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On December 21, 2012, something momentous is going to happen. The Mayan calendar says so. Everybody knows it. They’ve been talking about it on the late-night airwaves and on the Internet and in books for years.
But what’s going to happen?
The answer seems to depend on whom you ask.
According to some “experts” on the “2012 Phenomenon,” it will be a really good thing, the dawning of a new age in human consciousness and the next step in human evolution. Some say the planet Earth will cross the plane of the galaxy or align with the galactic core and new energies will be unleashed, transforming human consciousness. Also, aliens may show up and invite us to join a galactic brotherhood.
According to other 2012 “experts,” what will happen will be a really bad thing, such as the planet Earth colliding with a black hole and bringing about the end of the world. Or maybe it will be a comet we collide with. Or an asteroid. Or the lost planet Nibiru. Or, even without a collision, Earth’s poles will shift. Or there will be a devastating war. Any way you go, things will be bad.
Other “experts” think that it may be a mixture of good and bad, or that it has the potential to be one or the two, depending on how we respond.
Still others aren’t predicting exactly what will happen, just that it will be big. Really big. They’re sure.
So what’s at the root of all these claims? Who were the Maya? What is their calendar? And what’s the truth about all this?
Let’s take a look . . . because the truth is out there.
Meet the Maya
The Maya were—and are—a group of people native to southern Mexico and in the nearby countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
(Properly speaking, the word Mayan is an adjective. The noun form, both singular and plural, is Maya, which can also be used adjectivally. Due to frequent misuse, this distinction may not be represented in non-specialized dictionaries.)
Theirs was one of the major civilizations in the Americas prior to contact with Europeans. The heyday of the Maya was A.D. 250 to 900, after which they went into decline.
But they never died out or lost their cultural identity, and today there are millions of people in Latin America who maintain connections with Maya culture, including—in some cases—speaking one of the Mayan languages.
The classical Maya civilization is of great interest to archaeologists. The remains of many Maya cities exist, and they tell us a lot about their inhabitants. They built palaces and pyramids and ball courts.
They also used a system of writing that has been largely deciphered. In this system, words and syllables are represented by glyphs that sometimes look like stylized versions of what they represent but can also look abstract, at least to the untrained eye.
The Maya also had a number system that included zero, a concept that didn’t become common in European mathematics for some centuries. Among the things they used their number system for was to keep track of time, which brings us to . . .
The “Mayan calendar”
Despite its popularity, the term “Mayan calendar” is misleading. For a start, it would properly be referred to as the “Maya calendar” (Mayan is a word scholars use to refer to the languages of the Maya people). Further, the Maya actually used more than one calendar.
The particular calendar connected with the 2012 date is known as the Long Count Calendar. It was also used by people other than the Maya.
To get an idea of how it works, suppose that you ran across a date in our own Gregorian calendar written like this: 2012/12/25. You would recognize this as referring to Christmas Day 2012. The date is written as a series of numbers with the largest unit (the year) written first, then a smaller unit (the month), and finally the smallest unit (the day).
This is also the way the Long Count Calendar works. It expresses dates as a series of numbers with the biggest units first, ending with the smallest unit—the day. But the larger units in the Long Count Calendar are not the months and years that we are used to.
The Long Count Calendar does begin with a familiar unit—the day—which is referred to by the word k’in, which means “sun.” But for units larger than the day it uses unfamiliar units based on the numbers 18 and 20.
The next larger unit—the winal—is made up of 20 days, giving us a period of almost 3 of our weeks, or two-thirds of a month.
If you put 18 winal together, it makes up a unit called a tun, which is 360 days (18 x 20), or just shy of a year.
Moving to the next larger unit, 20 tun make up a k’atun, which is 7,200 days (20 x 360), so a k’atun is just under 20 years.
Finally, 20 k’atun make up a unit that, today, is commonly called a b’ak’tun. Each of these is 144,000 days (20 x 7,200), making them a bit less than 400 years long. (More precisely, 394 years, 95 days.)
You can think of the units on the Long Count Calendar as being 1 day, a period of a bit less than 1 month, a period of almost 1 year, a period of almost 20 years, and a period of almost 400 years.
Dates on the Long Count Calendar are expressed by a series of numbers using these units. For example, the Gregorian date March 13, 2012, would be represented on the Long Count Calendar by the date 188.8.131.52.17, or:
- 12 b’ak’tun,
- 19 k’atun,
- 19 tun,
- 3 winal, and
- 17 k’in (days).
Every calendar needs a place to begin—a “start date.” In the case of the Gregorian calendar, that is January 1 of A.D. 1. We can use our calendar to express dates before this time, but this is the date our calendar uses to mark the starting point for the present era.
In the case of the Long Count Calendar, the date beginning the current era is 0.0.0.0.1, which corresponds to August 12, 3114 B.C. (plus or minus a day; scholarly opinions vary). Since that time nearly 13 b’ak’tun (cycles of 144,000 days) have passed—which brings us to what is happening this December.
Party like it’s 184.108.40.206.19
December 20 of this year has the Long Count date 220.127.116.11.19. This is the last day of the 13th b’ak’tun of the current Long Count era. The next day, the numbers roll over.
In a way, it’s like our December 31, 1999, was. The next day the numbers rolled over for the beginning of the year 2000.
That’s essentially what’s happening with the Long Count Calendar. On our December 21, the next b’ak’tun will begin, expressed by the date of 18.104.22.168.0.
Often you will hear this new period described as the 13th b’ak’tun, because the number “13” is at the front of the date, but this isn’t technically accurate. Long Count dates with “13” in the b’ak’tun place are part of the 14th b’ak’tun, the same way Gregorian dates in the 1900s are part of the 20th century.
So that’s it. That’s what’s happening with the “Mayan Calendar” in December. It’s having its own equivalent of December 31, 1999, and a rollover to the next set of numbers.
You can’t blame them . . . much
In a way, it’s natural to invest changes on the calendar with meaning. That’s the reason people in every culture, no matter what day they reckon as the beginning of the year, celebrate the new year with a party or a religious ceremony (or both).
When the arriving year is a special one—for example, the real or perceived beginning of a new decade, a new century, a new millennium, or a new b’ak’tun—the festivities are correspondingly greater.
Of course, the year 2000 wasn’t the actual beginning of the third millennium (that would be 2001), but as December 31, 1999, approached, it was perceived that way. Virtually no one in the Western world had experienced dates that didn’t start with a “19.” And there hadn’t been a year without a “1” on the front of it in 1,000 years. To suddenly start having years begin with a “2” was something to take note of.
The numbers we use in our calendars have a real, subjective, psychological impact, and because of that there can be a tendency to attribute too much significance to them.
A thousand years ago, many people got worked up about the arrival of A.D. 1000 and whether it would bring the end of the world. And they weren't the only ones to get excited about a numerically significant date. People around the world have been worked up about dates of numerological significance throughout human history, regardless of the calendar in use.
It’s a known phenomenon.
At this point, it’s so well known that we really should know better. How many prophetic dates have come and gone in our own lifetimes? Google “end of the world failed predictions” and you will get extensive lists of both recent and historical examples.
So why should we think this calendar-based prediction will be any different?
Are the Maya special?
One could argue that this time will be different because the Maya—or their calendar—is somehow special and that the changing of a b’ak’tun really does tie in to events that are significant for the whole world.
If so, the historical record should bear that out. The last time a b’ak’tun changed (22.214.171.124.0) was September 18, 1618, the one before that (126.96.36.199.0) was June 15, 1224, and the one before that (10.0.0.0.0) was March 13, 830.
Anything earth-shattering happen on any of those days?
They’re not exactly famous dates in history.
But maybe the changing of this b’ak’tun will be special. Maybe there’s something about the end of b’ak’tun 13 that’s different.
What might that be?
To our minds the date 188.8.131.52.0 might appear momentous because the number 13 is considered unlucky, but that’s a superstition in our culture, not the classical Maya culture.
For the classical Maya, a different reason might suggest itself: That was the duration of the last world. According to some Maya legends, the gods made three worlds before they made the one in which we live. The third world lasted for 13 b’ak’tun, and the new world was created on 184.108.40.206.0, or August 11, 3114 B.C., the day before 0.0.0.0.1.
You might reason: If the previous world lasted that long, maybe this one will, too, and so we should expect the end of the present fourth world and/or the beginning of the next and fifth world when 220.127.116.11.0 rolls around again.
You might reason that way. But you might not.
If you do, it’s mere speculation. In point of fact, we don’t have classical Mayan sources that treat the 2012 date in this way. They’re just not there.
The elephant in the room
The absence of classical Maya sources that attribute such significance to December 21, 2012, is the real giveaway. If you think about it, that’s the reason that the 2012 “experts” are so divided and uncertain about what’s supposed to happen.
If the Maya sources were clear, if they all said, “This is what will happen”—whether that be the end of the world, a global disaster, the transformation of mankind, contact with aliens, or anything else—then the plethora of claims about December 21 would never have arisen. The 2012 marketers would have a consistent message.
But they don't. There is a prediction vacuum that advocates have filled by proposing numerous, contradictory scenarios.
That is itself a strong indicator of the unreliability of the claims.
Why should we believe any of the claims about 2012? They are so many and so contradictory, and they are not even based on actual claims by the ancient Maya.
Which leads to another question . . .
How would the Maya have known?
The Maya civilization was not technologically advanced. It was relatively sophisticated compared to many ancient cultures, but it wasn’t high-tech. How, then, would the Maya have been able to predict unusual occurrences hundreds of years in the future? How could they have known?
One proposal is that they were given knowledge of these events by someone who was technologically advanced. For example, aliens could have told them the date that they would return to Earth (that is, if the aliens were super-punctual and had their schedule planned to the day, hundreds of years in advance). But this does not fit the facts we have. Classical Maya sources do not describe aliens returning to Earth at 18.104.22.168.0.
It's also not plausible given the way the Mayan calendar works. Consider a parallel: Suppose we were in contact with aliens today and they told us that they would return to earth March 4, 3013. How would we record this fact? We would simply note the date on our existing calendar.
What we would not do is create a new calendar, backdated to a start date several thousand years ago and timed to have an impressive rollover number on March 4, 3013.
That's just not how people use calendars. They set up their calendars to run from a given start date and then mark events of significance going forward. And that's how the Long Count Calendar works: It starts with the creation of the present world (according to the ancient Mayan view) and goes forward from there.
So whether aliens might have told the Maya when they would return or whether they told them anything else (e.g., a comet will smash into you on this date), it goes against logic to believe the Maya would have jiggered with their calendar to produce an impressive rollover number on that date. It’s far more likely they would have done what we would do: Note the date on the calendar in use.
What's going to happen?
Christians look forward to the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, but we should not expect it to happen on any particular day. In fact, we are warned not to try to calculate specific dates in God’s plan.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Since the Ascension Christ's coming in glory has been imminent, even though ‘it is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority’ (Acts 1:7; cf. Mk 13:32)” (CCC 673).
We don’t know when the end of the world will come, but we do know that we all will eventually meet our Maker. As a result, we should live with an attitude of hopeful expectation and remain close to God, in keeping with the biblical exhortations to remain “awake” (1 Thess. 5:6).
Now let me give you my own 2012 theory. Here's what I think is going to happen as we approach the Mayan 22.214.171.124.0.
First, there will be more news stories about the approaching date. You'll hear it talked about more on radio and television. Some people will be breathless with anticipation, others will be afraid, and many will roll their eyes and chuckle.
Then, as we get closer, you'll start hearing some of the 2012 promoters starting to backpedal and hedge their bets, suggesting what might happen rather than declaring what will happen, saying that perhaps 2012 isn't about a single day but a broader period of time, that maybe the changes will only start—and start small—on December 21. In general, there will be a trend among some promoters of lowering expectations and being more ambiguous.
Finally, when the day itself arrives, nothing big will happen. Oh, sure, there's a fluke chance that something really noteworthy will take place, but the odds of anything world-transforming occurring on this day are the same as the odds of something world-transforming happening on any other day.
The next day, the 2012-ers will receive a significant amount of (mostly) gentle ribbing at the office and on television and radio.
A few days later we'll have Christmas (remember, this is going to happen in the pre-Christmas rush), and the whole business will be quickly forgotten.
For the next 394 years.