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Kukulkan

If you believe The Daily Mail, we’re all convinced that the world is going to end on 21st December 2012. Apparently people are stockpiling food and weapons, flocking to remote villages and heading for mystical peaks from whence ‘an extra-terrestrial mothership’ housed for centuries in an alien temple inside the mountain ‘will pluck believers to safety’. ‘With ten days to go before the Mayan apocalypse supposedly casts Earth into oblivion, time is running out for believers to find alien salvation’ the Mail proclaims.

So, while we’re marking time to oblivion, here in Sheffield we thought we’d defy the end of the world by launching our History Matters blog with a feature on apocalypticism. This isn’t the first time that people have anticipated the end of the world; from modern Russia to medieval Christendom, people have lived in fear of Armageddon (as colleagues will explain in other posts this week).

So why all the recent hysteria? According to Maya myth, the world was created on 11 August 3114 BC in the Gregorian Calendar; or 13.0.0.0.0 by the Maya count. This creation was the fourth incarnation of the world, the previous age having ended after the thirteenth b’ak’tun (a c.400-year cycle). On 21st December, it will once again be 13.0.0.0.0 and the ‘Great Cycle’ will be completed, bringing the thirteenth b’ak’tun of the current age to an end. Some translations of the glyphs from a partially illegible Maya stela suggest that the end of the present b’ak’tun will see the ‘descent’ of the god Bolon Yookte’ K’Uh (sometimes translated as the ‘Nine-Footed God’). This convergence of dates and prophecies has been seen as marking the transition to the next world, and hence the end of this one.

For many years, a scarcity of Maya calendrical references to dates post-2012 was also seen as a possible indication of a cataclysmic end to the world this December. But, quite apart from the question of practicalities (I mean, how many of you have a calendar on your desk which reaches to 2406 – a b’ak’tun from now?) even this tenuous evidence has recently been refuted  by the discovery of an early Maya mural in Xultún which includes calendrical and cosmological calculations stretching some 7,000 years into the future. Certainly, the Precolumbian Maya might have considered 21st December 2012 a symbolic date, a moment of potential transformation. But does that mean they thought the world would end?

It’s easy to mock The Daily Mail (far, far too easy) but for some people, the prospect of apocalypse is a very real fear. David Morrison, of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, says that they have received thousands of questions about the 2012 doomsday predictions, some of them from people who have considered suicide, because they are so terrified by the horrific idea of living through the end of the world. Some people are clearly deeply troubled by the recent obsession with apocalypse, but that the origins of their fear lie in a highly disputed and extremely tenuous Maya prophecy is a fascinating and baffling situation.

According to the Maya legends eloquently recorded in the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh, humans were created in this, the fourth world, when the gods moulded our ancestors from maize dough (after unsuccessful attempts at fashioning men from monkeys, wood and clay). I doubt that many of the so-called ‘preppers’ who are ‘preparing’ themselves for the end of the world or an ascent into the stars with their alien overlords believe in the Precolumbian myths of creation, so (even if we had conclusive evidence of a Maya belief in a 2012 apocalypse) why would they believe in the myths of destruction? And if you don’t believe me, why not listen to the Maya themselves. Modern-day Maya see the ‘apocalypse’ as a European invention. For them, the end of the b’ak’tun is a time of renewal and celebration, a new beginning, not an end: http://ow.ly/g6x8t

So, despite the spectre of impending doom, I’m going to carry on Christmas shopping, and looking forward to my imminent research leave, secure in the knowledge that the ancient Maya didn’t believe the world will end on Friday. And even if they did, I don’t.

Tags : 2012ApocalypseapocalypticismcalendarDaily MaildoomsdayhistoryMayaMayanXultun

19 Comments

    1. Thanks! And good question… That’s because we’re currently living in the fourth incarnation of the world, so we’re not really starting at the very beginning…

      So, the date of the end of the world was 13.0.0.0.0 (end of the 13th b’ak’tun of the 3rd age). Logically, it should actually be 0.0.0.0.0, but because the b’ak’tun are numbered 1-13 (not 0-12), the starting date is 13.0.0.0.0. There’s quite a good explanation here: http://www.webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-mayan.html Hope this makes sense!

  1. I have scoured the Internet for someone with real historical knowledge to confirm the suspicion, held by most sane members of society, that the Daily Mail, not for the first time, might have got this one wrong (though at least they didn’t try to suggest that Mayans don’t collaborate with Dr Who to give you cancer). Finally, I have found the explanation I was looking for. Many thanks. Your article shall be shared across cyberspace.

    1. Thanks! I’m not saying anything revolutionary (for Mayanists anyway) but I’m glad I could set at least one Daily Mail myth to rest 🙂

  2. There is also the fact that the Mayan’s didn’t have leap years. So in fact the date they proposed has already passed according to their calendar.

    1. Thanks for your comment! Interestingly, although this is commonly claimed, it’s not in fact the case. You’re right that the Maya didn’t account for leap years, but they ARE accounted for in the Long Count calculation which works out the equivalency to the Gregorian Calendar. The calculation is based on the total number of days elapsed since the start of the calendar, so 21st December 2012 is 13.0.0.0.0.

  3. I don’t think the Mayans had leap years either anyway?
    And so shouldn’t the world technically have already ended by now? Or is that another thing that isn’t true?

    1. Hi Adam. Thanks for your reading! Funnily enough, you’re partly right and partly wrong, and you’re the second person to ask this – must be a popular question 🙂

      Interestingly, although this is commonly claimed, it’s not in fact the case. You’re right that the Maya didn’t account for leap years, but they ARE accounted for in the Long Count calculation which works out the equivalency to the Gregorian Calendar. The calculation is based on the total number of days elapsed since the start of the calendar, so 21st December 2012 is 13.0.0.0.0.

  4. Great post! December 21st came and went and we’re all still here! I’ve been pretty intrigued by things Myan since all of this started. I just finished a great book you might like called “Mayan Interface” by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin. It’s along the lines of adventure and transformation, and it’s a pretty good read. You can check out the website to find more about it, http://www.madeirapress.com/Mayan_Interface.html. Thanks for the post!

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