Did the Maya predict the end of the world?
by Daniel R. Johnson
21 December, 2012 looms ominously in the future.
This ignominious date has been the source of countless science fiction movies, ‘educational’ TV shows, and psychic predictions. But what is really supposed to happen on this date and what did the Maya expect from it? These questions are on many people’s minds and we think it quite appropriate to address this issue, even though it does not directly relate to the Book of Mormon.
The first thing we need to discuss is how the Maya measured time and for what purpose. As we use it, time is an artificial (and inaccurate) system imposed by man on the world around us. The Book of Mormon itself tells us that, “All is as one day with God, and time only is measured unto men.” (Alma 40:8). We measure the greater passage of time in terms of days, months, and years. As it turns out, the Maya did something similar, but with a complexity and a scale that dwarfs any modern concept of time we have today.
The date that this article was written would be known to the Maya as 126.96.36.199.19 6 Kawah, 7 Keh. That may seem like quite a lot, so let us break it down and see what all the individual parts mean. Maya reckoning of time was a combination of two calendrical systems: the Long Count and the Calendar Round. The Calendar Round was itself comprised of two different cycles: the 260-day tzolkin and the 360-day hab. For lack of a better term, these two periods of time were ‘years’ that had specific purposes. They were also products of 13 and 20, numbers that had special significance to the Maya. The symbolism behind 13 is not so well understood, but as we shall soon see, 20 was special because the Maya had a vigesimal, or 20-base numbering system. By contrast, our numbering and math is 10-based, probably because we use our fingers to count. For the Maya, their toes must have been just as important.
Each day of the tzolkin had a number and a name. Likewise, each day of the hab had a number and name, but they functioned more like our current months and days. This makes sense, since the hab was very close to the true solar year. This was not accidental. The Maya knew very well what a year was; they just did not like to use it as much, since 365.24 does not play well with the numbers 13 and 20, or any whole number, for that matter. From their point of view, 360 was a much more acceptable number. The tzolkin and hab fit together like two gears of differing sizes. Each day was a combination of a day on the tzolkin and a day on the hab (for example: 6 Kawah (tzolkin), 7 Keh (hab)). Any particular combination would repeat every 18,980 days, or 51.965 years, so the Calendar Round is thought of as being about 52 years long. This length of time was probably all the average Mayan would need, serving for them about as a century is for us, espescially given the much shorter lifespan of earlier times. Nowadays, many people could expect to live for about a century, most a bit less, a few a bit more. Likewise, most ancient Maya probably did not see much more than a single full Calendar Round in their lifetimes.
We now turn our full attention to the Long Count calendar, since that is what all of the excitement is about these days. Whereas the Calendar Round is thought of as being cyclical, much like gears continually revolving, the Long Count, because of its enormous length, is more properly linear, although as we shall see, it does have cyclical elements contained within. Instead of gears, it could more accurately be described as a vehicle’s odometer, with each unit advancing to its maximum, then resetting and advancing the next higher unit. If we thought of our own calendar in this way, we might write a date out in this manner: year.month.week.day, day-of-week. With such a system, the date of this writing could be transcribed as 2011.11.47.16, Wednesday. If this date makes any sense, then understanding the Long Count should be easy (or not so hard). In this theoretical system, the day, week, and month positions are cyclical, but the year is linear. It does not reset at a certain point, but rather continues on infinitely into the future.
Every calendar has its starting point. Our current Gregorian calendar theoretically starts at Christ’s birth, but as we all know, that was decided centuries later and calculated retroactively. The accuracy of this number is obviously highly debatable. The original creators of the Long Count did a similar thing, possibly around 350 BC and putting the start date at a point thousands of years in the past. This date, now calculated to be 11 August 3114 BC, is the Maya creation date. What is significant about this particular date is unknown. As far as is currently understood, no advanced civilization existed in the Americas at that distant time (not even the Olmecs), so the origin of this date is shrouded in mystery.
To understand how the Maya calculated back to this event and forward into the far future, we need to start small. For all cultures, the most obvious passage of time is the day. For the Maya, this was called a kin and formed the base of their calendar. Because of their 20-count system, 20 kinob (the plural of kin) made one winal. You might expect 20 winalob to make the next
measure of time, the tun, but this was not so. The winal could be thought of as a 20-day month. 20 of those would make 400 days, but 18 of them make 360 days, the same as the hab and close to a true solar year. So this was one exception. Continuing, 20 tunob made one katun of 7,200 days or 19.71 years. Every time a katun reset to zero, the Maya held special rituals and celebrations.
The next unit was a baktun, comprising 20 katunob, 144,000 days or 394.26 years. While the current nomenclature and how we write out this sequence out are of modern invention by archaeologists, this is an accurate representation of how the ancient Maya counted time. Each unit of time held a coefficient of 0-19, except for the winal, which held 0-17. The Maya were among the first ancient cultures to develop the mathematical concept of zero.
About 5,126 years after the creation date, the calendar will hit 188.8.131.52.0. Any Long Count date that ends in two or more zeroes is a period ending and apparently, the more zeroes, the more auspicious the period. A tun ending was an important event (like we have New Year’s Eve), but katun and baktun endings were even more so, because of their infrequency. On 21 December 2012, not only will the winal, tun, and katun all reset to zero, but the baktun will change from 12 to 13. This might be analogous to seeing your odometer hit 100,000 miles; it is quite the event, but it only lasts a moment and then the numbers keep advancing. The key to knowing that this is not the end of the world lies in understanding the mechanics of the Long Count. It will keep going and the next day will be 184.108.40.206.1. That is the big secret that none of the doomsday advocates know, but it really should be pretty obvious. However, there is some significance in this date. To understand what that might be, we need to look all the way back to the creation.
Much of the efforts of early Maya archaeology were devoted to chronology. When were these sites built and inhabited? How did their histories relate to each other? Numbers and dates were among the first items deciphered from Mayan hieroglyphics. Almost all had a baktun coefficient of 8 or 9. This X later became an important clue as to their historical placement. The earliest Long Count date found in the Maya area is Stela 29 from Tikal, currently in its onsite museum. It reads 220.127.116.11.15, or 18 October AD 292. The latest Long Count date known is on Monument 101 at Toniná, reading 10.4.0.0.0. Corresponding to 15 January AD 909, it is notable not only because it is the last known depiction of a date in this system, but it is also a katun ending.
With some understanding of this system, it might be expected that the creation date would be written 0.0.0.0.0, like the odometer of a brand newcar. However, this is not the case. At Quiriguá in Guatemala, Stela C records this date as 18.104.22.168.0. At first glance, this might look like the 2012 date. How do we know the Maya here were not predicting something important about the future? There are a couple of ways to know what they meant. The first is the context. After the date, the text describes setting three stones, an event associated with the creation. The other is the Calendar Round. Remember that it always follows the Long Count. In this case, on Stela C it is 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumku. For the 2012 date in question, it should be 4 Ahaw, 3 Kankin. Not only can we be completely sure that this monument records the creation date, but wealso discover something quite intriguing about creation in Maya thought. It was not the absolute beginning of a cycle, but rather just one point along a much larger, already running expanse of time. The day before creation would have been 22.214.171.124.19. The strangest part about the
baktun is that the day after 126.96.36.199.19 was not 188.8.131.52.0, but rather 184.108.40.206.0. That is why Classic-era (post Book of Mormon) inscriptions are all from baktun 8, 9, or 10 and we are currently in the tail end of baktun 12. Stranger still is that 394.26 years after 2012, the baktun would theoretically change to 14. This means that baktun coefficients go from 0-13, then 1-19, for a total of 33. Far more time fits into the Long Count system than might be immediately apparent. Why the Maya put this little quirk into their system is unknown. Perhaps it was to frustrate modern epigraphers trying to figure out their dates.
At this point, the cyclical elements within the apparently linear Long Count become visible. This is a clue as to how the Maya viewed creation. We are now in the most current of several ‘failed’ earlier creation attempts. Unlike the Aztecs who had a very specific creation account in which they were living in the fifth one, the Maya did not have a single, universal creation
story. In most accounts, there are previous creations in which the animals or beings created by the gods did not revere them. After animals, the first men were created from mud, but then later destroyed. The next beings were created from wood, but were destroyed, this time in a catastrophic flood. A few of them survived and are now monkeys. In the latest creation period,
the gods fashioned man from corn meal and their own divine blood. At last, these beings were faithful and worshipped the gods. For the Maya, this was the date we know as 11 August 3114 BC. Because the upcoming 2012 date is the same numerically as the creation date, it mirrors or represents the creation. It is as if the cycle is complete and the creation symbolically comes again. Rather than a time of ending, it is more likely a time of beginning or renewal, but we do not know how important this upcoming date was to the ancient Maya. All period endings were significant and had their cyclical importance. In fact, based on current archaeology, this particular date of 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ahaw 3 Kankin is referenced only once, on a tablet from a small site called Tortuguero, not far from Palenque. If it was some overly important date, linked to doom and predicted by prophecy, the ancient Maya were not writing or consequently talking about it much.
As more details about the Long Count come to light through extensive research, its scope increases to such an extent that the 5,126 years between the first 18.104.22.168.0 and the second one seem insignificant and pale in comparison. Stela 1 from Cobá holds a clue that shows just how expansive the Maya concept of time was. It records the usual creation date, but includes additional units of time above the baktun, nineteen to be exact. This means that the way we have been transcribing the creation date is really more of a shorthand. Additional carved monuments at other sites have time units above the baktun as well. Modern epigraphers of the Mayan language are just now beginning to give names to these higher units. According to Cobá’s Stela 1, the true date is
13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 13. 22.214.171.124.0.0 4 Ahaw 8 Kumku!
Given that each unit of time increases exponentially and the quirky glitch where the baktun and higher units can contain not the usual 20, but 33 coefficients, this absolute calendrical starting date as conceived by the Maya is almost incomprehensible to the human mind. It far surpasses the currently accepted date of the known universe. David Stuart, one of the top experts in Mayan writing, estimates that this actual starting point was 28 octillion years before 3114 BC. Theoretically, if the cycles were to continue until each unit reached its maximum numerical coefficient, the distant future time it describes is likewise mind-boggling. Stuart has concluded that the entire range of time this calendar can represent is over 72 octillion years from end to end. That is a number so long that it probably would not fit within this book. It is almost as if the ancient Maya priests and scribes were trying to calculate eternity numerically. From this perspective, the passage of time from the ‘beginning’ of the current creation cycle, baktun 1, to its ‘end’ at baktun 13 is barely a speck in the immensity of time. It could be compared to our own mortality when seen next to the whole of eternity. And yet, 2012 still occupies so many people’s minds and is the topic of so much conjecture!
Our hope is that this information will give our readers some insight and assurance. Is it of any real significance beyond that? The answer will probably not be known during humanity’s mortal existence. If these dates as conceived of by the Maya have any real eternal meaning, then they would have to be the result of divine revelation. But it is true that Maya priests and time keepers loved to play with time and numerology, seeing how far back and forward they could go numerically. Another pastime of theirs was to show that current events, like the accession of kings, dedication of temples, or victories in battle were linked to distant past events performed by ancestors and the gods. They probably even fudged their calculations a bit to get real events to match up with mythical ones. If a king took the throne on a Calendar Round date or period ending that was the same as when a divine ancestor performed some great feat or important ritual, it was evidence of his divine authority and right to rule.
While the Long Count calendar was extremely important to the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures, is there any indication of its use in the Book of Mormon? Possibly. John Sorenson suggests that this local system may have been adopted by the Nephites very early on. In 1 Nephi 10:4, Lehi predicts that a Messiah would come 600 years after the time they left Jerusalem, which is described as being in the first year of King Zedekiah’s reign. The date marker at the bottom of the first page tells us that this was 600 BC, so things seem to match up. But it should be acknowledged that these dates are not necessarily accurate. Our own Bible Dictionary gives this date as 598 BC. Adding 600 years brings the date to AD 3 in our modern calendar. Was this really the year of Christ’s birth? Before we answer that question, it is worth mentioning that it would be quite the coincidence if this future date actually were exactly 600 years and not a bit more or less from the time Lehi and his family left Jerusalem. From a Maya way of thinking, this length of time is very significant. It is exactly one and a half baktun, or one baktun and ten katunob. The Maya, along with most ancient cultures, would prefer this number of years over something truly accurate like 597. But remember that a baktun is not really 400, but rather 394.26 solar years. If Nephi was using the tun to count years of his father’s prophecy, the real amount would be a bit over 591 years. Using the first year of Zedekiah’s reign as a starting point, this puts Christ’s birth at 6 or 7 BC. While we might not like that from our cultural point of view, it actually fits in better with the ancient history of the
region. Herod the Great, who is said to have ordered the slaughter of the innocents in order to quell any challenges to his throne, is now assumed to have died around 4 BC. Jesus would obviously have to be born at least a year or two before that.
Centuries later, Alma prophecies the loss of belief of his people in Alma 45:10 as coming 400 years after the time that Christ would visit them. This is a perfect baktun. Moroni refers to this same passage of time in Mormon 8:6. Finally, at the end of the record, he tells us in Moroni 10:1 that more than 420 years have passed since Christ’s birth. It is interesting that he did not give the exact number of years, rather he only expressed it as more than one baktun and one katun. This may not be a coincidence.
The real question is how much were Nephite record keepers influenced by the local calendar systems? We may never know for sure, but the aforementioned instances may be clues that they adopted all or part of this custom as they did the local money system of weights and measures.. It may have been easier to do so, living among Mesoamerican peoples, rather than keeping their own reckoning. It could be compared to trying to ignore Daylight .
Another example of the Long Count may be found among the Lamanites. Alma 20 relates the journey that Ammon took with the newly-converted king Lamoni. Along the way, they were met by Lamoni’s father, a high king over him. A father as a king and his son as a subordinate king at the same time may sound strange according to the European culture of kingship, but it fits in
quite nicely with the Maya way of doing things. The greater king is upset that Lamoni did not attend the feast given by his father on ’that great day.’ No clarification is given as to what this day was or why it was important to a Lamanite king, but for the Maya, this sounds like a period ending. The page’s date marker suggests that this meeting occurred about 90 BC. We have already seen that these dates are not so accurate. Could an important event in the Long Count calendar have occurred around this time? Comparing with the Long Count, 126.96.36.199.0 fell on 19 July 88 BC. Even though this was just halfway
through the katun, such dates were also considered auspicious days where the kings had a
divine responsibility to participate in rituals and ceremonies for the good of the people. If we
could consider these Lamanites as Maya (and it is likely that Nephites would have considered the Maya to be Lamanites), we have a very good explanation for why King Lamoni’s father would be so upset. Lamoni may have intentionally missed the ceremonies because of his newfound understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Messiah was the true divine king whose blood sacrifice was essential for the salvation of all mankind. Lamoni probably now understood that his own painful bloodletting rituals of the past were but a shallow and unnecessary imitation of the infinite atonement that was to come.
Back to the original question: what is really going to happen at the end of the current baktun?
Probably nothing unusual. As you read this, the fateful year 2012 has already arrived. If the date of 21 December has passed uneventfully (as we fully expect), then you know that all the commotion was for naught, like most doomsday prophecies. The only accepted record the Maya left of this date is found on a carving called Monument 6 from Tortuguero. This ancient site lies near Palenque and appears to have some connection to that larger city. Now Tortuguero’s buildings and temples are gone, its monuments in fragments. The tablet now known as Monument 6 was never seen in its original context. The temple or shrine that originally contained it was dedicated by a Maya king named Balam Ahaw in AD 669. What he really meant
to say with this monument is uncertain. What text remains does mention a far away period ending time. Many other Mayan texts mention other period endings. But neither it nor any other surviving Mayan text says anything meaningful about 21 December 2012.
In November 2011, an additional possible example of this period ending date was announced. A brick from the Mexican site of Comalcalco, an unusual site from the far west corner of the Maya area with buildings made of brick and mortar instead of stone, was said to also have this date inscribed. It would only be the second such example known to archaeology. However, it also
does not have much else to say and David Stuart is skeptical that the inscription really is the same date. According to him, it is in the Calendar Round instead of the Long Count. That means that it does not say 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ahaw 3 Kankin, but rather just 4 Ahaw 3 Kankin. True, this could be the 2012 date, but it could also be any number of dates that reoccur almost every 52 years. We must be content with knowing that the ancient Maya were not that concerned with this particular date, so there is little reason for us to be as well, even as it approaches.