Standing on the steps of a pyramid at the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, gazing up at the top of the impressive ancient structure, a traveler can pause for a moment (perhaps to catch his breath) and imagine seeing an ancient Mayan priest emerging from his room at the top of the pyramid to commune with a deity. One of the reasons the Mayans built these impressive archeological achievements was so that the priests could be closer to the heavens.
If you spend a lot of time gazing into the heavens, as the Mayan priests did, you start to notice some things — things like the movement of the stars in the sky, including those the Greeks called planētēs or “wanderers.” A window at El Caracol, in the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, was built to frame the appearance of Venus at a fixed spot on the horizon that occurs once every eight years.
So, the Mayans became expert astronomers. They constructed many of their pyramids to align with certain astronomical events, like solstices and equinoxes. El Castillo, or the Temple of Kukulcan, a pyramid at Chichén Itzá, has four stairways, each with 91 steps. Combined with the single step to the temple entrance at its top, the number of steps on the site add up to 365 — the number of days in a year.
The Mayan calendar
The Mayans ran across a problem that has vexed other calendar makers over the centuries — 365 does not divide easily into smaller segments (do you really want only five months, each lasting 73 days? Think January is long now?). Their solution to this problem was to create a calendar of 18 months, each lasting 20 days. They tacked five days onto the end of this (18×20=360) to reach 365. These last five days were called Wayeb’, and were considered unlucky.
Since the Mayan calendar (called the Haab’) began with the winter solstice, we are now in this unlucky Wayeb’ period. In her “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Mayan World,” Lynn V. Foster wrote in 2002 that “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters.”
Sounds kind of ominous.
Just like our calendar, the Mayan calendar repeated every year, so just as January 2 occurs annually in the Gregorian calendar, so does the 11th of Pop in the Mayan. This fits in nicely with the Mayans’ cyclical view of time. Even the existence or non-existence of humans was cyclical. The Mayans believed in the existence of “worlds” prior to this one, created and then destroyed by their deities. The continued existence of the present world also was always in doubt, requiring offerings to appease the gods.
In addition to the calendar based on the solar year, the Mayans had another, called the Tzolk’in, or the Mayan Sacred Round calendar. This was a calendar containing 20 named days, which repeated 13 times for a total of 260 days. The end of the Tzolk’in and the end of the Haab’ coincide once every 52 years, making what is called a “calendar round.”
To further complicate matters, the Mayans had yet another calendar, called The Long Count, to record historical events since the beginning of time (which was Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. by our calendar system). The Long Count was divided into segments lasting 20 days called winals. Eighteen of these winals made a tun (360 days). Twenty tuns made a katun and 20 katun made a baktun (144,000 days).
A baktun lasts about 394 years. The end of the current baktun (the 13th) happens to coincide with the end of the Haab’ on Dec. 21, 2012 — the winter solstice.
Is this the end?
As previously noted, we’re in those unlucky final five days of the Haab’ called Wayeb, where the boundaries between realms (Heaven and Hell, if you like) are rather nebulous in Mayan belief. And, according to Stephanie Pappas, senior writer at LiveScience, 13 baktuns marks the end of “a full cycle of creation.”
So does that mean the end of the world? The experts say no.
Part of the apocalyptic hysteria may be due to the misinterpretation of some ancient Mayan stone carvings. Pappas says one refers to a god associated with calendar changes returning at the end of the 13th baktun, but doesn’t prophesy the end of the world.
Pappas and many others note that the Mayans had units of Long Count calendar measurement that go far beyond 13 baktuns, projecting the calendar even millions of years into the future.
Mayan scholar William Saturno told National Geographic that the end of the current baktun can be compared to one of those old, non-digital car odometers rolling over from 99,999 miles back to zero.
“We, of course, know that really means a hundred thousand [miles] and not zero,” Saturno said. “Is [the end of Baktun 13] a large period ending? Yes … Was it predicted to be the end the world? No.”
What about those Mayan priests/astronomers, who were so good that they calculated the solar year to be 365.2422 days, a more accurate calculation than that used in the creation of the Gregorian calendar? Did they foresee some astronomical cataclysm occurring on Dec. 21, perhaps in conjunction with the winter solstice? Self-proclaimed psychic Nancy Lieder seems to think so.
Lieder, following in the footsteps of fiction writer Zecharia Sitchin, who writes about ancient Sumeria, has said inhabitants of a planet orbiting nearby star Zeta Reticuli have warned her that the earth is in danger of colliding with a planet that the Sumerians, according to Sitchin, called Nibiru.
However, Lieder originally thought this collision would take place in May 2003. When it didn’t happen then, the date of the apocalypse was moved to coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar.
NASA says Nibiru doesn’t exist and has even made a video for people to watch on Saturday explaining why the world didn’t end on Friday.
As for the end of the baktun coinciding with the winter solstice, that’s all it is — a coincidence. There is some disagreement among Mayan scholars as to when the Long Count calendar actually begins, meaning the end of the current baktun may already have taken place or might not until several days after Dec. 21.