Friday, December 21, 2012

The End of a Mayan Age

The Mayans believed in “world eons” each lasting, using the Gregorian calendar, 5125 years. The Mayans had three calendars. The civil calendar (the Haab’) had 365 days, the religious 260, and the Long Count Calendar 144,000 days. A “world” or eon was 13 of these long count years, called b’ak’tuns.  The length of each such age, therefore, is 1,872,000 days.

The beginning of the last world—the fourth such in the Long Count Calendar—was on August 11, 3114 BC. Adding 1.872 million days to that brings us to today, December 21, 2012. Now is it just a coincidence—or did the Mayans know that the end of this age would end on the day of the Winter Solstice? I think that they did.

As pointed out in the last post on this series (link), they well knew exactly how long the actual tropical (also called solar) year was (365.2422 days). Their own civil calendar, according to the scholar, Victoria Bricker (“The Origin of the Maya Solar Calendar,” in Current Anthropology,  February 1982) had its beginnings on the winter solstice around 550 BC. The Mayans therefore clearly associated that date with the completion of a period. My guess is that they calculated their long calendar looking both backward and forward—and picked the starting day of this Fourth Age so that it would coincide with today’s solar event at its end.

To bring this counting down to earth, lets trace it. Between 3114 BC and 2012 AD, we have the passage of 5,126 years. But the first year was partial, starting on August 11; so was the last year, ending on December 21, today. Now August 11, 3114 (not a leap year) was day 223; therefore we count only 143 days of that year. This leap year’s December 21 is day number 356. So let’s do the additions using years of 365.2422 days as the multiplier for full years:

5,124 full years
Days in the first year to be counted
Days in the last year to be counted
  Total Days

The exact time of the Winter Solstice took place in the northern hemisphere at 11:12 Greenwich Mean Time, which was 6:12 am here in Detroit; the scare-mongers prefer 11:11—perhaps because it looks more ominous. If you are reading this, it means that the world, as a physical phenomenon, hasn’t ended. Nor did the Mayans ever suggest that it would. It’s just another fancy calendar running out—so that a new one must be purchased.

So what happens now to folks who have been earning advertising dollars by publicizing Doomsday? Well, there is still hope for them. The Mayan Long Count Calendar is truly long. The next important date comes when instead of 13 b’ak’tuns 20 will have passed. At that point we reach a Piktun. And that day will come October 12, 4772. That would seem to leave a fair amount of time yet to come up with the new websites proclaiming that calamity.

But, not to err in my own projections, one of these eons one of the catastrophists, surely, will turn out to be right! Not this time. And in the meantime, the Mayans have had their season in the spotlight. And their astronomy serves us as a reminder not ever to discount the cleverness of vanished cultures.

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