Monday, 10 October 2011

2012 and the Mayans?

“And such was the instruction they gave when all the Under-worlders had been finally defeated. And then the two boys ascended this way, here into the middle of the light, and they ascended straight on into the sky, and the sun belongs to one and the moon to the other. When it became light within the sky on the face of the earth, they were there in the sky. And then the Four Hundred Boys climbed up, the ones who were killed by Zipacna. And so they came to accompany the two of them, they became the sky’s own stars.”

From the end of the Third Part of the Popol Vuh, describing the destiny of the Hero Twins.

A double-headed jade serpent
There are theories floating around presently about the end of the world that will supposedly happen in the year 2012, specifically, in or around the 20th of December of 2012. Is there anything to this or is it a misunderstanding?

            I should firstly say that the scientific community has been fairly sceptical of these claims. However, my vague interest in matters scientific do not qualify me to talk about this from a strong scientific perspective but if I come across any good online resources I will post links to them. I can however deal briefly with some historical aspects of this prediction.

The Classic Mayan city of Tikal
            The prediction is based on the Mayan Long Count Calendar. The Mayans were a people (politically organised in loose groupings of opposing city-states) who civilisation fluorished in Southern Mexico and Guatemala from around 200 AD to 1000 AD. After this date the major cities were abandoned for unknown reasons and new cities emerged. But the new cities were on a smaller scale. From the early 1500’s onwards these remaining states were attacked by the newly arrived Spanish conquistadores and the last Mayan city was finally conquered in 1697.

A stele of a Mayan King from Copan
            The Mayans did not merely leave monumental architecture but they also left writings. Many of their books were destroyed in the Spanish conquest but some Spanish monks and friars preserved the books they could find. From these books we can see that the Mayan literate class were very concerned with the timing of events and had created multiple calendars to mark the passage of events.

One of these calendars (there were several others) involved having a 360-day year that would be counted in cycles of 20. These cycles were then also counted in cycles of 20 (usually 20, but sometimes 18 according to some scholars). This was known as a Bak’tun. When 13 Bak’tun’s had passed the cycle would repeat and the calendar would revert back to the first Bak’tun. If there are any astronomers reading they’ll be quite angry about the 360-day year but what the Mayans did was to refer to each day using a number of terms, which would cycle over and allow them to keep track of deviations from the solar calendar until the cycle was complete. It was not the first system I would have devised but it was complex enough to use “zero” as a number (i.e. better than Greek or Roman maths) and was of use in the keeping track of constellation movements as well so it’s an impressive enough piece of work.

The reader may wonder what this has to do with the end of the world. The date given in the theory for the day the world ends is simply the date that the 13th Bak’tun ends on. According to most theories the 1st cycle begins on the 11th of August, 3114 BC so we are approaching the date where the calendar rolls over so to speak. So did the Mayans feel that this was the date that the world ended on?

Well, the date picked for the beginning of the cycle appears somewhat arbitrary. It predates their civilisation and there are no known inscriptions for the first three thousand years of the system. It might have been borrowed from an earlier civilisation like the Olmecs but this is speculative. So, if we have no idea why they chose to start their calendar at one point, it makes understanding the end point difficult. Some scholars believe that there are inscriptions that deal with orders higher than the Bak’tun or even thirteen Baktun’s, which, if true, suggests that the Mayans did not view time as being contained within the cycle. Scholars also speak of Long Calendar dates being spoken of after the turning of the cycle, suggesting that the Mayans didn’t believe the world would end in 2012.

Statues of warriors from Tula
It should be noted that the Mayans had no telescopes that we know of to predict anything about “galactic shifts” or discover hidden planets or anything. If they had some method of predicting the future it did not help their civilisation. Their civilisation went into chronic decline around 900 AD, suffered definite attacks from the Mexican city of Teotihuacan and a possible invasion from Tula before having their cities taken over completely by the Spanish. If the Mayan priests could really see the future then they were spectacularly bad at acting on their knowledge. This is a bit of a cheap shot at a culture that I greatly respect but I am sick to death of hearing New-Age stuff about mystical Mayan knowledge.

Mexican City of Teotihuacan
Having a nice long calendar allowed them to place events in a framework that remained constant for centuries and allowed them to neatly predict both agricultural seasons and astronomical events. There are very few prophecies recorded from Classic Mayan sites.

Cover page of the Popol Vuh
Mayan culture does become rather prophetic later on but I believe this to be a result of European influence. The Popol Vuh, the most famous of the Mayan books, was at least partially written after the Spanish had arrived. It gives a Mayan creation account that has a number of incomplete creations, each destroyed before a new creation, with the last destruction being by a great flood. Now this could be seen as a series of catastrophes marking the completion of a separate Long Count cycle, meaning that the Mayans saw a catastrophe for the year 2012 even if the world didn’t end. But by the time the Popol Vuh is written, the Long Count is no longer used and an equally sophisticated but different way of marking time is given. No dates are given for the creations or the catastrophes and, although far from unparalleled in world mythology, the universal flood wiping out an initial creation sounds suspiciously like the Popol Vuh has been influenced by Catholicism.

There are late Mayan texts called the Books of Chilam Balam specifically dedicated to prophecy. These are books ascribed to a legendary sage who prophesies the coming of the Spanish. But they are all written in the Colonial era and back-prophecies if you will, where a community deals with a catastrophe by inventing a text to cope with it and view it as part of a greater plan (see the prophecies of Myrddin Wyllt, even conspiracy theories could be viewed as community attempts to rationalise the irrational). The idea that the world will end is notably absent even in these most prophetic of all Mayan texts (although there are quite a lot of them and I haven’t read them all so I may be wrong on this).

So will the world end in 2012? Possibly, as we can never predict the future with total accuracy, but I’m betting that it won’t (and giving good odds if anyone’s interested). I’m also betting that the Mayans had less than no intention of predicting the end of the world when some of their priests decided to use a particular method of counting that started at an arbitrary date. Roll on 2013!

Mayan city of Chichen Itza


  1. Oh, I like this one. It's a good to know information on what Mayans did with their predictions.And we may never know what the future holds for us.

  2. Thanks Valerie! Glad you liked it! The Mayans are a really interesting civilisation. I might try and do some more posts about them soon if I can. Thanks for reading.