2012: Maya Conceptions Of Time

by John Mink
November 12, 2009
This entry is Section C of the three-section Part IV of the 2012 Blog Series from CyArk (click here for Section A and here for Section B)...Yes, that is a bit convoluted, but so is the Maya calendar itself (at least to our eyes), so be aware that these entries are a bit challenging - You could also stick to the Bold Text if you want a quick overview. If you make it through the whole thing, though, you'll be an expert in no time!

As discussed previously in this blog, our knowledge of the Classic Period Maya is limited and very fragmented. Even the writing of the Maya of the Post-Classic period, who stopped using the Long Count, has substantial differences with the literature we possess from their immediate ancestors. Two things that the many ancient Maya peoples all have in common, however, is that they placed a great deal of value upon the written word as a communicator of knowledge, and NONE of their written records seem to have believed anything of great significance was in store for us on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012. Of course, it is a reasonable question whether we may have simply not found the evidence yet, given our limited source material. The prudent answer to this is that numerous ancient, glyphic texts we have, do pay a great deal of attention to the creation events of August 11th (or 13th) 3114 BCE, as well as numerous, generally mundane events in the future. It is a reasonable assumption that if the ancient Maya believed something important was to happen in 2012 we would have found many things written about it by now.

Did the Maya Write About 2012?

In fact, the only known written piece of evidence from the ancient Maya pertaining to the b'aktun ending in 2012 is inscribed upon Monument 6 from the Palenque-associated Classic Period city called Tortuguero. Monument 6 is a carved, T-shaped stone slab that originally served as a panel inside a building; the slab is highly-fragmented and missing major portions of its glyphs. The prominent Mayanist epigraphers Stephen Houston and David Stuart have attempted to make sense of the text that remains. In 1996, they tentatively interpreted the text as a predictive one, considered unusual as most Classic Period references to the future almost always place emphasis on “impersonal temporal events that are safely predictable”; less action-oriented than purely calendrical (Houston and Stuart 1996:301) . Monument 6's text begins with the Long Count date of its associated building's initial construction (around 700 CE) followed by glyphs reading tzuhtzjoom u 13 b'aktun 4 Ajaw 3 Kank'in utoom, indicating a future calendar event at the end of the 13th b'aktun (December 21 or 23, 2012). This declaration of some event is followed by the syllable i-, an eroded glyph, and an inference that a god or collective totality of gods (Bolon Yookte') will "descend" (ye-ma) to the...? Any further details are obscured due to the fragmented nature of the text (Houston and Stuart 1996).

Past, Present, Future

While this may seem ominous, it is pivotal to understand that the ancient Maya conception of time itself is very different from ours. Many Classic Period inscriptions deal with events in time frames so remotely in the past or future they seem downright bizarre, while other inscriptions concern supernatural events that occur entirely outside of time itself (Van Stone III). The non-linear, repetitive, and cyclical nature of the calendars assure that history and the present are at one with prophecy and divination. In ancient Maya belief systems, the past, present, and future are frequently conflated together (Rice 172-176, 187-204; Van Stone III; Henderson 48-49, 55-57). This could be seen as somewhat analogous to Christianity's simultaneous worship of Jesus as a living (resurrected) being, a deceased martyr, and a constant presence who is also due to immanently return - these seemingly-contradictory states are accepted as part of a totality of belief and faith in God. The narrative of the biblical testaments, however, is generally far more linear and absolute in its view of time than the belief system of the ancient Maya, which saw time as highly malleable and steeped in religious metaphors; subject to change at the whim of a ruler, diviner, or scribe (ibid).

Houston and Stuart's continuing studies of Tortuguero Monument 6 have determined that it bears a striking similarity in narrative structure and pattern of dates with a number of other monuments from Classic Period urban centers; the key syllable is the i-. This suffix is considered by linguists to be a discourse marker, used somewhat similarly to English terms such as "because", "but", and "or". It is used in these calendrical texts as part of a broader pattern that conflates the immediate event it documents with dates far in the future or past which fall upon numerically-significant period-endings. In all of the complete texts we have that show narrative similarity to the fragmented one from Tortuguero, evocations of such distant dates end with an obvious return back to the present date in which the inscription was carved. Additional glyphic writing associated with these dates strongly infer that any events documented actually occurred at the time of the carving rather than far removed in the future or past (Houston 2008; Stuart 2009).

Thus, if we draw a logical interpretation based on similar narratives from other Classic Period cities such as Palenque and Naranjo, we come to the conclusion that Toruguero Monument 6 was discussing the dedication of the building from which it was originally a part of (Houston 2008). Evocation of the "descent" of a single God or the Nine Support Gods (Bolon Yookte') could be either a common reference to Maya creation mythology (which pivotally involves hearth-building/house construction under the direction of 7 or 9 Gods) and/or an inference that these God(s) were seen as directly present at the time of the building's construction. This is not improbable considering that the ancient Maya felt their deities had numerous forms and saw evidence of them in a wide-ranging array of natural and human phenomena (Van Stone II-42; Henderson 48; Rice 147). One way or another, there is little precedent or reason to believe the monument is talking about an event in 2012 that is of much more importance than the celebration of the construction anniversary of this particular building, located in a Classic Period Maya city of relatively little importance (Houston 2008). Further investigation is impossible, however, as the remaining ruins of Tortuguero were destroyed in the 1960s when a cement factory was built atop them (Zender and Guenter 6).

A Galactic Alignment?

While scholarly Mayanist consensus (such as it is) generally agrees that 2012 was probably a relative nonevent in the eyes of the ancient Maya, this has not stopped a veritable torrent of opinions from our previously-discussed independent, non-academic authors as to the supposed nature of this upcoming date, destructive or transformative. The most high-profile of these is John Major Jenkins, a self-described 2012ologist whose book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 is probably the most popular of the New Age-oriented works that predict a great transformative event in 2012. His work concerning 2012 is more focused than his peers, as he has spent a great deal of time immersing himself in independent study of present and ancient cultures of the Maya regions of Central America; he has particularly focused on Maya astrology and iconography from the site of Izapa (Jenkins Intro.).

Jenkins believes that the Maya may have closely observed the almost-imperceptibly slow precession of the equinoxes, in which Earth's elliptic orbit makes the constellations of the Zodiac appear to slowly rotate around the sky; they make a complete circuit every 26,000 years or so (Meeus 1997). He posits that ancient Maya observation of equinox precession made them aware of the fact that December 21st (or 23rd), 2012 marks both the approximate time of the winter solstice and the so-called "Galactic Alignment". This is when the "Dark Rift", a cluster of dust clouds that appear to our eyes to bisect the Milky Way Galaxy in a starless line, aligns itself precisely with the sun. This galactic event is seen as having the potential to produce a destructive and/or transformative result (Jenkins 366-367).

Contradicting Jenkins' hypothesis, however, is the fact that the "Galactic Alignment" actually takes place over a period of 36 years, and that the most precise alignment occurred in 1998 (Meeus 1997). Additionally, there is little evidence that the Maya paid great heed to the precise winter and summer solstices or the spring and fall equinoxes. These annual occurrences are of far more concern to peoples of northerly latitudes with more well-defined seasons (Van Stone I:44-48). The Maya calendars were more divinatory in nature and less concerned with the precise solar year. Remember, they did not factor in the "leap year" as we do to keep our calendars solar-year accurate (Van Stone ibid.; Rice 189-191).

Finally, we must keep in mind that Jenkins' primary source material is drawn from studies of the Late Preclassic/Early Classic site of Izapa, located on the Pacific slope of modern-day Chiapas, Mexico. This 2,500 year-old city was on the periphery of the Maya region, along with neighbors such as the Lenca and Xinca. While Izapa's carvings contain a great deal of complex iconography and several Long Count dates, there is no decipherable glyphic writing at the site. This is perhaps a reflection of its role as a trade crossroads between different cultural spheres with different languages - similar to the text-free Classic Period metropolis Teotihuacan in central Mexico (Henderson 84-85; Van Stone FAQs). A total lack of readable text at Izapa makes any interpretation of pictorial iconography entirely subject to the interpreter's discretion with little to verify or contradict any conclusions. In other words, Izapa fails to be a reliable source of evidence when trying to prove Jenkins' hypothesis right or wrong. While some of Jenkins' interpretations of Izapan pictorial art may seem to be plausible on a surface level, we must keep in mind that before we understood the Mayan glyphic language, general opinion was that the Maya were a race of peaceful calendar-priests, uninterested in war or dynastic political intrigue. We now know that the lives of kings and their military adventures are precisely the subjects of most Maya inscriptions found in Classic Period city-states (Henderson 18-23).

Archaeology meets Mass Culture

Though we do know enough about the ancient Maya at this point to make these cautious assumptions, much of our knowledge on the broader spectrum of their specific history and traditions is still fragmentary and not well-publicized outside of academic circles. These information gaps leave a wide opening for modern people far disassociated from ancient Maya society, from John Major Jenkins to Jared Diamond, to use it as a blank slate upon which to inscribe our own modern, western dilemmas and insecurities. As the ideas these authors propound are argued in such a manner as to have great resonance with the modern concerns of our society, the popularity of their books grow, regardless of whether their analytical methods are sound or not. Combine these sensationalist ideas with the exotic appeal of a foreign culture very different from our own, an ancient culture that abandoned great cities to romantically crumble in the middle of tropical jungle while many of their descendants still live traditional, modest lives today - and you have the makings of mass entertainment. Cue Hollywood!

In Part V, this blog series wraps up its final entry with a review of the film 2012! More importantly, however, we take a look at how and why the entertainment industry have consistently looked to creative (*ahem*) interpretations of archaeology and history, fuse them to the things we care about in the present, and generate an explosive new product that has equal capacity to excite and totally misinform the viewer. All here on CyArk!


Houston, Stephen and Stuart, David (1996). Of Gods, Glyphs, and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya. Antiquity Magazine #70:289-312

Stuart, David (2009). Q&A About 2012. Online at Maya Decipherment epigraphy weblog.

Rice, Prudence M. (2007). Maya Calendar Origins: Monuments, Mythistory, and the Materialization of Time. Austin:University of Texas Press

Van Stone, Mark (2008). It's Not the End of the World: What the Ancient Maya Tell Us About 2012. Located online at the Foundation For The Advancement Of Mesoamerican Studies website.

Henderson, John (1997). The World of the Ancient Maya: Second Edition. Ithaca:Cornell University Press

Zender, Mark and Guenter, Stanley (2000). Three Kings of Late Classic Tortuguero. PARI Newsletter (San Francisco, CA: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute) #30:6–8. Available online here.

Jenkins, John Major (1998). Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. Santa Fe:Bear and Company

Meeus, Jean (1997). Mathematical Astronomy Morsels. Richmond (Virginia):Willmann-Bell

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Izapa Stela 11, Pacific slope of Chiapas (Mexico); drawing by Ayax Moreno. As there are no readable glyphic inscriptions at Izapa, scholars have various theories about what or who the figure represents, drawing from written descriptions of similar icons from Maya sources elsewhere in the region and somewhat contemporary in time frame(<i>Rice 118</i>). In contrast, John Major Jenkins, author of the book <i>Maya Cosmogenesis 2012</i>, postulates that this undated monument (which was built sometime during the Late Preclassic period) represents the sun's rebirth in the "dark rift" of the Milky Way Galaxy during the "Galactic Alignment"; an event Jenkins believes will occur in 2012 (<i>Jenkins 283-285</i>). There are, however, no references in known ancient Mayan writings to the "dark rift" of the Milky Way Galaxy at all (<i>Van Stone FAQs</i>).
Text from Tortuguero Monument 6, drawing by Sven Gronemeyer. This small segment of incomplete text has produced a great deal of speculation due to its evocation of the 13th <i>b'aktun</i>, due to end in 2012 CE (AD), with glyphs indicating the "descent" of a God or number of Gods. Archaeologists/ epigraphers Stephen Houston and David Stuart, who have studied the monument extensively, believe from studying similar inscriptions that it is not predicting a future event but simply acting as a dedication to the building it resided in as a carved wall panel (<i>Stuart 2009; Houston 2008</i>).
Tortuguero Monument 6, drawing by Sven Gronemeyer. This illustration shows measurements of the small panel with the damaged, allegedly-predictive 2012 text in the lower right-hand corner; the actual monument is broken into seven pieces held by different museums and private collections (<i>Van Stone II:27</i>). Would laser scanning reveal more information about the missing/damaged glyphs?
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