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The Mayan Calendar

by Bill Meacham on November 30th, 2012

In about 500 BC astronomers in the Yucatan Peninsula predicted that a remarkable event would happen some 2,500 years in their future. They thought it so significant that they constructed a complex calendar full of cycles within cycles such that all the cycles would come to an end (and thus a new beginning) at once on that day. That day is December 21, 2012, the solstice, and it is almost upon us. If we have not done so already, it is time to make preparations. But not in the way many new-age pundits, with their penchant for sensationalism, would have us believe.

I am speaking, of course, of the Mayan calendar, and the fears that the world will end in some kind of apocalypse on the December 2012 solstice. In fact, experts agree, the Maya had no conception of such an apocalypse, which is a newer and European idea. Says one researcher, “We keep looking for endings…. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”(1)

But if it is not the end of the world, then what will happen on the upcoming December solstice? And why were the Maya so interested in it that they constructed a calendar around it? To answer these questions we will have to delve into the Mayan calendar and astronomy. The details are complex, so here is a brief summary.

The Maya concocted a complicated calendar capable of identifying specific dates within a 5,125-year cycle composed of thirteen 394-year “baktuns,” which themselves are composed of cycles within cycles. On December 21 the 13th baktun will come to an end. Rather than starting a 14th baktun, the grand cycle will start over again. It’s like your car odometer rolling over from all nines to all zeroes.

The Mayan astronomers were quite proficient. They predicted that on the upcoming December solstice an unusual astronomical event would occur: the alignment (as seen from the earth) of the sun with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic. Such an alignment happens every year, but usually not on a solstice. Because of the earth’s axial precession, it happens on a solstice only once every 12,900 years.(2) The Maya predicted the timing of this unusual event and constructed their calendar so that it would end at this occasion. Their calendar does not so much begin at an arbitrary date in the past but end at one in the future. They worked backwards from the astronomical event they believed would happen on the upcoming December solstice.

That’s the story in a nutshell; for those interested in the details I give a more comprehensive explanation below. But what does it mean? Will the arrangement of the stars on a certain day actually have any unusual effect on us?

In terms of physical effects, the answer is No, for two reasons. The first is that there is no physical evidence that any arrangement of stars and planets has anything other than physical effects. The rotation of the earth determines day and night; its progress through its yearly orbit and the inclination of its axis determine the seasons; the positions of the sun and moon determine the tides; and the gravitational forces among the various heavenly bodies determine their orbits and hence their position in the sky from our point of view. But there is no objective, third-party evidence that their positions and movements have any nonphysical influence on human affairs. (They might, as astrologers maintain; but the objective evidence for that influence is at best sketchy.)

The second reason is that the Maya got it wrong, by about fourteen years. There was indeed such a conjunction of the sun and the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic at a solstice, but it happened in 1998.(3) So even if the conjunction could cause an unusual effect, it would have already happened. Apart from the Mayan calendar, there is nothing special about the upcoming solstice.

And yet we have the Mayan calendar and it does have an effect on us. You might call that effect socially constructed, but it is real nonetheless. Had the Maya not made something of the December solstice of 2012, we would not be having this conversation. But they did, and millions of people worldwide, not just you and I, have heard of the upcoming event even if they don’t know precisely what it entails. We can, if we choose, make use of the psychic force of all that attention.

The image is striking: cycles within cycles within cycles, all ponderously but inexorably coming to an alignment, a zero point, after 50 centuries. I imagine a great wheel slowly turning once every 5,125 years and within it a smaller wheel turning once every 394 years and within that yet smaller ones, the least of which turns every 20 days, a spinning whirligig of clockwork that drives an immense and awesome epoch.

And the beginning of a new epoch is almost upon us.

To mark it, to make something useful of it, I suggest the following practice:

  1. Set an intention for the next epoch, something you would like to see happen or endure over the next 5,125 years.
  2. Do something now, before the solstice, that will contribute to your intention being realized and that will have a tangible effect after the solstice. Launch something, start something, plant something (figuratively or literally) that will begin to come to fruition after the solstice. Do something to advance your intention now, something that is irrevocable and that will have a tangible or visible effect in the physical world after the solstice.
  3. Do this, as much as you are able, with a pure heart.

We are very close to the axle of an immense wheel, an axle that has great gravitational attraction. Imagine that you are in the plane of that wheel and you launch something toward the axle. Your payload comes close to the axle and whips around it with tremendous speed and then flies off into the future.

What you launch now will have great power. It will take effect almost immediately; it will have great impetus; and it will last a long, long time.

* * *

 

Detailed explanation

For those interested in a more complete explanation of the Mayan calendar and its astronomical roots, I present a summary of my research on the subject. Let’s take the calendar first. In fact, the Maya had several calendars.(4) Like all calendars, theirs were both somewhat arbitrary and based on objective astronomical observation. The numbers 13 and 20 seem to have been particularly important, and a 260-day calendar (13 numbers combined with 20 day names) is still in use in the Guatemalan highlands. Another calendar, based on the solar year, had 18 months of 20 days each plus an extra five days for a total of 365. The calendar we are interested in is the Long Count. The problem with the 260-day and the 365-day calendars is that the years were not numbered, so there was no way to determine a specific date in the far past or the distant future. They could correlate a date in the 260-day cycle to a date in the 365-day cycle, but that would only work for 18,980 days, about 52 years. (The least common multiple of 260 and 365 is 18,980; 73 X 260 = 52 X 365 = 18,980.) The Long Count calendar solves this problem by assigning a numbering system to every day since an arbitrary beginning, much like our Gregorian calendar numbers the years from an arbitrary starting point 2,012 years ago.

The Long Count system is a bit complicated but we will need an overview to understand why the upcoming solstice is significant. The Long Count is composed of cycles within cycles. The smallest unit is one day (a Kin). 20 days make one Winal. Eighteen Winals make one Tun, which is 360 days, close to a solar year. (That may be why there are only 18 Winals in a Tun instead of 20; everything else is in multiples of 20.) 20 Tuns make one Katun, so a Katun is about 20 years. And 20 Katuns make one Baktun, about 394 years.(5) A Long Count date is written with dots in between the units, like this: 12.19.19.16.17. This means 12 Baktuns, 19 Katuns, 19 Tuns, 16 Winals and 17 Kins, or days, from the arbitrary beginning.

We know how to correlate the Long Count calendar with our own Gregorian calendar because Spanish conquerors recorded when certain events happened in our calendar and noted the equivalent date in the Mayan calendar. Later researchers correlated new moons recorded in Mayan hieroglyphs with the known dates of the new moons in our calendar and came to the same conclusion.(6) Agreement is not universal, but by the reckoning accepted by most scholars, 12.19.19.16.17 is equivalent to November 23, 2012. There are numerous specific dates on various Mayan murals and carvings. Knowing the correlation between the Maya Long Count calendar and our own Gregorian calendar, we know quite precisely what those dates correspond to. Click here to see a fun interactive depiction of the Long Count calendar.

According to the Long Count calendar we are approaching the end of the 13th Baktun. On December 20 the Long Count calendar will be 12.19.19.17.19. Then, just like a car’s odometer rolling over, December 21 will be 13.0.0.0.0.

As I said, the number 13 seems to have been important for the Maya. There is some evidence that they thought that the beginning of the current cycle (0.0.0.0.0) was also the end of a previous cycle. “There are inscriptions at Palenque, Copan, and Quirigua that specifically date events occurring before the current era. All of them state that they occurred within the 12th baktun and lead up to 13.0.0.0.0…. For the ancient Maya, the 13th baktun [of the previous cycle] ended at the beginning of the world’s fourth creation, or era. The Popol Vuh describes…three previous creations.”(7) So 13.0.0.0.0 is not only the end of one cycle, it is the beginning of the next, the same as 0.0.0.0.0. No wonder the Maya thought it would be significant.

And the upcoming December solstice is just that time. But why will it happen then? The short answer is because the Mayan astronomers set it up so it would.

The current cycle started 1,872,000 days prior to December 21, 2012. That puts the arbitrary beginning at 11 August 3114 BC, according to our Gregorian calendar.(8) It is extremely unlikely that the Maya were around on that date and even less likely that whoever was around had enough cultural sophistication and mathematical knowledge to start counting the days in such a complex manner. Hence, the calendar creators must have had something else in mind. Researcher John Major Jenkins thinks they started the other way around, counting backward from the upcoming December solstice.(9) In other words, they started with the December solstice in the year we call 2012, and called that 13.0.0.0.0. The Maya, being consummate astronomers, made sure their Great Cycle would end on a solstice some 2,500 years in their future.

But why this particular solstice? To answer that we must understand some astronomy, specifically the galactic equator, the ecliptic, the solstices and axial precession.

As we look at the sky at night we see a great band of stars that are very close together, and we call it the Milky Way. The Milky Way is the galaxy our sun is in, and it is flattish, like a pancake. Imagine yourself in a diffuse pancake looking toward its center from some distance away; it would look like this:(10)

The Milky Way

The Milky Way

We can draw an imaginary line through this band of stars so that roughly half of them are on either side of it, and we call that line the galactic equator.

Looking at the sky, we can imagine that we are in the center of a great sphere. As the days and seasons go by, we see different portions of this celestial sphere at night. Against this sphere we can plot where the sun appears in relation to the stars on successive days and months. (We cannot see the stars behind the sun of course, because when we see the sun it is daytime. But knowing the position of the stars on the celestial sphere we can calculate where the sun is in relation to them.) Through the year the sun appears to move against the background of the stars along a flat line, which we call the ecliptic. The galactic equator and the ecliptic intersect at about 60 degrees:

Intersection

Intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic

The earth’s axis is tilted relative to the plane of the ecliptic. That’s what causes our seasons. A solstice is a time when one of the poles of the earth’s axis points directly toward the sun and the other pole points directly away. On December 21, the north pole will be pointed directly away so we call it winter solstice in the northern hemisphere; in the southern, it is summer solstice.

You would expect the sun’s position against the celestial sphere to be the same each year on a solstice, but it is not. Suppose you mark the position of the sun against the celestial sphere on a northern hemisphere summer solstice. “One full orbit later, when the Sun has returned to the same apparent position relative to the background stars, the Earth’s axial tilt is not now directly towards the Sun…. it is a little way ‘beyond’ this. In other words, the solstice occurred a little earlier in the orbit. Thus, the tropical year, measuring the cycle of seasons (for example, the time from solstice to solstice, or equinox to equinox), is about 20 minutes shorter than the sidereal year, which is measured by the Sun’s apparent position relative to the stars.”(11)

This effect is called axial precession, meaning that celestial sphere of background stars appears to go backward a bit from year to year relative to the sun. By “backward” I mean this: every day the sun and stars rise in the east and set in the west, so their motion is forward from east to west. Precession means the celestial sphere appears to have moved backward, from west to east, as measured on successive yearly solstices. To put it the other way around, on the solstice the sun’s position against the background stars has moved forward. This effect is caused by a slight wobble in the earth’s axis of rotation. The poles rotate in a circle, and over about 26,000 years they return to where they were before.

Now we are in a position to know why the upcoming December solstice was important to the Maya. They knew about precession, and knew that on this date the sun would line up with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic.(12)

Twice a year the earth, the sun and that intersection point are lined up, once when the earth is in between the sun and the intersection, and once when the earth is on the other side of the sun so the sun is in between the earth and the intersection. For most of history, when that happened it was not on a solstice, and on the solstices the sun was not in alignment with the intersection. But on this solstice the sun will be in alignment, according to the Mayan calculations.

Because of precession, the sun steadily marches westward from solstice to solstice. It is easy to see this with pictures. This one shows the position of the sun at the December solstice in 12 AD and in 1012 AD:

Sun's motion westward over time

The sun’s apparent motion westward over time

As you can see, in 1012 AD the sun has moved to the right (westward), toward the intersection.

And here it is in 2012:

Sun in 2012

The sun at the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic

On December 21, 2012 the sun will be lined up with the intersection of the galactic equator and the ecliptic, according to Mayan calculations. So we can surmise that this would be a highly suitable date to end the 13th Baktun. As Jenkins puts it, “For early Mesoamerican skywatchers, the slow approach of the winter solstice sun to the Sacred Tree [the Milky Way as it intersects the ecliptic] was seen as a critical process, the culmination of which was surely worthy of being called 13.0.0.0.0, the end of a World Age. The channel would then be open through the winter solstice doorway, up the Sacred Tree…to the center of the churning heavens, the Heart of Sky.”(13)

Notes

(1) Vance, “Unprecedented Maya Mural Found.”

(2) 2012Hoax, “Galactic Equator vs Plane.”

(3) Hunter, “Mayan Calendar – Long Count Accuracy.” 2012Hoax, “Galactic Equator vs Plane.”

(4) Wikipedia, “Maya calendar.”

(5) Ibid.

(6) Barnhart, “The Correlation Debate.”

(7) Barnhart, “The Longcount and 2012 AD.”

(8) Wikipedia, “Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.”

(9) Jenkins, “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date.”

(10) All images are from Hunter, “2012 AD – Mayan Calendar Galactic Alignment.”

(11) Wikipedia, “Axial precession.”

(12) Jenkins, “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date.”

(13) Ibid.

References

2012Hoax. “Galactic Equator vs Plane.” Online publication http://www.2012hoax.org/galactic-equator-vs-plane as of 28 November 2012.

Barhart, Ed. “The Correlation Debate.” Online publication http://mayan-calendar.com/ancient_correlation.html as of 28 November 2012.

Barnhart, Ed. “The Longcount and 2012 AD.” Online publication http://mayan-calendar.com/ancient_longcount.html as of 28 November 2012.

Hunter, Keith. “2012 AD – Mayan Calendar Galactic Alignment.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/2012.html as of 26 November 2012.

Hunter, Keith. “Mayan Calendar – Long Count Accuracy in Targeting the Galactic Alignment Configuration.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/long-count-mayan-calendar-accuracy.html as of 26 November 2012.

Hunter, Keith. “The Long Count Mayan Calendar System.” Online publication http://www.ancient-world-mysteries.com/long-count.html as of 26 November 2012.

Jenkins, John Major. “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date in 2012 A.D.” Online publication
http://www.levity.com/eschaton/Why2012.html as of 28 February 2003.

Licon, Adriana Gomex. “2012 and Maya prophecies: What were they thinking?” Online publication http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/49224135/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/maya-prophecies-what-were-they-thinking/ as of 26 November 2012.

New York Times. “The Long Count.” Online publication http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/16/science/20091116-maya.html as of 28 November 2012.

Vance, Erik. “Unprecedented Maya Mural Found, Contradicts 2012 ‘Doomsday’ Myth.” Online publication http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/05/120510-maya-2012-doomsday-calendar-end-of-world-science/ as of 28 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “2012 phenomenon.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_phenomenon as of 26 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Axial precession.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axial_precession as of 28 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Celestial sphere.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celestial_sphere as of 28 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Ecliptic.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecliptic as of 28 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Maya calendar.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_calendar as of 26 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Maya civilization.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_civilization as of 26 November 2012.

Wikipedia. “Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_Long_Count_calendar as of 28 November 2012.

From → Philosophy

2 Comments
  1. Mike Ignatowski permalink

    Bill,

    I’ll compliment you on the closing section with its inspirational call to action. It does raise an interesting point for discussion though – what can we do that will have the greatest effect over the next 5,125 years? Most of the ideas that come to mind involve helping avoiding some sort of major catastrophe. Working to avoid catastrophic environmental change is one obvious goal, as is avoiding the extinction of a large number of species. Of course avoiding a major nuclear arms race that ends in a significant nuclear exchange would have a long term benefit too. There may also be any number of catastrophic social events that could leave our society under the influence of harmful ideologies, or under the control of stifling power structures for a very long time.

    On the positive side, what are the developments that can have the biggest positive effects over the next 5,125 years? Starting or becoming actively involved in any number of major social movements comes to mind. In keeping with the idea that this is the end of the previous 5,125 epoch, and the start of a new one, we are looking at replacing ideas and world views that dominated the world for the last 5,125 years with ones more appropriate for the next 5,125 years. That’s a fun “big idea” to ponder as the holidays draw near.

    – Mike

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