So we’re finally there – the week of the alleged Maya apocalypse. For those of you who have managed to avoid the hype, the world is supposed to end on December 21, 2012. At this point the coverage has become as corny, dramatic, and oddly-addictive as that Europe song – you know the one. Yet like the Europe song, while people may joke about the Maya apocalypse in public, many privately hold some pretty serious views about it. In an excellent interview with NASA astrobiologist David Morrison, listeners of the APM radio show The Story recently heard about the distraught emails that Morrison was receiving by the dozens seeking advice about when the cataclysm would start (not if), and what actions should be taken to minimize the suffering of family and friends.
I take the position that nothing of note will happen on the 21st of December, and I base this on my background in anthropology and Maya studies. Unfortunately there is currently a lot of fear and misinformation being spread about an event that is largely misunderstood, and the consequences are potentially serious. In order to combat this misinformation, it’s important to understand some basic things about Maya calendrics.
The ancient Maya were very accomplished astronomers who saw the movement of celestial bodies as supernatural patterns that gave insights into destiny (kind of like modern horoscopes, but much more specific). Through careful study of the movements in the sky, the Maya developed several different kinds of calendars, ranging from a 260-day tzolk’in that was used to name newborns and helped predict the paths their lives would take, to a ‘Long Count’ or b’ak’tun calendar that recorded a time span of about 394 years, to something called a piktun, which measured over 7,800 years (the current piktun doesn’t end until the year 4772).
It’s the Long Count calendar that is causing all the ruckus this month; we are reaching the end of the current cycle, counting down to 188.8.131.52.0 (dates actually get smaller as a cycle progresses), after which the 14th b’ak’tun begins. Cycle is the important word in that sentence. Just as we have days, weeks, months, decades, centuries, and millennia, the Maya had (have, really – the Maya are still alive and well) k’in, uinal, tun, k’atun, b’ak’tun, piktun, and beyond. The ancient Maya placed no special emphasis on the end of the current b’ak’tun, and even created other calendars with dates that go centuries beyond 12/21/12. Amazingly, there is even a unit of time that stretches into the millions of years called the alautun, which lasts roughly 63,081,429 years!
So, if you must plan for anything on the 21st of December, plan on a big ol’ New Years Eve party of the 1999-2000 variety, because we’re just rolling over to the beginning of a new unit of time: 14th b’ak’tun of the Long Count calendar. Once you’ve recovered sufficiently from your New B’ak’tun Eve (NBE) revelries, you might want to consider coming down to the library to check out some books about the Maya – they were and are a truly fascinating people who contributed much to the world.
Some titles of note:
The Order of the Days by David Stuart is a good place to start if you want to do some pre-NBE reading. Stuart has done a great job of explaining the different theories about December 2012, and then debunking them. Even better, Stuart goes on to talk about why the Maya, stripped of all their new-agey and other-worldly mystique, should be respected as an ancient culture that accomplished much in creative and enduring ways. I also like that Stuart takes the time to talk about all the positive things that the Maya contributed to the world, especially in the areas of agriculture. Did you know that without the Maya we wouldn’t have chocolate? No chocolate – now THAT is my idea of an apocalyptic scenario.
If you happen to be interested in learning how the Maya developed and used their system of calendars (my explanation is extremely simplified) Daily Life in Maya Civilization by Robert J. Sharer is a great place to start. This very readable book has a great chapter on Maya calendrics and writing that is packed with interesting facts, one being that the Maya developed a system similar to our leap year in order to correct for flaws in the calendar caused by the manner in which the Earth travels around the sun.
The Code of Kings by Linda Schele and Peter Mathews tells the story of seven sacred Maya sites using translations of inscriptions found on temples and tombs. The Code of Kings includes some wonderful photographs of Maya sites, as well as a collection of highly-detailed illustrations of inscriptions. This fascinating account of Maya civilization and culture is written in a very accessible way that doesn’t cater only to those who study the Maya in-depth.
Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens by Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube is just what it sounds like! Collected here are the stories of the 152 kings and 4 ruling queens in recorded Maya history. I love books like these because they take what is often a dry discussion of inanimate objects (sites, artifacts, etc.) and introduces a human element. I think many of us tend to unconsciously imagine tombs, carvings, and statues when we think of ancient cultures, so it’s great to be reminded that there were real people behind those images of the past. Sprinkled throughout this book are helpful discussions about basic aspects of Maya civilization (geography, historic timelines, cultural practices, deciphering the glyphs, etc.) that make the stories of the royals more understandable.
Look Close See Far by Bruce T. Martin is a beautiful collection of photographs that depict modern Maya, as well as significant ancient sites. These images are accompanied by explanations written by eminent scholars of Maya culture.
Four Creations: an Epic Story of the Chiapas Mayas edited and translated by Gary H. Gossen is by far my favorite book that I discovered while writing this post. In order to truly understand Maya culture, it is important to learn more about how they believe the universe works. The best insights into these views usually come from storytelling and mythology. In Four Creations, the author gathered stories from modern Maya storytellers and historic texts, covering pre-contact origin myths all the way to newer mythologized accounts of modern events. This is a fascinating read, accompanied by the artwork of modern Maya. I love that each translation is printed next to the stories in their original Tzotzil-language form. A final plus is that this book treats the Maya as a living, breathing, very much in-the-present people, rather than a culture known for past glories and an early demise.