Mayan stone calendar
© Google Images
According to the Mayan calendar, a significant event will occur in 2012.
Our world is fascinated by prophecies of doom. Every day the media carry reports of predictions that the next year, decade, century or millennium will bring untold disasters. From a reading of current news headlines, this is difficult to argue against.

And now, we are bombarded by predictions of a disaster associated with what many say is the end of the Maya calendar. But did the Maya actually predict that the world as we know it will be destroyed by some unknown cataclysm on Dec. 21, 2012?

When the Maya abandoned their great cities in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, they left behind large stone monuments with hieroglyphic writing. These inscriptions were very difficult to decipher as the writing system had not been used since the Spanish conquest when all, but four, of the books written by the Maya were burned. However, based on the four remaining books, early scholars were able to identify some of the gods and goddesses, the numerical system, and most importantly, parts of the calendar. Therefore, while they could not decipher the events recorded on the stone monuments, scholars could read the dates on which these events occurred.

One date that stood out was the day the world was created according to the Maya, Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. The actions leading up to the creation of the world involved the exploits of many gods and goddesses and took place over a long period, 13 baktuns (a baktun is equal to approximately 400 years, so 13 baktuns is roughly 5200 years). On this last day of creation, the Maize Lord, one of the principal Maya gods, reached his hand up into the sky and turned the heavens, which started time. After this act, "real time" started, and this is what is recorded as the first day in the Maya calendar.

Because mythological time ended at the end of the 13th baktun, scholars and writers in the 1960s and '70s, who were keenly interested in the Maya, assumed that the "real time" calendar would also end at the end of 13 baktuns, on Dec. 21, 2012. In 1966, Michael Coe, professor emeritus of anthropology at Yale University, first linked this presumed end of the Maya calendar to a cataclysmic end of the world, as predicted by the Hopi and the Aztec. This idea was later picked up and amplified in 1975 by Frank Waters in his book, Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness. Waters, who also wrote the Book of the Hopi, argued that at the end of 13 baktuns, a catastrophe would completely destroy the old world and a new world would take its place.

However, it is Jose Argüelles that is most closely associated with the 2012 phenomenon. Argüelles wrote a best-selling booking in 1987 called The Mayan Factor. In this book, he focused on the end of the 13 baktuns as a moment of transformation from one world order to another (guided by extraterrestrials from whom the Maya are descended, but that is another article).

It is this concept of a new world rising from the ashes of the old that seems to resonate with people today. Books, articles, movies, documentaries, and websites have tied an array of events, both fictional and factual, to 2012, including solar flares, shifting magnetic poles, astronomical alignments, recent political events, and, sadly, all-too-real natural disasters. Even the current economic crisis in Greece has been linked to 2012, although it is unclear what new world order will result from this calamity! Indeed, it seems clear from the reams that have been written about 2012 that we are unhappy with the world we have created and want a "doover."

Yet, what did the ancient Maya say about such a significant event in their future? Surely something as noteworthy as the end of the world or the coming of a new age of consciousness would have been recorded on many monuments. But in all of the thousands of texts left by the Maya, only one includes any information at all about this momentous future event.

The single example comes from the site of Tortuguero in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. There, on Monument 6, the Maya recorded the end to the 13th baktun. Interestingly, it was not even the main point of this inscription, but an addendum, comprising only eight glyph blocks at the end of a text that originally consisted of more than 156 glyph blocks. The focus of the text was the dedication of the building associated with the monument by the king of Tortuguero, Bahlam Ahaw (Jaguar Lord). This type of prediction into the future is fairly common in Maya texts and serves to contextualize the main event in the inscription.

So what exactly was written in the final eight glyphs on Tortuguero Monument 6?

The Maya recorded that on Dec. 21, 2012 the 13th baktun will end. Bolon Yokte', a god of transition associated with the ending of time periods, will witness the ceremonies conducted on this day and will be "invested," presumably by the descendants of the king, Bahlam Ahaw. Based upon the rituals of contemporary Maya, scholars interpret this passage to mean that the future king of Tortuguero would have brought out an effigy of the god, Bolon Yokte', dressed it in ritual clothing and placed it on display to watch the ceremonies conducted in honour of the end of the 13th baktun.

Ironically, what is missing from this passage is any mention of the end of the world. There is no catastrophe predicted and no rise of a new world order foretold.

Further, the Maya predict other events far into the future, well beyond 2012.

For instance at the nearby site of Palenque, on the West Panel in the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Maya recorded the date of Oct. 23, 4772 in the future to contextualize the accession of the great king, K'inich Janaab' Pakal (Sun-Eyed Flower Shield) on July 26, 615. And at the magnificent city of Tikal, located in the heart of Guatemalan rain forest, the Maya carved the date of Jan. 29, 5,039,131 on a stone monument commissioned in the 6th century by the king, Kalomte' Bahlam (Emperor Jaguar).

So while the Maya certainly envisioned the 13th baktun ending, just as we anticipate that the third millennium will end on Dec. 31, 2999, they in no way thought their world would end.

And this is what is so interesting about the 2012 prophecy. It is our culture that is captivated with apocalyptic predictions of all sorts, religious, political, economic, and environmental, and we invented this doomsday scenario, not the ancient Maya.

Kathryn Reese-Taylor is associate professor and graduate program director in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Calgary.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen