Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Do We Have Exactly 2 Years To Live?

The Caracol: ancient Maya observatory.

Do you realize what day it it? If you didn't, it's December 21, and according to some, we all have exactly 2 years to live as, come this date in 2012, the world will be destroyed by some as yet unknown worldwide cataclysm.

Ah, yes, the 2012 doomsday fears arise again, but are they founded in fact or fantasy?

Okay, before we start examining where the fear came from and whether we should even worry at all, let's run through the 2012 doomsday scenario first. On December 21, 2012, the Maya Long Count calendar runs out. Now, while no one has used the Classic Maya calendar in hundreds of years (the great Maya civilization in Southern Mexico/Central America collapsed around 1000 A.D.), some people read some ominous overtones into this whole idea of time just running out, which has lead some to believe that, since they were the only civilization with a calendar that ever ended at a fixed point in time, the Maya knew something that no one else did: the exact date the world would end.

Now, that's 2012 as told by the fear mongers, what about 2012 told by science and history?

Understanding the whole 2012 doomsday fear requires a mix of Maya history and religion, which will then come together quite elegantly in the end. First off, Maya religion was in itself quite a convoluted mix of mythology, the most important of which was the myth of the Hero Twins, as this story told of the triumph of life over death that just may be the basis for 2012.

The Maya, so far as we know, were the first people to possess rubber, which they used for, among other things, molding into giant balls (about 10-12 inches in diameter) that were used in a ceremonial ballgame that represented the triumph of life over death by recreating the myth of the Hero Twins. As for the story, it went as follows.

A Maya ritual ballcourt. Note how high the hoop is on the wall.
Way back when, perhaps at a time when the game was more about fun, a Maya king and his brother liked to play the ballgame, the object of which was to knock the ball through a hoop high on a wall without using one's hands or feet. Obviously, with the useful appendages out of play, the game could go on for days, with the first team to score winning. Unfortunately for the king and his brother, their ball court was just over an entrance to the underworld and the sound of the heavy ball bouncing all over the place started to irritate the Lords of Death, who also just happened to be ball players. Getting fed up, the Lords of Death invited the king and his brother to the underworld for a game. Accepting the challenge, the king and his brother entered the realm of the dead and squared off against, and lost to the Lords of Death. The king and his brother were then sacrificed. However, the story wasn't done: the king had twin sons of his own, who also liked to play the ballgame. In time, just like their father and uncle, the twins ball playing annoyed the Lords of Death, who then decided that they were going to try and go 2-0 against the humans. Long story short, the twins beat the Lords of Death, sacrificed them, and then resurrected their father and uncle as the Sun and Moon, respectively, thus, life triumphed over death.

A highly stylized representation of the Milky Way void as a monster swallowing the souls of the dead. A copy of the coffin lid for king Pacal the Great.

Onto the astronomy, the Maya were perhaps the greatest astronomers in history until the Renaissance, with achievements to their credit that still stun modern scientists. However, like the Greeks, the Maya were an interesting people in that they made the most accurate astronomical measurements of their day, yet still clung to mythologies characteristic of far more primitive peoples. For the Maya, one facet of this mythology was the idea that the Milky Way was the road to the underworld and a dark rift in the Milky Way itself right above the famous Teapot asterism was the actual gateway. Okay, fine, so what?

Back to the Hero Twins myth. Remember that the Twins resurrected their father and uncle a the Sun and Moon. In releasing their father (now the Sun) from the underworld, the twins were creating, according to the Maya, a “new Sun,” or cycle of life. Now, back to the ballgame. While no one knows the exact symbolism involved, there is agreement on the idea that the ball represented the Sun. So, if the ball represented the Sun and the players the Hero Twins and Lords of Death, it only makes sense that, by the winning team knocking the ball (Sun) through the hoop, they were thus representing the Hero Twins resurrection of their father as the Sun by shooting the Sun out of the underworld through the gateway, represented by the hoop on the wall. Now, back to astronomy. It just so happens that, due to precession of the equinoxes, the location of the Sun on any given day against the background sky changes over time. Now, perhaps one of the Maya's most remarkable astronomical achievements: on December 21, 2012, the Winter Solstice Sun will rise exactly in the center of the dark rift in the Milky Way, symbolically rising out of the underworld and representing a new cycle of creation, at least according to the Maya.

So, does this mean the world will end?

Ironically, for all the fear their calendar has created, according to the Maya, one cycle running out and another starting meant that the world could end, not that it would end. For a really interesting cosmology, one only has to look at the history of Maya timekeeping. The Maya (and other Mesoamericans before them) were interesting in that they believed that time was cyclical, not linear. So, being obsessed with cycles, it was only natural that that Mesoamericans started looking for them in nature. Being farmers, it was important for these early people to ascertain the length of the year to better ensure successful harvests. So, as every other primitive farming culture did, the Mesoamericans found the year to be about 365 days long. Now, for reasons unknown, the Mesoamericans used not one, but two calendars, the other being a 260 ritual one that was used for divination purposes. Now, here's the big unknown: which came first, the two calendars or the realization that they would line up exactly every 52 years? While the answer to that question will never be known (the Olmecs who developed it left no writing), the impact of the calendar would last for centuries, with the Maya taking it to new levels of sophistication.

As with some people today, the Mesoamericans found the notion of time running out to be a little unnerving. However, unlike today, this fear was held by the entire population. So, as the 52-year calendar round entered its final days, the priests would up the prayers and demand greater sacrifices in the hope that the gods would let the world continue to exist. Well, by looking at the fact that we're still here, those Maya priests must have been pretty good! Now, despite the fact that the end of the world had been successfully averted every time in the past, the thought of confronting doomsday every 52 years left the Maya rulers/priesthood (on whom the continued existence of the world hinged) uneasy. So, some unknown genius came up with a big idea: why not postpone the end of the world by finding a longer cycle of time so that we don't have to worry about it anymore? Well, the idea took off and, in time, the Long Count, which ran 5,125.25 years, was created.

The Maya were so obsessed with timekeeping that they even built calendars into their pyramids. This one has 91 steps on each side plus a temple on top (94 x 4 = 364 + 1 = 365).

By looking at the cycles contained within the Long Count, it quickly becomes apparent that the Maya had a true love of numbers and/or had too much free time on their hands. The breakdown of the units of time contained within the Long Count is a follows:

1 day = 1 K'in
20 days = 20 K'ins = 1 Winal
360 days = 18 Winals = 1 Tun
7200 days = 20 Tuns = 1 K'atun
144,000 days = 20 K'atun = 1 B'ak'tun
1,872,000 days = 13 B'ak'tuns = 1 Great Cycle (completion of Long Count)

Obviously, with the 5,125.25 year Long Count complete, the Maya must have felt more than secure in the knowledge that they would never have to worry about the world coming to an end in their lifetimes ever again, as if the gods somehow had to obey the will of man now that a longer time cycle had been created. Pretty funny, isn't it?

Okay, back to the present.

If you have made it this far, you (hopefully) have come to the logical conclusion that there was no way that the Maya could have predicted the end of the world as the Long Count is a human construction that has absolutely no basis in nature. Simply put, the Maya hated the prospect of having to worry about doomsday every 52 years, so they decided to create a longer cycle (the Long Count) so that they wouldn't have to worry about it anymore. So, come 2012 and the end of the Long Count, why worry? The world never ended at any of those 52 year calendar rounds, so why would it end now at the end of a Great Cycle? Answer: it won't, the Long Count means nothing and desperately needs to be confined to the realm of pseudoscience junk like astrology, tarot cards, and all other forms of divination, not a single one of which has stood up rigorous scientific scrutiny.

Oh, yes, here's the eclipse (or at least what the clouds allowed me to see of it . . . )

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