Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 21 and the Mayan Long Count Calendar

(But first, a note. I was going to pepper this post with lovely images of Mayan ruins that I took on my trip to Mexico a couple years ago, but I can't find the digital versions of said images anywhere! I have a mere seven that I printed out that I will scan and post when I get home this evening. Until then, I'll tell you where the image will go and what it will be and you can use your imagination! Yeah. I know. Onward!)

It's not the end of the world.

Really, it's not.

The thing that people say is the Mayan prediction of the end of the world is a calendar. It's a very long calendar (a very. long. calendar), but it's still a calendar. What do you do when you get to the end of a calendar? You probably get a new calendar, right? That's all that's going on here. That's not even what's going on here. There is still more to the calendar. I'll get to that.

The Long Count Calendar is pretty cool. It's based on earlier systems of counting days and allowed the Mayans to ascribe a unique identifier to every day. Their first system was only good for 52 years before identifiers started repeating. It's exactly like the Gregorian calendar we use today, the system is only good for 12 months, and then those identifiers would start repeating. The Mayans had two early calendars, a 365 day solar calendar, called Haab' (not unlike the Gregorian calendar we use), and a 260 day calendar based on 13, which was a number sacred to the Mayans, called Tzolk'in.

{Insert picture of El Caracol, the observatory in Chichen Itza}

The starting date of the Long Count Calendar is the day that their mythology says people were created, which is 13 b'ak'tuns after the world was created. A b'ak'tun is 20 groups of 20 groups of 18 groups of 20 days, or something close to 394 years; 13 b'ak'tun is roughly 5122 years. Because people were created 13 b'ak'tuns after the creation of the world, the Mayans expect great things to happen after the next 13 b'ak'tuns. According to them, we are in the fourth world, so at the end of this cycle of 13 b'ak'tuns, we will be in the fifth world.

But wait, there's more, the Long Count Calendar doesn't actually end after 13 b'ak'tuns, it counts 20. So, after December 21 2012, we start a 14th b'ak'tun in the current Great Cycle (a Great Cycle is 20 b'ak'tuns, or 2880000 days which, not accounting for leap years, is something close to 7890 Gregorian years). We are in Great Cycle 0 (remember when we're talking calendars, the very first is always 0). There will be 6 more b'ak'tuns before we hit Great Cycle 1, somewhere around October 13, 4772.

{Insert picture of El Castillo, the main temple in Chichen Itza}

Now, what does that mean for us? Nothing, really. One b'ak'tun ends and another begins on December 21st. But if you want to feel neat, and it's ok to do so, everyone alive on December 20 will see the end of the 13th b'ak'tun, and everyone born on December 21st and after will be born in the 14th b'ak'tun. The 15th b'ak'tun won't happen until March 26, 2407! When you're shouting at those kids to get off your lawn, remember you weren't born in the same b'ak'tun!

Why did the Mayans need such a long calendar anyway? Beats me. The very first explanation I heard in one of my anthropology classes (where I admit I focused on Incas instead of Mayans for that class) is actually rather ridiculous. It was said that the Mayans just hated turning the calendar over, and they hated repeating days, so they created a very long calendar that would give each day a unique identifier for a very long time so they would not have to change it so much. Yeah, that's kind of silly. Another reason I heard was because they were fascinated with the stars, they were always observing, always looking, always calculating what would happen next. Things, like meteor showers and eclipses, that happened in the skies would not have surprised the Mayans like they did some other early peoples. They tracked comets, calculated eclipses, and built amazing works of architecture based on how it would look when the sun hit it on a certain day. If you are going to take the time to work out all of that, you might as well write it down, right?

The architecture is pretty interesting. That main temple in Chichen Itza is pretty fascinating. The structure we can see dates around the 9th century. The feathered serpent on the north staircase was carved in such a way that the sun hitting the temple on the equinoxes casts a series of shadows that make it look like the serpent is crawling down the stairs. I wasn't there for an equinox, so I did not witness this, but the temple itself was quite impressive. It is believed that the observatory, an far earlier structure, was used in part to design El Castillo so that it would be properly oriented to the equinoxes. Additionally, El Castillo was actually built over a smaller pyramid that was not discovered until the 1930's, but I digress. The 91 steps on each of the four sides of the pyramid, together with the temple platform at the top, equals 365 steps, the number of days in the Haab', that solar calendar that I mentioned earlier.

{Insert image of a Cenote, the Blessed Well, because it's pretty and I swam in it!}

Now, that observatory, El Caracol, is really awesome. I was more fascinated by that than El Castillo (everyone knows El Castillo anyway). Anthropologists believe that there were twenty-nine astronomical events that the Mayans were interested in studying (to include the solstices and equinoxes, movements of planets, eclipses, and the like). The dome of the observatory included sight lines, openings cut into the dome at specific places for the purpose of observing a specific astronomical event, for twenty of them. Some of the tower is missing, though, so it is possible the other nine were there. This means there is an opening for observing where the sun rises on a solstice day, where Venus appeared on the horizon at the start of its cycle, the position of the sun in the afternoon on an equinox day. It is fascinating.

Anyway, my point is the Mayans weren't predicting the end of the world. They just wrote a very long calendar. But, this end of 13 b'ak'tuns might be worth considering. The Mayans believed something big would happen, something that would end the fourth age and start the fifth age. Priests reported it would be something large and drastic, mystics said it could be subtle, like a simple shift. Remember, the calendar doesn't end for another 2760 years. It could be compared to changing from August to September on our calendar, there are still three more months to go before you need a new calendar.

Will something big happen that causes the end of the fourth age? Probably not. Will something subtle happen? I doubt that too. For all the ages Mayan mythology says we are in, this is still only the second time in Mayan history that 13 b'ak'tuns have passed. Who knows what will happen. I say we should all throw one awesome new b'ak'tun party!

Party like it's!

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