The End of the World as the Maya Know It?

“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.” I always loved that R.E.M. song and the way Michael Stipe sang it, and who knows…we might even be able to experience such an event on Dec. 21, 2012, when the Maya Long Count calendar comes to an end.

But then I heard Dr. David Stuart of UT speak at our first AIA-Houston lecture of the season, devoted to the archaeology of time. As an expert in Maya hieroglyphics, he’s in great demand all over the world these days to give interviews about the impending end of time. He even wrote a book, The Order of Days, which I am currently quite absorbed in, about Maya time keeping and what will—or more likely, won’t—happen in December. He said that Barnes & Noble put his book in the New Age section, which bothered him quite a bit until his son pointed out that he’d probably sell more copies that way.

But I’m getting off track. The Maya used a variety of calendars. They had a 260 day calendar, or tzolk’in, which might be related to the length of human gestation. This calendar had 20 named days which rotated along with a numerical list of 13, a very special number to the ancient Mesoamericans. In the 260-day year of the tzolk’in, each day had a different number and name, and then the whole cycle would repeat.

Then there was a calendar of 365 days, the haab, with 18 months of 20 days, and 5 days added at the end to keep up with the solar year. This calendar worked much like our Gregorian calendar does, with each 20-day month passing in succession, and each day of each month numbered from 0 to 19. Since I was born on April 1, 1957, my birthday appears to be 9 Manik’ on the tzolk’in and 10 Kumk’u on the haab.

But then there is the Long Count, which starts with a cycle of 20 days, or k’in. Twenty k’in equals one winal, and 18 winals equals one tun, which is 360 days, or almost the length of a solar year, but this was a different count than the haab. Twenty tuns equal one k’atun, which is almost 20 years, and 20 k’atuns is one bak’tun, which is close to 400 years. According to a few stelae, the “creation” date of the Maya was, with 13 being the bak’tun and the other numbers corresponding to the k’atun, tun, winal, and k’in. I’m not sure why they started with this thirteenth bak’tun, but they didn’t ask for my opinion. And that date corresponds to, according to most correlations between the Maya and Gregorian calendars, August 11, 3114 BCE, which to me seems likes a pretty inauspicious date for a universe to come into being.  That is during the dead heat of summer, after all…

In any case, after the first k’ins, winals, tuns, and k’atuns went through their cycles, the next bak’tun was numbered 1, not 14. My birthdate (April 1, 1957, in case you forgot) was on the Long Count, and the current Maya date is (October 14, 2012.) You might have noticed that we are currently nearing the end of the 12th bak’tun, and seems to be either the end of the calendar or the start of something totally new.

Except for one small fact. There are stelae that show many cycles beyond the bak’tun. So many in fact that the full Maya calendar has a capacity of over 71,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years. (That’s 71 octillion, in case you’re counting.) Which means I can put off answering those emails in my inbox for a while…