2012: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Part I)

Analysis on the Maya calendar and its relation to 2012 New Age theories. This is the first of two parts.

The 2012 phenomenon concerns a wide array of prophecies, beliefs and myths which are particularly related to 21st December, 2012. You’re waiting to see the sports news or the coverage of the “nth” EU summit and out of the blue the news anchor placidly says the world might end in 2012 and that moreover, the Maya predicted it a long time ago. After a sip of what Adam Curtis so well describes as the “Oh Dearism” phenomenon you find yourself asking: Why 21st December 2012?

This date marks the end of a 5,125-year cycle in the ancient Maya Long Count Calendar. It is the last day of what Mayan culture scholars call a b’ak’tun cycle, a period of 144,000 days. The 2012 winter solstice, marks the end of the thirteenth b’ak’tun. This calendar – also used by ancient Mesoamerican cultures – was probably invented by the Olmecs. It is determined by a date which in turn is fixed by a creation myth. Although the Maya did use other calendars (such as solar calendars), the Long Count Calendar was intended to give an account of “world ages”. Hence, the calendar can be considered a linear one. Yet, a closer look shows that it actually comprises a mix of a linear and cyclic counting. Because it gives an account of an extremely extensive time length, it follows then that to determine a day in the calendar one has to count the number of days passed since its original or starting date. This feature gives the calendar its linear nature. At the end of each cycle of 5,125 years, the calendar resets to zero and starts again. Notwithstanding some controversy regarding the correlation between the Maya Long Count calendar and western calendars – i.e. the different “correlation modes” which can be used to convert dates, there is large agreement that the starting date is August 11, 3114 BCE of the Gregorian calendar. Ergo, based on this conversion, the date August 11, 3114 BCE marks the end of a previous age and the beginning of the present “world age” which ends on 21st December 2012.

While the significance of the beginning of the present cycle it is somewhat clear, little is known about what the Maya thought about both the end of this particular age and of preceding ages. It is a mystery why the Maya counted the start of the calendar thousands of years before they existed, and more importantly, why the calendar ends without further ages. However, despite the fact that the calendar comes to an end on this particular date, the Maya anticipated events beyond the end of this age. On the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque there are dates projected to 4772 AD concerning the celebration of King Pakal’s coronation anniversary. This suggests that the Maya foresaw the continuation of life as they knew it, beyond 2012. The supposed “resetting” of the calendar is the idea fuelling 2012 prophecies.

Such theories starting appearing after 1957 when Maud Worcester Makemson developed the idea that the end of this age would be of major importance to the Maya. This bears no special controversy. Modern Western cultures do exactly the same. Christmas or New Year´s Eve – irrespective of their commercial purposes, portray similar examples of how we celebrate the passage of time. But anthropologist Michael D. Coe pushed this idea further and suggested that the end of this Long Count Age would coincide with catastrophic events and possibly the destruction of the planet. The Mayan calendar was interpreted as a countdown to the end of the world as we know it. This interpretation made people believe that the Maya really did prophesize the end of times. Curiously, until today, nothing indicating a prophecy about the end of the world has been found throughout known Mayan culture. There are only a few inscriptions on a stone which scholars refer to as Tortuguero Monument 6 which speak of the correspondent cycle that ends in 2012. However, the stone is damaged and the meaning of the inscriptions has been the subject of controversy among researchers. The majority of scholars who study pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures actually refer to the end of the calendar as being a possible celebration with no doom and gloom attached to it.

THE GOOD 2012

In spite of the fertile catastrophic nuance, which is good for Hollywood movies or those who are fond of panic runs to the supply store, not everything associated with 2012 prophecies has a bad ending. Many regard it as something very good. New Age Movements took the Maya calendar mysteries in a different direction in order to interpret what the “resetting” of the calendar might signify. The end of the calendar is seen as the beginning of a transformation process concerning human kind itself rather than the end of the material world. In this sense, the terminus ad quem, the fatidic 21st December 2012 is seen as the beginning of a period which will herald a different type of human consciousness and advanced spiritual evolution. To support this interpretation, these New Age movements highlighted other events and cultures as being closely tied with the date of 21st December 2012. The author Frank Waters related the Maya calendar to Hopi prophecies. Terence McKenna created a formula called “time-wave zero” which lies on an interpretation of the Chinese book I Ching and which calculates how all moments in History are in fact interconnected with 2012 as the high peak of shifting events. José Argüelles, a Mexican-American spiritual teacher defends that in the course of History, human kind undergoes shifts in consciousness. Humbatz Men, the leader of a group called the “Maya Council”, claims his ancestors were of the “Izta” lineage and states that the Maya knew how the Milky Way forms a spiral and that 2012 will be a period of human enlightenment.

These are just a few examples of authors and theories which envision numerous connections between 2012 and other New Age beliefs. The main pillar of such theories is the interpretation of astronomical events. It is in this domain that New Age movements implement a rational model in order to explain the importance of 2012. At its core the model considers the Maya Calendar as a map to what happened, happens, and will happen in the heavens, which in turn had, has, and will have a major effect on humans. Therefore, concepts like “a new dawn” or “human kind renewal” oppose those of “dark age” or decline age” and are identified as being deeply connected with the cycle of astronomical events. The raconteur of such connections is the calendar itself. Some authors, like John Major Jenkins have dealt precisely with this possible linking. It seems very probable that the Maya knew what they were doing when it came to astronomy and mathematics. The main claim regarding what the Maya calendar signals has to do with the fact that the 2012 winter solstice matches an alignment between the Sun and the center of the Milky Way. The only problem with the claim is that such an alignment occurred in 1998, and nothing special was recorded. We are still here. Moreover, from the Earth’s perspective the alignment occurs every year on the winter solstice. However, the matching between the end of the calendar and this astronomical event may signify that the Maya had knowledge regarding the “precession of the equinoxes”.

The sun “passes” through the 12 constellations of the zodiac every year. Not the one you say you don’t believe in but actually check in the newspaper, but the one which serves as a reference for the journey which the sun takes every year. Every 72 years, the sun recedes on this elliptic path by one degree. It recedes by one constellation every 2,160 years. This is called “precession of the equinoxes” and occurs because the Earth wobbles on its axis while rotating. The Sun’s complete backward movement through the entire zodiac takes approximately 25,800 years.

The existence of such a period was first referred to by Plato in his work Timaeus and it is now known as the “Great Year” or “Platonic Year”. The astronomer Hipparchus followed this concept and was the first to calculate the period of precession. Precession is also referred to in other ancient cultures. For example, in ancient Vedic traditions this period is referred to as a “Yuga”. The peculiarity involving the Maya is that many believe that on 21st December 2012 we will be at the end of such period and a new one will start. This is interpreted by many as a clear sign that the Maya timed their calendars with such precision, that the end of the Long Count Calendar matches the end of a period of roughly 26,000 years. In order for them to have accomplished such a feat, we are somehow forced to believe or to speculate that the Maya did have knowledge regarding the precession of the equinoxes and that they were extremely evolved in their astronomical observations. Above all, it suggests that this ancient culture had knowledge that Western civilizations would only grasp much later.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that the Maya were not only aware of the alignment between the Sun and the center of the Milky Way (which they called the “dark rift”), but they also knew when this alignment would match the end of the 25,800-year cycle.

Is it a simple coincidence that the Maya Calendar perfectly matches these events? Even if we do not take it as a simple coincidence and believe the calendars are calibrated to this cosmic scale, there remain some problems about related 2012 theories. As said before, the alignment already occurred in 1998. Moreover, several astronomers have dismissed these claims; for they say the sun takes circa 36 years to travel through any “point” in space. This makes it very difficult to determine a unique day as the exact time when such an alignment occurs. Further, the period of precession is also the subject of strong debate. There are many predictions about when we are really entering a new period and it is not clear that 2012 is indeed the year where this is to happen. Due to this, authors like Jonh Major Jenkins affirm that the period which is verily at stake here is not only focused in 2012 per se, but concerns a more extensive time table that has 1998 as a reference point.

Of course, all of this is put to question when scholars who study the Maya, state that different Mayan cities followed different calendars. Above all, if the Maya were able to predict a shift on human consciousness due to cosmic changes, why weren’t they able to predict what the coming of the Spanish conquistadors would mean?

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