Mayan 2012 Doomsday

On January 13, 2012, in Mayan Calendar, by James

By Nicholas C James

Calendars are more than just systems for measuring days and months. Every calendar starts with a unique culture that has its own relationship with time, and it represents a system for marking days based on that society’s special knowledge of the earth and the stars. According to a calendar created by the Meso-American Mayan culture, which thrived from about 250 AD to about 900 AD, the year 2012 marks the end of the current cycle of time.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is the currently accepted international norm, the Mayan calendar has a specific beginning and end. While the Gregorian calendar describes the annual cycle of days during which the earth revolves around the sun, the Mayan calendar describes “long time,” or a period of many years that happens to include the modern present as well as the centuries old date when the culture’s calendar was conceived. You could say that the Gregorian calendar is cyclic, while the Mayan calendar is linear.

When you use a cyclic calendar, it’s always easy to envision a future that fits into the calendar’s pattern: once the days of each year run out, a new year and a new cycle begins. When you use a linear calendar that has a definite start date and end date, you run into the inevitable question of what happens after the last day. Is it the end of time as we know it, or does it simply mean that we need to develop a new notation-or a riff on the old notation-that can extend farther into the future?

What We Know

Virtually all of our information about the Mayan calendar comes from archaeological ruins. The Mayans had a written language with a complex mathematical system for calculating dates, and it has only been during the past hundred years or so that Western linguists have begun to unravel its meaning. They have succeeded at deciphering much of the writing inscribed on surviving Mayan ruins. It is one thing to literally translate words and numbers, and another matter entirely to develop an understanding of the significance of these writings, and their relevance to the modern age.

Mayan calendar notation starts with units of days, or uinals, which aggregate into longer units known as tuns, which are made up of 20 uinals, or 360 days. When 20 tuns pass, then a k’atun has elapsed, and a period of 20 k’atuns is known as a b’ak’tun. A b’ak’tun is made up of 144,000 days, or approximately 394 years. Calculating the present date involves starting at the date when the calendar began, roughly 5125 years ago, and calculating the number of uinals, tuns, k’atuns, and b’ak’tuns that have elapsed. Alternately, you can start with the current b’ak’tun, and count the number of smaller units that have passed.

According to the Popol Vuh, a collection of creation myths from Central America, the current world began after the previous world ended, having lasted 13 b’ak’tuns, or approximately 5125 years. The current 5125-year period is the fifth such span in a greater calendar that is made up of five, totaling approximately 26,000 years. The year 2012-and the date December 21, 2012 in particular-marks the end of a 26,000-year cycle.

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