Mayan calendar ‘predicts’ the end of the world

In spite of all our advances in science, technology and society, humanity is still deeply superstitious. The animal part of brain still startles at threats, however irrational they are. Most of you will be aware that the 21st of December 2012 is the supposed end of the Mayan ‘Long Count’. The Long Count counts the progression of the 52 year calendar cycle that was used across Central America before the invasion by the Spanish.

This headline from the New York Times: MOSCOW – There are scattered reports of unusual behaviour from across Russia’s nine time zones.

This article from the BBC – Aberdeen academic discusses ‘the end of world’ theory

NASA is the voice of reasonNASA to doomsday theorists: You’re wrong!

There will probably be more hysteria and certainly more interest in this in the next fortnight as we countdown to the apocalypse and I think, on the whole, this is a good thing. Why? Because it’s a reminder that we’re not as far removed from our ancestors of 500 years ago. The difference between us and the Aztecs and the Mayans before them is just that they had a framework to make sense of their periodic calendar endings whereas we have science. Of course the trouble is that science doesn’t provide an answer in this case, it simply states that the evidence doesn’t suggest the need for an answer. Maybe that’s just not very satisfying for our deep-root animal brains.

Calendars, Gnostics and Fear

To understand the importance of the ceremony called ‘New Fire’ or the ‘Binding of the Years’, you have to first understand how the dual, interlocking calendar works and then you have really ‘see’ that the ancient astronomers of the Mayan and Mexica (Aztec) people were the Gnostics of their time. I’ll try to explain both as succinctly as possible as I suspect that the average time anyone spends reading a blog post is about 30 seconds. Here goes:

The Calendars
The tonalpohualli is a ceremonial calendar of 260 days that can be visualised by rotating two interlocking cogwheels together, one of 20 named days and the other of 13 numbered days. Doing this, you will produce 260 unique combinations of number-names before the cycle repeats.
The xiupohualli is the seasonal calendar that matches closely what we know of as a year, that is 365 days. This elapsed period is arrived at by allowing the cogwheel of 20 numbered days to rotate fully 18 times and then, adding five days of padding, a time called Nemontomi, required because the astronomers were able to track the motions of the stars to that level of accuracy.

Now, the end of any year was a little bit of a worry but the really big concern came every 52 (18980 days) years because that is the interval required for a 260 day cycle to mesh with a 365 days cycle and come full circle back to the start. This was quite literally the end of days and this is where we turn to the Gnostics.

The Gnostics
The workings of the calendar were undoubtedly the cutting edge of ‘science’ – if we can think of it that way – in Mayan and Mexica calendars. If you want to find a parallel in modern times, the astronomers and priests who understood the measurements that led to these findings were the equivalent of particle physicists. Everyone understands that these people are exploring fundamental truths about our universe. So imagine if the people who just proved the existence of the Higgs-Boson told us in worried tones that additional research showed that the elusive particle turned inside out every billion years, releasing vast amounts of x-ray energy and annihilating all known organic life! We might be sceptical, but the very first question we’d ask in querulous terms would be “When is the next inside-out event due?”

How did I do? Still reading? If you want, there’s loads more information on the Mesoamerican calendar on the internet. The Mayan calendar includes the concept of the long count which recognises that people actually need to be able to track historical events beyond the 52 year boundary. Try and among others.