When fact is better than fiction
With the long awaited arrival of 2012, there is growing interest in the ancient Maya civilisation, and this is a double edged sword. On one hand, it is good to see this rich, highly advanced ancient culture finally getting the attention it deserves. Hopefully, this attention will turn into greater research opportunities leading to a better understanding of this enigmatic civilisation.
On the other hand, much of the information being posted on the internet or presented in Hollywood blockbuster films is at best erroneous and at worst very demeaning to the Maya past and present.
What is particularly unsettling about films such as 2012 and many internet postings is that they exploit our general ignorance of one of the great cultures of the ancient world, the Maya civilisation that flourished in Belize, Mexico and the Central America region from around 1800 BC to 1600 AD. When Spanish conquistadors laid waste to the last vestiges of classic Maya culture, burning great libraries and destroying all evidence of the Maya’s monumental accomplishments they closed the door on one of humankind’s greatest achievements.
We are left with scant information that, unfortunately, can be used as dots to connect to some fairly outlandish pictures.
The premise of these exploitative films and postings, that the spooky and mysterious Maya somehow predicted and recorded the end of the earth, would not gain traction if we been as familiar with ancient Maya civilisation as we should be. The average school kid knows of Christopher Columbus and the so called discovery of the Americas, but barely anything at all of the fascinating cultures who inhabited the continent well before his arrival.
And this is a shame. Imagine if, rather than vaguely looking back on the ancient Maya as shadowy forest dwellers who built stone temples and indulged in brutal human sacrifice to appease fierce pagan gods, we regarded them with the same understanding and respect as say, the ancient Greeks or Romans, and taught their real history and achievements in schools.
We would all appreciate that the reality of the Maya Civilisation is far richer, fascinating and more exciting than anything Hollywood could come up with.
The Maya had independently developed agriculture, pottery, irrigation, metallurgy, paper making, writing and other trappings of culture well before most European civilisations. Their cities supported over 100,000 inhabitants and were carefully planned out with sophisticated water, food supply and waste systems. Broad causeways, public administrative and commerce centres as well as the more famous temples were spacious public places exhibiting beautiful artwork.
Maya healers had over centuries developed an effective pharmacopeia from the rainforest and were adept at surgery, suturing wounds (with human hair) securing broken bones in casts and conducting intricate heart and brain surgery. Their obsidian scalpels are considered to be finer edged than modern stainless steel implements.
They independently invented the concept of zero, and their mathematical equations continue to amaze scholars. Among the world’s very first paper makers, the Maya developed a system of writing to express complex ideas and concepts, and their monumental architecture still stands after centuries of abandonment in some of the world’s most unforgiving climates.
Tragically, Spanish conquistadors destroyed virtually all Maya written works, or codices, setting fire to libraries said to be the size of Alexandria’s, with one reportedly lighting the sky for three days. What we have left are fragments of a few surviving codices, stone inscriptions and, after centuries of religious and secular persecution, a sketchy oral history surviving among today’s Maya.
One of the legacies the Maya were able to leave us is an intricate calendar slightly more accurate than our Georgian version, and it is this ancient almanac that is used for much of the 2012 fear mongering and internet nonsense.
The Maya in fact used several calendars, depending on religious or secular application, but it is the Maya Long Count that is most often quoted by the doomsday pundits.
Despite the hype, the Long Count is a logical chronological progression, recording past events and predicting future celestial alignments. As to the exact relation of these dates and alignments to Maya cosmology, religious beliefs or predictions about the future, we haven’t a clue.
There is a wealth of credible information detailing the working of the Long Count but, simply put, it can be described somewhat like a timekeeping odometer. Established on the Maya’s base-20 counting system, it consists of 13 cycles, or baktuns, corresponding to the levels of the Maya “upper world”, each level having its own deity and relation to specific celestial bodies. The 13 baktuns make up a creation period of 5,125.37 seasonal years. At the end of this period, the count, like an odometer, rolls over to the next Day Zero. For us, the next Day Zero will be 21 December 2012.
The original Day Zero, which for the Maya marked the creation of the world, fell on August 11, 3114 B.C. That date was represented as 126.96.36.199.0, a sequence we will see it again 13 baktuns later, when the Long Count rolls over from 188.8.131.52.19 on December 21, 2012, or the next Day Zero.
December 21 also marks the winter solstice, the date the sun reaches its most southerly position in the sky. Many scholars believe that, as with many religions, significant Maya dates were built around observable celestial events.
So, apart from the sensationalist rigmarole, there is logic to the Long Count, and December 21 2012 has the same significance we give the odometer on our car when 999,999.99 miles roll over to 000000.00, and then immediately resets again with 000000.01 and so on. A landmark event, but probably not the end of the world.
And not the sort of stuff to sell movies…
The ancient Maya also used the Long Count to record and calculate astrophysical facts. For instance, we know that the Earth’s axis wobbles, slightly changing our view of the alignment of the stars every year. Once every 25,800 years, the sun appears to line up with the centre of our Milky Way galaxy on the winter solstice, when the sun is on the lowest point in the horizon.
That will happen on Dec. 21, 2012, when the sun appears to rise at the same spot where the bright centre of galaxy sets.
That the Maya gave this event great significance and spent considerable time and effort to calculate and record it is historical fact. However, we get into murkier and often loopier territory with conjecture about the implication of December 21 2012 and what that date will mean to us.
The short answer is that we do not and cannot know. Unless you buy into the proposition that a select few have access to some arcane body of knowledge, or are in direct communication with spirits, ancestors, aliens or some part of the pantheon of otherworldly sources.
Of course, 2012 apocalypse scenarios are supported by other events that will, or are supposed to occur around that date. Take your pick from solar storms and flares causing havoc on Earth with geomagnetic reversal, or the global warming tipping point reaching a crescendo, or Nibiru, also known as Planet X, emerging from behind the sun to pass by Earth with catastrophic effect. There are also, depending on interpretation, clues scattered throughout history, from the Book of Revelations to the predictions of Nostradamus. These various theories all have their own bodies of vocal supporters who, singly and collectively, generally point to an approaching apocalypse.
Then again, some other groups are predicting an imminent nirvana.
Yes, thankfully there are more optimistic 2012 predictions. Some say it marks the true beginning of the Age of Aquarius, or the end of the Kali Yuga and thus the beginning of mass human enlightenment, or some other happy occurrence. According to sources as diverse as Hopi traditions, the I Ching and obscure 17th century Christian evangelists, a good time is about to be had by all, or at least the chosen few.
However, among all 2012 theories, the Maya apocalypse prediction is the most popular rant.
This seems strange, given that the ancient Maya themselves were curiously silent on the subject. One would think that the end of the world would get at least as much inscription space as the lineage of rulers or the conquest of rival cities, but apart from a few loosely interpreted hieroglyphs and inscriptions, the ancients were rather mum on the topic.
There are today some 7 million Maya still living in Central America, many in villages with agricultural, healing and social mores largely unchanged since the Spanish conquest. It would seem that something as important as an apocalypse would have been passed down along with other essential cultural information, but if it was, today’s Maya are doing an excellent job of keeping it to themselves.
The Maya apocalypse industry is, strictly speaking, a white western phenomenon.
And this is what annoys the modern day Maya of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, who are understandably chagrined at this new take on their culture, coming less than 300 years after many of their spiritual and political leaders were burnt at the stake precisely as a result of cultural misapprehension and fear mongering.
Modern Maya elders, community and spiritual leaders, especially the “day keepers”, who still practice ancient divination and use the ancient astronomical patterns to predict temporal outcomes, view the burgeoning 2012 apocalypse industry with confusion, exasperation and anger at what they see is still another gross distortion of their traditions and beliefs.
Guatemalan Day Keeper Cirilo Perez, who acts as an adviser to Guatemala’s President Alvaro Colom, has spoken out against the commercial exploitation of 2012 and the Maya culture.
“This has all become business but there is no desire to understand,” he said. “When foreigners, or even some Guatemalans, see us, they think ‘Look at the Maya, how nice, how pretty’, but they don’t understand us.”
Or to quote Rigoberta Mench’u Tum, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, “We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected, not to be victims of intolerance and racism.”
As for the coming day of reckoning, Jesus Gomez, head of a regional confederation of Mayan priests and spiritual guides, put it to the UK’s Sunday Telegraph more succinctly. “There is no concept of apocalypse in the Mayan culture,” he said simply.
So, as 2012 approaches and the mania continues to build, give a thought to the Maya themselves. The film 2012 probably made more money since 2009 than the entire Maya race collectively earned since 1709, and more attention has already been focused on scurrilous Maya predictions than has ever been paid to the plight of the people themselves, the majority of whom live below the poverty line and remain second or third class citizens in the lands their ancestors cultivated and ruled over for thousands of years.
If the general public takes a more genuine interest in this fascinating culture, takes the time to study their very real, rich history and pays more than a passing interest in their current day-to-day existence, then 2012 will take on real significance and truly connect us in a meaningful way to one of the greatest civilisations humankind has produced.