What the Maya Think About 2012
The fact is, they seldom think about it at all – unless they happen to be wondering why the outside world has become so hysterical about it.
Too many people have made the assumption that the Mayan Calendar is “all about” 2012. It isn’t. Neither does it end in that year. It doesn’t end at all.
Let us begin with a few basic concepts. What we call the Mayan Calendar may not have been invented by the Maya. While there were many different calendars in ancient Mesoamerica, there was one underlying calendrical paradigm or idea, which we may properly call the Mesoamerican Calendar. It was used by all the civilizations of that region – Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that it originated with the Olmecs at the very dawn of Mesoamerican civilization, c. 1000 BCE.
But the basic Mesoamerican Calendar – still in use today among the Highland Maya of Guatemala – has absolutely nothing to do with the notorious “end date” of December 21, 2012. In fact, the basic Mesoamerican Calendar has neither beginning nor end – it is an eternally revolving cycle.
Western civilization is unique in regards to its apocalyptic world view. It is only the monotheistic or so-called Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity and Islam, that think of time as a straight line, leading from a mysterious beginning to an all-too-predictable end. From Edgar Cayce’s prediction of a giant earthquake which would send California plunging into the sea, through ritual suicide over the appearance of a random comet, to the Y-2K panic, we continue to anticipate our own extinction. We are simply programmed by culture to imagine an “end of time,” and if the Maya predicted the end of the world, we are culturally inclined to believe them.
Most religious or spiritual traditions around the world perceive time as a circle rather than a straight line. Endless rounds of cycles repeat themselves, varying only in their nuances, forever and forever. The Taoist yin-yang symbol is in the form of a circle. Buddhists refer to the endless round of reincarnation as the Wheel of Life. Many Native Americans understand life as a Medicine Wheel, yet another circle. The Maya were – and are – no different. To them, the notion of an “end of the world” would be ridiculous, even inconceivable.
The 2012 date comes from a particular way of time-keeping known as the “Long Count.” This method of time-keeping is founded upon the basic Mesoamerican Calendar but is by no means identical to it. It first appears in the archaeological record just before the beginning of the Christian era. It may or may not have been an Olmec invention. It may or may not have originated in the proto-Mayan civilization of Izapa on the Pacific coast of Chiapas.
The Long Count postulates cycles within cycles within cycles, and was based upon a year of 360 days — though the Maya also possessed a solar calendar of 365 days, as we do. The 360-day year is called a tun. The so-called Great Cycle of the Long Count began on August 11, 3114 BCE., and as of today – Sep 4, 2009 – 12 four-hundred-tun cycles, 19 twenty-tun cycles, 16 tuns, 11 twenty-day cycles and 16 days have been completed since the beginning date of August 11, 3114 BCE. This date would be expressed in numerical notation as 220.127.116.11.16. The current Great Cycle ends upon December 21, 2012.
We may speak of an “end date” in the sense that the Long Count system of time-keeping “rolls over” and turns back to 0 upon that date. But just because your car reaches 100,000 miles and the odometer rolls back to 0, it doesn’t mean that the car is about to explode. It doesn’t even mean that you are out of gas.
The Maya themselves conceived of cycles greater than the so-called Great Cycle. In fact, they postulated another cycle, called the p’iktun cycle, which also began in 3114 BCE, but which is scheduled to end in 4772 CE, a full 2,600 years after the alleged “end date” of 2012. This is not speculation. King Chan Balum II of Palenque recorded this date in the Temple of the Inscriptions, predicting (with unmerited confidence) that his own dynasty would last until that date.
This brings up another important point. There may have been any number of reasons as to why the Maya or their forefathers designed the Long Count system of time-keeping, but it seems clear that at least one of those reasons was to reckon the course of dynasties and royal lineages, to commemorate and record the births and deaths of sacred kings.
And while it may seem exotic to imagine semi-divine rulers dancing at the top of a temple pyramid in colorful feathered splendor, we should probably remember that we ourselves can be singularly unimpressed when our current world leaders put on public spectacles in their own honor.
There is no evidence that the average Mayan farmer was any more impressed by politically motivated glory than we are today. In fact, the constant warfare between these self-proclaimed “sacred kings” brought the world of the Classic Maya to its knees, destroying whole societies with years and years of internecine warfare, as well as ruining the fertility of the soil – the royal leaders seem to have encouraged their subjects to over-farm the land in order to provide more and more resources for their endless wars.
In the end, the entire system collapsed. The Mayan people walked away from the great cities and the dead leaders; they continued to work the land as farmers. They remain there until this very day.
And what about the Long Count – that mathematically magnificent instrument for reckoning the lives of kings? The Long Count vanished along with the royal lineages it honored. The last Long Count inscription among the Classic Maya dates to 910 CE. That’s more than eleven hundred years ago. The Maya no longer have any interest in the Long Count. They gave it up long ago – even though the basic, fundamental Mesoamerican Calendar which revolves in an eternal circle is still the foundation of the spiritual path for many Mayan people in Guatemala today.
But the Maya abandoned the Long Count centuries ago – and along with it they also abandoned any interest in the year 2012.
It is clear as to what the original context of the 2012 date was supposed to signify. From the Hopi (and their cliff-dwelling ancestors) in the Four Corners states all the way down to Honduras, Native American people within the Mesoamerican spiritual world view have traditionally taught that humankind is successively emerging through a series of World Ages. As the Hopi tell it, there have been three worlds previous to this one. We are now living in the Fourth World and will soon “emerge” into the Fifth World.
The Great Cycle embodied in the Long Count method of time-keeping was intended to measure the World Ages mathematically. The so-called “end date” of December 21, 2012 simply signifies the transition from the Fourth World into the Fifth World.
Among the Hopi, of course, no firm date is placed upon the time of emergence from one world into the next. Such matters are to be determined by shamans and visionaries rather than by mathematical formulae. Many contemporary Maya are of the same opinion. Many still believe in the cycles of World Emergence – though it must be stated that there are many different opinions regarding these cycles, and some groups, notably the Tzutujil of Lake Atitlan, believe that we are already living in the Sixth World. In any case, most contemporary Maya continue to view these cycles of World Emergence purely in terms of “cycles within cycles,” as we mentioned earlier. Many are aware that the 2012 end date was supposed to signify such a transition, but they are not altogether convinced that this date is as meaningful as we Westerners think it is. For many, the transitions between the World Ages are a matter for shamans and visionaries, just as among the Hopi.
To paraphrase the collective remarks of many contemporary Mayan teachers with whom I have communicated: “The fact that our distant ancestors carved some mysterious dates on ancient stone monuments will not help you to walk the Road of Life in a spiritual manner day by day.”
In other words: Stop dreaming, start living. Chop wood, carry water. Be awake.