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Mexicolore contributor Jonathan Reyman

The End of Time: Maya, Aztec, and Hopi Views of the “End of the World”

We are grateful to Dr. Jonathan Reyman, Curator of Anthropology at Illinois State Museum Research and Collections Center, Springfield, USA, for this introductory article on cyclical views of time among three native American cultures, including the Aztecs...

Pic 1: Examples of some of the movies and books about the so-called Maya Prophesy
Pic 1: Examples of some of the movies and books about the so-called Maya Prophesy (Click on image to enlarge)

News media reports, movies, videos, and other accounts about the so-called Maya “prediction” of the end of the world on 21 December 2012 (the winter solstice) fail to note that many Native American peoples, and peoples elsewhere in the world, have a cyclical view of time in which a defined period of time ends and a new one begins. For example, the Hopi in Arizona are now in their Fourth World. The Maya did note the end of a time cycle (pik or bak’tun) on our calendar date of 21 December 2012, but it was to be followed by the start of another 5,000-year cycle, not the end of time itself and the world. This essay focuses on cosmology and cyclical time for three Native American groups.

Pic 2: For the Hopi the winter solstice in December is a time when the Kachinas (masked messenger spirit beings) come down from the peaks to establish life anew
Pic 2: For the Hopi the winter solstice in December is a time when the Kachinas (masked messenger spirit beings) come down from the peaks to establish life anew (Click on image to enlarge)

21 December 2012: The winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day of the year. The winter solstice occurs every year, usually on 21 December but occasionally on 20 December or 22 December: the sidereal year* – 365.256363004 days – is not an exact number. For peoples who use a solar calendar, the winter solstice marks the end of one year and the beginning of a new one. Celebrations often attend the winter solstice and frequently last several days. In its long form, for example, the Hopi Soyala – winter solstice ceremony – can last 10 days. However, for those who use the Hebrew or the Islamic lunar calendar, the winter solstice is usually of no special importance.

Pic 3: End of time books - a selection
Pic 3: End of time books - a selection (Click on image to enlarge)

During the last several years, some writers, New Age spiritualists, and others have attached particular significance to the Long Count date of 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in – thought to be the date, translated into our calendar as 21 December 2012, that the ancient Maya predicted the end of time – the end of the world. Supposedly, Maya astronomers and mathematicians prophesied there would be an apocalyptic event or events that would bring about or result in the destruction of the world as they knew it. This “end of the world” notion has created such interest that Dr. Edwin Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, stated in a public lecture in Albuquerque, New Mexico on 16 June 2011, that, by his count, more than 5,000 books, articles, movies, DVDs, and other media have been produced on this subject.

Pic 4: Harold Camping
Pic 4: Harold Camping (Click on image to enlarge)

End of times predictions are nothing new. They have been around for millennia. Such prophesies are in the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, and also in the New Testament; for example, Matthew 24:29: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” Recently, Harold Camping, a California radio preacher, predicted the world would end with the coming of the Rapture on 21 May 2011. When it didn’t happen, he revised the date to 21 October 20112 and when that didn’t occur admitted he apparently got the math wrong and apparently wasn’t a good prophet. Cynics might note that perhaps the Rapture did occur but that neither Mr. Camping nor his followers were worthy of being taken up. As for the Maya prophecy of the end of the world on 21 December 2012, the basic fact, as we shall see, is there is no such prophecy in their archaeological and ethnohistorical records. Those who argue for such a prediction are either ignorant of or misinformed about Maya archaeology and what the Maya wrote, or are motivated by economic self-interest: scary books and movies sell to ill informed people. As H. L. Mencken wrote, “Nobody ever went broken underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Pic 5: Cyclical time (top and bottom) compared to linear time (middle)
Pic 5: Cyclical time (top and bottom) compared to linear time (middle) (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, it’s important to note that the Maya, Aztec, and Pueblo peoples view time as a cyclical phenomenon and developed their cosmology and cultural practices accordingly, whereas we and most Western peoples (and many other peoples around the world) view time as linear. This difference between linear and cyclical time (pic 5) is a subject to which we’ll return later in this essay.

The Maya

The Maya were among the great astronomer-mathematicians of the ancient world. They were first observational astronomers, but once they developed their calendrical mathematics system they were able to predict future astronomical events. This probably led to the rise of a priest-astronomer class whose accurate predictions enhanced their power and prestige. The “predictive dimension of priestly power” was a potent force in Mayan society and that of other ancient cultures.

Pic 6: Quirigua Stela C
Pic 6: Quirigua Stela C

It is generally agreed among Mayan scholars that the beginning of the Maya calendar occurred with a mythical creation on 11 August 3114 B.C.E., recorded in the Maya Long Count as 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. This Long Count date is carved on Stela C (pic 6) at the site of Quirigua in eastern Guatemala, but the monument was erected much later, in 775 C.E., by the ruler K’ak’ Tiliw Chan Yopaat. Stela C is one of a pair with Stela A, also erected in 775 C.E. However, the earliest actual date found so far is on Stela 2 at the site of Chiapa de Corzo in Chiapas, Mexico on the fringe of the Maya area. The date is 6 December 36 B.C.E. ( in the Maya Long Count).

Pic 7: Monument 6, Tortuguero, Tabasco
Pic 7: Monument 6, Tortuguero, Tabasco

It is important to note that nowhere in the Mayan archaeological record of stelae, wall murals and inscriptions, friezes, written documents such as the Dresden Codex, the Book of Chilam Balam, or other data is there any mention of the end of the world. As Susan Milbrath, Curator of Latin American Art and Archaeology, Florida Museum of Natural History, notes, “We have no record or knowledge that [the Maya] would think the world would come to an end” in 2012. Indeed, there is only one mention of the winter solstice date of 21 December 2012, and it is on Monument 6 at Tortugero, Tabasco, Mexico (pic 7). The monument has been broken, and parts of the remaining portion have been effaced and otherwise damaged, so translation of the passage is problematical. What remains is translated by David Stuart, perhaps the leading Maya epigrapher, to read as follows:-

“Tzuhtz-(a)h-oom u(y)-uxlahuun pik (ta) Chan Ahaw, ux(-te’) Uniiw. Uht-oom ?
Y-em(al) (?) Bolon Yookte’ ’uh ta (?).”
“The thirteenth pik will be finished (on) Four Ahaw, the third of K’ank’in.? will occur. (?) the Nine Foot Tree God(s) to (?).” Or alternatively: “The Thirteenth ‘Bak’tun’ will be finished (on) Four Ajaw, the Third of Uniiw (K’ank’in).? will occur. (It will be) the descent (??) of the Nine Support? God(s) to the ?.”

Pic 8: The 20-day cycle, at the root of ancient Mesoamerican calendar systems - bark painting based on original design thought to be by Jean Charlot
Pic 8: The 20-day cycle, at the root of ancient Mesoamerican calendar systems - bark painting based on original design thought to be by Jean Charlot (Click on image to enlarge)

Clearly, this is not a Maya prophecy about the end of the world. At best it refers to the end of a cycle in time, after which another cycle will begin, that is, the December 21, 2012 date is simply the last day of the current pik (pronounced “peek” ), more commonly known as the bak’tun cycle), a period of 144,000 days in the ancient Maya Long Count calendar roughly equivalent to 394 years. Perhaps more significantly, it marks the end of the thirteenth pik, the final period of what some believe was a far larger calendrical cycle measuring 1,872,000 days that began on 11 August 3114 B.C.E. and that will come to fruition 5,125.336 years later on the 2012 northern hemisphere winter solstice. Note, however, that even this so-called Great Cycle in the Long Count is merely a minor component in far larger Maya time periods that theoretically extend backwards and forward in time in a system of ever increasing cycles of time without a beginning or an endpoint. The date is not, as some mistakenly claim, the “end” of the Maya calendar.

Pic 9: The Dresden Codex
Pic 9: The Dresden Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Leaving aside the lack of archaeological evidence, from logical and cultural historical standpoints, there is also an argument to be made against the notion of a Mayan prediction of the end of the world. The Maya created the Dresden Codex (pic 9) , a 48,000 year calendar including a series of lunar calculations with intervals correlating with eclipses and a Venus table that records the apparent movements of the planet. It also contains almanacs, astronomical and astrological tables, ritual schedules, 260-day ritual calendars, and more. It is inconceivable that the Maya would have invested the enormous astronomical and mathematical effort, to say nothing of the actual writing of the codex, if they believed the world would end 1,000-1,100 years in the future (the Dresden Codex is an 11th –12th century Yucatec Maya document). In short, there is no Maya prediction of the end of the world on 21 December 2012. **

Pic 10: The Aztec ‘Sunstone’
Pic 10: The Aztec ‘Sunstone’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec

Like the Maya, the Aztec had astronomer-mathematicians, though probably not as accomplished as the Maya from whom they borrowed and adapted celestial information, and like the Maya, Aztec cosmology had a cyclical view of time that structured their daily lives and their lives over longer periods of time. For example, the stone calendar wheel, probably the best-known Aztec artifact, contains a 52-year cycle called Xiuhmolpilli (The Binding of the Years). The end of this cycle was celebrated at the New Fire ceremony, a ritual held every 52 years to prevent the end of the world. It last occurred in 1507 and would have been held again in 1559 had not Cortez led the Spanish invasion and conquest (1519-1521) that ended Aztec rule in central Mexico.

Pic 11: The Aztec New Fire Ceremony (from the Codex Borbonicus)
Pic 11: The Aztec New Fire Ceremony (from the Codex Borbonicus) (Click on image to enlarge)

Although the Aztec performed the New Fire ceremony to prevent the end of the world, there is no prediction that the world, in fact, would end. Their ceremony had been held for decades, and at the end the Sun had risen each time. There may have been some anxiety about the outcome of the rite, but we find no archaeological or ethnohistorical evidence that the Aztec expected failure and the subsequent destruction of the world. It was simply the end of one 52-year cycle and the beginning of the next – a renewal of life.

The Hopi

Although the current 31 villages18 and their inhabitants in Arizona and New Mexico are called “Pueblos” (Spanish for town), they have significant cultural variations.

Pic 12: Map of Pueblo villages
Pic 12: Map of Pueblo villages (Click on image to enlarge)

The villages range in size from several hundred to several thousand people; some Pueblos are matrilineal, some patrilineal, and others bilateral in their kinship systems; six different languages are spoken (Hopi, Zuni, Keres, Tiwa, Tewa, and Towa) in addition to English and, to a lesser degree, Spanish. Old Oraibi (a Hopi village) and Acoma are more than a thousand years old, the oldest continuously occupied villages in the United States. Despite the differences, however, the Pueblos also share a number of traits, among them cosmologies that incorporate a cyclical view of time and that structure village life accordingly, especially in their ritual aspects.

Pic 13: Hopi mesas, northern Arizona. Photo by Jonathan E. Reyman
Pic 13: Hopi mesas, northern Arizona. Photo by Jonathan E. Reyman (Click on image to enlarge)

Space does not permit discussion of all Pueblo cultural patterns and systems, so the focus is briefly on the Hopi, a cluster of 12 villages in northern Arizona. These villages, together, number about 7,000 people, and along with Zuni, Acoma, Santo Domingo, and Jemez, all four of which are in New Mexico, seem to have retained and practice more of their traditional religion and cultural activities than many if not most of the other Pueblos.
(Note that the Zuni, like the Aztecs, have a New Fire ceremony, one of many Pueblo cultural traits that probably originated in Mesoamerica. Others include, for example, the presence of macaws among the Pueblos [macaws are not indigenous to the Southwest], copper bells, mosaics, pseudo-cloisonné decoration, a Plumed Serpent deity [Quetzalcoatl], conch shell trumpets, and, of course, maize, beans, and squash, all of which first entered the Southwest in pre-Columbian times and persist in importance to today).

Pic 14: The Hopi calendar round
Pic 14: The Hopi calendar round (Click on image to enlarge)

Hopi oral history states that the Hopi emerged from the Underworld in the distant past and now occupy this time and place, the Fourth World of the Hopi. At some future point in their cyclical view of time, they will enter the Fifth World, and the Sixth and so on until they reach the Ninth World. Their yearly cycle contains a sacred period from about the winter solstice to the summer solstice, during which time the katsinam (masked sacred dancers representing gods and spirits) are present, and then a secular period from the summer solstice to the winter solstice when the katsinam are not present. Soyala, the winter solstice ceremony, marks the return of the katsinam and renewal of the year.

Pic 15: Hopi old style Corn Katsina carving. Photograph by Jonathan E. Reyman
Pic 15: Hopi old style Corn Katsina carving. Photograph by Jonathan E. Reyman (Click on image to enlarge)

But it is not a calendar round as in the western world. While it is true that events follow each year in a specific sequence, the actual dates of events, except for the solstices and equinoxes, are determined by religious officers based on astronomical observations. More important, each event is a continuation of what has come before and preparation for what is to come – that is, looking at the calendar – Pamuya is a continuation from Soyala and a preparation for Powamu. Moreover, Soyala in 2011 was further along the cyclical, spiral-like period of time extending toward the Fifth World, and Soyala in 2012 will be still further along that path. If we look back to image 5, above, 2011 would be slightly lower on the spiral cycle than 2012, and both would be “below” 2013.

Pic 16: Hopi woman’s dance wands. These are used in a ceremony during that  portion of the year when the ‘katsinam’ are not present. Photograph by Jonathan E.  Reyman
Pic 16: Hopi woman’s dance wands. These are used in a ceremony during that portion of the year when the ‘katsinam’ are not present. Photograph by Jonathan E. Reyman (Click on image to enlarge)

Cyclical time for the Hopi allows for renewal, but not renewal in place; rather renewal along the journey to the Fifth World. Once the Fifth World is reached, then Hopi cyclical time will begin anew and extend toward the Sixth World. One lesson to be learned from cyclical time is that it allows both the individual and the community to know where they have been, where they are, and where they are headed in order to make the necessary preparations. It provides a degree of certainty and security in a way that linear time does not.

* The sidereal year is the period of time the Earth takes to complete one full orbit around the Sun measured with respect to the fixed stars, e.g., Aldebaran (365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes, 9 seconds). The solar year is the period of time the Sun takes to return to the same position in the cycle of seasons, e.g. the winter solstice (365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 46 seconds). The difference is 20 minutes, 23 seconds.

** For further discussion, see the following references by reputable Maya researchers:-
• Aveni, Anthony (2009). The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012. The University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
• Stuart, David (2011). The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012. Harmony Books, New York.
• Van Stone, Mark (2010). 2012: Science & Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Tlacaélel Press, San Diego.

Picture sources:-
• All pictures kindly supplied by Jonathan Reyman, except for -
• Pic 2: downloaded from U.S. History Images website
• Pic 8: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

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