Mayan Calendar: It’s Not the End of the World

mayanIn case you haven’t heard, as of this morning, we’ve got exactly one week until the end of the world.  According to every con man from here to Cozumel, December 21st 2012 is the Mayan equivalent of the Crack of Doom, and when the sun goes down next Friday, it ain’t comin’ up again.  This current End of the World (I’ve survived several in my lifetime) has been hanging over our heads for several years now – ad infinitum.  Basically, it’s been done to death and everybody’s got the T-shirt.  However, rather than letting this little sleight of apocalyptic hand go by unnoted, I’ve decided to rerun a piece I wrote eighteen months ago.  I changed a few things to update it, but it’s just a valid today as it was a year and a half ago.

Personally, I’ve got nothing against Mayans.  I’ve only met a few, and since I was always a tourist and their job was to make me happy, I’m in no real position to judge.  However, I would think that, like every other human group, they’ve got their fair share of good people, regular folks and jerks.  I say all this because I’m about to treat them badly; I don’t want anyone to think it’s anything more than journalist license.

The Mayans are an ancient smarty-pants civilization, discovered in the late 70s, when low airfares, sandy beaches and new hotels combined to bring loads of tourists to a place called Cancun.  Before that, the Mayans weren’t really known beyond a tight-knit circle of anthropologists, archaeologists and nerdy grad students.  Cancun and environs, popularly called the Mayan Riviera, soon became a must-have, all-you-can-drink young people’s destination.  When the spring break college kids sobered up, they went out on daytrips to see the Mayan ruins at Coba, Tulum and Chichen Itza.  Incredible examples of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture, these not so ruined ruins, blew the young folks away – especially since their previous contact with native America consisted of the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.  They discovered all manner of cool things about the Mayans — stuff like their written language, sophisticated social structure, detailed astronomical observations and cruel treatment at the hand of the conquering Spanish.  The fact that their culture included human sacrifice — lots of it — and had already collapsed under its own weight, long before the Spanish ever got there, was kinda glossed over by the tour guides.  Anyway, the sophomores among us took this knowledge home and wildly misinterpreted most of it, while congratulating themselves on their escape from the confines of their parent’s Eurocentric view of the world.

The most easily accessible tidbit of tourism was the Mayan Calendar.  For amayan3 while, it was the souvenir du jour and adorned the walls of most dormitories and studio apartments north of the Rio Grande – for years — sometimes upside down.  It was — and still is — a talking point, even though, without the name, most people haven’t the foggiest idea what they’re looking at.  However, it remains tangible evidence that the tour guides were right: the Mayans were way cooler than the Greeks and Romans (who had no idea what day of the week it was) and that, in turn, justifies a healthy disrespect for one’s own cultural roots.

In actual fact, the Mayan calendar is a complicated, extremely accurate piece of equipment.  I defy anyone without knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, Mayan history and conceptual logic to figure it out.  Besides, that plaster of Paris reproduction currently sitting in everybody’s basement is only one part of the intricate system the Mayans used.  You can’t just look at it — like you can the Playboy calendar — find Tuesday and figure out which day is garbage day.  Why?  First of all, the Mayans took time seriously.  It wasn’t used for trivial things like when’s the long weekend?  Secondly, it’s based on the numbers 13 and 20 which were sacred to the Mayans (even though they have no relevance to measurable time.)  Thirdly, the solar year was a minor unit in Mayan time, not the be-all-end-all we believe it is.  Finally, and most importantly, the Mayans thought of time as circular, not linear – that’s why the thing is round.  Give an ancient Mayan a timeline, our general graphic depiction of time, and he’d say “What the hell’s this?”

mayan4So what has all this got to do with the end of the world?  Lots!  Unlike western calendars which are infinity at both ends (an extremely complex concept, by the way) the Mayan calendar has a definite beginning (August 11, 3114 BCE) and a definite end — December 21, 2012.  And since we all know Mayans are Third World cool, with secret mystical knowledge of the universe, they must know something we don’t — like exactly when the world is going to end.  Thus, the Mayans — that uber-cool little civilization who couldn’t figure out why cutting virginal throats didn’t make it rain — are now the arbiters of human survival!  This was an absolute boon to soothsayers, charlatans and rogues — who now had an event to hang their shysterism on.  They no longer have to rely on sketchy Biblical prophecies, Uri Geller or Nostradamus.  They hitched their books, magazines, blogs and Discovery Channel documentaries to an actual thing – the Mayan Calendar.  Plus, they had a prequalified customer base from all the misconstrued Mayan crap that has been floating around for thirty years or so.  It’s was a license to fleece money.

However, before you give away the farm and spend the next seven days in abject debauchery, let me fill you in on one single, overwhelming fact that nobody seems to be mentioning.  You and I, and everybody else who’s seen Jurassic Park, know damn well that time did not begin on August 11th, 3114 BCE.  In fact, we have it on good authority that Lucy (Australopithcus) and her pals were walking (upright) across Ethiopia over 3 million years before that.  Obviously, something’s wrong here.  It’s like the biblical scholar James Ussher whose calculations pinpointed the time of Creation as Sunday, October 23rd, 4004 BC – not likely.  If those super-smart Mayans were 100% wrong on one end of their calendar, what are the chances they got things right on the other end?  Again — not likely!

I’m no anthropologist, but I don’t think the Mayans were any smarter than themayan1 rest of us.  In fact, I think, given the circular nature of Mayan time, the end of their calendar doesn’t mean the end of time; it’s just a practical way to start over.  All the rest of this current hooplah is just New Age nonsense at its finest.  And I also have the feeling the present day Mayans are laughing themselves stupid at all the fuss their ancestors caused.

However, if I’m wrong, see me in seven days and call me an idiot.

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