The Mayan Calendar & 2012: Why Should We Care?

The Mayan Calendar & 2012

John Major Jenkins, 2008

In my own process of studying the Maya and their traditions, I moved progressively into deeper water with time. Twenty-two years in, I can report back to newcomers that the implications of the Mayan calendar are staggering, its connection to other cosmologies around the globe is deep, and its most famous artifact, the cycle ending date of 2012, encodes an understanding of the cosmos that modern science is unprepared to grasp.

That’s where the investigation leads, but we will not venture so far in this article. Many people will be introduced to the existence of the Maya and their calendar through the attention generated by the 2012 date. You may be one of them. In fact, I hope you are, because this article is written for you. How can we even begin to understand the Mayan calendar and its 2012 date? What is it? What was it intended to represent? What did the ancient Maya believe would be happening as 2012 draws close? Sit back and read on, for there are answers to these questions.

In my speaking events and workshops, people ask questions and I’ve noticed that many of them are based on misconceptions. I will anticipate and address these, hopefully guiding you away from dead ends. It is no surprise that 2012, the so-called “end of the Mayan calendar,” is a topic that is filled with images of the end of the world, doomsday, and cataclysm. Many writers have and will exploit such a hot topic and play into human fears. They are not necessarily interested in understanding 2012 as the ancient Maya understood it. Here we must state a guiding principle so we can have a healthy approach to 2012: let’s honor the authentic Mayan tradition.

This seems self evident, but is rarely taken to heart by modern writers. As a result of this unfortunate situation, newcomers are likely to encounter a smorgasbord of ideas, information, opinions, and models about 2012. The loudest barkers in Carnival 2012, as my friend Jonathan Zap reminds me, are likely to be the first ones heard. There’s the Pleiadian faction, there’s the crop circle theorists, here’s the alien invasion crowd, here’s the doomsday tribe, there’s the ascension light workers. People like many choices on the menu, right? Sure, but what about the real ding an sich, the thing-in-itself?  Are we interested in getting to the heart of the Mayan insight? I propose that we should be, and that such an approach yields interesting, satisfying, revolutionary, and lasting results.

A little research reveals that a large cycle in the Mayan Long Count calendar ends precisely on December 21, 2012. The precision comes from a painstakingly established correlation between the Long Count calendar and our own Gregorian calendar. Scholars figured it out, beginning in the 1890s, testing and retesting the correct correlation. It was settled by 1950. The Gregorian calendar and the Long Count calendar are simply two different methods of tracking time. Each one tracks one day after another, but designates the days with different symbols and words. The correct correlation between the two means that, for example, in the Long Count equals May 7, 755 AD in the Gregorian calendar. We are simply correlating two different systems. It’s the same challenge of correlating the ancient Egyptian calendar, or the ancient Hindu or Roman system, to a time frame we can recognize. With the “key” of the correlation, we can make a precise conversion between the Mayan calendar into our own. It’s not rocket science, and there’s no need to mystify it.

What you need to know is that scholars have isolated the precise correlation for the Maya calendar, such that the end of the 13-baktun cycle in the Long Count (written  falls precisely on December 21, 2012. Most importantly, the surviving 260-day calendar (the tzolkin) among the Maya today confirms this correlation, since it confirms that the cycle-ending date falls on 4 Ahau in the tzolkin. Authors that write popular books and broadcast other notions have simply not done their homework.

Next, what is the Long Count and how does it work? The Long Count calendar system was developed about 2,100 years ago in southern Mexico. Archaeologists know this because the first carved monuments with Long Count dates appear in the first-century BC, mostly in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Theoretical reconstructions of the calendar that trace its origins further back in time are possible, but for now we can rest safely with the carved monuments that date to the first-century BC. This is a good indicator of when the Long Count was formally inaugurated and carved in stone.


Diagram 1. Early Long Count date on a monument, El Baul. 37 AD

A typical Long Count date contains five place values. A baktun is a period of 144,000 days. A katun is a period of 7,200 days. A tun contains 360 days. A uinal contains 20 days, and a kin is a day. I’m surprised when newcomers begin to wonder how anyone can possibly know this. Some assert that the Maya disappeared long ago, so how do we know this information about their calendar? Well, the truth is that the Maya have not disappeared, as the popular misconception goes. The reason why we can say things with certainty about how the Long Count works is because scholars have reconstructed its operation from a careful examination of the archaeological evidence. It’s not so mysterious or far fetched for scholars to piece together fragments of a forgotten tradition, especially something as tangible as the basic mathematics of a calendar system.

A typical Long Count date is written The cycle ending date is written After this date, the calendar cycles back to Why? Because there are 13 Baktuns in one Creation Cycle, or Age. We know this because there are several carvings that are called “Creation Monuments,” and they tell us that is the completion of a World Age. The Long Count is thus part of a philosophy of time known as a World Age doctrine. It is a belief that many ancient cultures share, that the world passes through a series of chapters or Ages. For the Maya, an Age lasts 13 Baktuns, which is 5,125 years.