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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.

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, 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, instead of 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 comes along with 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, while the approaching 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, 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 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, 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