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What the Maya calendar really tells us about 2012 and the end of time

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The end of the Maya Long Count on December 21, 2012-shown here in glyphs on a composite image of the Maya site of Chichén Itzá-is thought by some to mark the end of the world as we know it. (Aaron Logan/flickr, STScI/NASA)

On December 21, 2012, thousands of pilgrims, many in organized "sacred tour" groups, will flock to Chichén Itzá, Tikal, and a multitude of other celebrated sites of ancient America. There they will wait for a sign from the ancient Maya marking the end of the world as we know it. Will it be a blow-up or a bliss-out? Doom or delight? That depends on which of the New Age prophets--an eclectic collection of self-appointed seers and mystics, with names such as "Valum Votan, closer of the cycle" and the "Cosmic Shaman of Galactic Structure"--one chooses to believe. In 2012, the grand odometer of Maya timekeeping known as the Long Count, an accumulation of various smaller time cycles, will revert to zero and a new cycle of 1,872,000 days (5,125.37 years) will begin. As the long-awaited "Y12" date nears, tales of what will happen are proliferating on the Internet, in print, and in movies: Hollywood's big-budget, effects-laden disaster epic, "2012," opens this November under the tagline "We Were Warned."

Many of the predictions begin in outer space. It's known that there is a black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and that in 2012 the sun will align with the plane of the Galaxy for the first time in 26,000 years. Then, according to the doomsayers, the black hole will throw our solar system out of kilter. Lawrence E. Joseph, author of a book called Apocalypse 2012, says that supergiant flares will erupt on the sun's surface, propelling an extraordinary plume of solar particles earthward at the next peak of solar activity. Earth's magnetic field will reverse, producing dire consequences such as violent hurricanes and the loss of all electronic communication systems. And recent natural disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the Indian Ocean tsunami? They are all related to this alignment, and the ancient Maya knew all about it. That's the bad news.

But there's also good news coming from Y12 visionaries. Some say that rather than cataclysm, we're due for a sudden, cosmically timed awakening; we will all join an enlightened collective consciousness that will resolve the world's problems. The winter solstice sun is "slowly moving toward the heart of the Galaxy," writes spiritualist and former software engineer John Major Jenkins. On December 21 (or 23, depending on how you align calendars), when the sun passes the "Great Rift," a dark streak in the Milky Way that Jenkins says represents the Maya "Womb of Creation," the world will be transformed. Then we will "reconnect with our cosmic heart," he writes.

Unwittingly, the ancient Maya provided fodder for all this cosmic rigmarole. Monuments, such as Stela 25 at Izapa, a peripheral, pre-Classic (ca. 400 B.C.) site located on Mexico's Pacific Coast, map out the galactic alignment that would mark the end of the Long Count. Stela 25, for example, is thought to depict a creation scene in which a bird deity is perched atop a cosmic tree. Jenkins thinks the tree represents a unique north-south alignment of the Milky Way--a message from the Maya of what the sky will look like when creation begins anew.

These head-turning forecasts are open to serious criticism on both cultural and scientific grounds. There is little evidence that the Maya cared much about the Milky Way. When they do refer to it, they usually imagine it as a road. The association of the Milky Way with a tree, despite the popularity it has acquired since the publication of the 1997 book Maya Cosmos by noted Maya scholars David Freidel and Linda Schele, and writer Joy Parker, emerges strictly from the study of contemporary cultures descended from the Maya.

From an astronomical perspective, the 26,000-year cycle that causes the realignment of the sun with the plane of the Milky Way was first described by Greek astronomer Hipparchus in 128 B.C. He observed a slight difference between the solar year (the time it takes the earth to revolve around the sun) and the stellar or sidereal year (the time it takes the sun to realign with the stars). As a result, year to year, the path of the sun and the spots where it rises and sets will change with respect to the backdrop of the stars. This phenomenon, called precession, is caused by the gradual shift of the earth's axis of rotation. In practice, it means that the position of the sun at equinoxes and solstices, which mark the seasons, slowly changes with respect to the constellations of the zodiac. Maya skywatchers possessed a zodiac, so they could have noted the difference between stellar years and solar years, but there is no convincing evidence that they charted the precession, or how they might have done it.

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As the end of the Long Count approaches, more and more books from self-appointed experts predicting doom or enlightenment have begun to appear.

According to the Y12ers, based on their interpretation of monuments such as Stela 25, the Maya not only tracked the precession, but used it to predict what the sky would look like when the Long Count ends and a new cycle of creation begins. However, anyone who takes the trouble to look at the nighttime sky will discover that the Milky Way, a broad, luminous swath across the sky, looks surprisingly little like it is depicted in the desktop planetarium software often used to infer what ancient stargazers saw. For example, the galactic plane is very difficult to define even when the sun isn't in it, so solar-galactic alignment can't be pinned down visually to an accuracy any better than 300 years. Also, the "unique" north-south orientation of the Milky Way thought to be portrayed on Stela 25 actually occurs every year. And more important conceptually, there is no evidence that the Maya used sky maps as representational devices the way we do. Finally, there is no indication the Maya cared a whit about solar flares, sunspots, or magnetic fields. Pulling prophecy from monuments such as Stela 25 amounts to an exercise in cherry-picking data--often incomplete, vague, or inapplicable--to justify a nonsensical, pre-formed idea.

Most people familiar with the ancient Maya--even those who are not prophets of doom--know that they were obsessed with sophisticated timekeeping systems. And it is clear from their painted-bark books, or codices, that their astronomers had the capacity to predict celestial events, such as eclipses, accurately. So it is no surprise that mystically minded people feel free to attribute to the ancient Maya the power to see far into the future. But what does the cultural record actually tell us about the nature of Maya timekeeping and its relationship to their ideas about creation?

By the beginning of the Classic Period (ca. A.D. 200), Maya polities had mastered cultivation of the land, expanded their states, and begun to build great cities with exquisite monumental architecture. They were on the verge of establishing one of the great civilizations of the ancient world. A few hundred years earlier, Maya rulers had made a fundamental revision to their calendar that would connect the rise of Maya states with their own origin myths. They invented a mountain of a time cycle--the Long Count. A brilliant innovation, it transplanted the roots of Maya culture all the way back to creation itself. The Long Count was established with their existing base-20 counting system, with the day as the basic unit (see above). It consists of 13 cycles--corresponding to the levels of Maya heaven, each occupied by objects and deities associated with celestial bodies--called baktuns that make up a creation period of 5,125.37 seasonal years. At the end of one creation cycle, the count rolls over to the next Day Zero.

Texts carved on stelae prominently displayed at many Maya sites often open with a Long Count date, a series of five numbers (12.8.0.1.13, for example, corresponds to July 4, 1776) similar to the dateline in a newspaper. These time markers were a form of political and religious propaganda. Maya rulers used them to link culturally important but cosmically mundane events in their personal histories--coronation dates, marriage alliances, military victories, and the turning of smaller time cycles (for instance, 9.15.0.0.0, the inscription on Copán's Stela B, marks the end of a katun, or 20-year cycle)--with the history of their ancestor-gods who created the world. Thus, a stela's Long Count gave the ruler the power to proclaim the extraordinary longevity of his bloodline in concrete terms.

The beginning of the Long Count, which marks the last creation episode, took place in the Maya's mythic past. Day Zero fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. That date was denoted as 13.0.0.0.0, which is the same date we will see 13 baktuns later, when the Long Count rolls over from 12.19.19.17.19 on December 21, 2012, the next Day Zero (give or take a day). August 11 falls close to one of the two dates each year when the sun passes directly overhead in southern Maya latitudes--an event known to have been important in the Maya world. December 21 or 22 is the winter solstice (or solar "standstill"), which marks the day the sun reaches its most southerly position in the sky. So it is conceivable that the past and future zero days or creation events were deliberately linked to important positions in the sun cycle.

Why does the Long Count begin in 3114 B.C., well before any identifiably Maya culture had been established by the archaic communities that lived there? If we follow the example of how zero dates were set in other calendars around the world, such as the Christian, Roman, and Sanskrit ones, the choice was likely either an arbitrary date linked to some more recent event in Maya history, or itself a culturally and historically significant moment (similar to the way that the putative year of the birth of Christ roughly marks the beginning of the Christian calendar). But there was nothing special about the position of the Milky Way or the zodiac on that date, nor was anything significant happening in the sky. The Maya may simply have selected some date from which to look back to decide where their own creation date would fall. One possible date for this jumping off point is 7.6.0.0.0 (236 B.C.), which falls right around the time of the earliest Long Count inscriptions. That date also marks the end of a katun and bears the same Maya month and day names as the date of creation. It is amusing that the Y12 prophets are certain the world will end for all of us based on a date that may or may not have had historical significance to the Maya a few thousand years ago, who were themselves looking to a date a few thousand years before that. The ancient Maya might tell us: "Hey, get your own zero point!"

Though the Maya believed that successive creations were cyclic, there is no clear evidence of what they thought would happen on our 13.0.0.0.0. The same holds true for what happened last time the odometer of creation turned over. But a menacing scene does appear on the last page of the Dresden Codex, a Maya bark-paper book from the 14th century A.D., depicting destruction by flood. A sky caiman vomits water, which gushes from "sun" and "moon" glyphs attached to the beast's segmented body. Still more water pours out of a vessel held by an old-woman deity, who is suspended in the middle of the frame. And at the bottom, a male deity wields arrows and a spear. Verses from early colonial texts back up the flood story of creation. Curiously, contemporary prophets of doom haven't seized on the flood myth as a mode of destruction, though moviemakers certainly have. Among the vivid special effects in 2012 are tsunamis engulfing the Himalayas and tossing an aircraft carrier into the White House!

Monumental Maya inscriptions are fairly silent regarding events of the previous creation. Stela C at Quiriguá in Guatemala follows its 13.0.0.0.0 inscription with hieroglyphic statements that refer to the descent of deities (related to Cauac Sky, the extant ruler, of course), who create the first hearth by setting up three support stones (represented in the sky by parts of the constellation Orion). Concerning our 13.0.0.0.0, Monument 6 at Tortuguero in the Mexican state of Tabasco tells of the descent of some transcendent entity to earth. But just when the story might get even more interesting, the glyphs have eroded away, leaving the door open for the prophets to continue to speculate.

Must we read real history (and the future) in the Maya narratives? Or can we see them as frameworks for the cultural transmission of traditional rites of renewal, which take place at the turn of all time cycles, such as the appearance and disappearance of Venus, or the 52-year calendar round that combines the seasonal year with the Maya 260-day sacred calendar? Every year we participate in such rituals on New Year's Eve. We take account of ourselves by celebrating the end of our seasonal cycle--often with wretched excess--as the stroke of midnight approaches. Then we perform our acts of penance (New Year's resolutions) to purify ourselves as we contemplate a brighter future. A vast majority of those familiar with the Maya culture view their cycle-ending prophecies as lessons on how to restore balance to the world by promoting reciprocity with the gods, such as offering them debt payments in exchange for fertile crops. No wonder we are inspired by the Maya--they get to participate in their cosmology! But in that sense, the Y12ers are not so different from the ancient Maya in their desire to reconnect with the past and place their own existence in a broader context. Where the Maya tied themselves to their ancestor-gods by carving Long Count dates on their stelae, the Y12 prophets use Maya myth and math to invoke some sort of universal beneficent spirit or transcendent evil overmind.

There is also something about the Y12 hysteria that is particular to the English-speaking world--especially the United States. The idea that the world will end in cataclysm was firmly planted in Puritan New England. Evangelical and apocalyptic forms of worship were prominent in the colonies as early as the 1640s, when confessors openly proclaimed themselves ready for God to descend from the sky and pluck them up for judgment. Two centuries later, hundreds of Millerites (who would become the Seventh-day Adventists) anxiously awaited the "Blessed Hope," based on their leader William Miller's biblical calculations pinpointing the return of Christ on October 22, 1844. People climbed to their roofs to wait--and wait--for the Second Coming.

Today, American anticipation of a celestially signaled end of time has gone mainstream secular. Many of us remember Comet Kohoutek, the iceball sent to destroy the world in 1973, or the millennial cosmic reclamation project that attended Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997--an "alien mothership" that brought the suicides of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in California. The celebrated cosmic convergence of Aztec calendar cycles in 1987 is another example of the American desire to get beamed with revelations from beyond.

It is no coincidence that the Maya entered the modern mythos of creation and destruction in the early 1970s, around the time scholars began to make significant breakthroughs in deciphering Maya hieroglyphics. Repeating a trend started a century earlier with the mystical writing of Augustus Le Plongeon ('The Lure of Moo,' January/February 2007), pop-fringe literature such as Peter Tompkins's Secrets of the Mexican Pyramids, Frank Waters's Mexico Mystique, and Luis Arochi's The Pyramid of Kukulcan heralded secret knowledge of the future emerging from the Maya code. It was also about this time that promoting the idea of "shared beginnings," acquired by being at the right place at the right time, began to enter the tourism industry. Tourists, many with New Age spiritual leanings, flock to Chichén Itzá on the spring equinox, for example, to see a serpent effigy emerge in the shadows of El Castillo. Sacred tourism is already beginning to cash in on the 2012 myth. Star parties are planned for Copán and Tikal on the eve of the temporal turnover. And industrious entrepreneurs are already beginning to prepare 2012 survival kits, a Complete Idiot's Guide to 2012, and T-shirts bearing slogans such as "Doomsday 2012" and "Shift Happens." Not to mention the movie. This is just the beginning.

We live in a techno-immersed, materially oriented society that seems somewhat bewildered by where rational, empirical science might be taking us. This may be why the mystical, escapist explanations of a galactic endpoint, replete with precise mathematical, historical, and cosmic underpinnings (masquerading as science), have such wide appeal. In an age of anxiety we reach for the wisdom of ancestors--even other peoples' ancestors--that might have been lost in the drifting sands of time. Perhaps the only way we can take back control of our disordered world is to rediscover their lost knowledge and make use of it. And so we romanticize the ancient Maya.

But the glorious achievements of the Maya and other complex cultures of the ancient world are appealing enough on their own. We don't need to dress them up in Western or apocalyptic clothing. And the responsibility for educating the public about what we really know about the Maya and other extraordinary cultures--such as the ability of the Maya to follow the position of Venus to an accuracy of one day in 500 years with the naked eye--should fall squarely on the shoulders of those of us who spend our lives studying them. The Y12 hysteria could leave us asking whether we are doing our jobs, or whether the desire for cosmic connection and continuity is too strong for science and rationality to overcome.

Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University and author of the new book, The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012.

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