Once upon a time there was a great myth that had people all over the world talking about the Maya. The myth spoke about how this civilization predicted the world would end on December 21, 2012. Because their system to count time was based on astronomical observation and their prophetic books had been validated by researchers, many people began preparing for a catastrophe, much like the Y2K anticipation.
A widely held belief about something ancient-based that has relevance in today’s world and can explain something a bit surreal…that’s the perfect recipe for a wonderful myth, isn’t it?
Now, grab a magnifying glass and let’s debunk this myth one fact at a time:
- The Maya did create systems to measure time: two vigesimal day counts (a 260-day one and a 360+5 one) and a long count with periods of various lengths, including a baktun, which is 144,000 days long. This is the part of the myth that is true and can make it believable by those who have some knowledge about the Maya or did a little research about the 2012 talk. None of these systems has an end date or time.
- There is a commonly used correlation system, called the GMT (Goodman-Martínez-Thompson), to calculate various Maya calendrical dates into either the Julian or the Gregorian calendar. This uses the Maya’s starting date of creation, which is a 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ajaw, 8 Kumk’u long count date. A scholar used this correlation to calculate a date from part of a hieroglyphic inscription in Tortuguero that he interpreted as the completion of a baktun, which is approximately 400 years long. However (a) that’s his interpretation of such date and (b) the GMT correlation system used between the Maya calendar and “our” calendar has been challenged, and there is no clear answer as to whether such “end of time-date” would happen in 2011, 2012, or perhaps even many years prior. Either way, just like a December 31 marks the end of a year, January 1st will bring us a new cycle around the sun.
- The Maya do have books: from codices to the Popol Vuh, Chilam Balam books and several others written during the Colonial period. None of these talk about an end time, not the way the myth did, anyway. So, their own mythology was taken out of context – as is usually the case with myths!
What we can rescue from this all is that the Maya do have systems to count time that are worth learning about; that their books have much information about their religion, agriculture, calendrics, socio-political organization, medicine, education and overall cosmology that we can learn from directly and not have to interpret, nor decipher; and that time is cyclical.
A new year gives us an opportunity to reflect about the end of a cycle and prepare to start a new one in the best possible way: taking care of ourselves and the world we live in. I invite you to take advantage of your visit to Yucatán and learn more about the Maya – not only the ancient civilization, but our contemporary Maya peoples – as we commemorate six years of the 2012 myth that traveled the world. After all, not everyone gets to say they celebrated the end of 2018 in Maya land!
Editorial by Andrea Medina