Some interpretations of the Mayan calendar suggest that the world will end in December 2012
Felix H. Cortez
The last independent native kingdom of Mesoamerica succumbed to the Spanish Empire on March 13, 1697. This was the end of the Mayan civilization and way of life that had lasted for millennia. The story of the end of the Mayan world is enthralling, however, not only because of the military and political prowess of the Spanish conquistadors, but also because of the fact that it happened in precise fulfillment of ancient Mayan prophecies.
In the book The Order of the Days, David Stuart, considered the world’s foremost authority on Mayan culture, chronicles the striking fact that in the decades leading to their fall, the Itzá Maya had prophesied their own end.1 Numerous reports indicate that Snake Star, the last Mayan king, had “a strong sense of his inevitable defeat, when . . . a new era of the Mayan calendar . . . would begin.”2
The Itzá Mayan kingdom was set in a beautiful island called Nohpeten (“Great Island”) and occupied a large region around what is today the beautiful Island of Flores in northern Guatemala. In ancient times, the place was a wild territory of dense jungles that resisted the advances of the Spanish armies and civilization for almost two centuries. The first to visit the kingdom was Hernán Cortez in 1525, four years after the defeat of the last Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma II. He wanted to reach the Caribbean coast of Honduras to suppress the rebellion of a Spanish officer there and passed through this isolated kingdom in a grueling march.
The Maya received the Spaniard army with suspicion but in peace, and provided Cortez with much-needed information. When Cortez was preparing to leave, one of his horses, an utterly exotic animal to the Maya, had a large splinter in its foot, so he left it with the king, who promised to take good care of it. Later historical accounts show that the Itzá Maya came to worship the horse as a divine being. The Mayan priests fed it with flowers and birds as a deserving god. The poor beast starved to death, but the Maya made a large stone image of it and enshrined it at Nohpeten.
Almost one hundred years later, in September of 1618, Fray Bartolomé de Fuensalida and Fray Juan de Orbita traveled for weeks through the jungle with the ambition of converting this remote kingdom to Christianity. The Itzá Maya, however, gave the Franciscan priests a cold reception. Orbita and Fuensalida vividly describe the response of the king: “It is not yet time to abandon our gods. . . . The prophecies tell us the time will yet come to abandon our gods, years from now in the age of eight ahaw. . . . We will speak no more of this now. You would best leave us and return another time.”3
The failure of Orbita and Fuensalida was predictable. Earlier in the day, they had come across the image of a horse in one of the shrines near the center of the island. The natives explained that it was an image of the horse that Cortez had left there. In a fit of zealous rage, Orbita destroyed the horse idol on the spot, causing a deep consternation among the people who had venerated the image for almost a hundred years.
Orbita and Fuensalida knew that they were not welcome anymore and returned to Christian territory, where they reported to their superiors the intriguing prophecy that the Maya recognized as valid. Five years later (1623), Diego Delgado and a party of 90 Spanish and Mayan allies returned to Nohpeten with the ambition of converting the kingdom, but were taken prisoners immediately and sacrificed. Delgado’s heart was offered to the Itzá Mayan gods in retaliation to Orbita’s smashing of the horse idol.
About 70 years later, in 1695, Fray Andrés de Avendaño y Loyola visited Nohpeten. Avendaño was both a zealous evangelizer and deep student of Mayan culture. He spoke the Mayan language well and had studied carefully the traditional Mayan lore and the intricacies of the Mayan calendar to understand the prophecies. Avendaño knew that the age mentioned by Snake Star almost two centuries before would arrive in two years and that it was time to act.
When Avendaño arrived in the Itzá Mayan kingdom, the king led him immediately to the largest, highest temple on the land, where they saw the leg or thigh bone of a horse in a curious box that hung from the shrine’s ceiling. It was the remains of Cortez’s horse, which the natives continued to venerate almost 200 years later. Then, Avendaño told the king that he had come in fulfillment of the Mayan prophecies to convert them to Christianity. If we believe Avendaño’s own account, he reports that the Maya were particularly surprised and impressed by his mention of their prophecies and his ability to interpret them.
However, things did not go well. Prominent Itzá lords and the king’s own wife were troubled at the king’s relationship with the Spanish priests and his interpretation of the prophecies. They plotted against Avendaño, who fled in the middle of the night to the security of Christian territory. Two years later, Martín de Ursúa, governor of Yucatán, who was also aware of the prophecies, decided to invade the Itzá Mayan kingdom. But when Ursúa arrived at Nohpeten, the place was deserted. The houses, the palaces, and the temples had been abandoned. In one shrine they found old horse bones. A frail old woman left behind explained that they were the remains of Cortez’s horse. It was March 13, 1697, when the last standing Mayan kingdom fell in precise fulfillment of Mayan prophecies.
How could the Mayan prophets predict with such precision the overthrow of their own civilization? If they were able to predict their own fall, could they prophecy the end of the world?
December 21, 2012, in Mayan Prophecy
Many people think that ancient Mayan stone tablets found in southeast Mexico predict the world’s end in December 2012.
During the decade of the 1960s, a large concrete factory was being built in the small town of El Tortuguero, Tabasco, Mexico. As some manmade mounds were bulldozed, workers were surprised to find among the rubble several carved stone tablets, eventually removed to Mexican museums. Because no one could read the glyphs, the significance of the tablets was unknown, and they were mostly forgotten. This location was one of the most important smaller sites in the region, subject to the impressive city of Palenque that lies to the south in the neighboring state of Chiapas. Most of the carved monuments came from the reign of King Balam Ahau, A.D. 644–679, which was also the heyday of the city.
Mayan glyphs were finally deciphered in the 1980s, thanks to the collaborative efforts of many scholars. (Today it is possible to read 80 to 90 percent of all Mayan texts.) With this advancement, scholars remembered the stone tablets of El Tortuguero, especially the one known today as Monument 6. It was broken into several pieces, which had been scattered: four in a local Mexican museum, one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, two in private collections, and others lost. In 1996, Stephen Houston and David Stuart were able to publish for the first time a literal translation of this monument: “The thirteenth one will end on 4ahau, the third of Uniiw. There will occur blackness and the descent of the Bolon Yookte’ god to the red.” Idiomatic translation: “The thirteenth calendaral cycle will end on the day 4 ahau, the third of Uniiw, when there will occur blackness (or a spectacle) and the God of the Nine will come down to the red (or be displayed in a great investiture).”4
The tablet called the attention for several reasons. The date referred in the tablet is 4 Ahaw 3 Unii, which in our calendar is December 21, 2012—also the winter solstice. A foreboding aspect of the date is that it is the end of an impressively long calendar cycle of 5,126 years. The beginning of the cycle was in the year 3114 B.C., creation day in Mayan lore. That great span of time dates back to the dawn of human civilization—the beginning of dynastic Egypt, the rise of the Minoan civilization, and the construction of Stonehenge.
Proponents of the theory that this predicts December 12, 2012, as the end of the world support this idea with the following:
The Maya believed that the world was created repeatedly and that floods destroyed previous creations because of perceived deficiencies (e.g., the man of wood was not capable of worshiping their creators). We are currently in the third or fourth creation, which is the age of Maize (corn), the crop that sustains humans in the Mayan worldview.
John Major Jenkins, a prominent author of books about the Mayan calendar and 2012, argues that an important key is an image in Chiapas, Mexico. The man in the image is interpreted to be one of the Hero Twins, who in Mayan creation mythology shoots a bird deity named Seven Macaw with a blowgun to usher in the transition from one world creation to the next. The caiman in the picture is the Milky Way, the polar center is at the top, and the Seven Macaw is the Big Dipper constellation. All are aligned in the way the sky looked in the summer solstice when the image was erected (600–100 B.C.). It is argued that this is a dateless reference to the creation in 3114, and, therefore, recreation in 2012.
The end of the calendar cycles was important for the Maya. An image in Copán, Honduras, highlights the date 435 A.D., the transition to the ninth calendar cycle. Similarly, an image in Quiriguá, Guatemala, affirms that the kingship of Cauac Sky (724–785 A.D.) was rooted in the moment of the most recent creation (3114 B.C.). It is argued that if the turn to the ninth calendar cycle was important as shown in this document, the 13th referred to in Tortuguero’s Monument 6 was even more so.
What did the Maya think happens when the world is destroyed and re-created? One possible answer seems to be described in the oldest and best-preserved Mayan book. Called the Dresden codex, it is found in the Saxon State Library in Dresden and contains various almanacs, divination calendars, astronomical tables, ritual regulations, and numerous representations of gods. This bark-paper book created by Mayan scribes in the 14th century A.D. contains details of the movements of the Moon and the planets and their relation with the calendar cycles.
The document concludes with the image of a large caiman, vomiting what appears to be water from the sky. The glyphic text has the old goddess Chac Chel pouring down water from a jar in the center of the text and the god Chac painted in black, with menacing weapons of destruction.
This apocalyptic interpretation of the picture in the Dresden codex seems compelling because a great flood is mentioned in other Mayan and Mesoamerican sources. The Aztec creation mythology says that the fourth and most recent destruction and re-creation occurred with a flood. In a Quiché Mayan narrative, the humans made of wood, the previous creation, were washed away with a flood. A Mayan alphabetic text produced in colonial Yucatán but containing ancient traditions describes the flood as being provoked by the battle between the God of the Thirteen (the sky has 13 levels) and the God of the Nine (the underworld that has nine levels).
This resonates with Tortuguero’s Monument 6. Using the information gathered from Mayan inscriptions here and there and a diversity of Mesoamerican traditions, the stone tablet has been read in the following way (notice the interpretation in the bracketed text): The 13th one will end on 4 Ahau, the third of Uniiw [December 21, 2012]. There will occur blackness [disaster: as in the weapon-wielding god Chac painted in black in the Dresden codex] and the descent of the Bolon Yookte’ god to the red [the manifestation of this god heralds the flood in The Books of Chilam Balam].
Munro Edmonson, one of the translators of the Chilam Balamliterature, argues that the texts for the celebration for the end of a Mayan calendar cycle that took place in Merida, Yucatán, in 1618, contain several references to the fact that the cycle (Baktun) ends in a great flood. “Here is when it shall end, the telling of the katun; that is what is given by God; the flood shall take place for the second time; this is the destruction of the world; this then is its end.”5
This celebration honored the beginning of an even cycle: 1618 A.D. There were 20 ceremonies, the third of which was a cycle-ending ceremony that featured a battle in which the god of the underworld (God of the Nine) defeats and sacrifices the god of the sky (God of the Thirteen). Thus, the apocalyptic interpretation of the end of the calendar cycle seems evident.
2012 and Apocalyptic Concerns
This alleged prophecy of 2012 has caused great excitement in media of all kinds, including the film 2012, released in November 2009, with revenues of $769 million, a book titled The Complete Idiot’s Guide to 2012, and a Website where every kind of survival supplies may be procured.
The 2012 excitement goes beyond the Mayan long-count calendar and includes a variety of religious and scientific predictions. The most prominent that some people are relating in one way or another to the Mayan prophecies include:
● Solar Storms. Several scientists have posited that solar storms could be particularly strong in 2011 and 2012, produced by “coronal mass ejections” that would hit the Earth with magnetic energy and possibly produce the disruption of cell-phone communications, electrical power outages, radio blackouts, and even earthquakes. It is noted that in September 1 and 2, 1859, a solar storm disrupted telegraph systems. It even shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires.
● CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is a particle accelerator and collider that causes two beams of subatomic particles to collide at very high energy levels at 99.99 percent the speed of light. Scientists believe that these collisions may produce never-before-seen particles they can study to understand secrets of how atoms and our universe work. Others are concerned that it could produce a black hole or “strangelet” (a form of matter thought to be at the center of neutron stars) that could destroy the world. The CERN research board and other scientists assert, however, that the LHC poses no risks to the planet.
● Predictions of Nostradamus. The Prophecies of Nostradamus is a collection of 80 watercolor images by the famous 16th-century soothsayer that some think predicts the end of the world on December 21, 2012. Italian journalists Enza Massa and Roberto Pinotti discovered the collection in the Central National Library of Rome in 1982. There is considerable controversy, however, whether the watercolors were actually drawn by Nostradamus.
● Reversal of the north/south magnetic poles. Geophysicists have observed with concern a crack in the magnetic field of the Earth that prevents harmful solar radiation. This crack, found in the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Africa, is a weakening of the Earth’s magnetic field that could lead to a reversal of the magnetic poles and leave us vulnerable to radiation from the Sun.
● Collision with “Planet X.” Nancy Lieder claims that aliens called “Zetas” warned of a collision or near miss in 2012 with a Planet X, which is four times as big as the Earth. She has made other predictions that have not come true.
Our planet is constantly bombarded with rocks hurtling around our solar system. Every five minutes a fragment of rock the size of a pea burns in the Earth’s atmosphere. Once or twice a century, a rock 40 to 50 meters in size hits our planet. They are large enough to obliterate a city if it were struck directly.
An estimated 500 to 1,100 asteroids 1 kilometer or more in size have trajectories that cross that of the Earth. An asteroid of this size would have devastating global consequences, lofting enough pulverized debris to plunge the Earth in a freezing cosmic winter for years. Some 320 asteroids of this size have already been identified, and their trajectories are being projected in time to see if they pose a threat in the medium term.
This is only part of the threat. Comets are larger, faster, and are much more difficult to track. We could get only six months’ warning of a future comet impact. There is no known threat, however, of a hit by an asteroid or comet for 2012.
● Earth’s alignment with the galactic plane. John Mayor Jenkins, one of the main proponents of the 2012 prophecy, argues that our Solar System will align with the center of the Milky Way galaxy on December 21, 2012. This will interrupt the energy that supposedly flows from the center of the galaxy to the Earth producing either a crescendo of natural disasters or a change in the consciousness of humanity (Jenkins’s own view). David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, argues that the alignment of the Earth and Sun with the center of the galaxy occurs every December with no negative consequences. Additionally, he says that claims that we are about to cross the galactic plane are just untrue.
● Eruption of a super volcano. There are fears that the super volcano that is found below Yellowstone National Park may erupt. Such an eruption would be a thousand times more powerful than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. An explosion of this type would cause a volcanic winter, among other things, and threaten the survival of the human race.
Most 2012 predictions have no credible evidence behind them.
Did the Ancient Maya Predict the End of the World as We Know It in 2012?
If we want to understand the Mayan Monument 6 of El Tortuguero and its meaning, we need to understand Mayan calendars and their understanding of time.
Mayan calendars are complex. The Maya used three calendars, all of which were interrelated: a lunar or gestational calendar of 260 days, a solar 365-day calendar, and a long-count calendar that registered the passing of time on a large scale similar to our centuries and millennia. The 260-day calendar approximates the gestation for human beings, and it was the calendar that the Maya used for divinatory purposes. This calendar pervaded all the aspects of life and continues to be used among the highland Quiche Maya of Guatemala. The 365-day calendar provided a framework for agricultural and communal festivities and ceremonies.
Both the 260- and the 365-day calendars make a calendar cycle of about 52 years. This means that any date would receive two names because of the two ways of reckoning time—the 260-day and the 365-day calendar. The same two names for any given date would repeat every 52 years. The two calendars coincide, or synchronize, about every 52 years. This is the calendar round.
The long-count calendar was developed in the second or third century B.C. It counts elapsed time from a starting point in the past: August 11, 3114 B.C. It is a vigesimal (base-20 numeral)—as opposed to decimal (base-10 numeral)—counting system, in which the number 13 has special importance. The Mayas recorded dates with five numbers, each separated with a dot.
Going from right to left, the units of time indicate the following:
K’in: 1 day (the word means “sun” as well as “day.”)
Winal: made of 20 k’ins (= 20 days)
Tun: made of 18 winals (= 360 days)
K’atun: made of 20 Tuns (= 7,200 days, close to 20 years)
Bak’tun: made of 20 k’atuns (= 144,000 days, about 394 years)
For example, the date 0.0.0.0.1 would mean 0 Bak’tuns, 0 K’atuns, 0Tuns, 0 Winals, and 1 k’in (= day) has elapsed from the starting point—August 11, 3114 B.C. This is the date of the beginning of the long-count Mayan calendar. The total long-count cycle is 5,126 years in total. The full cycle of the long-count Maya goes from 3114 to 2012. Thus, December 21, 2012, will be 184.108.40.206.0, which is the same as 0.0.0.0.0, that is, the end of the age and the beginning of a new one.
There are several reasons that the end of the Mayan calendar did not mean for the Maya the end of the world.
● El Tortuguero’s Monument 6 is not prophetic but dedicatory. When the Tortuguero tablet was first deciphered in 1996 by David Stuart and Stephen Houston, it was the first monument of its kind to be found and deciphered. No other monument with similar characteristics had been found. After that time, however, two other similar monuments have been found in Naranjo (593 A.D.) and La Corona (677 A.D.) respectively, both in Guatemala.
The Naranjo document refers to 10.0.0.0.0 (A.D. 890) and the La Corona to 220.127.116.11.0 (692 A.D.). Both of these documents, like the one at El Tortuguero, were erected to celebrate the completion of new buildings. The numbers that refer to the future are nice round numbers. None of the monuments predicts disasters or anything else. It is not clear, however, why they refer to future dates. Most probably it could mean something like: “Built in 1900, this will stand in 2000.” This would fit the reference in Monument 6 from El Tortuguero to the God of the Nine seen and displayed “in a great investiture.”
Both David Stuart and Stephen Houston, the first translators of the Monument 6 of El Tortuguero, are outstanding Mayan scholars. Sixteen years after translating the document and speculating it was prophetic in nature, Stephen Houston recognized in the face of new discoveries that Monument 6 “had nothing to do with prophecy.”6 But it was too late. They had unwittingly spurred broad and bizarre speculations.
● There may be no special significance for the date at the start of the calendar. Zero years in calendars often refer to significant events in history, religion, or politics, like the birth of Jesus Christ, or the year Mohammed left Mecca, or Japan’s mythical founding by Emperor Jimmu. Regarding August 11, 3114 B.C., the starting date of the of the long-count calendar, Mayan texts explain only that “the gods of creation were set in order.”7 It is a mythical creation date. This probably refers to the initial ordering of broad categories of divine beings (gods of earth and gods of heaven). Astronomers tell us, however, that nothing significant occurred in 3114 B.C. in terms of the night sky or in terms of planetary alignment. Complex civilization of any sort would come well after this date and Mayan civilization two and half millennia later. Mayanists conclude that it is better to understand this date as an artificial construct.
● The correlation between the Mayan dates and our dates is uncertain. The correlation most scholars use today is called GMT (after Goodman, Martínez, and Thompson). Not all scholars, however, accept these dates. There has always been a doubt, for example, whether the date from Monument 6 of El Tortuguero falls on December 21 or December 23 of 2012.
The difficulty of correlation is illustrated by an inscription found at Santa Elena Poco Uinic—a very remote place in Chiapas, México. It records the date 18.104.22.168.16, which according to the GMT correlation system fell on July 13, 790 A.D. The accompanying glyph depicts a sun with two elements covering the top and its sides. Mayanists thought that it referred to a solar eclipse. After research, they found that there had been a solar eclipse over southern Chiapas three days after, on July 16. This, of course, would agree more with correlation dates falling on December 23, 2012. The truth may be, however, that both counting systems are correct, and that the use of the calendar was not entirely consistent either throughout history or throughout the Mayan world.
● The Maya stopped using the Long Count Calendar a little after A.D. 910. The Maya created and used their two short calendars (the 260-day and 365-day calendars) long before creating and using the long-count calendar. The long-count calendar is intimately related to the institution of the sacred ruler, the kol ahaw. In fact, both institutions rose, flourished, and fell together. The purpose of the great long dates in the stone monuments was to glorify the great kings. Once kings lost power, the reason for the long dates ceased to exist. The last long-count date registered in a Mayan monument dates from 910 A.D., six centuries before the Spaniards arrived. The Maya themselves abandoned the long-count calendar long before the time of the Spanish conquest.
● The Maya believed that the world existed before 3114 B.C. and would continue to exist after 2012 A.D. The long-count date of December 21, 2012, will be 22.214.171.124.0. Did they expect further events after that date and how would they record them? The long-count Mayan calendar works like the odometer of a car. The date 126.96.36.199.0 will be also 0.0.0.0.0 and will mark the beginning of a new cycle. The Stela 1 at Cobá also shows that Maya would add an extra digit, indicating the beginning of a new age in the calendar. Thus, December 22, 2012, will be simply 188.8.131.52.0.1, and it will continue as time marches on indefinitely.
The Maya expected events to happen after this date. One glyphic text in the Temple of the Inscription at Palenque, Chiapas, celebrated that the 80th-round calendar anniversary of the reign of the great king Pakal would take place eight days after the end of an 8,000-year long-count cycle. This refers to October 4772 A.D., almost three millennia after 2012.
Mayan inscriptions also refer to events before the starting point of the long-count calendar. A Mayan glyphic text in the Temple of the Cross at Palenque records the birth of a woman and a man seven to eight years before the beginning of the Long Cycle (i.e., 3122–3121 B.C.). These were probably creation deities who engendered the three patron gods of the local dynasty. It seems clear that the creation date in 3114 is a momentous occasion but not one marked by cataclysm or destruction.
The end of the era was more like the resetting of the clock than about death and destruction. Indeed, the deity that best signifies the beginning of a new era was named Lady House. She is not a harbinger of doom but represents the Dawn. In a Mayan alphabetic text from the colonial period, this goddess is called Ix Kin Suntal, meaning literally “She of the sun’s turn.”8 A more idiomatic translation could be “Lady of the Returning Sun.” Another Palenque tablet has the date 184.108.40.206.2, in which one of the gods sits in kingship before the creation date. So there were kings before creation, but it is unclear what they ruled.
All these tablets connect events in the present with events in the past. The Maya loved to connect the king’s ceremonies to events in the mythical past. In fact, it is possible that they fudged a little on the dates to make the symmetries that they display in the monuments.
● The cycle closing in December is only a part of a much greater cycle. The scale of our deep-time cosmology pales in comparison to that of the Maya. According to current science, our universe began to exist around 14 billion years ago. For the Maya, however, time began 28 octillion, 679 septillion years ago, i.e., 28 followed by 27 zeros. Stelae 1 and 2 in Coba, México, mention the creation date (220.127.116.11.0) but prefixed by 19 units of 13. This means that the creation date was in fact an abbreviation of a still longer date, equaling 8,285,978,483,664,581,446,157,328,238.631 years of elapsed time from the true beginning of time in Mayan conception of the cosmos. Projected into the future, the Mayan calendar posits 43 octillion years. This is well beyond the time that according scientific calculations our sun will cease to exist. December 21, 2012 is considered the first of many future repetitions. An identical repetition will occur in a little more than 100 thousand years from now.
● There is no evidence that the Maya were aware of precession. John Mayor Jenkins, the dean of 2012 enthusiasts, suggested in his book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012, published in 1998, that the Galaxy, or even the universe, will be realigned or altered in a way that will either usher in a new and improved era (Jenkins’s own position) or destroy the Earth. The Maya, with their vaunted astronomic observation abilities, are credited with having anticipated this event. “Precession is the astronomical term that refers to how the sun becomes gradually aligned with the Milky Way.”9
As the Earth rotates around the Sun, it wobbles, which results in a little difference between the solar year (how long it takes for the Earth to rotate around the Sun) and the stellar year (how long it takes to line up with the stars). Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer, observed this phenomenon in 128 B.C. Even if the Maya were aware of precession, a precession cycle is of about 26,000 years and cannot be predicted through observation to a specific date. It can be predicted to a period of a few centuries but not to a year, much less to a specific date.
In fact, there is evidence that the Maya were not as accomplished at astronomy as they are sometimes credited to be. The famous Venus Tables of the Dresden Codex show that they are not merely tallies of observed data but that they are astronomical observations for long periods that were “tweaked” to conform to other ritual cycles that were important for them. What was important for the Mayan timekeeper was that a number conceptually accommodated the different types of heavenly phenomena.
● The Maya were not map makers. The famous Maya Stela 25 at Izapa was probably not a cosmic map of creation as 2012 enthusiasts argue. There are no other maps in the vast corpus of Mayan literature and art. In their book 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse, Mayan specialists Matthew Restall and Amara Solari argue that explosion of interest and speculation about 2012 and supposed Mayan prophecies tell more about modern Western culture and its obsession with milleniarianism and apocalyptic fears than of ancient Mayan beliefs. The supposed Mayan prophecies are in the end more an excuse than the basis of the 2012 phenomenon.
The Interrelationship Between the Future and the Past in Mayan Prophecies
Did the Itzá Maya predict the fall of their own civilization? Did the Mayan prophets in this case know the future, were they just lucky in their predictions, or have other factors not been addressed?
For the ancient Itzá Maya, time was not just a measure for history; it was also a “deterministic, shaping force in human experience.”10 Each k’atun was named after the day in the calendar in which it ended and had its own personality and character. Thus, each had its own idol, its own priest, and its own prophecy of events. The names of the k’atun would repeat every 256 years. The system was cyclical, and the Maya believed that history was based on familiar recurring patterns and, therefore, prophecy was, in fact, “a reflection of events and trends of the past.”11 This is why it is so difficult to differentiate between history and prophecy in Mayan thought and documents.
Again, the ancient prophecies of the Itzá Maya said that the time they would abandon their gods would be the age 8 Ahaw. Since time was a deterministic force based on recurring patterns, it is revealing to know what happened in the previous ages of 8 Ahaw:
(Katun) 8 Ahau was when Chichen Itzá was abandoned. There were 13 folds of Katuns when they established their houses at Chakanputun.
Thirteen katuns later, we find a similar event.
(Katun) 8 Ahau was when Chakanputun was abandoned by the Itzá men. Then they came to seek homes again. For 13 folds of katuns had they dwelt in their houses at Chakanputun. This was always the katunwhen the Itzá went beneath the trees, beneath the bushes, beneath the vines, to their misfortune.
Thirteen katuns later, history repeats itself.
(Katun) 8 Ahau was when the Itzá men again abandoned their homes because of the treachery of Hunac Ceel, because of the banquet with the people of Izamal. For 13 folds of Katuns they had dwelt there, when they were driven out by Hunac Ceel because of the giving of the questionnaire of the Itzá.
It is fascinating to note that events and trends of history recurred from one era to the other. There was a pattern of rises and falls throughout the history of the Maya. Those priests who “read” the calendars and interpreted the meaning of the days in which they were living were in fact recognizing the pattern of history and applying it to the future.
The Maya were not masters of time but slaves of their own history. They were deterministic in their understanding of history. In some sense they fulfilled their own prophecies. Since a significant portion of the population believed in these prophecies, they proved true. Thus, it was not sheer prediction that we find in these Mayan prophecies but self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believed in them enough, you yourself would fulfill the prophecy.
The ancient Mesoamericans were not different from us in this respect. They had something similar to our horoscope. The Aztecs called their 260-day cycle the tonalpohualli, which means “count of days.” It contained the full array of numbers and day names that were the essential tool for the Aztec soothsayers to foretell the future. These manuals of fate were known as “books of days,” and day priests would use it to understand the supernatural forces and influences associated with a given day. Every day (260 of them) had positive and/or negative associations. They referred finally to the life force thought to reside in the head of the person. Once a baby was born, he was ritually bathed and assigned his or her tonalli. (If the day was bad, the rite could be delayed in a specific period of time.)
The tonalli readers were called tonalpouhque and were considered among the wisest and most important members of the community. Their prognostications penetrated all aspects of life. In fact, the day count has survived to the present time in remote areas of Mesoamerica. It is because of this belief in the power and nature of time itself that ancient Mayan prophecies had such a power in the life of the Mayan people. The horoscope has a similar power on those who believe in it. Charles Strohmer, a former practitioner of astrology, describes how this system works and why it has so powerful an influence in some people but is uncompromising in asserting that astrologers do not and cannot know the future. Astrology is, instead, a shaping force that ends up governing the life of those who believe in it.12
The story of Monument 6 of El Tortuguero, Tabasco, Mexico, has been remarkable. The speculation of the Mayan scholars who first claimed that it was prophetic in nature produced wild speculations. Nevertheless, new discoveries and a better understanding of the Mayan culture and worldview have thrown new light on the meaning and significance of this fascinating monument. Tablets found at Naranjo and La Corona, Guatemala, suggest that Monument 6 is not prophetic but dedicatory. Its purpose was to celebrate the completion of a new building and its permanence into the far future.
Inscriptions at Palenque, Mexico, also refer to dates long after 2012, suggesting clearly that they did not believe in an intervening destruction. The Maya believed that 2012 marked the end of a cycle that was itself part of larger cycles. In fact, Mayan conceptions of time go deeper into the future and the past than modern science does.
There are, however, important similarities between Mayan conceptions of the forces that shaped history and certain sectors of modern society. The Maya were deterministic in their worldview. For them, time was a force that shaped history and was largely out of the control of humanity. That ancient worldview mirrors current beliefs in astrology and/or other deterministic forces among different sectors of human society today. In the end, the way we read Tortuguero’s Monument 6 may tell more about our beliefs and worldview than those of its creators.
Felix H. Cortez, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of New Testament and Coordinator of Research at Universidad de Montemorelos, Nuevo León, Mexico.
1. David Stuart, The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012 (New York: Harmony Books, 2011), pp. 1-29.
2. Ibid., p. 2.
3. Ibid., p. 7.
4. Stephen D. Houston and David Stuart, “Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership Among the Maya,” Antiquity 70 (1996), pp. 8-10.
5. Matthew Restall and Amara Solari, 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), p. 25.
6. Ibid., p. 29.
7. Stuart, The Order of Days, op cit., p. 216.
8. Restall and Solari, 2012 and the End of the World, op cit., pp. 34, 35.
9. Ibid., p. 43.
10. Stuart, The Order of Days, op cit., p. 17.
11. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Charles Strohmer, What Your Horoscope Doesn’t Tell You (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1988), pp. 39–55.