So you’ve seen it all over the place, in each and every unoriginal TV program, documentary and news piece regarding some supposed prophecy by the ancient Mayas and their calendar. Unfortunately for the credibility of the many self-proclaimed researchers, sloppy documentary producers, misinformed journalists and the whole lot of the new-agey crowd, the Mayas did not issue any prophecy whatsoever. Not ever.
And, by the way, the circular, certainly imposing monolith being photographed and videographed to exhaustion in order to illustrate the imaginary prophecy is neither Maya nor a calendar. But the tale of the Maya prophecy in itself is not too good to start with. Basically because it is an utter fabrication. A simple, barefaced lie.
In order to understand this, we have to understand the concept of how the Mayas recorded the passage of time. The central problem, which is quite confusing at first, is that the ancient Mayas had not one, but three calendars. Most Mesoamerican cultures managed with two calendars, which is still alien to our ideas of how to count the days.
The Maya developed a 260-day calendar which was used for religious purposes and events. It was called the Tzolk’in. As would seem obvious, once the 260th day is reached, the Tzol’kin starts all over again, just as January the 1st follows the end of the year on December 31. Not that you would need a Ph.D. in astrophysics to figure that one out. And each of those 260 days had a unique name. But religious festivities don’t put food on the table, so the Mayas also developed a much more reasonable (and amazingly accurate) 365-day solar calendar which they used to figure out seasonal activities and resources, such as the time to plant or harvest, or when certain fruits were in season or certain animals could be better hunted. This calendar was called the Haab’, and it consisted of eighteen months of 20 days each, plus five "dangerous" days without name at the end of the year (thus adding up to 365 days). And, yes, you of course know that after the fifth dangerous, nameless day, the Haab’ went ahead and repeated itself. No- brainer number two. And yes, each of those 360 days had a unique name.
There was also the Calendar Round, which was simply calling the days with both their names in Haab’ and Tzolk’in calendars. The name of a day obtained by joining the two names repeated itself only every 18,980 days, or some 52 solar years. 52 years was the standard Mesoamerican “century”. But you of course know that the Mayas were keen astronomers. They spent a lot of time looking at the heavens and pondering the movement of many celestial objects. And they were deeply impressed by Venus, the morning star and the second brightest object in the sky after the Moon. They called Venus Ahzab Kab Ek, "the star that awakens the Earth", and believed it was in reality the god called the plumed serpent, and plotted out its orbit around the Sun.
the day (kin)
the uinal (20-day month)
the tun (18 uinal month, 360-day year)
the katun (period of 20 tuns, 19.7 solar years)
the baktun (period of 20 katuns, 394.3 solar years)
the pictun (period of a 20 baktuns, 7,885 solar years)
the kalabtun (period of 20 pictuns, 157,808 solar years)
the k’inchiltun (period of 20 kalabtuns, 3,156,164 solar years)
the alautun (period of 20 k’inchiltuns, 63,123,288 years)
Since the Maya had also developed some pretty advanced mathematics (including the concept of "zero"), they were able to compute dates and astronomical events (such as eclipses or planetary conjunctions) that were well beyond a 52-year period. So having 18,980 days with unique names was not enough for them, they had to identify idividually the days of each of the 52-year centuries much as we identify the day, month and consecutive year of events so that April 1st does not refer to the same day in 1875 and 2012.
To make computations for more than 52 years, the Maya devised the Long Count, so they gave the names of the days indicating:
Thus, the Mayas were able to make computations of more than 63 million years without repeating the name of a day. This seemed to please them. And it certainly is quite a feat.
Where did they start counting? The Romans chose the Foundation of Rome as the beginning of their calendar. Many kings have chosen their birthday or the day they were crowned as the beginning of a new calendar. The French Revolutionaries chose the establishment of the Republic. The Mayas decided that the 5th era of the world begab on the day called 0.0.0.0.0. 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk'u (0 baktuns, 0 katuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals, 0 kins and the name of the day in Tzolkin and Haab , which is August 11, 3114 BC counted by our current Gregorian calendar. Using the long count, the 20th baktun will end on December 20th 2012, or 126.96.36.199.19 3 cauac 2 kankin. After which, of course, a new pictun will begin. December the 21st will therefore be 188.8.131.52.0 4 ahau 3 kankin.
But that’s exactly where the white-robed guys from New-Age Inc. went all funny in the head. Particularly one of them, a guru-guy and art historian called Joseph Anthony (José) Argüelles, who had made a pretty penny since 1987 writing new-agey books about the Mayas and organizing new-agey pow-wows such as the “Harmonic Convergence” of 1987, a simultaneous meditation journey which would mark the shift of the "energy" of our planet from a warlike vibration into a new era of harmony, peace and love.
Which didn't actually happen.
So he explained the esoteric truth (that is, he made it up): the Harmonic Convergence was not the moment of change, but the beginning of a five-year cleansing period in order for the Grand Opening of eternal peace to happen. One could imagine he was betting that everyone would have forgotten about the whole thing by 1992, and if so, he was right on the mark there. But he did learn that according to the Maya calendar, the final baktun would be rounded up on Dec. 20th this year, and that was it, the calendar ended, no tomorrow.
And he was aghast.
The New Age would apparently be washed away from the face of the Earth before it got to be the Old Age. Or at least the Slightly-Used Age. And Mr. Argüelles could of course make some money out of this horror, so he set to the task. Imagine someone finding a current paper calendar and, upon discovering that it ends on December the 31st, proclaiming to the world that the calendar printer had prophesized the world would end on that day, without realizing there was another full year just around the midnight corner, starting again with January the 1st. That was Joseph Argüelles right there. Apparently he didn’t know about pictuns, kalabtuns, k’inchiltuns and alautuns… probably couldn’t even pronounce them. So he proclaimed there was a Maya prophecy somewhere around then and proceeded to spread the news and sell calendars and books on the subject. The world was going to end because the Mayas said so.
Which they didn't. They were just happily counting up to year 63,123,288 and beyond, and before, of course. And without even metal tools. Actually there is at least one case, in Quiriguá, Guatemala, where the Mayas are reporting on events happening 90 million years ago (stela F) and 400 million years ago (stela D).
Then the whole idea began to change and melt and metamorphosize itself. You can believe that December 21st is the end of the world with the attending death of all 7 billion of us, or maybe that there will be a cataclysmic change that will really be the true Grand Opening of the era of peace and empty smiles. Or that the aliens will land either to give us our Galactic Federation Membership Card or to enslave us brutally. Or it will be “the dawning of a new age” or “the end of the old world” again, The Age of Aquarius Strikes Back or something in between, which makes for products with a better acceptance by consumers of all ages and persuasions. Every imaginable choice is being furiously marketed by one group or another, one guru or the next. So take your pick.
Of course, if you want to believe the Mayas had some amazingly magical powers to gaze into the future, you may do so.
But it would be wise to remember that the Maya were unable to foresee the tragic events that destroyed their great empire in the 9th century. And the fact that they were also pretty unaware of the arrival of the Europeans which laid to waste their lesser empire and many huge empires in the 16th century may have some bearing on the subject. This all makes it seem as if the Mayas couldn’t see the future any more than you or me… or José Argüelles.
If you insist in being a believer in anything the Mayas might have done (hopefully not the part about human sacrifice, definitely), as you have the right to do, consider that if the Maya believed there would be things a’happening that needed to be counted and recorded for the next 63 million years, they weren’t expecting the end of the world or the Universe much sooner than that.
The present-day Mayas in Mexico, only got ahold of the idea after Argüelles promoted it, and saw it as a great tourist trap, especially of white, spaced-out newagers trying to purchase illumination and millenium-old wisdom. But they're not really expecting the end of the world.
And neither should you.
What about the big circular monolith?
What is being passed as some sort of a counterfeit “Maya calendar” is actually the also misnamed Aztec Calendar. The civilization that created it called themselves Mexica rather than Aztecs, and the monument is not a calendar, but rather an altar that went by the name of The Sun Stone. The Sun Stone is a summary of some of the Mexica cosmology, and it is certainly spectacular, with 12 ft in diameter, a thickness of 4 ft and more tan 26 tons in weight, and carved sometime at the end of the 15th century.
The meaning of the stone, though, is quite well understood… by archaeologists and historians and the like, of course, not by the purveyors of the end of the world (which is rapidly coming). At the center of this monument we find the Sun. Our present sun, in any case, called Ollin Tonatiuh (Movement of the Sun), with a tongue made of flint, earrings and necklace. The four squares surrounding the Sun are the four previous suns or eras the Mexica believed the world had gone through, Wind (upper left), Jaguar (upper right), Wind (lower right) and Rain (lower left). And NOT, as some would like, “earth, air, water and fire”, by the way.
Then comes a circle with what seems animals painted in it, 20 of them. They are the 20 days of the Mexica calendar, with names such as lizard, wind, house, snake, rabbit, dog, monkey, movement, flint, etc. The cardinal points figure prominently and the last circle is made up of two fire serpents, or Xiuhcoatl, which end in the lower part with the faces of the day and night struggling.
Finally, on the topmost part, where the tails of the serpents would be, a date is inscribed: 13-cane, corresponding to 1479, which experts (the real kind) believe is the year the monolith was carved.
It would obviously be impossible to tell the time using this stone, and there is no prophecy that can be derived from it (until yet another new-age entrepreneur lets his imagination run wild on the Sun Stone). It’s used just because… well, it’s pretty impressive and the Mayas really had no good visuals for their calendar, so, hey, who cares really…
It’s not as if the world was going to end on December 21st…
Mauricio-José Schwarz is a science journalist, writer, musician, photographer, translator and skeptic. He was one of the founders of the first Mexican skeptic society (SOMIE), current member of the Skeptical Circle (Círculo Escéptico) in Spain and member of the national science journalism and popularization associations both in Mexico and Spain (SOMEDICyT and AECC). He also founded and maintains the skeptical blogs El retorno de los charlatanes and Los expedientes Occam.