Is the world really going to end? Did the Maya really believe the world would end?
There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012. The notion of a "Great Cycle" coming to an end is completely a modern invention.
Maya inscriptions that predict the future consistently show that they expected life to go on pretty much the same forever. At Palenque, for instance, they predicted that people in the year 4772 AD would be celebrating the anniversary of the coronation of their great king Pakal.
Of course, astronomers expect the Sun will eventually blow up into a red giant, then collapse and eventually burn out, but not for several billion years. Although the Maya did cast some predictions into the far distant future, we have not yet discovered any that reach that far. As to whether our world will end in 2012, the answer is, well, yes and no. Americans' sense of invulnerability ended on 9-11-2001. Everything is getting darker and more desperate. Wall Street is crashing. The prospect of peace in the Middle East dims year by year. Some Russian nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. Oil consumption has outstripped our oil production capability. Don't even start with global warming or overpopulation. By any measure, the world after 2012 will certainly look much different than it does today. Statistically, some significant change for the worse is bound to happen in 2012 or in 2011, or 2013, or 2020, or whatever year you choose.
Even if we were to find evidence of actual Maya prophecies about 2012, that doesn't make them true. Apparently all of Christendom expected Jesus to return in the year 1000, for example. And maybe the most important question to ask was voiced to me by Bill Saturno, discoverer of the San Bartolo murals. If the Maya were such skilled prophets, how could they have missed the Conquest? "Didn't see that one coming, did they?" The single most devastating disaster to befall the peoples of the Americas of all time, and not a word about it in the entire corpus of Mayan prophetic literature.
Is the Maya Calendar really more accurate than ours?
Depends how you define "accurate."
Their Solar calendar of 365 days did not count leap-years, so it was far less-synchronized with the actual tropical year of 365.2422 days than the Gregorian calendar that we use (400 Gregorian years = 146,097 days; giving an average year of 365.2425 days).
Their 260-day sacred calendar has been in use without interruption for at least 2300 years, but then, so has our weekday cycle of 7 days. "Tradition" is not the same thing as "accuracy."
Teeple (1906) found evidence that convinced him that the astronomers at Palenque recognized that the slow drift out of synchronization between the Maya 365-day calendar and the actual tropical year would take 1508 Haabs (years of 365 days) to come back into synchronization (1507 tropical years). This correction factor would come closer to 365.2422 days than the Gregorian calendar does. (This evidence consists of a distance number of slightly over 754 Haabs, almost precisely half of 1508. The "Triad Progenitor," a.k.a. "Lady Beastie," gave birth to GI, GII, and GIII 754 years and some months after the Era date 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u, for example.) So one could claim that the Maya were conscious of precisely how inaccurate their Haab cycle was with regard to the tropical year, but I don't think that amounts to saying their calendar was that accurate. We know how inaccurate the Gregorian calendar is, too, with far greater precision.
Their moon cycle alternating 29 with 30 days came close to the actual lunar month of 29.5306 days. They made it even more "accurate" by simply adjusting it by observation. That is, if the new moon appeared a day early, they simply declared the cycle to have 29 days rather than 30. Lounsbury showed they did notice a pattern in these discrepancies, however: in Copan they appear to have recognized a cycle of 149 moons = 4400 days, while the Palenque astronomers used a different cycle with 81 lunations equaling 2392 days. The later Dresden Eclipse Pages are based on the Palenque cycle multiplied by five: 405 moons = 11,960 days. All these factors come very close to the acutal value of a lunation; the latter two within a thousandth of a percent (9.3 x 10-6, or 9.3 millionths).
Ancient Maya astronomers also were apparently aware of the very long astronomical cycle we call Precession of the Equinoxes (ca. 25,800 years), and their approximation of it (26,021 years) was accurate within 1.6%. This, too, is not quite the same as possessing a superior calendar.
Although it is technically incorrect to say the ancient Maya had a "more accurate calendar than we do," one must respect that the precision of their observations and their astronomical recordkeeping were astonishingly accurate. However, they were no more precise than the ancient Greeks, and considerably less accurate than our modern measurements.
Claiming that the Maya calendar was "more accurate" than the Gregorian implies, of course, that they had access to knowledge superior to our own, knowledge of a highly esoteric or even extra-terrestrial nature. This is simply not true. They simply used the tools they had at hand, and their penetrating, persistent intelligence to do the best they could. An advantage they possessed was a clearer, darker sky than we of the Industrial Age will ever see again (except the lucky few who travel in space).
Who were the Maya?
Almost any book on their art or culture will provide a more detailed answer.
The Maya are but one of many Mesoamerican ethnic groups. Like most ethnicities, they share a common language family and certain physical characteristics. Depending how you count, there are from 22 to 30 Maya languages in use, many of them endangered or threatened: the well-known Lacandones, for example, number perhaps 600 souls, mostly living in two villages in their eponymous Lacandon Forest.
In Classic times, ca. 100 - 900 AD/CE, Maya never referred to themselves as a single people. Like the denizens of Greek city-states, their identities, their loyalties lay with their local polity rather than with the race as a whole; one was a citizen of Tikál, of Calakmul, or of Piedras Negras rather than a "Maya."
After the Conquest, power shifted from local Maya rulers to distant Spanish overlords and their local officials, then to distant Mexican, Honduran, and Belizean overlords, and to local plantation owners. In many places, the hard life of the peasants changed little. They adjusted their religious practices as much as was necessary to placate their Catholic masters, and continued to do what they do best: endure.
When and where did the Maya live?
In Classic times, the Maya occupied much the same territory that they do today: All of the Yucatán peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize, plus neighboring areas: the eastern half of Tabasco and Chiapas, and the northwest regions of Honduras and El Salvador. (See Map)
A Mayan-speaking population, the Huasteca, occupy northern Veracruz, separated from the main Mayan-speaking region by several hundred miles. Perhaps a large population of Maya picked up and migrated west during the Early Formative. Just as likely, Mayan-speakers once stretched in a swath along the entire southern Gulf Coast including the Olmec Heartland and later populations intruded, separating them some time before the Classic Period. At any rate, they separated before the "heartland" Maya acquired writing; the Huastecs appear to have been innocent of hieroglyphs.
As for when, the Classic period was called "Classic" because of the Maya, whose apogee falls roughly between 250 and 800 AD/CE. However, growing evidence shows that the Maya had distinct cultural features and civilization as early as the Late Preclassic, usually dated ca. 400 BC/BCE - 250 AD/CE.
Here is a list of the major divisions of Mesoamerican eras, with their dominant cultures:
1800/1500 - 900 BC/BCE: Early Preclassic or Early Formative
Olmec: San Lorenzo. "Olmec Horizon" (i.e., the dominance of Olmec artistic conventions and cultural influence) spreads across Mesoamerica.
Valley of México: "pretty lady" statuettes of Tlatilco, "babies" of Las Bocas, et al.
900 - 300 BC/BCE: Middle Preclassic or Middle Formative
Olmec: La Venta. "Olmec Horizon" reaches from El Salvador to Guerrero
Central Méxican Olmec: Chalcatzingo.
Olmec Guerrero: Teopanticuanitlán. Juxtlahuaca and Oxtotilán cave murals.
Oaxaca: Monte Albán I.
400 - 300 BC/BCE: The "Late Preclassic Collapse"
"Olmec Horizon," i.e., the dominance of Olmec artistic conventions and cultural influence, disappears across Mesoamerica. The following era was characterized by a proliferation of small, independent city-states.
300 BC/BCE - 200 AD/CE: Late Preclassic or Late Formative
East: (Maya and Isthmian) Kaminajuyú, Izapa, Chiapa de Corzo, Takalik Abaj, El Mirador, San Bartolo, La Mojarra, Cerros. Also, underneath most Classic Maya cities lie Late Formative beginnings.
Central México: Short-lived Cuicuilco, and the beginning of Teotihuacán.
West: Mexcala, Colima, Chupícuaro
Oaxaca: Monte Albán II
200 - 600 AD/CE: Early Classic
Central México: dominant Teotihuacán, Cholula. (Teotihuacán falls ca. 650)
Oaxaca: Monte Albán III
Gulf Coast: Remojadas
West: Mezcala, Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán
600 - 900 AD/CE: Late Classic
Central México: Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and other startups
Oaxaca: Monte Albán IV
Gulf Coast: Veracruz/El Tajín, Huasteca
West: Colima, Nayarit, Jalisco, Michoacán
800 - 1050 AD/CE: Terminal Classic
East: Southern Maya cities fall, but Yucatán flourishes: Chichén Itzá, Uxmál, Kabáh, Labná, Sayíl, Tulúm, et al.
The rest of Mesoamerica suffers a general Collapse.
900 - 1350 AD/CE: Early Postclassic
East: Chichén joins the Lost Cities club: abandoned about 1000 AD/CE. Mayapán and other minor Maya city-states preserve a faint echo of Maya greatness
Oaxaca: Mixteca (Monte Albán V)
Central México/Puebla: Cholula reoccupied, Tula Hidalgo
1350 - 1520's: Late Postclassic
Central México: Mexica/Aztec hegemony. Other states: Cholula, Tlaxcala, et al.
The rest of Mesoamerica dotted with civilized states, many dominated by Aztec.
East: independent but small-time Maya city-states.
1520's - 1560's: Early Colonial
Cortez, Alvarado, et al. conquer most of New Spain, doing their best to extirpate the old cultures and enslave the population. Construction of hundreds of major churches begins.
East: In the central Petén region of Guatemala, the Maya kingdom of Tayasal remained independent of Spanish control until 1697.
Where did the Maya civilization go?
The Maya Classic era stuttered to an end during the eighth and ninth centuries AD/CE. There are many theories as to the main cause of the Collapse prolonged drought, overpopulation, ecological destruction, epidemics, endemic warfare, et al., but I think it was a combination of all these; the main disagreement among scholars concerns not which of them was the most critical, but what proportion of the blame one might assign to each. There were three severe droughts in this period, ca. 800, 850 and 900 AD/CE, each lasting five or ten years, and these must have devastated life in the cities whose existence depended on local agriculture. However, some cities had a reliable water source anyway. Many cities made vicious war on their neighbors, perhaps partly driven by hunger. And it is certain that the Maya just as stupidly raped their environment as we are doing. Just the production of their prodigious quantities of stucco and mortar burned up hundreds of square miles of forest. No doubt there existed Maya Cassandras, as far-sighted and as widely ignored as our Sierra Club, who tried to forestall the destruction.
In any case, as the infrastructure and societal safety nets disintegrated, populations moved elsewhere, to Chichén or other places where there was work or food to be found. The jungle, even in drought, was quick to reclaim the cities, choking irrigation canals, prying apart stone walls, cracking the plaza pavements. After a few years, the destruction is so advanced that the dispersed former denizens of Palenque (799 AD/CE), then Tikál (889 AD/CE), then Toniná (909 AD/CE), chose to start afresh rather than try to rebuild their abandoned cities. Later still, they abandoned Chichén too, and built new capitals at Mayapán and even later, at Tihó (Mérida), each an increasingly-humble echo of its forebears. Villages were increasingly on their own.
Yet the Conquest was slow and inconsistent. Though Guatemala was officially conquered in the 1530's, the small, remote kingdom of Tayasal (on an island on Lake Petén Itzá, across from the airport-city of Flores) remained independent until 1697. Even after the takeover, various districts suffered varying levels of domination and freedom. Some governors and priests were more tolerant than others, allowing a number of ancient traditions (such as the 260-day calendar) to continue to the present day, to the delight of enthnographers.
Centuries after the Conquest, there were more upheavals. Yucatecan Maya drove out their Mexican overlords for about a century during the Caste Wars; the Zapatistas form a modern echo of their struggle for self-determination. The massacre of hundreds of Maya villages under Rios Montt in Guatemala during the 1980's was just a very visible manifestation of a long-running battle for ethnic domination of the indigenous majority by a Castellano minority. Despite these repeated setbacks (reminiscent of the travails of the Jews or Tibetans), the Maya people endure. Most of the approximately six million Maya are today bilingual and bicultural, with the largest groups being the Quiché (or K'iché) of the Guatemalan Highlands, and about two million speaking Yucatecan Mayan. Though you will find Maya language and traditions better preserved out in the country, you'll also hear it spoken on the streets in the metropolis of Mérida, capital of Yucatán. The "purest" Maya culture can be found in remote villages tucked about the highlands of Guatemala, where Christian and nationalistic sterilization lay lightly upon the land. The delayed conquest of Tayasal indicates just how remote these villages have always been.
Yet they endure. Today's population of six million may even surpass that of all the cities of the Classic period. Now, if they can cultivate the kind of ethnic pride we find in, say, Armenia (or expatriate Armenians), with newspapers, websites and television stations in their languages, they will surely prevail.
Why do you say "Maya Calendar" when everyone else says "Mayan Calendar"?
Some years ago, Maya scholars decided that the adjective "Mayan" should be used exclusively to refer to Mayan language and languages. For everything else, the adjective or noun is "Maya." Thus, "Maya Calendar," "Maya art," "Maya culture," "Maya ideas," "the Ancient Maya," but "Yucatec Mayan," "Mayan words," "Mayan speech," and "
in spoken Mayan." Those who continue to misuse the word "Mayan" in other contexts just haven't gotten the memo.
What is Hunab Ku?
The Mayan phrase Hunab Ku or Junab K'u, means "one god." The concept apparently existed, though rarely mentioned, in pre-Columbian Maya thought, but it was naturally seized upon by Christian missionaries to describe their God, and so entered Colonial Maya literature. (The phrase does not exist, for example, anywhere in the hieroglyphic corpus, nor, as far as I know, in any "pure" Maya texts such as the Popol Vuh, The Books of Chilam Balam, or the Ritual of the Bacabs.)
The term has entered the vocabulary of 2012 millennialists as the reading of a sort of "ancient Mayan glyph", a Maya "Yin-Yang" (Figure 1). Prof. John Hoopes has tracked this motif through history, and apparently Spanish friars introduced these designs to weavers in the American Southwest from México. The design first appears in the Codex Magliabechiano, a central Mexican (likely Aztec) manuscript from the end of the 16th century, and seems to have been associated with a festival of labrets (worn in a piercing through the lower lip). Zelia Nuttal's facsimiles of this codex provide models for modern Mexican artists, and it was at a weaver's shop in Oaxaca that José Argüelles first appropriated it.
Figure 1. The modern version |
of the "Hunab Ku" glyph.
|Figure 2. Textile (mantle) designs illustrated in the Codex Magliabechiano, ca. 1600. Of the annotation manta de agua de araña, Boone notes "The scribe misread (the Nahuatl word) teçacatl (labret or lip plug) as tocalatl, an approximation of 'spider water.' " Apparently this design was worn specifically at a festival devoted to the wearing of lip plugs
Something people in our culture would never have imagined.
In his conversational thread about this symbol, Dr. Hoopes says, "In other words, Catholic missionaries of Colonial Mexico were attempting to use the concept of "Hunab Ku" (which they may well have invented) for the "one true God."
It's a bit ironic that this concept, a tool of Christian ideologues who sought to destroy traditional Maya culture, has been adopted by others who are now claiming to "discover" and celebrate it."
(Images from folio 5 verso (#22) of a facsimile of the Codex Magliabecchano published by Zelia Nuttall in "The Book of the Life of the Ancient Mexicans, Containing an Account of Their Rites and Superstitions, an Anonymous Hispano-Mexican Manuscript Preserved at the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, Italy" in 1903 [University of California, Berkeley].
Quotations from Boone, Elizabeth Hill (1983) The Codex Magliabechiano and the Lost Prototype of the Magliabechiano Group. Berkeley: University of California Press, cited by John Hoopes, at http://2012.tribe.net/thread/fb0eedeb-124b-4b1a-a93b-bd167201e98e , posted Fri, August 25, 2006 - 3:11 PM.)
How many people could read and write?
The concept of universal literacy is a modern one. In most societies, reading and writing, if needed at all, was confined to a class of specialists: lawyers, scholars, priests. Even societies possessing the easy-to-learn alphabet have restricted literacy to a select few, for most of history. (An early exception was Judea, where about 2000 years ago it became customary for the head of household to read from the Torah on Sabbath evening.)
We have no explicit information about Maya literacy rates, but we can make an estimate by comparing with Japan, whose writing system is closely comparable to Maya. It takes a Japanese schoolchild twelve solid years to learn to write; we Americans learn the basics in a year or two
most of us. (Despite this, Japan has a higher literacy rate than the USA.) It is only when a nation prioritizes full literacy that they come anywhere near achieving it.
In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where scribe school also lasted twelve years, the scribal class was a tightly-controlled elite. (In Egypt, however, it was the one profession which allowed a talented individual to rise above his traditional class.) Full-literacy rates there were in single digits, maybe not even 1%. I am sure that a similar situation obtained among the Maya. However, Egyptian religious and political architecture was paved with hieroglyphs; the temples at Thebes looked like Times Square. Maya public spaces displayed a like profusion of inscriptions; what with stelae, stucco, murals, and roofcombs, perhaps even more than Egypt. It is not difficult to learn to recognize a few hieroglyphs, say, the name of a god or king. Doubtless there were a number of people with this slight degree of literacy; perhaps Maya businessmen could sign their names.
The modern Maya may provide a clue. Daykeepers and other living cultural repositories exist in almost every village; even desperately poor communities have them. This tradition of esteem for literacy is deeply-rooted. During their ascendancy, 1300 years ago, the Maya literate class might have been surprisingly large indeed.
Were they on drugs?
Altered States and Religion (This Section Rated R for Drug Use
Don't try these at home!)
A word must be said about the role of hallucinatory drugs in ancient America. First, the native American pharmacoepia was far richer than that of the Old World. Europe and Asia had poppies, alcohol, and about 30 other ways to get high. The Americas, by contrast, produce about a hundred species of plants and animals with mind-altering capability, according to my Anthropology 101 class. Foremost is tobacco; in the potent concentrations smoked and ingested by indigenous peoples (dozens of times more powerful than unfiltered Camels®), nicotine is a powerful intoxicant. Mountain laurel seeds, datura, "locoweed," coca, various alcoholic drinks, peyote and other mushrooms, all were employed in travel-to-the-Otherworld rituals. Trance-dancing, sleeplessness, bloodletting1, and sensory deprivation (easily achieved in caves) also produce hallucinations integral to many Native American rites, such as the well-known coming-of-age Vision Quest. One of the most surprising hallucinogens is toad poison, collected from the large Bufo Marinis, known to Floridians as "cane toads." Toads have been worshiped (and shamans have been transforming into jaguars, snakes, and other power-creatures) since Olmec times, ca. 1200 BCE. It should come as no surprise that many native religions involve ritual hallucinations and/or intoxication.
In a recent interview with Gnostic Media (available as of this writing as a podcast:
Prof. John Hoopes (citing Peter Furst) describes a couple of the more interesting of the entheogenic drugs used in Mesoamerica (from Greek entheos, "inspired by the gods"):
The "cane toad" Bufo Marinis produces powerful hallucinogens in its skin: Bufotenine (5-Hydroxy-Dimethyltryptamine) and 5-Methoxy N, N, Dimethyltryptamine, called DMT's. Toad altars and other works of art are found in Olmec, Maya, and Aztec contexts.
The White Lotus (nymphaea alba) is a hallucinogenic waterlily which appears profusely in Maya art, often attached to, or draped on, a jaguar. Since jaguars are swimming cats, this charming image occasionally appears in nature. Perhaps the drug was used in rituals (well-documented in Olmec figurines) of shamans transforming into jaguars.
Psilocybin mushrooms and their desert-cousin Peyote: the latter is well-known from the popular Teachings of Don Juan books by Carlos Castañeda.
Ololiuhqui (Rivea corymbosa) (morning glory) produces LSA (Lysergic Acid Amide), related to LSD. The Aztec name for the drug was tlitliltzin. (Also, the sap from the vine chemically "vulcanizes" rubber, giving their balls more bounce).
Cohoba, a kind of snuff made from mimosa seeds (known in South America as yopo or ayahuasca) contains DMT. It was widely used in South America, but its use is not proven in ancient Mesoamerica
A shaman (from Tunguskan, a Siberian language) is a special kind of priest, known to Christians as a "medicine man" or "witch doctor." S/he performs spiritual duties, from healing and divination to marriage counseling, by entering an altered state, and confronting the gods/supernaturals/spiritual forces directly. It is not an enviable job; privations, tedious rituals, powerful drugs and mental dangers are involved. In some situations, several celebrants enter an altered state, but usually that task is restricted to the shaman or ruler. (In some Maya locales or some situations, the ruler and shaman were one.) In most cultures, however, intoxication is carefully regulated or restricted to specific ceremonies and events. There is little doubt that many Maya religious rituals involved altered states.
An uncommon but notably peculiar feature of Maya intoxication practices involved the use of enemas. Most intoxicants are absorbed through the mucous membranes, those shiny, wet surfaces and passages in our eyes, noses, and mouths. When one ingests a liter of pulque or whiskey, a substantial portion of the alcohol in it is digested (by our ever-efficient saliva and stomach juices) before it has the chance to make us drunk. Somehow (the mind recoils at imagining just how), ancient celebrants discovered that the mucous membranes in the anus offered no such impediments; drugs squirted in there can be twice as effective as when taken by mouth. Several ancient Maya vase-paintings portray enema ceremonies, as well as depictions of more ordinary intoxication (check out the Kerr Vase Database).
Among the many people anticipating the "2012 Transformation" are a number of psychedelic-revivalists (echoes of the 1960's), who do their best to emulate Indigenous American hallucinogenic religious experiences.
What role did blood sacrifice play in Maya culture?
|Mel Gibson's heart-wrenching vision of bodies-rolling-down-steps in mind-numbing quantities is accurate to a point. But this assembly-line mass-murder is a picture of Aztec, not Maya practice. The Christian Conquistadores, appalled, found ample motivation to destroy the priests, their shrines, their libraries and idols with enthusiastic ferocity. |
Why, we ask, did they do it? Why did Mesoamericans deliberately extinguish so many lives, so many bright futures? Mesoamericans believed, as we all do, that sacrifice is always for the greater good. Simply put, they traded blood for rain, life for life. In particular the Aztecs believed that the Sun had been set in motion at the latest Creation specifically by the gods offering their own blood, and that continued blood sacrifice preferably noble blood was necessary to keep the sun in motion. They believed that as long as humanity continued these practices, this Creation would continue, and Destruction averted. (León-Portillo, p. 45, citing Sahagún, II, 16ff)
Unlike the Aztec, Maya blood sacrifice did not involve wholesale slaughter of dozens of captives. They did torture and kill captives, though fairly rarely, and on a personal and individual scale. Images of captive-taking and sacrifice in Maya art rarely portray more than a single captive being humiliated or killed, the Bonampak murals notwithstanding. (Lord 'Bird-Jaguar' of Yaxchilan proudly wore the title "He of 20 Captives," though those of his rivals who carried analogous epithets were proud enough of "three captives" or "five captives." It appears that even the bloodiest of Maya sacrifice ceremonies probably did not involve more than a handful of captive sacrifices.)
But much more often, Maya kings, six centuries prior, offered their own blood to the gods. One of their most disturbing deities is called God A' (pronounced A-prime), often portrayed cutting his own head off (see Kerr Maya Vases), symbol of supreme self-sacrifice, but most rulers were practical enough not to follow his example literally. Instead they practiced bloodletting, periodically piercing themselves to produce the sacred fluid. (Some Maya still do this; a farmer will sanctify the corners of each new milpa [cornfield] with a few drops of blood from his earlobe.) This the nobles did publicly, to dedicate new construction, celebrate holidays, to bless any significant undertaking. Through long practice, they developed procedures which provided a maximum of sacred blood with the minimum of risk and pain. They discovered the two places that best tolerate repeated piercing: the tongue and the penis.
Many of you Readers will have experienced a bad tongue cut: it bleeds profusely for a while, then heals rapidly, leaving little or no scar. The penis is the same (don't speculate too long how they learned this), and, more importantly, carries enormous symbolic power. Bleeding from his penis, a man emulates menstrual flow, and thereby mimics the mysterious creative force that only a woman has.
The blood-soaked cloth would be ritually burned, to feed the gods. Noblewomen would accompany the men, drawing rough or thorny ropes through their own tongues to aggravate the bleeding. Yaxchilan Lintel 24 portrays such a dual ritual; the rope is positioned so that blood that drips down it would collect in the ritual offering bowl, spotting and soaking strips of paper to be burned.
The most vivid and disturbing picture of penis-sacrifice comes from one of the earliest surviving works of Maya art, the San Bartolo Murals from about 50 BCE. These gods are anything but shy, and each sheds fountains of blood to impress us. The ribald Professor Schele delighted in closing lectures on this topic, "If our esteemed President had to stand on the steps of the Capitol and prick his dick every time he wanted to go to war, we'd have a lot more peace."
This notion of sacrifice, whether letting blood, killing captives, burning statues or throwing precious jade into a sacred well, was considered an investment. A Maya hieroglyph for sacrifice, the so-called "scattering glyph" (shown at right), consists of a hand letting drops fall, offering us insight into this notion. It is the gesture of sowing seeds. When one plants a grain of maize instead of eating it, the gods return the offering a thousandfold. Likewise, any gold, art, precious incense, blood or life consigned to the gods will be restored, returned, rewarded. We employ the same logic when we justify the deaths and injuries of our soldiers in wars; for the greater good. We sacrifice for our way of life. The same logic rationalizes the deaths of 50,000 Americans in highway accidents every year. Every time you start your car, you are risking becoming a sacrifice to the automobile gods, the gods of convenience. To accuse the Maya or Aztecs of inhumanity, because they practiced sacrifice, is deeply hypocritical.
Just what did the Maya prophecies actually say?
As detailed in the accompanying downloadable PDF presentation, only a few fragments of Mesoamerican prophecy survive to enlighten us, and few of these are Maya. All we have are splinters, tatters, a tiny fraction of what was once a vast and substantial literature. The ancient prophecies we have pretty much reduce to two categories: Stone inscriptions and the Books of Chilam Balam. The "Talking Crosses" of the 19th and 20th-century Caste Wars provide more recent material. (The Return of Quetzalcoatl is Aztec, not Maya, and isn't due till 2039 at the earliest.) Everything else, the "Maya Great Cycle" of 13 Bak'tuns, the Resurrection of the Hero Twins, even the Aztec "Sixth Sun," is pure conjecture, modern interpretation, or projection, an externalization of millennialist fantasies. Maya prophecies are most useful when we examine what they do not say.
Maya monumental inscriptions often predict ceremonial events. They use the future-tense verb utom, "it will happen," and nearly always predict trivial events, like, "137 years hence, it will be a Tuesday, the 200th anniversary of our king's birthday." For example (see the accompanying presentation), 7th-century tablets in Palenque's Temple of Inscriptions foretell something over 4000 years in the future. What momentous occasion was worth calculating so far ahead, and carving in stone? The 80th Calendar-Round anniversary of the coronation of Janab Pakal, the great king buried directly below. Besides the powerful numerological implications of the interval (4 x 4 x 13 x 20 x 365 days), this anniversary fell on the Maya date 184.108.40.206.0.8, eight days after a momentous period-ending.
The conjunction of these two numbers was the main event, a prophecy that only a numerologist could love. The Maya prophets tell us nothing about galactic alignments, transformations of consciousness, the fall of nations, nor even the actions of gods, kings, or priests. What can we deduce from this prediction? (1). They expected people thousands of years in the future to remember Pakal, to have much the same concerns as they themselves did. Life as they knew it would go on, far beyond 2012. (2). The Long Count calendar would not reset after 220.127.116.11.0, it would continue up past 18.104.22.168.0, to the six-digit 22.214.171.124.0.0. In other words, don't worry about 2012.
One monument and one only, Tortuguero Monument 6 (also shown in our presentation), does seem to predict an event on 21 December, 2012. Be warned; it is unique in many ways, and some very important scholars doubt that it really is talking about the future. Steve Houston, for example, believes the text's verb-endings imply that it is talking about then-contemporaneous events; noted archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni agrees. However, it seems pretty straightforward, calculating with a correct distance number to "the end of 13 Pik (Bak'tuns)," using the utom verb, and then telling us, uniquely, something apparently non-trivial. Unfortunately, two of the glyphs are nearly obliterated, so the inscription tells us that on that date, Bolon Yokte' (a god of change) will descend to (from?) the "Black"-(??) and do (??).
The Book of Chilam Balam ("Interpreter-Jaguar") survives in several versions, highly customized for each community which preserves it. Some versions date from the 16th century, but most of them, including the apparently-most-coherent of the lot, the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, (featured in our presentation) date from the end of the 18th century, 250 years after the Conquest. These books are products of a highly-decayed and -embattled tradition, and such works are often corrupted by various influences and the errors inherent in multiple-copies-of-copies.
For example, they confuse the 365-day year with the 360-day "year," and some refer to the old K'atun of 20 years, while others use a 24-year K'atun. Some of the dates given are simply wrong. The numbering of the K'atuns is confusing, and seems corrupt, or follow a system we don't yet understand: after describing and numbering the first five K'atuns, the Chumayel manuscript starts numbering anew, calling the sixth cycle "The first katun. Katun 1 Ahau is the seventh katun." Likewise, the next they call the "second katun," then the "third," followed by the "ninth," which puts the numbering back on track. And so on.
They contain K'atun- and year-prophecies, auguries for periods that repeat eternally; the K'atun-prophecies apply to 20-year eras that repeat every 256 years. The K'atun for the era 1992 - 2012, for example, also applies to 1736 - 1756, and to 1480 - 1500. So Columbus's voyages and the reign of Emperor Qianlong prefigure the period through which we are presently passing, and the prophecy for all three of these eras are the same: "The quetzal shall come, the green bird shall come. Ah Kantenal shall come (kante is a species of tree, source of a yellow dye). Blood-vomit shall come. Kukulcan ("Feathered Serpent" = Quetzalcoatl) shall come with them for a second time. The word of God. The Itza shall come." This prediction rivals Nostradamus for its vague and arcane assertions. It tells us nothing.
More importantly, of the 13 K'atun prophecies, most are unequivocally bad.
The first will suffer "niggardly, scant" rains;
the third "carnal sin" and "dissolute rulers."
"Harsh tidings" characterize the fourth;
"locusts, fighting," and "little profit," the fifth.
The sixth is consistently "evil."
The eighth will suffer "drought,"
the tenth from "lewd speech,"
and the 13th will have "no lucky day."
The other five are good or non-committal (the Katun 4 Ahaw prophecy quoted above is one of these). The future will be miserable, interrupted occasionally by a transient ray of hope. Now there's a forecast we can all agree with! It certainly has been true for the Maya.
The pronouncements of the "Talking Crosses" are often hopeful. Compiled during a time of profound rebellion, they tell of tribulation and triumph, projecting a day when the dominant White folks disappear from the land, leaving it to its rightful owners, the Maya. None of these forecasts proffer specific dates, beyond "Very soon,
" It is important to note that, according to Prof. Robert Sitler, who has done extensive original interviews with traditional Maya elders and such in the Highlands, that while many foresee better times a-comin', none believed that the transfer would arrive in any specific year. None assigned any important meaning to the date we call 2012.
What does 126.96.36.199.0 mean? Why is it significant?
The short answer is: The Maya Long Count calendar "started," not at zero, but at 188.8.131.52.0; and in late December 2012 it will reach 184.108.40.206.0 again for the first time in 5125 years, like a clock striking midnight. If you believe that the Maya regarded this recurrence as significant, rather than a coincidence, then perhaps they also believed coming day in 2012 might herald a new "Creation."
The long answer is: The Ancient Maya used several calendars simultaneously, just as we do. To recapitulate what I describe in the downloadable PDF presentation:
They had a 365-day solar calendar with months and days like ours, commonly known as the Haab. This calendar they shared with other Mesoamerican peoples; for example, the Aztecs, who called it Xiupohualli ("year-count"). Note that to both Mesoamericans and moderns, this is a cyclical calendar: your birthday, for example, comes around every year, as does Tax Time, planting, harvest, and Christmas. The first full day of the Maya Haab is 1 Pohp, for example; in 2009-2011, it falls on 4 April. (However, Pohp officially begins on the previous day [or perhaps evening], the "seating" of Pohp, a day whose authority is shared by Pohp and the previous "month," Wayeb.)
They also had a nine-day cycle we call "Lords of the Night," which rotated like our days of the week. We refer to these little-understood days as the G-glyphs: G1, G2, etc.
The most ancient and widespread Mesoamerican calendar was the sacred 260-day Tzolk'in ("count of days") called by the Aztecs Tonalpohualli ("count of destiny"), with its concurrently-cycling 13 numerical coefficients and 20 names (like Manik' or "Deer," Ok or "Dog," Ik' or "Wind," etc.). An example of a Tzolk'in date would be 4 Ajaw in Maya, or 2-Acatl/2-Reed in Aztec. The Maya expressed most dates as a combination of the Tzolk'in and Haab , such as "4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u." This combination, called a Calendar Round or CR, is not unique in time, it cycles every 52 years. However, for most historical contexts it would do; most people will see only one example of any given CR in their lifetimes. Among the Aztecs, 52 years was the age to retire.
But the calendar we are concerned with here was the Long Count. It works much like our modern year-count (AD 1492 or 2009 or 2012), totaling up the days since an arbitrary "zero date," sometimes called "Era Date:" 11 (or 13) August 3114 BC/BCE. In its simplest form (in Late Formative monuments around the time of Christ, and in the Dresden Codex around the Conquest), a Long Count date was written as a five-digit (vigesimal) numeral, which we conventionally render like this: 220.127.116.11.14, or 18.104.22.168.0, for example. During the Classic period, these numbers almost never stood alone: A Long Count date like the first, from the La Esperanza or Chinkultik' Ballcourt Marker, was actually written something like:
"Tziik-Haab-?? ("The Count of Years, [presided over by the?] 'patron' of [the month] Xul"):"
"9 Pik ("bundles" of 400 years),"
"7 Winikhaab ("20-years"),"
"17 Haab ("years"),"
"12 Winik ("persons" or "months" of 20 days),"
"14 K'in ("suns" or "days"),
So it keeps track of elapsed time since the "Creation" or "Era Date" on 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u back in 3114 BC/BCE. One might think that this calendar were linear, not cyclic at all, except that the Maya consistently recorded the "Era Date" in question as 22.214.171.124.0, not the 0.0.0.0.0, we should have expected. Dates during the previous Era they render (at Palenque, for instance) as 12.x.x.x.x, clearly indicating that they considered the clock running up to Era Date as counting a previous 5125-year cycle, which for some reason was reset when the top digit reached 13, rather than continuing up to 20.
This mysterious resetting of the clock to "zero," when it reached 13 Pik back in the 32nd century BC, forms the entire basis for the belief that when it reaches 13 again, something awesome will happen. This conjecture was first voiced four decades ago by the very reputable Michael D. Coe, in his first edition of The Maya (1966):
"The idea of cyclical creations and destructions is a typical feature of Mesoamerican religions, as it is of Oriental. The Aztec, for instance, thought that the universe had passed through four such ages, and that we were now in the fifth, to be destroyed by earthquakes. The Maya thought along the same lines, in terms of eras of great length, like the Hindu kalpas. There is a suggestion that each of these measured 13 baktuns, or something less than 5,200 years, and that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the thirteenth. Thus, following the Thompson correlation, our present universe would have been created in 3113 BC, to be annihilated on December 24, 2011, when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion"
(p. 149, cited by John Hoopes his dates are slightly "off," partly due to differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars.)
To complicate matters, some Maya monuments give dates of the 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u Creation with higher-order coefficients, including 8000-year (Piktun), 160,000-year (Kalabtun), 3,200,000-year (K'inchiltun) periods, and on upwards. Such dates at Coba and Yaxchilan fix the coefficients of these "long Long Count" dates all at 13. The dates at Coba have twenty-one-digits, 126.96.36.199.
188.8.131.52.0.0, fixing Creation in a cycle some nonillions of years long (that's a number with 30 zeroes), billions of billions of times longer than the interval since the (scientifically-accepted) Big Bang. This implies that they believed that 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u fell on an extraordinary conjunction of 13's. They must have felt that all those 13's gave the present Creation some special significance.
What then, did the higher-order coefficients do after the 13-Pik (or 13-Bak'tuns) was reset to zero? Were they all reset? (Again, recapping the accompanying downloadable presentation, Part 2): The calendar-priests at Yaxchilan don't seem to have thought so. They provide us a 13-digit Long Count date in their present age, where the first eight digits are still frozen at 13. It did not work like a proper odometer. That is, when the Pih/Bak'tun coefficient reset from 13, it did not advance the upper digits, neither to 14, nor to zero, nor to one. Thus, at least at Yaxchilan (and probably at Coba), the higher-order time-units were entirely symbolic: the strings of 13's were not thought of as "real" time units in the same way as the last five.
The scribes and Pharisees at Palenque and Tikál did not subscribe to this interpretation of the higher orders of Time-units. Tikál has a stela carrying ananomalous Long Count date implying that they set the present era's Piktun coefficient at 19, not 13. The Palenque calendar apparently differed from both these: they call the year 4774 AD/CE "one Piktun," which can only happen if the coming year 184.108.40.206.0 (in 2012) were followed by 220.127.116.11.0 in 2407 AD, and 18.104.22.168.0 in 2801, and on up past 22.214.171.124.0 around 4370
. In other words, though they agreed on the "normal" five-digit Long Count dates, these three important Maya cities all subscribed to different ideas about what trans-Pik coefficients should be. This indicates that the original Long Count calendar, invented during the Late Formative, probably only defined the lowest five digits, never addressing the Piktuns and so forth at all.
The earliest known Long Count dates (7.16.x.x.x, between 40 and 20 BC/BCE) come from Chiapa de Corzo, Tres Zapotes, and Takalik Abaj. The last is Maya, but the other two are Isthmian, miles to the west of Mayaland. Most scholars believe the Long Count to have beeen an Isthmian, not a Maya invention, though there are those who claim its invention for Izapa, right on the border between the two peoples. Unlike the 260-day calendar, use of the Long Count was not widespread; there is no evidence that the Aztecs, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, or any other Mesoamericans ever used it.
One note of warning: we have virtually no decipherable texts from the Late Formative era, the time of the calendars' invention. John Major Jenkins, a self-described "2012ologist," points out the danger of using Classic-era texts to interpret the thinking of peoples several centuries earlier and many miles away. He contends that the differences I note between various cities' Long Count calendars are due to much later political manipulation, and ought to be ruled out of any analysis of its inventors' intentions. He firmly believes that the priests who devised the Long Count fixed its "end point" in "Era 2012" rather than some beginning event. The evidence he cites for this is not based on any text, but on his interpretations of Late Formative pictorial monuments, mostly at Izapa.
I have preferred to use centuries-too-late textual information, rather than rely on iconography, for a simple reason: In every other context, whether Biblical or Latin or Chinese, written texts convey information orders of magnitude more precisely than just pictures do. It is thanks to texts that we can identify the various avatars and gods of ancient India, although our earliest extant copies of, say, the Vedas, are at least a thousand years removed from their composition. Likewise, earliest surviving Biblical texts are centuries, millennia newer than their originals, yet we are confident that they preserve the stories without severe modification. The same is true for Classical Chinese and Greek literature: though much has been lost in the centries intervening between the origins and our texts, we know copyists have been remarkably faithful. Without the texts, we might have a little trouble identifying just what a Bacchanal represents, or who is who in the Parthenon pediments.
And the Izapa monuments intricate, numerous, and well-preserved (in their original locations!) though they be, possess peculiar, difficult-to-interpret iconography. Many images are unique, and none preserve a trace of readable text. (I suspect that, situated on a border between linguistic groups, Izapa carvers decided to forgo public hieroglyphic inscriptions which would favor one linguistic group over another. A polyglot situation also obtained in Teotihuacán and late Chichén Itzá, multicultural metropolises which likewise avoided public inscriptions.) For an exemplary careful and reasoned interpretation of Izapa's iconography, see Guernsey. For a divergent, much more fanciful one, see Jenkins. The divergence could not happen if the pictures carried readable inscriptions. The most-clearly-recognizable of the Izapa images (Chaak fishing, Hero Twin confronting the Bird) are informed by texts written down many centuries later. Despite the passage of centuries, the written word is surprisingly conservative and reliable.
What is a Period-Ending?
|The Ancient Maya Long Count calendar (see the 126.96.36.199.0 FAQ) is like an odometer. Every day its lowest digit (K'in, or "day") clicks one higher, and when that digit reaches 19, it clicks over to zero and the next, the Winal (or Winik) digit, adds one. When the Winal gets to 17 (not 19, it's uniquely anomalous), it clicks over to zero and the next one up, the Haab (or Tun, "year") adds one. (18 x 20 = 360, so a Haab is 360 days, nearly a year.) And so on. Every year, the date would end in two zeroes (e.g., 188.8.131.52.0 or 184.108.40.206.0,), while every twenty years, it would end in three (220.127.116.11.0 or 18.104.22.168.0,). The ancient Maya celebrated these "round" numbers (which always fall on a Tzolk'in date Ajaw), just as we do when we end a decade or century. |
We call them Period-Endings or PE's, and the Maya had a special glyph for them, a 'hand pointing,' with a 'bead' dangling from the 'pointing index finger.' (The origin and connotation of this peculiar image is unknown. In Thompson's dictionary it is numbered T218.) It reads Tzutz, which in Mayan means, "to end," "to terminate," "to expire," and "to join."|
|The ancient Maya renewed things -new paint, new stucco, sometimes whole rebuildings (and probably new clothes, dishes, etc.)- every Winikhaab (just under 20 years, formerly called a K'atun), as well as its major fractions: most often every five or ten years, and sometimes on the 13th year of a Winikhaab. So we find many more PE's on dates like 22.214.171.124.0, or 126.96.36.199.0, or 188.8.131.52.0 than on, say, 184.108.40.206.0 or 220.127.116.11.0. The Maya also celebrated anniversaries, and jubilees of significant events like coronations, particularly at Winikhaab intervals. When a king reached his sixtieth birthday, he gained the title 4-Winikhaab-Ajaw ("4-K'atun Lord"), meaning he had entered the fourth 20-year-period of his life. A few kings were referred to as 3-Winikhaab-Ajaw, though I suspect that even the Maya considered this a bit pretentious, as it is no big deal to reach 40 years of age. Some, like the venerable Janahb Pakal of Palenque, were 5-Winikhaab-Ajaws. One had even made it to 6-Winikhaabs, over 98 years old.|
|Considering that the ancient Maya had such respect for Period Endings, and the number 13, it comes as no surprise that the date 18.104.22.168.0 provoked substantial interest on their part. What is unexplained is the why almost every ancient reference to that date is to the earlier one, back in 3114 BCE, and there is only one surviving mention of the next one, in 2012. (Tortuguero Mon. 6.) Even that one, as Steve Houston points out, only briefly projects ahead to the date, then immediately "snaps back" to the then-present, in the seventh century.|
Who is Quetzalcoatl?
In Nahuatl the Aztec language, Quetzal means "feather" and Coatl means "serpent." Thus the name of this character means, "Feathered Serpent," and that is often how he is portrayed, a snake with feathers, slithering through the sky, a god of wind and the sky itself. There is also a species of bird, eponymously called quetzal, because its most remarkable feature is its glorious tailfeathers, three times as long as its body, like a Dr. Suess creation. It also is emerald green, with a blood-red breast, and its head bears a distinctive forward-pointing crest. The leaves resemble the leaves of a maize plant; the bird could be seen as a zoological reflection of the Mesoamerican staple. These features conspired to bestow upon the bird the status of a god, and the little jewel-like quetzal retains a modern incarnation of its ancient status: National Bird of Guatemala.
In Olmec iconography, the ancestor of this sky-serpent is a snake with a raptor's beak, which many scholars call the Avian Serpent. They usually sport a distinct crest which we have nicknamed 'flame-eyebrow,' though it has nothing to do with fire iconography. Both the Harpy Eagle, largest avian predator in Mesoamerica, and the feared Fer-de-Lance viper, have little upthrust "crests" of feathers or scales just over the eye, which may have inspired this feature in Olmec representations of this god in art.
In Mayan languages, the bird and the word "feather" are both K'uk', and "serpent" is Kan or Chan, so the feathered-serpent sky deity is called K'uk'ulkan. In Mayan, the word for "sky" is also Kan or Chan, indicating an identity between the two which is not accidental. The Feathered Serpent was the embodiment of the Sky, Wind, and by extension, Breath and Music. The Aztecs conflated him with Ehecatl, their god of wind.
Both Aztec and Maya legend tell of a man, a king, bearing this name. His story is about the same mix of history and myth as our King Arthur. He was probably named for the god, and then became conflated with Him. He lived about a thousand years ago, in the Terminal Classic period, and the two stories complement each other in an interesting way. Quetzalcoatl, a wise and impossibly noble king of the Toltecs, was tricked by his evil brother into committing an atrocious incestuous sin, and sailed away to the east on a raft of snakes. About the same time, across the Gulf of México, a great king arrived from the west to rule Chichén with wisdom and prosperity for a number of years. Landa tells us he founded Mayapan as well, and other accounts credit him with "bringing the faith" to Cozumel. He later ascended to heaven. His feast was celebrated at Mayapan and later at Maní, on the last five days of the month Xul, ending on 0 Yaxk'in, on which day he was believed to descend bodily and abide among his worshippers. In the Aztec account, he promised to return on his birthday, 1-Reed. Earlier incarnations of this god had a birthday of 9-Wind. This day was profoundly important to the Maya as well; god GI of the Palenque Triad (an incarnation of Chaak) was born on 9-Wind, and later, Lord Ahkalmonaab III selected that day for his coronation in the eighth century.
Note his different calendrical associations. Motehcuzoma II was born in a 1-Reed year, and considered Quetzalcoatl his personal patron. (Unluckily, it was on his significant 52nd birthday in 1519, also a 1-Reed year, that Cortez arrived.) But most Mixtec and other communities honored him on 9-Wind, while his northern Maya festival was scheduled according to the 365-day calendar, on 16 Xul - 0 Yaxk'in. We moderns have hardly an inkling of the complex relationship of the auguries and associations of the Mesoamerican calendar days. They were far more complex than the influence-interactions of the planets in a comprehensive zodiacal horoscope you might hire a professional astrologer to cast for you today. To make matters more complex, the rules and auguries were different from place to place, sometimes radically so. Ross Hassig argues that Aztec rulers manipulated the Calendar as a political tool, and I believe that they were following a well-worn tradition in this.
What is this correlation constant?
The correlation constant is a number which connects the Maya Calendar with that used by modern astronomers. By the time of the Conquest, the Maya were no longer using the Long Count Calendar, and before long the triumphant priests and friars had pretty much stamped out what was left of the "pagan" native calendars (the 260-day and 365-day cycles, mainly), since they were intimately tied to native religions.
However, a handful of early Spanish and Maya records contain a date or two in both the Christian and Maya systems. They are not precise, however, on the order of "(the) K'atun (ending on) 13 Ajaw" landed sometime during 1539. Exacerbating the problem: a K'atun 13 Ahaw comes around every 256 years.
Astronomers date celestial events with a "star date" based originally on terrestrial days, but as independent as possible from earthly cycles. Its basic unit is the Earth day of 24 hours, and it counts only days (and fractions thereof) from a "zero" point at noon (Greenwich or Universal time), "January 1, 4713 BC, by the Julian proleptic calendar." (This date is copied from the Wikipedia article on the "Julian day;" visit that webpage or google "julian day number" to learn more.) In order to correlate a date in any calendar with any other, one begins by ascertaining the Julian day numbers (JDN) of the two calendars.
The Goodman-Martinez-Thompson's correlation constant is the JDN of its start date, 22.214.171.124.0. According to their calculations (based on cross-checking several Maya colonial documents) the GMT constant is 584,283. That is, add 584,283 days to 1st of January 4713 BC (Julian) and you arrive at 6th September 3114 BC (Julian), which correlates to 11th August 3114 BC (Gregorian), the calendar in use today. (The reason Julian and Gregorian are a little out of step has to do with their different leap year formulas. Look it up.) This correlation leads one to 21st December 2012 for the next 126.96.36.199.0.
Floyd Lounsbury, looking at the Dresden Venus Tables and some other astronomical data, later adjusted the GMT correlation constant by two days, to 584,285. He convinced Schele, Coe, and many other scholars to use his reckoning; they place the 188.8.131.52.0 dates two days later, at 13th August 3114 BC and 23rd December 2012.
There were several other correlations proposed. Spinden chose an earlier K'atun cycle (his constant is 489,383), so his date calculations are all 256 years earlier than the GMT's. If he were right, 184.108.40.206.0 came and went in 1756. Bowditch's correlation constant 394,483, is another 256 years earlier, and happens to put 220.127.116.11.0 in an era that I think highly appropriate for a Maya End of the World: 1493. There are about a dozen other estimates, but carbon-dating of the dated wooden lintels from Tikal support a GMT or GMT+2 date with about 75% assurance.
But I prefer the GMT, the one also favored by all the millennialists. The strongest evidence I have found in favor of that versus the GMT+2 is that reported by Dennis and Barbara Tedlock in Momostenango in the highlands of Guatemala. There, as recently as a decade ago, day-keepers were still using the 260-day calendar, and it fits the GMT. I suspect it is still in use, or revived, thanks to the various Maya Calendar calculation websites (such as that at http://research.famsi.org/date_mayaLC.php ).
What is the "Popol Vuh"?
The Popol Vuh is a book written some centuries ago in the Mayan Quiché/K'iche' language. The title means "Council Book" or "Book of the Community"; modern Maya orthography spells it Popol Wu'uj. Like a number of indigenous colonial documents, it owes its existence to legal insecurity: A noble family needed to establish their right to certain privileges and property. As with many lineages, their foundations lay in the legendary past, back to Creation itself. (This applies equally to the European nobility, who record their genealogy back through the kings of Babylon and Israel, to Adam and Eve.) In this case, the rulers of Quiché linked their line back to the First Parents, and apparently considered the Hero Twins Hunajpú and Xbalanqué their especial protectors.
It contains a unique account of the four Creations of the Maya world, spends the majority of its pages on the exploits of the Hero Twins (no fewer than three sets of twins take part), in the misty era before the present Creation began, then carries on through the creation of the Quiché nation and up to the year 1550. The original book, probably written in the 1550's, found its way into the hands of the parish priest of the highland Guatemala town of Xelá (better known as Chichicastenango), one Francisco Jiménez or Ximénez, who wrote out a copy for himself around 1700. His book is now preserved in the Newberry Library in Chicago, luckily, since its original vanished long ago. The original text (or perhaps its predecessor) seems to have been illustrated, and may even have been written in hieroglyphs; here and there it states things like, "We see here
", as if narrating a series of pictures.
For our purposes, the Popol Vuh's account of the four Creations reveals the ancient predecessor to the more detailed and compulsively-symmetrical Aztec Legend of the (Five) Creations (called five "Suns"), which strikingly follows it. Its list of gods responsible for Creation, for example, faintly echoes the god-lists we find in carved inscriptions (the "planters" of the Three Stone Thrones, for example) and on the Vases of the 7 Gods and of the 11 Gods. (For these, see Part 2 of our accompanying downloadable PDF presentation.) Unlike other surviving Creation stories, however, the Popol Vuh contains no calendrical dates. This is a bit surprising, considering the importance calendar dates hold in nearly every Mesoamerican culture and historical document. Also, in nearby Momostenango, the 260-day calendar has been in continuous use from very ancient times to the present. It seems unlikely in the extreme that the 1550's author of the Popol Vuh would have been ignorant of the calendar, so we are forced to the uncomfortable conclusion that he deliberately chose, for some reason, to refrain from using it. Perhaps the Spanish Colonial authority to whom he would be presenting his legal claim frowned on its use, for much the same reasons that Bishop Landa, some three to six years later, burned all the Maya books he could lay hands on. ("
they contained nothing
(but) superstition and lies of the devil
Several authors have published translations of this important book, most recently Dennis and Barbara Tedlock, and Allen Christenson. Both these, as well as other editions in Spanish and English, provide insights into the original author's intended meanings. I distilled my collection of excerpts from Allen Christenson's 2000 edition, though I urge serious Readers to peruse at least a couple of different editions.
Click on the link to view a highly abbreviated version of the Maya Popol Vuh in pdf format.
Did the losers of the Ballgame get sacrificed?
|The Ballgame or la Pelota was one of the most unusual features of Mesoamerican cultures. Early Formative rubber balls have survived in the springs of El Manatí, from about six inches to ten inches in diameter. Known as far north as Arizona, by the Classic period Hohokam, the game was something like a cross between soccer and volleyball. Played in an alley between shallowly-sloping walls, its object seems to have been to volley a rubber ball back and forth by hitting it with the hip or upper arm. Teams seem to have been two or three to a side. A version of the game survives to this day in Sinaloa; when you see a demonstration-for-tourists game at Cancun or Uxmal today, it is likely being played by Sinaloans.
|Just as today we play rugby, American football, soccer, and other related games, la Pelota appears to have had several versions, each with somewhat different rules. For example, several surviving West Mexican statuettes portray a player holding a ball in his hand, about the size of a grapefruit or softball. Some ancient images of ballplayers (as those on the talud at Chichén Itzá's court) carry a "hand stone" (shaped like an iron for pressing clothes, but with a snake-head on it), which imply a variety of the game where they hit the ball with it. Sinaloan players wear no hip protection (they must have monster calluses), but images of most Classic-era ballplayers wear substantial yokes (or yugos) as well as chest and knee pads (usually on one knee only) and sometimes elbow pads (also often restricted to only one arm).
|Ballplayers here wear yokes, kneepads and cumbersome, ornate headdresses, as they contest a medium-size ball.(Click on image for more information from Kerr's MayaVase database)|
|Maya ballgame images carved on stone reliefs usually label the ball with what appears to be a "gauge": 9-Nahb or 14-Nahb, or other numerals apparently indicating the ball's size -Nahb can mean "palm of the hand" (or "pool of water"), which suggests different games with different-sized balls. Some artists emblazoned the ball with a skull (those at Chichén have 'smoke' issuing from the skull's mouth), or other figures. This may indicate that the ball was properly played with a real skull, or that the rubber ball contained the severed head of a sacrifice from the last game. Images from Yaxchilan stairways show huge balls, three or four feet in diameter, bouncing down the steps, carrying an image of a trussed prisoner. Did some ballplayers actually "kick around" a poor bundled-up guy? How could anyone move a ball weighing over a hundred pounds, much less volley it?
|To return to sacrifice, la Pelota was not just a game. Surely, as in Sinaloa, most games were actual contests, as meaningless and entertaining as a modern soccer match. But the games played in the Popol Vuh were in earnest; the first Hero Twins (1-Hunajpu and 7-Hunajpu) lost their heads after losing to the Lords of Death, and the second Twins (Hunajpu and Xbalanque) were burned to ashes after their game. Paralleling the Gospel story, the latter Twins went on to resurrect and defeat the Lords of Death. The Ballgames which involved sacrifice were re-enactments of this story, Passion plays; the "losers" were indeed sacrificed, but the game was fixed, its outcome predetermined. As in a Passion play, you neither expect nor root for Jesus to be saved at the last minute; his sacrifice is necessary for our Redemption. It was an honor to play the role of the Twins, and their resurrection (in another plane) was assured. So perhaps the "losers" were considered "winners" of some sort. This "game" must have been performed with some regularity, though we have no idea whether it was an annual event or happened, say, every 52 years. As it was a part of the Creation myth, one might expect it to have been celebrated at Period-Endings, every 20 years, or perhaps, in prosperous places, every five.
|The famous Princeton Vase shows two scenes. On the left is a decapitation, usually thought to illustrate that of the Maize God 1-Hunajpu by grotesque Lords of Death. In a touching gesture on the other side of the vase, one of the ladies gently pokes her fellow wife's ankle to draw her attention to the grisly event. (Click on image for more information from Kerr's MayaVase database)|
|In any event, the Ballgame was probably played just for fun most of the time, and only sometimes ended with sacrifice. It would be hard to imagine an end-of-season elimination tournament, with all the losing teams losing their lives.
- Anyone who has given blood to the Blood Bank can testify that losing even a pint can cause dizziness. In the frequent bloodletting rituals common in Mesoamerica, the amounts often lost could have induced hallucinations and other altered states.
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