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Celebration marks Mayans’ chronological transition — not the end of the world

Mayan ceremony
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The modern Maya who live in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula aren’t worried about Dec. 21.

On her way into work one morning this week, my sister happened to notice the expiration date on her company parking pass: Dec. 21, 2012. 

“That’s odd,’’ she thought, “they’re usually good for a month.”

She checked with her office manager, who asked the parking supervisor, who calmly explained why nobody needed a pass lasting longer than that.

“He’s absolutely convinced,’’ my sister told me, “that the world is going to end on Dec. 21!”

Somewhere along the starry path of the Milky Way, I think a congregation of ancient Mayan gods must be laughing their fancy headdresses off.

Dec. 21 is our winter solstice, but in Mayan terms, it’s also the end of the 13th baktun, a 400-year unit in the pre-Columbian culture’s intricate system for keeping track of time.

This Dec. 21 is also the last day of the current Long Count, an even more spectacular Mayan concept that tracks time forward from a point in the far distant past – from August of 3114 B.C., to be exact, though archaeologists who study the Maya don’t yet understand the meaning of that date.

The Long Count

It’s the end of the Long Count that has really frightened some people who aren’t Mayans – and who apparently didn’t learn anything from the  run-up to Y2K.  (Remember Y2K? Anybody?)

So many folks have bombarded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with nervous questions that NASA weighed in last week, on its website and on You Tube, to debunk the end-of-the-world rumor.

Even more consolation comes from the direct heirs to the Long Count tradition: The modern Maya who live in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula aren’t worried about Dec. 21.

Government tourism offices in the region have been using Dec. 21 as a marketing tool all year, and many travel companies are offering tours to Mayan ruins for the solstice.  “End of the Maya Calendar Adventure Packages’’ is one example from Belize.   

The original Mayans never said that the end of the 13th baktun would be the end of the world. They didn’t say that the end of the Long Count would be the end of the world, either.

“I have not yet run across any indigenous person who believes this is the end of the world,’’ said Phyllis Messenger, president of the Maya Society of Minnesota, a 34-year-old organization devoted to Mayan archaeology and anthropology.

The Mayans probably didn’t fear the end of one baktun and the start of the next, archaeologists say. More likely, they celebrated it, much as we go all-out for really significant New Year’s Eves, like the ones when a century turns.

By comparison, the end of a baktun is a bigger deal: One baktun lasts 146,000 days, while a century only runs 36,524.

The end of the Long Count is an even bigger deal. The current one tops out at 1,872,000 days, according to the November/December issue of Archaeology magazine.

Crescendo of units

As complicated as it sounds, the Mayans expressed time in a crescendo of units, each one longer than the next, about the way we measure time by day, week, month, year, century and millennium. But there is a big mystical difference:

To the Maya, time itself was sacred. Every day had a celestial patron, and even the numbers had gods.

The Maya wrote Dec. 21, 2012, in symbols, called glyphs, that translate to  13.0.0.0.0. in our numerals. But because Dec. 22 is not the start of a 14th baktun –  it’s the first day of the first baktun of a new Long Count –  the Maya would write it like this: 0.0.0.0.0.

Still unclear? Picture an odometer and try to remember how you felt watching the numbers roll over when you were a kid – all those lined-up nines and then, in one sudden instant, a fresh start. 

The Mayans’ great chronological transition is being widely commemorated, including in Minnesota. Starting at 11 a.m., Saturday, Dec. 22 – yes, that’s the day after it happens, so take hope – there will be a celebration featuring folk dancing, a pot-luck and a discussion of the Long Count at Giddens Learning Center on the Hamline University campus in St. Paul. 

Hosts include the traditional dance group, Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc; Ce Tempoxcalli, a youth-oriented non-profit focused on community and the environment; the Hamline Department of Anthropology, and the Maya Society of Minnesota.  For details, go to www.hamline.edu/mayasociety.  

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