WHY 2012, EXACTLY?
Two hours’ tromp through the tarantula/crocodile jungle where a recent Survivor series was set, past an ancient Mayan ball court where both losers and winners were sacrificed (that certainly would have boosted Survivor’s ratings) and then a steamy clamber up the hundred steep and crumbling steps of the 1,800–year–old ruin known as the Great Pyramid, the centerpiece of Mundo Perdido (Lost World), the oldest section of the Tikal ruins, was rewarded with the following: “The problem has got to be with your server. Call tech support and tell them to reconfigure… ,” explained one twenty–something to the other.
Rip out their beating hearts, toss their lifeless carcasses down the stone steps, and chalk it all up as a human sacrifice to Bill Gates. Deep in the Guatemalan jungle, atop an ancient sacred temple, and these geeks still couldn’t get their minds out of their computers.
I had gone to Tikal, where some of the most ancient Mayan prophecies originated, to get a feel for what, up until then, was just a mass of factoids—for example, that in the Mayan calendar the current age, known as the Fourth Age, began on August 13, 3114 BCE, which in the Mayan calendar is represented as 0.0.0.0.1 (Day One) and will end on December 21, 2012 ce, or 188.8.131.52.0 (Day Last). I could repeat that fact and many others accurately enough but, like twelfth–grade calculus (the derivative of n cubed is 3n squared, but what is a derivative, exactly?), I didn’t really understand what I was saying.
The problem was calendars, to me a blah staple of contemporary existence. Navigating life without them would of course be unthinkable, but that’s not going to happen, so why think about it? Apparently there once was a dispute between popes about how many days February and August should have, but that’s all been settled for half a millennium. And at the stroke of midnight beginning 2006, the official atomic clock–keeper somewhere added a second for the first time since 1999 because the Earth’s rotation is being slowed by the moon’s increasing gravitational pull, which might be an interesting development if we had enough time in our busy lives to figure out why.
Fundamentalists insist that it’s all in whatever their holy book might happen to be, but my visit to Mayan Guatemala was the first time I’ve ever been told that it's all not in their book but in their calendar, which is all I would ever need. The Maya love their calendars, see them as visual depictions of the passage of time, which is how life unfolds. They charted this unfolding with not one but twenty calendars, only fifteen of which have been released to the modern world; the remaining five are still kept secret by Mayan elders. Mayan calendars are pegged to the movements of the Sun, the Moon, and the visible planets, to harvest and insect cycles, and range in length from 260 days to 5,200 years and beyond.
In the Cholqij, the 260–day calendar that represents a woman’s pregnancy cycle, and also the number of days that the planet Venus rises in the morning each year, each day is represented by one of 20 symbols representing spiritual guides or deities, called Ajau. The number 20 is sacred to the Mayans because a person has 20 digits—10 fingers to reach to the sky and 10 toes to grasp the ground. They regard the number 10, so significant to our mathematics, as half a loaf at best.
According to Gerardo Kanek Barrios and Mercedes Barrios Longfellow in The Maya Cholqij: Gateway to Aligning with the Energies of the Earth, 2005, thirteen forces influence the 20 Ajau deities. The number 13 is derived from the fact that there are 13 major joints (1 neck, 2 shoulders, 2 elbows, 2 wrists, 2 hips, 2 knees and 2 ankles), which serve as nodal points of bodily and cosmic energy. Thirteen forces times 20 deities equals 260 uniquely specified days.
The Mayan prophecies for 2012 are the province of the Long Count calendar, also known as Winaq May Kin, which covers approximately 5,200 solar years, a period the Maya call a Sun. In the curious Mayan reckoning, a year has 360 days; the remaining 5.25 days (4 x .25 accounting for the leap day) are considered “out of time” and are traditionally devoted to thanksgiving for the previous year and celebration of the year to come. Thus 5,200 of these Mayan years translate to approximately 5,125 of our Gregorian years. Since human civilization arose, we have passed fully through three Suns, and now are completing the fourth Sun, which will end on 12/21/12.
The Mayan counting system is primarily vigesimal, meaning that it relies on powers of 20, rather than 10. In this system the first placeholder (the one farthest to the right) is reserved for units of one day; the second for units of 20 days; the third for units of 360 days, or one Mayan solar year; the fourth for units of 7,200 days, or twenty Mayan solar years; and the fifth for units of 144,000 days, or 400 Mayan solar years. Interestingly, the number 144,000 figures prominently in Revelation, though it refers to the number of people who will be saved and serve the Lord during the Tribulation, the period of tumult that precedes the Second Coming of Christ.
In 184.108.40.206.0, the Mayan way of expressing the 12/21/12 date, the number 13 refers to the number of baktuns, periods of 400 Mayan solar years/144,000-day periods. The number 13, as noted, is sacred in their cosmology. One Sun works out to be 13 times 144,000 days, or 1,872,000 days long, 5,200 of the 360–day Mayan solar years. On the day after a Sun is completed, the Long Count calendar starts all over. Thus, December 22, 2012, the day after apocalypse, if such a day does come, will once again be the Mayan date, 0.0.0.0.1.
TIME’S ARROWS AND CYCLES
How did these people become so time–obsessed, out in the jungles and the highlands? It’s not like the ancient Maya were catching planes or texting messages or even traveling anywhere.
“At first glance it might seem an exaggeration to attach so much importance to the sacred [Mayan] calendar. Yet anyone familiar with its role in the life of pre–Columbian Mesoamerica realizes that bound up with the calendar are many if not all of the more sophisticated aspects of the region’s early intellectual life: the awareness of a cyclicity in the movement of celestial bodies, the evolution of mathematical skills by which they could manipulate the numbers derived from those cycles, and the development of a system of hieroglyphics for recording the results…with it must have come most of the trappings of civilization—astronomy, mathematics, writing, urban planning,” writes Vincent H. Malmstrom of Dartmouth College.
We all know intuitively that time occurs in both lines, as though arrows were being shot, and cycles. Time’s arrow refers to the simple fact that each minute follows the next in a straight line to infinity, or until Time ends altogether. Time’s cycle refers to eternal continuums, such as day and night, winter, spring, summer, and fall, the waxing and waning of the Moon. Time’s cycles and arrows can also be seen as reflecting different attitudes toward history: “those who ignore it are doomed to repeat it” (cycle) versus “yesterday's news” (arrow). I’d always tended toward the latter camp, that history, though it made for good stories, was past. But after separating from my wife at roughly the same age, and with more or less the same height, weight, and features as my father did when he was separated from my mother, the “doomed to repeat it” scenario did ring a bell.
Cultures tend to have predilections for either arrow or cycle. Contemporary postindustrial Western society certainly emphasizes the arrowlike onrush of time, passing faster and faster, blinking and beeping on watches, microwave ovens, cell phones, and turnstiles. An arrow–affinity speaks to a society’s orientation toward change and progress, though sometimes to the point of ignoring recurrent, eternal values. This imbalance may well have resulted from our shift away from an agriculturally based economy, which of course is finely attuned to seasonal cycles, and toward industrial and informational production, which are less dependent on such natural rhythms.
The Maya were and are a cycle society. They see cycles in everything, and they love what they see. Progress is not nearly as important in their cosmic ethos as the serenity that comes from being in harmony with the eternal movements of Nature. The downside of course is that, being fixated on eternal cycles, the Maya might not notice the day–to–day changes occurring around them, a disregard that helps explain why, as many historians have noted, classic Mayan society degenerated and collapsed abruptly, without their ever having taken heed of the warning signs. Theories range from voluntary disengagement, meaning that the Mayans simply abandoned their cities and much of their lifestyle for (occult) reasons of their own, to internecine strife, to claims that the civilization never really fell so much as went underground.
The current scholarly bet is that environmental degradation did them in. Indeed, Jared Diamond's recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, depicts the ancient Maya as the case study of what societies ought not to do to the local environment. Diamond methodically presses the argument that the Mayans overfarmed, deforested, and overpopulated their land. A 2004 NASA study confirms Diamond’s condemnation. Pollen trapped in sediments taken from the area right around Tikal, dating back approximately 1,200 years, just before the Mayan civilization’s collapse, indicates that trees had almost completely disappeared, replaced by weeds.
Diamond believes that the population density of the Classic Mayan civilization reached 1,500 persons per square mile. That’s double the current density, for example, of Rwanda and Burundi, two of the most crowded and troubled nations in Africa. Warfare over scarce resources inevitably broke out, leading to a complete societal collapse—a peak population of between 5 million and 14 million in 800 ce tumbled 80 or 90 percent in less than a century.
“We have to wonder why the kings and nobles failed to recognize and solve these seemingly obvious problems undermining their society. Their attention was evidently focused on their short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with each other, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support these activities. Like most leaders throughout human history, the Maya kings and nobles did not heed long-term problems, insofar as they perceived them,” writes Diamond.
The Mayan fall in power, prosperity, and population is quite possibly the most drastic any civilization has ever experienced. Does this invalidate their wisdom? It certainly doesn’t recommend it, except possibly in the area of catastrophe, which historically they know better than just about anyone else.
SPINNING LIKE A TOP
Righteous indignation was still pumping my brain when it dawned on me that the exchange between those two computer nerds on top of the Tikal pyramid probably wasn’t far off in spirit from the conversations that took place there originally. That very pyramid, in fact, was built specifically for astronomers to chart the heavens and keep track of celestial time.
Imagine two ancient Mayan astronomers, an elder and a younger, arguing about the stars on the eve of the vernal equinox. The elder observes that Polaris, the pole star of the Northern Hemisphere, is not in the same position it was on the vernal equinox thirty–six years ago, when he first started his observations. Over that time, Polaris has shifted in a westward direction, the elder declares, about the same distance as the width of the full Moon (roughly half a degree).
The younger astronomer recoils from the heresy. From time immemorial, an article of celestial faith is that, on any given day and date, the stars are supposed to be in exactly the same position from one year to the next. To say otherwise would mean that the great heavenly clock is not keeping perfect time.
Eventually the truth won out, and the elder’s discovery was incorporated into the Mayan cosmology. Perhaps as long as two and a half millennia ago, their ancient astronomers sussed out the astonishing fact that slowly, inexorably, the heavens crank westward at the rate of about 1 degree every 72 years, and complete a full circle every 26,000 Mayan solar years, a period equal to five Suns. The next five Suns would see the polestar change from Polaris, also known as the North Star, to Vega, and then back again.
As we’ve been reminded over and over again since Copernicus, it’s not the heavens but the Earth that moves. In fact the Earth spins like a top on its axis. Watch a top spin, and you will note that its axis slowly describes its own tiny circle. That process is called precession and is entirely analogous to what we perceive as the rotation of the heavens in the sky.
Precession seems to have been discovered more or less simultaneously by a variety of different cultures. Traditionally, credit for first understanding that the heavens are in fact a giant clock that takes eons to move around goes to Hipparchus, an ancient Greek astronomer who lived in the second century bce. However, it now seems likely that the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and Sumerians had earlier grasped the concept.
Persian and Indian astronomers also knew of precession, perhaps via the ancient Greeks, and were so impressed with the fact that the heavens move ever so slowly in an incredibly huge circle that they attributed it all to a deity, Mithra. During the sixth century bce, Mithraism spread rapidly throughout India, the Middle East, and Europe. At its peak in the second century ce, Mithraism was more widely embraced than Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Its central doctrine sprang from the sacrifice of a sacred bull, from whose body all goodness sprang. Although Mithraism virtually vanished in the third century ce, with Islam eventually taking over in Persia later on, the Persian New Year is still celebrated on the vernal equinox, usually March 20, a festive holdover from Mithraic days.
Long–term cycles in the Earth’s orbit and spin have more than cosmetic importance, according to Milutin Milankovitch, the brilliant Serbian astronomer. He examined three cycles, now known as the Milankovitch cycles, for their potential impacts on climate and catastrophe on Earth. The first cycle, known as eccentricity, simply accounts for the fact that the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun changes from being almost perfectly circular to slightly more elliptical, over a cycle that lasts from 90,000 to 100,000 years. Right now we are at the most circular stage in that cycle, meaning that there’s only about a 3 percent variation in distance, and a 6 percent variation in received solar energy, between perihelion, the point where our planet is closest to the Sun, and aphelion, the point where our planet is farthest from the Sun. However, as the Earth’s eccentricity cycle proceeds toward the point at which our orbit is most elliptical, the amount of solar radiation our planet receives at perihelion will be 20 to 30 percent greater than at aphelion. This will make for sharper seasonal contrasts and profound climate change. Milankovitch and his followers believe that previous ice ages are largely attributable to the Earth’s eccentricity cycle.
Currently, perihelion occurs during the second week of January, shortly after the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice. This works out nicely, at least for those of us in the northern half of the world, because we are getting that extra 6 percent boost of solar energy right in the dead of winter. This cozy situation won’t last forever, Milankovitch observed. As the north polestar shifts from Polaris to Vega, the orientation of the Earth toward the Sun also changes, to a situation where perihelion will come during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice, meaning that we’ll be getting our energy boost right in the dead of summer. And by then, 13,000 years from now, that energy boost will be two or three times as powerful as the boost we get today, because the Earth’s orbit will have become more elliptical, making for greater differences between the amounts of solar radiation received at different points of the year. All in all, the Northern Hemisphere’s summers will be hotter, and the winters, colder, making Southern Hemisphere real estate a good long–term buy.
From the Hardcover edition.