No, the world isn't ending! An explanation of the Maya calendar

There has been much speculation about December 21, but the Maya calendar didn't predict the end of the world.

Share

Shifting earth poles, the collision with the planet Nibiru or a galactic alignment: these are all things that are expected to happen on December 21, 2012.

When taking all these theories together, we could almost reach an ‘overkill’ capacity for this day - should they all be true. But fortunately, we can be pretty sure that nothing of this magnitude will happen and the chances of the ‘end of the world’ are statistically one to infinite on this specific day.

December 21, 2012 is not the first so-called cataclysmic event of any kind we've experienced. Can anyone remember the Y2K meme? Even this was just a re-launch, a millennial 2.0 event, as Christianity was already expecting the Last Judgement by the end of the year 999. Besides such favoured ‘round dates’, there is a huge number of other predictions on less obvious dates. Many have been calculated by different priests, sermonisers and religious societies by some advanced level word counting mathematics in the bible. Very productive in this respect were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why now, on December 21?

The basis for this is now something out of the ordinary: the Maya calendar. The Maya are supposed to have a ‘secret knowledge’, an attribution often made to ancient cultures. But we have to acknowledge the fact that today about 6.1 million people in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras identify themselves ethnically as Maya.

The reception of a supposed ancient ‘prediction’ by Western culture is nothing but a neo-colonial occupation of the cultural heritage of the indigenous people. When certain individuals claim that the Maya calendar is predicting the ‘end of the world’ we must consider it as a very generalised statement based on a variety of wrong perceptions.

There is one genuine, autochthonous Maya calendar that consists of the permutations of several counts, most notably the Long Count (a linear day count since a zero date), the Tzolk’in (a 260-day ritual calendar for divination) and the Ha’ab (a 365-day calendar to approximate the tropical year). Then there are the ‘Maya calendars’ invented by modern prophets, who, after personal crises, received revelation. Most famous in this respect was José Argüelles and his ‘Dreamspell’ calendar. While these are clearly New Age products, we still have to ask where the ‘prediction’ comes from.

In fact, December 21, 2012 is a ‘round date’, at least in the Long Count. We refer to it as 13.0.0.0.0, i.e. it is the 13-Bak’tun period ending (an amount of 13 times 144,000 days comes to pass) since the ‘era day’, the creation of the current world in Classic Maya mythology. Incidentally, the era day was also noted as 13.0.0.0.0, instead of 0.0.0.0.0. This was for a couple of reasons, both mythological and mathematical. As the Tzolk’in and the Ha’ab have different calculation bases, we see differences here: the era day 13.0.0.0.0 comes along with 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, while the approaching 13.0.0.0.0 takes 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in. It is not the same day, but at least a reflection of the era day.

As we do not have any Long Counts dates higher than 13.0.0.0.0, this caused some confusion. Even the great Michael Coe, doyen of Maya studies, talked about the “end of the calendar” (still, not the world!) in the 1970s. But with the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs going on, we find calculations in the inscriptions that reach far beyond. In Palenque, a throne jubilee of then king K’inich Janab Pakal is said to take place on October 21, 4772 AD.

The only monument that mentions 13.0.0.0.0 together with an account of what will happen is (in)famous Monument 6 from Tortuguero, Mexico. Heavily eroded in the relevant section of the narrative, it has been a conundrum for quite a while. In 2010, my colleague Barbara MacLeod and I presented a thorough analysis of the text after a close inspection. Contradicting earlier interpretations that mention something “black” and the “descent” of the deity Balun Yokte’ K’uh, we found something with lesser ‘apocalyptic’ implications.

The text passage literally translates as: “it will be completed the 13 Bak’tun on 4 Ajaw 3 K’ank’in, it will happen this preparation of Balun Yokte’ in the great investiture.” We need to know that Balun Yokte’ was one of the deities supervising the events on the previous 13.0.0.0.0, the era day. With the cyclical conception of time in Maya culture, this is less a prophecy by the scribes of the late 7th century, when the Tortuguero inscription was commissioned. It is a logical consequence, it will happen what has happened before: a deity is installed into office to govern a change in the calendar. Even today, concepts of Balun Yokte’ survive in the cult of the Maximón in the highlands of Guatemala. He is put into office during Easter week, before he ultimately gets defeated by the resurrected Christ.

Do we need to worry, then? No. As Monument 6 is the only account, this is evidence that even for the Classic Maya, this story was not widely accepted. It was more part of the local tradition of the Tortuguero rulers and their mythological claim of power. And even more a claim by Tortuguero’s ruler Bahlam Ajaw to present himself as a good host for the god’s return. The Classic Maya did not believe in the end of the world, and even lesser should we be concerned about a 1,343 year old monument for our life. It is, as my colleague Stephen Houston once said, a “prophecy that wasn’t.”

Sven Gronemeyer is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Melbourne, specialising on Maya hieroglyphic writing and archaeology and author of What Could Happen in 2012: A Re-Analysis of the 13-Bak'tun Prophecy on Tortuguero Monument 6

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit