Mayan Calendar: When Does It End?

May 10, 2022
Nick

Did the Maya predict the world would end in 2012?

You have probably heard someone (or some people) saying that the world was meant to end on December 21, 2012. There was even a movie about it, though it wasn’t really a memorable movie. The date of December 21, 2012 was oddly specific, and was based on the Ancient Maya calendar, and was the day they believed the world was going to end.

Or at least, that’s how it was misinterpreted. Not entirely certain how that particular interpretation started, but once someone started saying the Maya predicted the end of the world, it was all people could talk about. Ancient prophies are almost as interesting as curses!

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To make a long answer short, December 21, 2012 was not the end of the world as the Maya say it. Instead, it was the start of a new cycle of time, basically the same way that we would view a new year or, with the importance of this change, more like how we reacted to the new millennium.

Ok, so what’s the long answer?

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The Maya had incredibly accurate time-keeping and calendars

The Maya were among the worlds best astronomers. They observed the movement of the heavens and understood how time changed along with the seasons. The Maya were among the few of the ancient cultures to develop the mathematical principle of the number 0, which allowed them to create an incredibly accurate understanding of time and astronomy. 

Time was incredibly important to the Maya and their astronomical observations allowed them to create an accurate calendar system. Time was so important that the monuments they carved and displayed always have the exact date they were dedicated, as well the dates of the important events/figures they are depicting.

Time wasn’t just used to chronicle important figures or events either. It was used to create astronomical calculations, understand the timing of the seasons and when to plant/harvest their crops, as well as in the practice of divination. 

Our understanding of the Maya calendar occurred in the 19th century, when Ernst Forstemann figured out how the Maya marked and understood time. Interestingly, this happened long before we figure out how to read Maya glyphs.   

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The Maya calendars 

Mayan Calendar

The Maya used what archaeologists have named ‘the calendar round’ that is made of three interlocking cycles that repeat on a loop. This is opposed to how we normally think of time, as a straight line that moves forward, rather than repeats. 

The first of the cycles is made of 20 names, followed by a cycle of 13 numbers (which together make the 260-day sacred calendar), with the final cycle being the 365-day solar year. It takes roughly 52 years, or 18, 980 days, for the full cycle to run its course and new one to start. 

The Sacred Calendar (tzol’kin) runs for 260 days and is made of 20 named days associated with 13 numbers, which also had specific names. Each day is given a number, starting from 1 going through 13, until it starts again at 1. Along with the number, it was given a name from the list of 20 unique day-names. In this way, it created 260 unique named days. This calendar was used for understanding when rituals, ceremonies, and divination needed to take place.

The Solar Calendar (haab) was made of 365 days, with 19 unique months as opposed to our 12. The names of the months were recorded by Spanish Friars in after the Spanish Conquest. They are Pop, Wo, Sip, Sotz, Sek, Xul, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Sak, Keh, Mak, Kank’in, Muwan, Pax, Kayab, Kumku and Wayeb.

Most of the months held 20 days each, but the 19th month had only 5 (the wayeb). This final month of 5 days was considered a dangerous time, when the realms of the living and the dead were closest to each other.

The Maya recorded this time as a number+day+number+month (or 0.0.0.0). Used together, the sacred and solar calendars created a cycle that repeated itself every 52 years, or the full course of the Calendar Round. And while 52 years is a great way to understand one lifetime, it couldn’t be used to understand the ancient past or the far future.

The Long Count

Like the Calendar Round, the Long Count, the system the Maya used to understand long periods of history, was considered cyclical. They understood that time had always existed and always would but needed a specific date to base as the ‘start’ of their records.

Like us, the Maya used an absolute date to mark the beginning of their Long Count system. In western cultures, we use 0 CE as our marker, with history before that counting down to 0 and events since counting upwards. 

The Maya Long Count start date, or at least the start of great cycle is equivalent to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar.

Each great cycle lasted 5128 years and was meant to repeat for eternity. The Long Count then counts from this start date and counts the k’in (days), winal (20 days), tun (360 days/18 winals), ka’tun (7,200 days/20 tuns), and bak’tun (144,000 days/20 ka’tuns). So, the start date mentioned above was the start of a new great cycle.

The end of the world on December 21, 2012

Illustration with a Flame maya calendar on fire.

So, what exactly happened on December 21, 2012? Since the Maya didn’t believe that time could end, would they have really predicted the end of the world? Of course they wouldn’t, and they didn’t.

Why was December 21, 2012 important then? Because it was the day that fell exactly 5128 years from August 11, 3114 BCE. It marked the day that the Long Count had completed its great cycle and a new one would start. The Maya would have celebrated this event a lot and it would have been a big deal. Similar to how we celebrated the start of a new millennium on New Years eve 1999. 

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