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Mayan 2012 Predictions: Apocalypse or a Game of Telephone?

Much has been said, and made, of the supposed apocalypse in 2012 as predicted by the Mayans. What did they really say?
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Sunspots? Black holes? Comets? What will the apocalypse bring?

To hear the New Agers tell it, we are doomed. But in the year running up to the next Winter Solstice, on December 21, 2012, the impending changeover to we know not what is already causing buzz, plus hotel reservations. But the voices of reason warn that this is not much more than a long-term game of telephone.

“The Mayan King Pacal Voltan was known for his prophecies and was known for his knowledge of numbers,” warns, one of the legions of doomsday sites that pop to the top of one’s search results when one googles anything from “Aztec calendar” (the Aztecs had nothing to do with it) to Winter Solstice. “Pacal Voltan speaks about the end of the world on December 21, 2012, a year which many believe is the year of the apocalypse.”


And there’s more! “On the winter solstice in 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years. This means that whatever energy typically streams to Earth from the center of the Milky Way will indeed be disrupted on 12/21/12 at 11:11 p.m. Universal Time," according to the writer Lawrence Joseph. The question, then, is whether we will notice. Perhaps the world will end with the crash of a comet, or sudden flares from the sun burning everything in sight, or even nuclear annihilation. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be yet another strange year of weird weather, depressing politics and rough economics.

Starting with the writings and teachings of the ancient indigenous peoples there is a wide spectrum of opinion on what the ancestors meant when they wrote or told the stories whose interpretation we disagree about today. The story involves the interpretation of ancient Mayan texts as well as information gleaned from hieroglyphics found on hundreds of temples, monuments, other structures, wooden tablets and clay vessels. The millions of words that have been inspired by these histories come from the documents and structures that survived the Spanish conquest; one of the strategies used by the Spaniards to suppress the culture involved burning hundreds, possibly thousands of texts and buildings that, according to most scholars, chronicled Mayan and Quiche history going back more than a millennium. The Mayan documents that are known to have survived are four original codices, as well as the books known as Popol Vuhand the series of books known as the Chillam Balam.

The Maya had developed a sophisticated writing system 1,500 years before the Spanish invasion in the 16th century. In what are now southeastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador, the Maya used a system of hieroglyphs and other illustrations to tell the story of the world. They carved, sculpted and painted texts in many places: facades, stone monuments (stelae), wooden objects and pottery vessels; they even tattooed their bodies with hieroglyphs. They also made books of folded screen codices out of bark paper, as well as carving texts into stone or wood. There were hundreds of codices at one time.

The Madrid Codex, or Codex Tro-Cortesianus, is one of only three or four surviving Maya codices. The other Maya hieroglyphic books are the Dresden and Paris codices, with histories similar to that of the Madrid Codex, and the Grolier Codex, which was discovered in a cave in Chiapas, Mexico, in the 1960s. The Codices were similar to almanacs but included a variety of information, such as the tracking of some astronomical and seasonal events. While the codices are very interesting, and some of the paintings beautiful, most of the contemporary 2012 ideas come from the stories and prophecies in the books. According to Allen J. Christenson, a humanities scholar who published the most recent translation of the Popol Vuh in 2003, this important text was developed in response to the cultural pogrom being waged by the invaders.

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“Soon after the Spanish conquest, literate members of the highland Maya nobility made a number of transcriptions of their pre-Columbian books utilizing a modified Latin script in an effort to preserve what they could of their recorded history and culture before they could be destroyed or lost. By far the most important extant example of such a transcription is the Popol Vuh, a lengthy document composed by anonymous members of the Quiché-Maya aristocracy in Guatemala soon after the fall of their capital city to the Spanish conquerors. The authors of the manuscript described the text as an ilb'al (instrument of sight) by which the reader may envision the thoughts and actions of the gods and sacred ancestors from the beginning of time and into the future.

The Popol Vuh is a sprawling and multi-faceted book that contains histories of the people in the region of what is now called Central America as well as the stories of their gods and beliefs. The nine books of the Chilam Balam however, are the ones written by Mayan and possibly one Spanish priests and contains numerous prophetic statements. While this collection does also contain general history, legends, calendars, riddles and some science, they are known for a variety of prophecies. In Section 13 of the Book of Katun Prophecies there are several dark statements, such as in Katun 7 Ahau: “There is no great teaching. Heaven and earth are truly lost to them; they have lost all shame. Then the head-chiefs of the towns, the rulers of the towns, the prophets of the towns, the priests of the Maya men are hanged. Understanding is lost; wisdom is lost. Prepare yourselves, oh Itzá! Your sons shall see the mirth of the katun, the jesting of the katun. Dissolute is the speech, dissolute the face of the rogue to the rulers, to the head-chiefs. Seven is the plate, seven the cup.” Further on in that same chapter is this explicitly Christian statement: “The bouquet of the rulers of the world shall be displayed. There is the universal judgment of our Lord God. Blood shall descend from the tree and stone. Heaven and earth shall burn. It is the word of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. It is the holy judgment, the holy judgment of our Lord God. There shall be no strength in heaven and earth. Great cities shall enter into Christianity, any settlements of people whatever, the great towns, whatever their names are as well as the little towns, all over our land of Maya Cuzamil Mayapan.”

While only some of the Mayan documents include such dire prophecies or depictions, most of them do include observations and ideas related to an elaborate system of calendars that are connected to their science, mathematics and history and were based on astronomical observations. The ancient Mayans used four interconnected calendars known as the Tzolkin Calendar, the Haab Calendar, the Round Calendar and the Long Count.

For many people the significance of the date December 21, 2012 originates with interpretations connected to the long count calendar. But again, the difference lies in the interpretation. For the contemporary Mayan poet and scholar, Jorge Miguel Cocom Pech, who teaches Mayan language and history, there are dire things that could happen but he does not agree with the idea that the date itself will be significant. “Many Mayologists have done good business with a date that only ends the long count of our Mayan calendar," Cocom Pech said. "I am certain that it is the Chilam Balam that warns of a series of catastrophes that could occur, some of the signals of which we've already seen, but on that point there is much disagreement." For this Mayan writer however, there are serious global problems that may be connected with the old prophecies. "The planet—the home of all races and cultures—is already showing the damages caused by predatory capitalism; so that the date of December 22, 2012, or in the next 20 years could coincide with some sort of destructive phenomenon,” Cocom Pech said. “It is a possibility, but only a possibility. It's what I think, and I don't want to worry myself or the rest of humanity." One other member of humanity who is not worried about 2012 being the end time is Dr. Ed Barnhart, a noted anthropologist/ archaeologist and director of The Maya Exploration Center (MEC), a non-profit organization dedicated to the study of ancient Maya civilization. "While it is true that December 21, 2012 marks the end of a grand cycle in the Long Count calendar, none of the thousands of Maya hieroglyphic texts says a word about disasters, new ages of enlightenment, or the end of time. The prevailing notion that the Maya calendar must reset in 2012 may stem from confusion between a “world age” and a “cycle of time.”


Maya myth tells us that the third Creation lasted 13 Baktuns. But that is not to say that the present world age will also last 13 Baktuns," Dr. Barnhart states on the MEC site. "One thing is certain: the Maya regarded the turn of katuns and baktuns as times of renewal and transformation. If the ancient Maya could witness the current crop of doomsayers wringing their hands over the arrival of the 13th Baktun, they would probably be dismayed. Inevitably, changes were to be ushered in through dedicated action, sacrifice, and joyful celebration," he wrote. NASA has also been approached with the 2012 question, and so many times that it has incorporated it into their site in a page, "2012: Beginning of the end, or Why the world won't end?" "Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012," according to NASA, which also addressed concerns over the Mayan calendar. "Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012," NASA said. "This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then—just as your calendar begins again on January 1—another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar."

So for at least one Mayan writer, a U.S.–based scholar and the scientists working for NASA, 2012 does not seem to be the end of time. But then there are the others. Authors Adrian Gilbert and Maurice Cottrell, authors of The Mayan Prophecies, wrote, “Prior to the creation of modern men there had been four previous races and four previous ages. These had all been destroyed in great cataclysms, leaving few survivors to tell the tale. According to Mayan chronology, the present age started on 12 August 3114 B.C. and is to end on 22 December 2012. At that time the Earth as we know it is again to be destroyed by catastrophic earthquakes." That idea, that the end of the Mayan long count calendar means the end of time, is quoted in thousands of books, articles and broadcast programs. In the meantime there is another prediction that can be made regarding this controversial year: More predictions and money will be made on the idea of 2012.