Seems the whole “end of the world in 2012” brouhaha is stirring again with the upcoming release of the special effects disaster film, 2012. While topics on this blog are often meant to be pretty scholarly and technical, I thought it useful to offer a simple run-down of important points about what the ancient Maya really had to say — or not — about the “end” of their calendar.
Does the Maya calendar end in 2012?
No it doesn’t. What will happen is a recurrence, an anniversary of sorts, of a key mythological date in the distant past. The Maya wrote this as 126.96.36.199.0 in their “Long Count” calendar (an abbreviation of a much bigger number), which fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. (some correlations of the two calendars say August 13, but I don’t really care). This “creation date” was not the beginning of everything, however. Maya mythological texts tell us that plenty was happening long, long before this starting point of the current era. On December 21, 2012 (some say December 23) we come again to a numerological recurrence of 188.8.131.52.0. The Long Count calendar continues well beyond this date, too. In fact, the numerology of the calendar demands that there will be other similar recurrences of this same date in the far distant future, on a scale of octillions of years. The scale of Maya time reckoning dwarfs anything in our own cosmology by many orders of magnitude.
What did the Maya say about 2012?
They actually said very little, if anything. Only one ancient inscription refers to the upcoming 184.108.40.206.0 date in 2012, from a now destroyed site named Tortuguero. The question we scholars have struggled with is whether the final few hieroglyphs of that text describe anything about what will happen. A few years ago I put forward a very tentative and incomplete reading of these damaged glyphs, including a possible use of a verb meaning “descend” and a name of a god, Bolon Yokte’. Much of it was iffy and remains so; I’m not sure I believe much of what I wrote back then. More recently my colleague Steve Houston has pointed out the glyphs may not even pertain to that date anyway. So there’s considerable ambiguity just in the reading of the glyphs and the rhetorical structure of the Tortuguero passage. What we can say with confidence is that the ancient Maya left no clear or definite record about 2012 and its significance. There is certainly no ancient claim that the world or any part of it will come to an end.