Unless you live on Mars and even that without access to broadband, you’ll know that we’re nearing the End of the World. Or at least, that there are people who are willing to tell you that the ancient Mayan prophecies predict some kind of cataclysm on the winter solstice of this year: 21/12/12 – or if you live in those parts of the world that don’t work in ascending date order, 12/21/12.
It’s not true, of course, very few Apocalyptic prophecies are, but the truth is far more interesting, and while it takes several large volumes to explain it in detail, I’ll do my best to paraphrase it for readers of History Girls.
First we need to have a brief over view of the ancient Maya: the indigenous (probably – there may have been people before, but if so, they’re extinct) tribes of that part of central America that’s encompassed now by southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and the Honduras. From earliest records around 2600BC, the Maya grew into a large civilization with vast city-states, reaching a xenith around 900 AD, after which it suffered a rather sudden collapse – some say because they wrought havoc with the local ecosystems, but their culture was not sufficiently resilient to adapt to new food sources. (a scarily familiar concept).
Even in its diminished form, the Maya were still a culture of astonishingly intricate and beautiful art, and quite mind-bendingly outstanding mathematics, astronomy and astrology. Not only had they defined the concept of zero long before it hit the west, they had a dual calendric system with which they had measured the length of a year to four decimal places: 365.2422 days .(Today, we define it as 365.242198 days – but it’s worth remembering that we only made the shift from the Julian to the Gregorian calendars in 1528, nine years after Hernan Cortez arrived and instigated the genocide of the natives – and the destruction of their culture.
Their two separate calendars were the relatively brief, ‘Short Count’ which measured in base 13 and was used to define the dates of rituals, births, harvests and the like, and the longer, base 20 ‘Long Count’ which measured lifespans.
The ‘Short Count’ calendar was made up of the Tzolkin and the Haab. The former merged 20 day names with 13 day numbers to defined a year of 260 days (which is the length of a human gestation). Interlocking with this was ‘Haab’ which had a vague year of 18 solar months, each of 20 days, plus 5 ceremonial days in which evil deities would wreak havoc. Together, the Tzolkin and the Haab united to form a calendar round of 18980 days, or roughly 52 years.
Longer periods of astronomical time were measured by the Long Count calendar which measured time in exponential units, again arranged largely in bases 13 and 20. It’s the Long Count that gives us the world ages, so bear with me while I lay out the time frames.
20 k’in = 1 uinal
18 uinal = 1 tun (360 days)
20 tun = I katun (7,200 days)
20 katun = 1 baktun (144,000 days)
13 baktun = 1 ‘World Age’ = 1,872,000 days or 5, 125.36 years.
So we have units of time that are ‘World Ages’ measured in 5,125 years, more or less.
The Mayan civilization may have arisen in 2600BC, but they set their calendar so that the end of the current World Age would coincide with certain astronomic events, namely the point when the rising sun on the winter solstice appears to overlay that part of the galaxy we term the ‘Dark Rift’ – an apparent gap caused by interstellar dust and gas cloud. The Maya called it Xibalbe be’ or the ‘Black Road’.
In order to be able to predict this with accuracy, the Maya must have been able to calculate the precession of the equinoxes to a stunningly accurate degree – the entire transit of the winter solstice sun over the centre of the dark rift takes 36 years – so they Maya predicted that the mid-point of that cycle would be the winter solstice of 2012 – and in a civilization that was thriving around 600 – 700 AD in our calendar, they back-dated their own calendar so that it started in August 3114 BC – long before their own civilization had begun – in order that it might reach the point 13 baktun 4Ahau 3 Kankin – on 21/12/12.
We know they did this because, in spite of the Jesuit’s best efforts, a number of Mayan monuments remain and scholars have spent the best part of the twentieth century decoding them. Almost everyone is agreed on the 3114 BC start date for the calendar and therefore the 21/12/12 end date – but nobody at all is sure exactly what the Maya imagined would happen now.
If we jettison into the realm of myth, we find that they believed there had been four previous world ages in which humanity had begun to flourish and that the human race had been largely obliterated at the end of each one as a consequence of a natural disaster involving one of the four elements: fire or storm or earthquake or flood. Myth (or rather, rumour loosely based on myth) says that the fifth – and current World Age would be ended by the actions of humanity and this would be an end to the Large World Age of 25,772 years.
So the upshot is, that the ancient Maya were capable of calculating an astronomical event that occurred once every 25,000 years and that astronomical event is taking place now, more or less.
If you want to believe that humanity is about to destroy itself, there’s plenty of evidence gathering to support that thesis, from the war in Syria, to the government’s current infatuation with fracking for shale gas (who needs a clean water supply anyway?) to the – in my mind more likely – immanent arrival of the technological singularity in which we create the computer – or at least, the chip – that is capable of designing and building its own successor. At which point, we’ll be out of the loop as far as the evolution of intelligence goes. And if I were a super-intelligent silicone-based life form and I looked at the mess the bipedal organic, carbon-based life forms had made of the planet, I’d have no hesitation at all in wiping them (us) out at the earliest opportunity. And yes, I am planning to write the book based on this concept. If we're all still here to read it.
Happy Solstice, everyone!
Images are from the book 2012: Everything you wanted to know about the Apocalypse (written by me, images from Transworld, courtesy of the ever-wonderful Phil Lord) There's one more to come, but I'm waiting for permission.
This is a fantastic post. I've dismissed the Mayan apocalypse as nonsense, much like I ignore Harold Camping's "predictions" because we are doing a great job of destroying our planet everyday without needing the apocalypse.
Fascinating and very informative post!
But I do have to point out that by the time Hernan Cortes showed (and long before the Jesuits were on the scene) the Mayans were reduced to small tribes in a few villages. The Aztecs had taken over! So you can't blame the European arrival with the end of the Mayan civilization, it was long gone by the time we got there!
And I've been to many of those ruins... no way the Jesuits would have gone traipsing through the jungle to find piles of overgrown rocks! It took teams of archaeologists years to clear those sights so they could be properly studied!
I can blame the Jesuits - and do - for the cultural vandalism of burning thousands upon thousands of Mayan books in vast bonfires. The eye witness accounts of the priest who saved one of the three remaining codices said that the people were more upset about the books being burned than by being burned themselves. They also, as far as he explained, lived in quite large settlements, just not as huge as the ancient cities. And the Auto da Fe applied here as much as anywhere in central America.
And -Lisa - I thoroughly agree... my last image, for which I Haven't yet got permission, was a cartoon of three people sitting around a camp fire. One is saying to the others, 'Yes, the world got destroyed, but for one beautiful moment in time, we developed real value for shareholders'. Which says it all, really...
Thank you for your blog post. My step-daughter is in Palenque in readiness for the 21st December. Your article is the first I've read that explains clearly what the Mayas calculated. So I now have an understanding of the event that is so important to many people. I am very impressed by the skill and dedication of the people who deciphered the Maya Calendar and the Rosetta Stone and with the historians who tell me their story.
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