It is said that the ancient Mayan civilization predicted that the world will end this year on December 23. This is because one of their many calendars “times out” on that date. This article will give an overview of that “prediction.”
The Mayans were a people who rose to prominence in central America. Their classic era lasted from 1 to 800 AD. They were followed by the Toltecs (900-1200 AD) and the Aztecs (1400 AD until the arrival of the Spanish in 1521 AD). The Incas were in Peru and were more or less contemporary with the Aztecs.
The Mayan society was advanced in some ways and primitive in others. They built magnificent temples and had an elaborate agriculture system. They had an advanced number system, a written language based on hieroglyphics, a complex religion, and calendars based on elaborate astronomical observations. However they did not use metals, the wheel, or draft animals.
They had a number of “calendars,” each of which was thought to affect their destiny. They tracked the phases of the moon and all the planets visible to the naked eye. Of these, the Venus cycle was the most important. But their two main calendars were the long count and the calendar round.
The long count is the one that will “time out” this year. It is a number that counts the number of days since (what they believed to be) the last creation. (They believed there had been four creations.) In our calendar, their zero day corresponds to August 11, 3114 BC. Since their number system used the base 20 (ours uses base 10), their “months” were 20 days long. The long count then consisted of five digits which counted days, months, years, and then multiples of 20 years and finally multiples of 400 years (20 squared). Scholars represent these five digits by writing them in our number system, separating the digits with a period, and putting the most significant digit first. However the third digit counted, not multiples of 400 days, but years, where a year was taken to be 360 days for some unknown reason. Furthermore, the highest digit was started at 13, but had the effect of being zero since it would advance, not to 14, but to 1 after 400 “years.” It is not known why this was done, but may be related to the way numbers are handled in the calendar round. Thus the creation date is 18.104.22.168.0, and the long count will reach this value again on December 23, 2012.
The calendar round was actually two calendars. They had an annual calendar of 365 days consisting of eighteen 20-day months plus a short five-day month at the end of the year. Each month consisted of four 5-day weeks. There was also a 260 sacred calendar which used 20 day names (like our Sunday, Monday, …) and thirteen numbers (one through thirteen). A given day of the year was called by both a number and a name. The next day would have the next number and the next name. When the count reached thirteen, the next day would have the number one. When the last day name was reached, the next day would have the first day name. Thus every combination of day name and number would occur once every 260 days (13 x 20). Each day also had a name in the annual calendar consisting of the number of the day in its month and the name of the month. This combination of names in the two calendars would repeat every 52 years, which is called a calendar round.
When the Mayans wrote a date, they combined the long count with the full day name in the calendar round. While the long count will reach its starting point on December 23, the day name will not be the same as it was on “creation day.” Because of this, not even the Maya considered this to be the end of this creation, as many have suggested.
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