by Christine Delsol
People have been forecasting the end of the world since … well, probably since the beginning of the world. In the past five years or so, the ancient Maya have been saddled with responsibility for one of the most enduring doomsday watches of all time.
Trying to determine how 2012 — specifically, Dec. 21, 2012 — turned into a worldwide doomsday watch is a thankless pursuit, although the 2009 movie "2012" can claim a hefty share of the credit. Neither a great nor an awful disaster movie — anything starring John Cusak at least earns the price of admission — but that's all it is. Put it in the same category as "Independence Day" or "The Day After Tomorrow," and move on.
Though this latest version of apocalypse has been tied to the ancient Maya calendar, one of the few certainties of the doomsday phenomenon is that contemporary Maya aren't cowering in anticipation of cataclysmic solar storms, magnetic pole reversal, earthquakes, monster tidal waves, colliding galaxies, alien invasion or the end of civilization. That alone should be reason for healthy skepticism.
The problem with disproving such Chicken-Little theories — which also happens to be the problem with proving them — is that concrete evidence is scarce. Like all myths, this one has some basis in fact. And, as with all myths, pseudo-scientists and New Age soothsayers have contorted the few actual facts to fit what they want to believe. Doomsday heralds, for the most part, have little or no grounding in Maya history, culture or archaeology. Even a quick look at scientifically supportable facts should be enough to deter anyone from remodeling that Cold War-era underground bunker.
1. The Maya were, and are, humans. They are not mystical seers, supernatural beings or aliens. In his fascinating and informative book, "The Order of Days," David Stuart theorizes that such notions are a holdover from the discovery of the Maya's fantastic cities in the 19th century, when a brash, young United States was eradicating its own natives. According to Stuart, the belief was mere "Indians" simply could not have reached the heights of art, writing, language, mathematics, architecture and astronomy displayed in these cities; their accomplishments were attributed instead to Phoenicians, Israelites, Scandinavians or even people from the lost continent of Atlantis. Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas, is one of the world's foremost Maya scholars. He asserts that the view of the Maya as so exotic as to be alien, and the readiness to grasp at this milestone in the dimly understood ancient Maya calendar, says more about contemporary culture than it does about the Maya or their cosmology.
2. 2012 is not the end of the Maya calendar. It is the flipping of a page, numerically significant in the way the new millennium was to us (remember the millennium frenzy?). The Long Count calendar is a complex mathematical creation that fell from use with the waning of the Classic Maya period (about 250-900 A.D.). In simple terms, the basic unit was the 360-day tun, approximating a solar year; "ages" of 20 tuns made up k'atuns, each possessing its own characteristics and prophecies. A bak'tun was made up of 20 k'atuns, or 400 tuns (about 395 years). December 2012 coincides with the end of one 5,125-year cycle, made up of 13 bak'tuns, of the Long Count calendar. The exact date is a matter of debate, but Dec. 21 has the edge because it coincides with the equinox. In Maya cosmology, the turn of the 13th bak'tun was a numerical recurrence. They believed an earlier long cycle ended before their time, unblemished by mass destruction; completion of this one was not an end of anything, but a continuation of many future repetitions.
3. Ancient Maya prophecies were more self-fulfilling than predictive. The story of Moctezuma's fall to Cortez, believing him to be the prophesied return of the god Quetzalcoatl, is famous. More obscure but equally fascinating is the fall of the Itza, last holdouts of the ancient Maya world, to Spanish forces almost two centuries later, in 1697. After abandoning Chichen Itza in the 1400s, they ruled a vast, remote region in northern Guatemala, where for decades the Spanish feared to tread. After several exploratory missions, a party led by Fray Andres de Avendaño, an avid student of Mayan and the Maya calendar, arrived. Avendaño was well aware that Itza prophecies foretold the beginning of a new age, the "8 Ahaw," that would bring great religious changes. Thus armed, the Spaniards easily "converted" the Itza. In fact, Maya notions of prophecy actually appear to be based on their cyclical system of time, giving rise to the belief that certain events were predestined based on historical experience within familiar recurring patterns.
4. Only one Maya reference to 2012 survives. Most of what we know about Maya prophecies comes from historical texts that shamans and priests hid from the pagan-busting Spanish. The Books of Chilam Balam, a collection of the most important manuscripts, describe historical k'atuns. K'atun periods folded upon one another, and "prophecies" were based on analysis of what came before during correlating periods. Most surviving stone inscriptions from the Classic period describe coronations, military victories and other current events. Not one predicts the future, though some give room for extrapolation — a tablet from Palenque, for example, tells of the crowning of a god several thousand years from now. The only words we have from the Maya about the end of the 13th bak'tun come from the tiny ruin of Tortuguero in Tabasco, on a stone slab called Monument 6; its fragments now reside in the Carlos Pellicer Regional Anthropology Museum in Villahermosa, due to reopen on December 21. An account of events in the life of a king named Bahlam Ajaw in the early 7th century ends with, "In two days, nine-score days, three years, eight score years, and three times four hundred years, the 13th bak'tun will end, and 4 Ahaw, 3 K'ank'in will happen." The last few glyphs, which might or might not have indicated the significance of this date, are obscured. That's it … the words around which the entire 2012 mythology has grown.
5. "No authentic Maya text foretells the end of the world in 2012, or of any destructive happening in connection with the turn of the 13th bak'tun." This quotation from Stuart is about as unequivocal as you can get. The date is a milestone in the ancient calendar structure, of course — a momentous anniversary of the mythological beginning of the full Long Count calendar in 3114 B.C. — and the number 13 was central to Maya cosmology. Undoubtedly they expected events of great import to occur, but we have no way to know what those might have been. But we do have inscriptions that refer to future events to come after the current cycle end, which argues convincingly against the end of the world as a Maya concept.
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