The Mayan Calendar & 2012: Why Should We Care?

The Maya’s Creation Myth contains information about the World Ages, and therefore we can consult it to gain an understanding of what the ancient Maya believed occurs during a cycle ending. General principles can be identified. For example, at the end of all Ages, humanity goes through a transformation and is reborn. There are two ways that a person can take, because free will is honored. One can go the way of Seven Macaw, the vain ego-driven ruler who appears at the end of the cycle, or one can go the way of One Hunahpu, who sacrifices his false self and is reborn whole. The point is that the Creation Myth actually provides relevant and meaningful information concerning the ancient Maya belief about what would be happening as 2012 approached.  Therefore, studying the messages in the Creation Myth is an effective approach for understanding 2012.

Another important question is, why did the Maya believe that the year we call 2012 in our calendar would be so transformative? What is so special about 2012? The answer to this has been the focus of my pioneering research. My 1994 article “The How and Why of the Mayan End Date” really broke the case, as it identified how a rare astronomical alignment (the “galactic alignment”) was encoded by the Maya into their Creation Myth. My 1995 book The Center of Mayan Time explored my new findings further, by examining the early Maya site, Izapa, that invented the Long Count cosmology. More discoveries occurred in 1995-1997, and were reported in various articles and in my books Izapa Cosmos (1996) and Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 (1998). The galactic alignment is the key to understanding why the ancient Maya believed 2012 (or, to be more accurate, “the years around 2012”) would be so transformational.

What is the Galactic Alignment?

The galactic alignment is a rare alignment within the cycle of the precession of the equinoxes, or let’s say “precession” for short. Precession is thought to be caused by the slow wobble of the earth on its axis. The earth spins once every 24 hours, giving us the day cycle. But like a spinning top it also wobbles very slowly, making one complete wobble in just under 26,000 years. This phenomenon changes our angular orientation to the larger field of stars and constellations which surround us. One effect of the precession is that the position of the sun on a solstice or equinox will slowly shift in relation to the background stars. Ancient skywatchers might observe the stars of Capricorn rising ahead of the dawning solstice sun. Eight hundred years later, however, it will be the stars of Sagittarius. The constellations served as markers for this celestial shifting.

For the Maya, the bright band of the Milky Way was a very important feature of the night sky. It was seen to be a river, a road, a cosmic snake, a Great Mother, or even a celestial ballcourt. Compared to the very wide constellations, the Milky Way is a better marker for precessional shifting, because it is thin, like a “finish line” in the sky. If the sun’s position on, say, the December solstice, was tracked, skywatchers would notice it shifting closer and closer to the bright band of the Milky Way. According to my pioneering research, ancient Maya skywatchers noticed this shifting, and calculated forward to the future day when the December solstice sun would line up with the Milky Way. They even used a more precise marker for the alignment, the dark rift in the Milky Way, which lies right along the Milky Way’s mid-plane.

Diagram 2. A = the solstice sun’s position 4,000 years ago. B = the solstice sun’s position 2,000 years ago. C = the solstice sun’s position in era-2012 (the galactic alignment). Note the dark rift and the crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.

Diagram 2. A = the solstice sun’s position 4,000 years ago. B = the solstice sun’s position 2,000 years ago. C = the solstice sun’s position in era-2012 (the galactic alignment). Note the dark rift and the crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic.

Modern astronomers call the Milky Way’s precise mid-plane the “galactic equator.” So, a good definition of the galactic alignment is “the alignment of the December solstice sun with the galactic equator.” Modern astronomers have largely ignored this alignment phenomenon, but one named Jean Meeus calculated it, after being encouraged to look at it by astrologer Daniel Giamario. With his calculation, and recognizing that the sun itself is one-half of a degree wide, we arrive at a reasonable “alignment zone” that stretches from 1980 to 2016. This is the “alignment zone” of the galactic alignment. In the mid-1990s I  pioneered a comparative analysis of Mayan traditions, such as the ballgame, king-making rituals, and the Creation Mythology, to show how the Maya were aware of this future galactic alignment (also sometimes called “the solstice-galaxy alignment”).

The galactic alignment occurs at an important location along the Milky Way – right at the crossing point formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic (the path followed by the sun,  moon, and planets). This crossroads in the sky is a critical feature of Mayan star lore. It is the Mayan Sacred Tree. Most interestingly, this cross targets the “nuclear bulge” of the Galactic Center. For this reason, the galactic alignment is often described as an alignment to the galactic center, which it is, generally speaking.

These astronomical features had profound symbolic meaning for the ancient Maya. And some still do for the modern Maya. The Milky Way was the Great Mother, the galactic center was her womb, and the dark rift was her birth canal. The December solstice sun was also very important, energetically, because that day signals the turnabout in the year, when increasing night shifts to increasing light. After the December solstice, the light begins to return as days grow longer. When THAT sun, the December solstice sun, shifts into alignment with the dark rift “birth canal” of the Milky Way, the Maya believed the  world would be reborn. It constituted a good location to place the end of a World Age, in their calendar, and the beginning of the next Age. The cycle ending is ultimately about renewal.