can always figure out what's going to happen in a particular year just by looking at the Year Lord. For example, they say that Manik [Deer], which we would call Kej' in Ki'che', that these years are like trying to ride a deer like a horse. If you're righteous, you can ride; if not, you get bumped off. Now Watergate, in 1974, was a Manik year.
And they say years ruled by Eb, the Road of Life, that's the most gracious of years. And 1967—the Summer of Love—that was an Eb year. And then Caban [Earth} years, the year of the thinker, the year of the mind, that's when people think about things and change things. Elections in the United States are held every four years, during a Caban year. Finally, to go to the Ik [Wind] years, the year of the hurricane, 9/11 happened in an Ik year, and so was the actual hurricane, Katrina. So you really can sort of figure it out according to the years.
Speaking of the Year Bearers, certain information is just coming to light about how the Maya and even the Aztecs adjusted their solar calendar for what we call "leap day." The Gran Uayeb, which is supposed to introduce a new set of four Year Bearers every 52 years. And this happens in 2013, on May 6.
My take on it is that the philosophy of the Year Bearers is probably one of the most difficult and contentious things in contemporary Mayan thinking. I've met so many traditional Maya who do it so many different ways. So I don't really have a firm opinion about it. I'm open to hearing everything—in fact I love to listen to everything—but I feel that the whole issue is just so complex that it really...that the Maya have to figure it out for themselves.
Incidentally, I know of one source that says a community can choose its own Year Bearers. Which could be used as a form of social control.
And I believe that according to your own book, some of the Maya around Lake Atitlan use Type III Year Bearers: Lamat, Akbal, Ben and Etznab. Whereas in the Ki'che' highlands, they use Type II Year Bearers. Manik, Eb, Caban and Ik. So even here in this geographically small country, you can find many different traditions.
It appears that I am about to run out of digital tape. Thanks very much for sharing your knowledge of Mayan spirituality and the calendar with us today.
To visit Kenneth Johnson's Web site about Mayan astrology, see our Mayan Astrology links page.
Researched and written in Guatemala, The Mayan Calendar User's Guide reveals astrological techniques and secrets never before published in the English language.
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