Guest Author - Carleen D. Sanchez, PhD
The countdown to December 21, 2012, has begun an inauspicious day that many fear will bring the end of the world. Hundreds of books, articles, news reports, and videos have been produced warning of impending doom. In this article, I will provide an authoritative opinion on the Doomsday Prophecy.
To begin, we must recall that calendars are human devices for keeping track of time. As such, the beginning of a calendar is arbitrary and culturally determined. Each calendar system ever used has been designed by people to fulfill specific needs. Those needs may be to record the passage of time. The Ancient Egyptians restarted calendars to correspond to the reign of each new Pharaoh. Some calendars are for ritual use. Roman Catholics use a ritual calendar that determines when important celebrations and holy days of obligation will occur.
The Ancient Maya developed extraordinary astronomical skills and from their observations derived a number of calendars. Their society had the most accurate and advanced time keeping system in the Americas. When the Spanish arrived in the region, they found that the European calendar was inaccurate! Maya calendars included the Tzolkin which was a 260 day cycle. The Tzolkin is based on 20 named days and 13 passages of each (20 x 13 = 260). This calendar is still in use today in traditional Maya communities as the basis of a ritual calendar used to plan days of worship and for divination.
The Tzolkin, as is clear, does not correspond to the solar year. The Maya used a calendar called the Haab which was made up of 18 periods (akin to months) with 20 days in each (18 x 20 = 360). After the 18 months were completed, there was a five day stretch of unlucky days called the Wayeb' to complete the solar cycle. As we know, it takes approximately 365.25 days for the earth to complete its passage around the sun (which is why we have leap year every four years). After the end of one Tzolkin cycle, a new cycle would begin.
A third important calendar was the Calendar Round which combined the Tzolkin with the Haab to produce a 52 year cycle. It would take this long for the first date to reoccur. The completion of the Calendar Round roughly corresponds to the life span of a human. The Maya marked the end of a 52 year cycle with rituals, including the extinguishing of all fires. The moment the new cycle began priests would spark a new fire that would be light all fires in every household and public place.
For purposes of keeping track of history, people need a calendar with fixed dates. The Maya calendars described to this point are all cyclical they repeat over and over again and do not provide a unique time marker for events (e.g., July 4, 1776). For historical and genealogical purposes, they devised what is called the Long Count. This system keeps track of time from a specific (albeit an arbitrary and mythological) origin point which corresponds to August 11, 3114 BC in the Western calendar. However, there is some disagreement among scholars regarding the correlation of Maya Long Count dates and the Western calendar. The Long count is also cyclical yet progressive. After the passage of 20 Baktuns (144,000 days), the calendar clicks to a new series of numbers.
The next significant calendrical event will be the Maya date of 220.127.116.11.0, which falls on December 21, 2012. After that date, a new cycle begins which would be the 14th Baktun. There is no evidence from living or past Maya history to indicate that the end of Baktun heralded any kind of end of times. In fact, the Maya calculated dates millions of years into the past and future (just as we do). Their systems of time keeping were highly developed and sophisticated and were meant to serve quotidian and ceremonial functions.
So, should we be concerned about prophesies of apocalypse on December 21, 2012? The answer is absolutely not. While many have profited from the hype surrounding this day, there is no need for concern. After all, Ancient Maya historical records include dates far ahead of 2012. Recall the dire predictions that accompanied Y2K (the arrival of 2000 AD). While many feared the worst, nothing happened.
Calendars are useful tools that many cultures have relied on to plant crops, attend to spiritual matters, and record events. As artifacts of human making calendars have no ability to forecast doom.