Remember what life was like in 1999? Millennium fever was sweeping the world and scientists, regular folk, and the new-age-erati were focused on January 1, 2000. Y2K was coming and it was bringing with it a digital Armageddon. And when it finally arrived, we celebrated (and ducked) and nothing happened … except January 2.
Something very similar is happening with the approach of the much anticipated date of December 21, 2012—otherwise known as 188.8.131.52.0 on the Maya calendar. Will it bring mass destruction through floods, fire, and asteroids (as Hollywood would have us believe)? Or will it be the dawning of a new religious age that’s something more spiritual, peaceful, and fulfilling than the multitude of religions that already exist around the world?
David Stuart is one of the world’s preeminent Maya epigraphers (an expert in the study of inscriptions) and historians. In his recently released book The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012 , Stuart expresses his frustration with the pop culture hullaballoo over the Maya’s supposedly prophetic view of December 21, 2012. The date was in fact important to the Maya, Stuart says, but he emphatically points out that “no Maya text, ancient, colonial, or modern ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world.”
With an eye on 12/21/12, Stuart takes an anthropological, archaeological and historical look into the far and near past of Mesoamerican cultures and, as Stuart himself writes, “examines history, ancient texts, modern Maya religion, and the early development of research to show how the Maya conceived of a remarkable structure to time and space that’s significant on its own as a compelling human achievement.”
December 21, 2012, was extremely important to the Maya, just as January 1, 2000, was important to the modern world. Those three zeros that follow the “2” make it an inherently significant, though arbitrary, calendar-based milestone. Key milestones in the never ceasing revolutions of time were much more important to the Maya than they are to modern Americans. We use those cycles of time to celebrate (for example, anniversaries mark the passage of time and annual events like New Years celebrate key events). For the Maya, time and dates, and their passages, were the driving force in their day-to-day, practical, and spiritual lives.
“No Maya text, ancient, colonial, or modern – ever predicted the end of time or the end of the world.”
The sole recorded reference to the infamous 12/21/12 date comes from a small ruin at Tortuguero, not far from the more well-known site of Palenque in Mexico. Stuart writes: “On a large slab … it reads (in glyphs) that ‘thirteen bak’tuns will end on a date that corresponds to 12/21/12.’ This is the only reference to that specific date, and from that alone has come a multitude of speculation over what this actually means.”
Time was so important…controlling it, or at least the perception of controlling it, became a key role within the ancient Maya communities. Stuart writes that “…Shaman priests who oversaw (religious) ceremonies were probably well versed in the messages and meanings of time as it was anciently structured—what Mesoamerican cultures called the ‘Order of Days’ – using it as a framework to divine the reasons why” the gods, and what they represented (rain, for example), did what they did.
He continues: “Time was not just a means of measuring the course of history but was also a … shaping force in human experience. … Time was an ‘actor’ invested with personality and character who shaped the very nature of history itself.”
The author compares the Aztec and Maya, who had similar roots in their cultures and comparably deep devotion to calendrical cycles. A Spanish friar who spent nearly his entire life living near Mexico City in the decades following the Conquest wrote: “The characters [glyphs representing the days] also taught the Indian nations the days on which they were to sow, reap, till the land, cultivate corn, weed, harvest, store, shell the ears of corn, sow beans and flaxseed.”
Religion was also deeply connected to the calendar and times of year. The complex calendrical interpretations became a merger of almanac and bible. “In the minds of Maya kings, time’s character evidently held more power and influence than they themselves did. The role of the ruler was to harness and manage time,” writes Stuart.
Stuart analyzes many of the glyphs the Maya used in tracking time, while diving deeply into the mechanics of Maya timekeeping. The book includes detailed images and drawings, many of which are Stuart’s own work. The transcription of their designs is equal parts art and science as Stuart often views the glyphs through the eyes of an art historian in determining their root meanings and genesis.
For example, the glyph that represents the idea of “year” (or ha’b) is supposed to be in the shape of a certain type of drum. Stuart theorizes that the symbol ties in with the use of drums during seasonal festivals and celebrations and so became a metaphor for the marking of time.
In order to understand the Maya basis for having inscribed dates throughout Mesoamerica, Stuart builds a foundation for understanding their calendar. Or rather, calendars. The Maya loved their daykeeping so much that they had different calendars for different things.
The 260-day divinatory tzolk’in “was the calendar most important in prognostication and divination, acts that themselves give a sense of order and meaning,” writes Stuart. One possible reason for the 260-day focus is that it corresponds with the span of human gestation—the life and physical cycle of the world in which we live.
A 365-day calendar called ha’b “provided a framework for communal agricultural festivals and ceremonies, and complemented the more esoteric nature of the 260-day tzolk’in,” he writes. The ha’b is just one part of the Maya Long Count system, which generated that 184.108.40.206.0 date that has so many people buzzing.
The Long Count calendar keeps a running tally of time from a certain “zero” starting point. Based on the data that Mayanists have gathered over the years, the Long Count started on August 11, 3114 B.C. Because the Maya recorded dates of historical significance on many of the artifacts that remain today, scholars are able to track time to that starting point, as well as look ahead to significant future dates like the one carved into the Tortuguero slab.
The Long Count calendar consists of five component parts. The smallest segment is a day, or k’in; 20 days make a winal; 18 winals make a tun (winals only go to 18 because the Maya were savvy enough to use a 365-day solar time frame). Twenty tuns make a ka’tun, and 20 ka’tuns make a bak’tun. As each time period reaches its end, it starts back at 1. It’s similar to how, when we get to December 31, our calendar starts back over on January 1.
“Few archaeologists hold much stock in the idea that the multiple rises and falls of the ancient Maya might be closely tied to these inner workings on the…calendar and concepts of prophecy.”
Did the Maya anticipate changes to their physical world based on their calendar and its interplay with their religious beliefs? Absolutely. Agricultural cycles were mapped by the calendar and had inextricable ties to religion. Were they able to track and follow the movement of heavenly bodies in space? Absolutely. We know this, because they wrote about it in the extant Maya documents that survived the Conquest. Did they have some uniquely spiritual insight that foretold some combination of the end of the world and/or spiritual renewal? No. No more than any other deeply spiritual society that looks to the skies and their physical world to find meanings in the ways they live.
That date is significant and it’s no surprise it was actualized and commemorated by the ancient Maya. On December 21, 2012, the bak’tun number turns from 12 to 13 (220.127.116.11.0), and 13 was an important number to the Maya.
Stuart describes Maya time as something that “folds” over itself … almost like a translucent piece of paper that, when folded, you can see through to what’s written behind but more clearly see what’s written on top. The shadow of the past interplays and contrasts with the present. And so it goes on into the future.