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

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?