In 1832 constantine Samuel Rafinesque a polymath who made contributions to the fields of botany, zoology, linguistics, meteorology, and geology wrote to the celebrated decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs, Jean-François Champollion. The letter contained, among other things, his conclusion that ancient Maya numerals were formed from dots that represented the number one and bars that represented five. So began the modern world’s fascination with the intellectual achievements of this precocious New World civilization, opening the first window on their arithmetic, calendrics, astronomy, and ultimately their religion and history.
Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions are filled with numbers. The tall stone monuments we call stelae usually begin with a string of figures and many more of them are embedded throughout their texts. Some pages of Postclassic screenfold manuscripts made of bark-paper, such as the Dresden Codex, consist almost entirely of tabulations of bar-and-dot numerals. Almost every such number, it turns out, is devoted to the single purpose of calculating and recording time, which was expressed through an array of different calendars, some pursuing mystical cycles, investigators realized that the Maya could substitute both their bar-and-dot numerals and calendrical units with portraits of deities and other supernatural beings—suggesting that numbers and time periods were themselves animate and divine. It is no wonder that many of these scholars believed they had found a civilization that worshipped time itself.
It has taken many years to understand the culture that lies behind these fabulous, and sometimes perplexing, records and to gain some sense of an ancient mindset that is both very similar to and very different from our own. The past two decades, in particular, have seen tremendous advances in the decipherment of the Maya script. Today we realize that the Maya did not worship time as such, but did conceive of a cosmos that was intrinsically ordered by numbers and chronology. The lives of both humans and gods were entwined in the same interlocking cycles, differing only in scale: the vast expanse of the divine order contrasted with the miniscule spans of mortals.
The Maya word k’in means both “day” and “sun,” and it was the journey of the sun across the sky—its emergence from and descent into the Underworld—that provided the core rhythm of life. Together with the shifting seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the motion of the planets and stars, the sky presents an ever-moving celestial map through which ancient peoples sought to read the will of their awe inspiring deities.
The Maya universe was defined by cosmic trees set at its four cardinal points, together with a fifth, an axis mundi, placed at the center. While their branches reached up into the heavens, their roots burrowed down into the Underworld. The former was a realm of fragrant flowers and shining jewels, a place in which the exalted could hope to find everlasting life among the sky gods. The latter was a dark, dank cavern ruled by the lords of death. Despite its morbid character, it was the origin of many of the earth’s riches, including fresh water, food plants, and even the first humans. For the highborn Maya, it seems to have been the purgatory through which they had to journey and overcome various trials set by infernal deities. Only after passing such tests could they emulate the heroic deities who had preceded them and ascend to the heavens in triumph.
Lords of Stone
Conceptual counterparts to the cosmic trees were four old men who held the sky above their heads, preventing it from collapsing onto the earth and crushing the mortal world beneath. These characters were also year-bearers and each in his turn served as a patron of the current year that, like the sky, was perceived as a weighty burden. In images from the Classic period their skin was often emblazoned with motifs identifying them as living rocks, and throughout Maya history, stones had an intimate relationship with units of time. When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the Yucatan peninsula in the 16th century, the word tun meant both “stone” and “year.”
The setting and binding of stones were the quintessential acts of calendrical ritual for the Maya, and a concept embodied in the stelae and altars they commissioned to mark significant time periods—most often a position in the Long Count calendar called a K’atun that occurred just shy of every 20 years (see Maya Calendars: An Overview). Recent discoveries of uncarved stela and altar pairings at El Naranjo, now a suburb of Guatemala City, show that this tradition first developed between 800 and 500 BCE, in the Middle Preclassic period. Moreover, the archaeologist Barbara Arroyo has suggested that these stones celebrated the same K’atun cycle, therefore positing that a form of the Long Count existed long before any written record of it survives. The earliest contemporary Long Count dates turn up in the following Late Preclassic period, beginning with one from 36 BCE at the site of Chiapa de Corzo, Mexico. This site is slightly outside the Maya area and is associated with a different hieroglyphic script called Isthmian. This may indicate that the Maya adopted the Long Count from their neighbors, but the evidence is still too scanty to be sure. By 37 CE, a stela at El Baúl, Guatemala, carries distinctive Maya features, and, importantly, combines its date with the portrait of a ruler in full ceremonial garb. Earlier plain stones could have been painted with such images, but this is the first firm evidence that the social elite were using calendrical rites to promote their personal power, perhaps co-opting rituals that once had a more communal focus.
It is in the following Classic period (250–900 CE) that we find the full flowering of this union between the calendar and royal power. Indeed, it was the hundreds of carved monuments embellished with kingly portraits, dates, and all manner of accompanying hieroglyphic text (much of it historical) that first defined this era. Tikal Stela 29, unearthed by the Penn Museum in 1959, marks the inception of this monument tradition in 292 CE in the Maya lowlands, and it endured for the next six centuries, with the last such example produced at the city of Tonina in 909 CE.
The nature of the union between time and kingship was more profound than simple glorification through association. By at least the Classic period the ideals and performance of rulership were fully integrated within the time-ordered universe. Each major station in the Long Count necessarily falls on the Sacred Round day called Ajaw “Lord,” and rulers could depict themselves within the distinctive roundels of day-signs, making their role in personifying the day explicit. Such ideas survived the fall of the Classic period kingdoms and can be found in Colonial-era documents such as the Chilam Balam of Chumayel. This illustrates successive K’atun positions of the Short Count (see Maya Calendars: An Overview), each named by their appropriately numbered Ajaw days, as kings wearing European crowns. Among the traditional diviners who use the Sacred Round today, days are reverently referred to as “sir” and considered to be noble people. Thus, when we see the portrait of a ruler on a stone monument celebrating the end of a major cycle, we are seeing something more than a bombastic and vainglorious monarch, we are seeing the very embodiment of time.
Chronology was not something external to rulership; together they served as complementary dimensions of sacred authority.
The Maya and 2012
The current fascination with the year 2012 and the various inspirational or doom-mongering predictions it has inspired have given many people their first introduction to the ancient Maya. If we are to understand the origins of this phenomenon and the true relevance of 2012, we must delve deeper into the Simon mysteries of the Long Count calendar. Our story begins on August 13, 3114 BCE, when the texts describe the “end of the 13th Bak’tun,” a key juncture in the system we notate today as 220.127.116.11.0. This date is recorded retrospectively on a number of Classic monuments and even in the Dresden Codex, the most important document to survive from the Postclassic era. Associated texts help to illuminate its significance, with the fullest account appearing on Quirigua Stela C, erected in 775 CE. This tells us that “three stones are wrapped” and goes on to describe each as if it were a stela, recording its dedication by a particular deity at a particular supernatural location, at least two of which were in the sky. Although the full meaning of these divine performances remains obscure, it is clear that this was a special program of regeneration—primordial acts of foundation that later stone-bindings and monument dedications by kings sought to reproduce. A further take on the events of this day, painted on a pair of vases, is set not in the heavens but in the darkness of the netherworld. There we see the Underworld ruler we know only as “God L” seated on a jaguar throne and facing an array of other deities. The text identifies 18.104.22.168.0 by its Calendar Round date of 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u, and says that the gods are “put in order,” suggesting a reorganization that established a divine hierarchy for the current era.
Now, by the best reckoning available to us, December 23, 2012 CE will see the end of the next 13th Bak’tun cycle, 5,125 years after the one completed in 3114 BCE. Many people believe that this anniversary is of huge cosmic significance and, indeed, that it will mean either the dawn of a new age of enlightenment, or a catastrophic collapse of the world as we know it, or even the end of time itself.
But there are a few things that should make us hesitate before entertaining such ideas. The first is that the ancient Maya made no prediction about what would take place on the next occurrence of 22.214.171.124.0—calamitous or otherwise. The 2012 date is mentioned only once, on a monument fragment from Tortuguero, Mexico, and contrary to some recent analyses is not associated with any description. It is simply used as an anchor date, a common ruse in Maya texts, that links current events—in this case one from 669 CE—to prestigious points in the future. The second and even more important consideration is that we have clear evidence that the current Bak’tun cycle does not conclude at 13, as the last one did, but advances to 20. In other words, 126.96.36.199.0 will be followed by 188.8.131.52.0, 184.108.40.206.0, and so on to 220.127.116.11.0. A text at the site of Palenque, Mexico, makes this very plain when it records the completion of 1 Piktun, the next unit above the Bak’tun, in 4772 CE. We do not know why the Maya counted the previous Bak’tun cycle in Base Thirteen and the current one in Base Twenty, but, according to a new idea by David Stuart, all of the higher units of the Long Count calendar cycle first through 13 before resetting to zero and counting a second time all the way to 20. Time, for the Maya, was a magical realm in which conventional arithmetic need not apply—things do not have to “add up” in a religious system.
To explain why the modern world has become so caught up with bizarre ideas about 2012, one has to examine a different Mesoamerican culture: the Aztec of central Mexico. They believed in four previous creations of the world in which each was populated by a race of proto-humans who were destroyed in a terrible catastrophe. The fifth creation, inhabited by the Aztec, was one in which humans must appease the gods by sacrifice in order to forestall another annihilation. A similar story appears in a Maya epic from highland Guatemala called the Popol Vuh, which was written down by a Spanish priest in the 18th century but was based on earlier sources. This so-called Maya Bible contains versions of myths recognizable in art and writing from as much as 2,000 years earlier. It too has a sequence of creations and destructions, although here the focus is on the failure of different versions of humankind each made from some inadequate material, on one occasion mud, on another wood—to satisfy their divine makers. In the current era humans have been fashioned from the perfect medium, maize dough, and so no further destruction is necessary. The tale could be a core myth that once spanned Mesoamerica, but it is strange that it finds no clear parallel in any of our ancient Maya sources. Indeed, we might wonder if this particular plot-line owes more to the Aztec, who enjoyed great influence over the highland Maya region at the very time the Popol Vuh was taking shape.
Those who believe that the Popol Vuh cycle of creations and destructions must have counterparts in Classic Maya inscriptions have seized upon the pivotal events of 3114 BCE as one of these climactic moments, with the next 13-Bak’tun ending in 2012 taken as a pre-ordained repetition. Although the Maya certainly did have apocalyptic ideas, especially of a world destroyed by a heaven-sent flood, these are not linked to the Long Count calendar and cannot be used to support an “end of time” in 2012. In sum, this date has far more relevance for us than it appears to have had for the ancient Maya—one of many examples of popular mysticism that actually springs from the present rather than the past. The ability of the Maya to develop time-reckonings of such astonishing scale, accuracy, and imaginative power is testament enough to their remarkable intellectual achievements; there is no need to also make them mirrors of our own forebodings or hopes for renewal. If the phenomenon of 2012 brings the true story of the Maya to a wider audience, then all the media hubbub will have at least one significant upside.
Matching Maya Dates With Our Own