As the end of 2012 approaches, people are questioning the significance of the Mayan calendar. Historians tell us the calendar ends on December 21, 2012 and this has sparked many predictions. Sensationalist media is running rampant and the same naysayers who scared us about Y2K are busy again. I’m embarrassed to admit that in December, 1999 I stashed water, food, propane, batteries, etc. awaiting the big crash. Twelve years later I’m still here and choose to see things differently.
People have spent lifetimes studying this calendar and I’m not one of them. I respectfully offer this as an introduction to a very important and complex subject. I have a whole new appreciation for the sophistication and intelligence of the ancient Mayan culture. Here is what I found out.
The Maya settled in a region called Mesoamerica, or Middle America. This region lies in between Mexico and South America and was home to many other cultures, including the Aztec, Olmec, Mixtec, Teotihuacan and Toltec. The Maya lived in what are today are called Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and the Southern Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo, Tabasco and Chiapas.
The Mayan calendar is actually a system of calendars used in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It shares many aspects with calendars employed by other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations. The Mayans kept a historical record using stelae or stone sarcophagi, painting tomb walls, and bark cloth books to record their civil events, calendars and astronomy.
The Mayan culture based many of their decisions on astrology and mathematics; this included a system of calendars that is more precise than our current Gregorian calendar. It may seem unwise to base a prediction using an ancient civilization’s calendar, but the Maya were a highly mathematically advanced culture. Their calendar is not only complex, it is also highly accurate. The Maya placed great importance on the position of the Sun; therefore, solstices, equinoxes and new years are examples of auspicious dates. They considered all time as cyclical and certain days could return centuries later. Recording their history was an important part of their culture and depending on their needs; the Mayans used different calendars to record each event.
One of them was a calendar with specific use to rulers – the Venus cycle. The Maya kings had astronomers who could calculate the Venus cycle with precision. They were able to achieve such accuracy by careful observation over many years. There are theories as to why the Venus cycle was especially important for the Maya. Across Mesoamerica, Venus was often depicted as “defeating” the Sun and the Moon, perhaps because of its persistent visibility. Most scholars agree that Venus was associated with war and that the Maya used it to determine appropriate times for their coronations and wars. Maya rulers planned for wars to begin when Venus rose.
The earliest Maya Calendar (dating from the Pre-classic Maya era, or about 100 A.D.) is referred to as the Calendar Round, it is actually two calendars which overlap.
The first calendar was the Tzolkin (pronounced chol-kin) cycle, which consisted of 260 days. It corresponds approximately, to the time of human gestation, the interval between the planet Venus’ emergence as evening star and morning star as well as the Maya agricultural cycle. Early Mayan astronomers used the 260 day calendar to record the movements of the planets, sun and moon. It was considered a very sacred calendar.
Mayan days are represented by glyphs which are images that relate to each day. The glyphs are named after deities who carry time across the sky. They were aware that a solar year was roughly 365 days long and they referred to it as a haab. They divided a haab into 20 months of 18 days each; 5 days were added annually for a total of 365. These five days, called wayeb, were added at the end of the year and were considered extremely unlucky, similar to our Friday the 13th. The Maya also divided their year into four quadrants with 65 days in each. It was made with number symbols (dots for units and bars for fives) from 1-13.
The second calendar was used for measuring longer periods of time. It is called the Long Count calendar and covers a period of 5,125 years beginning around August 11 – September 8, 3114 B.C. It consists of approximately 260 twenty year units. Dates are expressed in terms of Baktuns (periods of 400 years) followed by Katuns (periods of 20 years) followed by Tuns (years) followed by Uinals (periods of 20 days) and ending with the Kins (number of days 1-19). If you added all of those numbers up, you would get the number of days that had passed since the starting point of Maya time.
Dates are usually seen as a series of numbers like: 188.8.131.52.13 = November 15, 1968. The Maya Long Count used only the haab or 365 day calendar. The last day of the Maya Long Count calendar looks like: 184.108.40.206.19. or December 21, 2012. The next day the entire calendar will start over (some expert’s say it’s December 23.)
For the Maya people, a new era begins on December 21, 2012, which is when the earth will complete a wobble on its axis, known as precession. The precession cycle occurs approximately once every 26,000 years. The winter solstice Sun, and the Earth’s precesses will pass through the Milky Way on this day in December. This occurrence had great mythological importance to the Mayans. They were living in the 3rd era and on this date the 4th era will begin.
There are many questions which could have been answered just by reading the thousands of books written by Mayan scholars; unfortunately, the Spanish Bishop, Diego de Landa, at Mani, Yucatan had them burned. Only four original Maya books called “codices” survive. Because of this tragedy, we can only speculate what they expected at the end of the third era.
Some of the doomsday predictors use the discovery of the tablets found at the archaeological site of Tortuguero in the State of Tabasco, to support their theories. They were discovered in 1960 and describe the return of a Mayan God at the end of a 13th cycle.
So what does all this mean to us? I personally find it remarkable that the Maya not only had an understanding of the earth’s relationship to the universe but they also developed a calendar that celebrates a shift in their home’s connection to the heavens. Nobody really knows what is in store for humanity, but there have been many predictions including: the beginning of a new golden age/time of ascension, the end of the world, a new age of consciousness, world peace, end of world hunger, elimination of poverty, a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles, the arrival of the Messiah, etc.
As for me, I haven’t stock-piled any goods. Life is too short to worry as I’ll be in the underworld long enough. So instead of dreading the end of time, I’m going to enjoy another day in paradise and anticipate a wonderful new beginning. What day is it anyway?
- Burland, Cottie with Irene Nicholson and Harold Osborne, Mythology of the Americas. London: Hamlyn, 1970
- About.com Latin American History – The Maya Calendar