BACURANAO, Cuba – Three Guatemalan sages burned wood resin, seeds, fruits and flowers on a beach outside Havana on Thursday in a ceremony marking the end of a Mayan calendar cycle that some have wrongly interpreted as a prediction of a looming apocalypse.
Raising their hands to the sky and praying in their indigenous language, they kissed each offering before tossing them into the flames or the waves to invoke the gods' favor.
"We are at a moment of profound connection," Pedro Celestino Yac Noj said. "We came here to share the sacred fire and make offerings to mother Earth and the sea."
The ceremony in Bacuranao, 12 miles (20 kilometers) east of the Cuban capital, took place two weeks before Dec. 21, 2012, when a more than 5,000-year period of the Mayan calendar ends.
While doomsday theories connected to the sacred date have inspired hundreds of books, TV shows and at least one mega-budget Hollywood disaster movie, Celestino explained there's nothing to the idea that the impending solstice will bring an end to the world.
"The 21st is for giving thanks and gratitude and the 22nd welcomes the new cycle, a new dawn," he said.
Dressed in black trousers, blue shirt and a red-and-white kerchief covering his head, he led the ceremony steps from the Straits of Florida next to circles of flowers symbolizing the elements: wind (white), fire (red), earth (yellow) and sea (purple).
Rosalina Tuyuc Velazquez and Maria Faviana Cochoy collected offerings of fruits, vegetables, cigars and multicolored candles from the 200 or so Cubans who came to participate. The sages fed herbs such as basil, laurel and thyme to the blaze, giving its smoke a spicy aroma.
Visitors were asked to turn off cell phones, cameras and recording devices to keep "negative energy" from interfering. Many kneeled in a circle with eyes closed and arms raised in supplication.
The Guatemalans were invited to perform the ceremony by Cuba's Casa de las Americas cultural center.
Celestino said they chose Thursday for the rite as "the day of movement, represented by the holy serpent, energy that rules the lives of leaders, the famous and the government."
The Maya dominated large stretches of southern Mexico and Central America centuries ago.