Seems the whole “end of the world in 2012” brouhaha is stirring again with the upcoming release of the special effects disaster film, 2012. While topics on this blog are often meant to be pretty scholarly and technical, I thought it useful to offer a simple run-down of important points about what the ancient Maya really had to say — or not — about the “end” of their calendar.
Does the Maya calendar end in 2012?
No it doesn’t. What will happen is a recurrence, an anniversary of sorts, of a key mythological date in the distant past. The Maya wrote this as 18.104.22.168.0 in their “Long Count” calendar (an abbreviation of a much bigger number), which fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. (some correlations of the two calendars say August 13, but I don’t really care). This “creation date” was not the beginning of everything, however. Maya mythological texts tell us that plenty was happening long, long before this starting point of the current era. On December 21, 2012 (some say December 23) we come again to a numerological recurrence of 22.214.171.124.0. The Long Count calendar continues well beyond this date, too. In fact, the numerology of the calendar demands that there will be other similar recurrences of this same date in the far distant future, on a scale of octillions of years. The scale of Maya time reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude.
What did the Maya say about 2012?
They actually said very little, if anything. Only one ancient inscription refers to the upcoming 126.96.36.199.0 date in 2012, from a now destroyed site named Tortuguero. The question we scholars have struggled with is whether the final few hieroglyphs of that text describe anything about what will happen. A few years ago I put forward a very tentative and incomplete reading of these damaged glyphs, including a possible use of a verb meaning “descend” and a name of a god, Bolon Yokte’. Much of it was iffy and remains so; I’m not sure I believe much of what I wrote back then. More recently my colleague Steve Houston has pointed out the glyphs may not even pertain to that date anyway. So there’s considerable ambiguity just in the reading of the glyphs and the rhetorical structure of the Tortuguero passage. What we can say with confidence is that the ancient Maya left no clear or definite record about 2012 and its significance. There is certainly no ancient claim that the world or any part of it will come to an end.
Who came up with this crazy idea?
New Age hacks and, now, Hollywood producers. The idea can be traced largely back to the novelist and mystic named Frank Waters, who in the 1960s and 70s wrote a number of novels and cultural treatises on Native Americans of the American southwest, including his 1963 work, Book of the Hopi (he was not an anthropologist). One of Waters’ last works was Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth Age of Consciousness (1975), an odd pastiche of Aztec and Maya philosophies wherein he proposed that the “end” of the calendar would somehow involve a transformation of world spiritual awareness. Waters’ ideas got picked up and expanded upon by Jose Arguelles in his insanely misguided but influential book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology (1987). Many different writers have followed with their own strange books and essays on the “meaning” of 2012, mostly contradicting one another.
What about the astronomy?
The Maya were fine astronomers, but the 2012 date has little if anything to do with astronomy. Despite claims about the appearance of a “galactic alignment” in late December three years from now, modern scientific astronomers reject this notion pretty much out of hand. Besides, no ancient Maya text or artwork makes reference to anything of the kind.
What do the present-day Maya have to say about 2012?
Although the 260-day round of the ancient calendar system survived in a few areas of highland Guatemala, the 2012 date has nothing to do with it. It’s only associated with the Long Count, which ceased being used well before the conquest. So, any mention of 2012 by modern Maya peoples is probably an example of media or New Age influence.
So, in sum, what’s been widely circulated in the popular imagination about 2012 has little to do about true ancient Maya belief or notions of prophecy.
My brief comments will probably instigate even more endless 2012 discussion and debate, but I respectfully request that such exchanges be taken elsewhere. What more I have to say on the subject, mostly on the nature of the ancient calendar as a whole, will appear in my upcoming book about Maya time, appearing sometime next year.