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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor Needed Nottingham/Derbyshire

£3360 - £16800 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Cover Supervisor requ...

English Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Urgently Required. En...

Supply teachers needed in Cambridgeshire

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad are looking ...

Geography Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Enjoy the sushi and hot noodles while you can, Barack – the Chinese will remain cold

David Usborne
David Moyes has been backed by Sir Bobby Charlton to succeed at Manchester United  

It's not David Moyes I pity, but the other over-50s facing unemployment

Simon Kelner
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world
Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

Pet a porter: posh pet pampering

The duo behind Asos and Achica have launched a new venture offering haute couture to help make furry companions fashionable
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire
Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Hot stuff: 10 best kettles

Celebrate St George’s Day with a nice cup of tea. Now you just need to get the water boiled
Sam Wallace: Why Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term

Sam Wallace

Why Ryan Giggs is perfect fit as Manchester United boss... in the longer term
Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Renaud Lavillenie: The sky's the limit for this pole vaulter's ambitions

Having smashed Sergei Bubka's 21-year-old record, the French phenomenon tells Simon Turnbull he can go higher
Through the screen: British Pathé opens its archives

Through the screen

British Pathé opens its archives
The man behind the papier mâché mask

Frank Sidebottom

The man behind the papier mâché mask
Chris Marker: Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Mystic film-maker with a Midas touch

Chris Marker retrospective is a revelation
Boston runs again: Thousands take to the streets for marathon as city honours dead and injured of last year's bombing

Boston runs again

Thousands of runners take to the streets as city honours dead of last year
40 years of fostering and still holding the babies (and with no plans to retire)

40 years of fostering and holding the babies

In their seventies and still working as specialist foster parents