The Mayan Prophecy: Is Doomsday Tomorrow?

From one source or another, most of us have heard that the end of the world will begin at some moment during the day tomorrow (December 21, 2012). If you would like to “know” more about what will happen, you can rent the movie 2012, consult numerous books, and visit several hundred websites.  In those sources of prediction, you will see or read some of the most detailed, bizarre, and fully elaborated fantasy ever created this side of Wonderland and The Land of Oz.  The Archaeology in Tennessee blog advises its many readers to ignore all of this prophetic nonsense and look at the matter from a more interesting and fact-based archaeological perspective.  Moreover, many of you will be tickled to know that this story dovetails to some small extent with the history of Tennessee archaeology.

My first encounter with the so-called Mayan doomsday prophecy occurred in the early 1990s when famous Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael D. Coe published his book entitled Breaking the Maya Code, which documents the history behind decipherment of the ancient Mayan writing system, as expressed in the few surviving sections of Mayan bark books, on numerous ceramic vessels, on inscribed stelae, and in massive architectural features.  Coe’s book was well-written, exciting, and a true joy to read. It is highly recommended to the readers of this blog.  It may be on the shelf at your local public library, but it is also a book worth owning if you would like to order it from Amazon or another major bookseller.

Michael D. Coe is up in years now, highly distinguished, and arguably the current dean of Mesoamerican archaeology—perhaps analagous to J. Eric S. Thompson in some ways but with feet planted on more solid academic ground.  After receving his Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard University, Coe went on to spend most of his career as a professor of anthropology at Yale University, where he also served as Curator of Anthropology at the Peabody Museum.  Between his time at Harvard University and his later academic appointment at Yale University, Coe had a little known layover in Tennessee.  In the general temporal vicinity of 1959-1960, Michael D. Coe served as a professor of anthropology at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.  That one is worth saving for a trivia game at your next New Year’s Eve party.

The following is a long quote about the so-called Mayan doomsday prophecy from the Epilogue in Breaking the Maya Code (Coe 1992):

“But who knows?  Perhaps we are all headed for destruction.  The Maya wise men all across Yucatan predict that the world will end in the year 2000 y pico,- ‘and a little.’  How many years will that ‘a little’ be?  The great cycle of the Maya calendar which began in darkness on 13 August 3114 B.C. will come to an end after almost five millenia on 23 December A.D. 2012, when many of you who read this will still be alive.  On that day, the ancient Maya scribes would say, it will be 13 cycles, 0 katuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals, and 0 kins since the beginning of the Great Cycle.  The day will be 4 Ahau 3 Kankin, and it will be ruled by the Sun God, the ninth Lord of the Night.  The moon will be eight days old, and it will be the third lunation in a series of six.  And what is to happen?  A katun prophecy in the Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin reads:

Cahualahom caan. Ca nocpahi peten.  Ca ix hopp i.  U hum ox lahun ti ku.  Ca uch i.   Noh hai cabil. Ca lik i.  Noh Itzam Cab Ain. Tz’ocebal u than.  U uutz’ katun.  Lai hun yeciil.  Bin tz’ oce(ce)bal u rhan katun.

[or as translated into English]

Then the sky is divided.  Then the land is raised, [a]nd then there begins the Book of the 13 Gods.  Then occurs [t]he great flooding of the Earth.  Then arises [t]he great Itzam Cab Ain.  The enduring of the word, [t]he fold of the Katun:  That is the flood [w]hich will be the ending of the word of the Katun.”

There you have the Mayan prophecy straight from the typing fingers of one of the most respected Mesoamerican archaeologists in American history—instead of some silly, granola-eating, granny-dress-wearing, fantasy-spewing, spirit channeler in California—no one particular person in mind—just a broad-brush generalization.  It has always seemed to this writer that Coe believed his readers would be alive to witness the culmination of the prophecy, but he would not be because of his already advanced age at the time.  It does us good to know that he was wrong, is still alive, and will get to observe the “fold of the Katun.”  Now, we will take a closer look at Coe’s introductory words and the prophecy itself.

First, notice the most important thing.  The mystic-fantasy-doomsday people have the wrong day!!!  They are perched on the side of some mountain tonight waiting for the certain end of the world tomorrow (December 21, 2012), but the Maya long-count calendar plainly says the correct date is December 23, 2012.  We suppose they will be relieved when the world does not end tomorrow, will come home to finish their Christmas shopping, and be suddenly swept into some watery oblivion at the local shopping mall on Sunday.

The Book of Chilam Balam of Tizimin is one of several similar books written by Spanish scribes in the 17th and 18th centuries—or perhaps a local Yucatec Mayan named Chilam Balam who was working under these Spanish scribes.  They were apparently an attempt to record miscellaneous bits and pieces of Yucatec Maya history, language, and culture as it was still known by the local Mayans in those times.  However, it is important to note that some elements of the prophecy are actually grounded in much earlier Mayan beliefs, art, and written glyphic inscriptions.

It does appear that the so-called prophecy is focused on some sort of flood, and it is interesting that it mentions the great Itzam Cab Ain, which was the water crocodile god in ancient Mayan mythology.  However, floods do not always come in the form of water.  One can be flooded with emotions.  One can be flooded with stimuli.  One can be flooded with information.  Perhaps one can also be on the cusp of being flooded by time, meaning that one giant wave of time has just passed and a huge new wave of time will soon appear on the horizon.  

Very simply, the Maya long-count calendar ran in 5,000-year cycles.  On December 23, 2012 (in our calendar), which is rather precisely correlated with the Maya calendar, the current 5,000-year cycle of the Maya long-count calendar will end, and another formally defined wave of time (also 5,000 years) will begin.  Existing on a much grander temporal scale covering thousands of years, it is somewhat helpful to think of the Maya calendar in terms of our less impressive annual calendars, which end every year on December 31.  Our annual calendar expires on December 31—but not our world.  (Knowing how archaeologists drink on New Year’s Eve, we strongly suspect that more than one has felt like the world was ending the next morning).  Therefore, we have no reason to expect that completion of the 5,000-year Maya calendar cycle would bring the end of the world.  

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is committed to the notion that the world is not coming to an end tomorrow or on December 23, 2012.  We doubt that the Classic Maya at Palenque and Tikal had any such notions.  Instead, December 24, 2012, will simply begin another 5,000-year cycle (or wave of time) in the Maya long-count calendar.  It will be Christmas Eve, and we strongly suspect that Christmas Day, with all of its piety, fun, and celebration,  will come as usual.  In a post-modern time punctuated with gun violence against school children and a pervasive sense of hopelessness, we find it both interesting and inspiring that the new 5,000-year Maya calendar cycle begins at Christmas.  We like new beginnings.

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