‘Mysteries of the Maya Calendar Museum’
A group of Mexican-American children go on a dream journey and learn the magic of the phrase ‘the beginning is in the end’... Superb children’s book by Laanna and Davíd Carrasco, published by Cruce de Caminos 2012.
Welcome to a new Maya ‘Long Count’...!
Yippee! It’s not the end of the world - it’s the start of a new Maya calendar cycle. It’s also time to make a new start, to bring our unequal world into balance, something the ancient Mexicans took very seriously. We open this celebratory page with a guest article kindly written specially for us by William Morris, founder/editor of moonwise.co.uk. This is followed by anecdotal contributions from some of our Panel of Experts members...
|Pic 1: Moon phases diagram, looking down on Earth from north. Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit are both counter-clockwise here. Sunlight is coming in from the right, as indicated by the yellow arrows (Click on image to enlarge)|
This 21 December (2012), the Maya Calendar begins a new cycle. But what does this mean, and why do we have calendar cycles anyway?
The most obvious way of measuring time is to count days. But what of longer periods? Well, the cycle of the seasons is clearly important, and people realised a long time ago that this repeats about every 365 days. Before even that, and before people starting growing crops, we noticed that the phases of the moon repeat every 29 or 30 days. The time when the moon is up in the sky and casting light at night follows the same cycle, and so do the tides, and this is all of great importance to hunter-gatherers. It is also very usefully similar to women’s fertility cycle.
|Pic 2: Fragment of the Moonwise Calendar by William Morris (Click on image to enlarge)|
We call this the lunar month, and it is a great way of counting time, and thinking about time. If something is due to happen in three full moons’ time, we’ll all know easily when that is, especially if someone also counts the days in case it keeps being really cloudy.
The trouble is, the lunar month is not an exact number of days. The average month is just over 29 and a half days. This isn’t too bad, as mostly you can count alternately 29 and 30 days, but it doesn’t quite work out. It gets even worse when you try to count moons until the next time the season is the same. After you’ve counted twelve moons, there are still eleven or twelve days to go. And this seasonal cycle that we call a year (or a solar year) isn’t even exactly 365 days, or even 365 and a quarter days: it’s a bit less than that.
|Pic 3: The fragments of the Coligny Calendar, a lunar calendar from 1st or 2nd century Gaul (now France) (Click on image to enlarge)|
So, even though we mostly want to keep these natural cycles in our calendar, we have ended up with different solutions at different times and places around the world, though we pretty much agree on having the day as the main unit. The Islamic Calendar keeps the lunar month, and has only an approximation of the solar year. Each year is exactly 12 lunar months long, and thus moves gradually back through the seasons. The Jewish, Chinese and Hindu lunar calendars (among others) try to keep both the lunar month and the solar year by having a leap month every two or three years, according to differing rules. The western Gregorian Calendar, now used more or less worldwide, goes for having an approximation of the lunar month, so that months last 28 to 31 days, and new moon generally happens a little earlier each month.
The Bahá’í Calendar takes this further and ignores the moon entirely. It keeps the solar year, but has 19 months of 19 days, followed by a leap day or two.
|Pic 4: Mid-19th century Italian bracelet bearing cameos in raised relief of the Olympic gods. The seven gods depicted are the gods of the planets in correct order to their relationship to the seven days of the week (Click on image to enlarge)|
Often, people use more than one calendar. Moslems may use the Gregorian Calendar alongside the Umm al-Qura Islamic Calendar, while actually celebrating festivals according to the announcement of the sighting of the new moon. In China, the Gregorian Calendar is in official use, but people use the lunar calendar for most festivals. There is even another solar calendar of “fortnights”, which start on the day the sun enters a new sign, or passes the half-way mark in one.
Running alongside all of this is the most successful calendar element of all, the seven day week, which probably began in ancient Babylon as a simplification of quarters of the lunar month. It has very likely continued uninterrupted since then, though the names have varied. If something happened on a Saturday two thousand years ago, we can be pretty sure that it was an exact number of weeks before any other Saturday. Occasional attempts to change this have failed, often because religions have a very strong attachment to treating a particular day of the week as sacred, but also I think because people really like this regular short cycle. Though suggest that to some people on a Monday, and they might not agree with you!
|Pic 5: Popular representation of the ancient 20-day cycle at the heart of the Maya - and other Mesoamerican - calendars (Click on image to enlarge)|
Central American calendars have their own take on all this. The lunar month and the solar year are still marked, often very accurately, but they are sideshows to the main calendar systems, which (like the week and the Bahá’í months) go mostly for pure cycles of numbers. The earliest of these is the 260 day cycle, which we know as the tzolkin, made up of two cycles of 20 and 13 days, with 20 and 13 both being important numbers, in much the same way that 2, 7, 10, 12 and 16 are important to a lot of people around the world today. Just like with weekdays, each day of twenty days has its own name. Alongside this, each day of thirteen days has its own number, so that, for the Maya, 4 Ahau is followed by 5 Imix and 6 Ik. After 260 (20 times 13) days, 4 Ahau comes round again. These were, I think, very much the religious dates.
For the Aztecs, 4 Ahau is 4 Xochitl, or 4 Flower.
|Pic 6: Graphic representation of how the Tzolk’in and Haab Calendar cycles intermeshed to create the 52-year Calendar Round cycle. The much larger Haab wheel would have 365 positions. Illustrated is the 4 Ajaw 3 Kank’in date for Dec. 21, 2012 (Click on image to enlarge)|
A second calendar developed, which we call the haab. This still has a 20-day cycle, but fits it to a simplified solar year of 365 days by having eighteen of these 20-day cycles, followed by five days that aren’t part of the 20-day round. This time, the twenty days are numbered 0 to 19, and each of these 20-day “months” is named. So 3 Kankin is followed by 4 Kankin and 5 Kankin, where Kankin (or the Aztec Quecholli, “precious feather”) is the name of the one of the months. Even though it seems the ancient Maya were well aware that the year was slightly longer than 365 days, they preferred to keep to the 365 days, in much the same way as many Zoroastrians or Parsis do, and let the dates move gradually in relation to the seasons.
The 260-day tzolkin and the 365-day haab together are known as the calendar round, and are often written together, so that 21 December 2012 is 4 Ahau 3 Kankin.
But, as you must be aware, 21 December 2012 is something else as well.
|Pic 7: Copan Stela A Long Count — 18.104.22.168.0: 9 bak’tuns/14 katuns/19 tuns/8 winals/0 k’ins; Tzolk’in position — 4 Ajaw (Click on image to enlarge)|
The Maya realised that the calendar round repeated every 18,980 days, the lowest common multiple of 260 and 365 (13 x 4 x 5 x 73), and wanted a way to mark dates over a much longer period. In the Old World people simply added a year number, but the Maya invented a whole new calendar, called the Long Count. This new calendar, used alongside the calendar round, has the great advantage over the year number system of the Old World in that it is entirely regular, especially useful if you are studying the heavens.
|Pic 8: Palenque Temple of the Cross inscription: centre columns include glyphs for “13 bak’tuns completed” following the Calendar Round glyphs of 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u on that date - 13 bak’tuns prior to December 21, 2012 (Calendar (Click on image to enlarge)|
In the Long Count, 21 December 2012 is normally written as 22.214.171.124.0. 19 December is 126.96.36.199.18, 20 December 188.8.131.52.19 and 22 December 184.108.40.206.1. The dots are there to separate what are essentially digits in a 20-base number system. But you may notice that 20 December is not full of 19s. The fourth digit of the five can be 0-17 instead of 0-19, and this may have been to approximate the third digit as a year number, as it thus changes every 360 days. For the rest, the familiar 20 and 13 appears, and this is all the number of days in the long count is, a multiplication of 20s and 13 (with an 18 thrown in). What has been known as the Long Count period is 13 x 20 x 20 x 18 x 20 days, or 5125.36 Gregorian years. On this basis, the next Long Count period begins on 3 May 7138.
|Pic 9: Partial Long Count from Palenque - 9 winals/2 k’ins (Click on image to enlarge)|
Some people are now saying that this is a misunderstanding, and that the first digit does not run from 1 to 13 as had been thought, but just like most of the rest, goes from 0 to 19. Certainly the current Wikipedia editors take this attitude and, on this basis, 21 December 2012 is no more important than 18 September 1619 (Gregorian), when the initial 12 changed to 13, or 26 March 2407, when 13 would change to 14! You may well be able to read more about this elsewhere.
Either way, it isn’t that different to the start of the year 2000 (2 x 10 x 10 x 10 years), except that the Long Count is made of up days, not years.
But because we do give numbers and dates significance, they serve as important milestones in our lives and in history. We can even say, “Ah, now that we’ve got here, let’s do something differently. Let’s become better people!”
|Pic 10: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque: West Tablet (transcription) (Click on image to enlarge)|
William’s last sentiment is shared by our other contributors to this page... beginning with Mark Van Stone, Professor of Art History, Southwestern College (USA)...
There IS proof that the Maya calendar continues after the 13th bak’tun to the 14th, and the 15th, and on to the 1st Piktun (20th Bak’tun).
It is in the third panel of the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque. The scribes specifically refer to “the 14th Bak’tun” in columns I-J, and count to the 1st Piktun (220.127.116.11.0.0) in the preceding columns. This inscription tells us that the Maya priests at Palenque expected the calendar to go on (presumably forever, but at least to 4772 AD), and that their culture would also continue till that time, without significant change.
After all, a culture, like an individual, never REALLY believes in its own death.
The next end-of-the-world, by the way (at least according to the Aztecs) is 2027. You shall probably start hearing about the “Aztec prophecies” in a few months...
|Pic 11: Palenque’s Temple of Inscriptions, funerary temple of K’inich Janaab Pakal, records a date far forward of December 21, 2012, indicating the Maya did not expect an end of time (Click on image to enlarge)|
If it is any comfort, remember that the Maya, Aztecs, and every Mesoamerican, failed to predict the Spanish Invasion, which was REALLY the end of their world. Kind of a big omission, no? Does that weaken your confidence in their “prophetic” ability?
I also know only one Maya or Aztec prediction that came true. This one, a K’atun-prophecy in the Books of Chilam Balam: “Politicians will lie.”
How could one go wrong predicting that?
I promise you, the Maya prophecies have no relevance to your life, or the world’s existence. This does not excuse you from trying to make the world a little better. Nothing excuses us from that... In fact, if we all do not pitch in to help save the world from global warming, over-harvesting of trees and fishes, too many people, etc., our world surely WILL end soon. (At least our human civilization... the planet will keep on spinning, etc....)
|Pic 12: ‘The long view’ - from Tikal Temple IV of Temples I and II (Click on image to enlarge)|
Next, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Professor of Art History, California State University, Los Angeles (USA)...
December 21st., 2012, gives us the opportunity to complete a 5000 year cycle of the life of the world and we hope we can reflect on all the destructive things we as humanity have done, so we can start the new era with a spiritual renewal and the promise of being a new humanity that will do better things for the world in the next Baktun, and for the next 5000 years.
Robert Sitler, Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida (USA)...
Not surprisingly, the close of the 13th pik cycle in the Maya Long Count did not herald a cataclysmic end of the world. That said, the world we humans have known since the dawn of our species actually IS gradually ending through species extinction, climate change, ubiquitous contamination, loss of top soil and tropical forest, acidification of the oceans, demise of coral reefs and a host of other human-caused phenomena.
|Pic 13: The Observatory (‘El Caracol’), Chichén Itzá, Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)|
Dr. Alfredo López Austin, Researcher (Emeritus), Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma (UNAM), Mexico City (Mexico)...
As from today, people will finally stop believing in the end of the world, a prediction falsely attributed to Maya tradition. But failed predictions are easily forgotten, and many will be prepared to believe in other future predictions: human ingenuity and imagination are limitless...
Davíd Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America, University of Harvard Divinity School (USA)...
Humankind over the centuries and millennia has always carried within itself not only hopes but also great fears of some sort of terrible ending, followed, in each case, by RENEWAL. The beginning is in the end: what’s happening at the end of the Maya calendar is a new beginning, a new start. The Maya always believed in the renewal of life; their ceremonies were to bring about the renewal of corn, of children, of culture, of time, of numbers...
|Pic 14: Portrait bust of K’inich Janaab Pakal, most famous of Maya kings (Mexico National Museum of Anthropology); his funerary temple is the Temple of Inscriptions, Palenque (Click on image to enlarge)|
And the last word from Anthony Aveni, Russell Colgate Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies, Colgate University, New York (USA)...
I wish you all a happy first day of the rest of your lives!
• Pix 1, 3, 4, 13: photos from Wikipedia
• Pic 2: courtesy of William Morris/moonwise.co.uk
• Pic 5: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Illustration courtesy and © Paul Johnson / Crab Nebula image - NASA, ESA
• Pix 7, 8, 9, 11, 12 & 14: photos by and courtesy of Paul Johnson
• Pic 10: graphic courtesy of Mark van Stone.
If you’re looking for ’the BEST short intro to the workings of the Maya Calendar of any publication’, order Paul Johnson’s brand new Lords of Time Daykeeper Calendar book - link below...
And if you want to listen to some compellingly beautiful music written specially to celebrate this new Long Count, click on the links below to download ‘13 Bak’tun’ by Juan Dies of Sones de Mexico Ensemble. HIGHLY recommended...
Here's what others have said:
1 At 12.55pm on Wednesday February 8 2017, Guadalupe wrote:
Mexicolore replies: Hi!