Monday, December 19, 2011

Ancient Endings and New Beginnings: Maya Cosmology for 2012*

Carl  Callaway, of Australia’s La Trobe University, cuts through
the hype to look at our current understanding of 21 December 2012.
 The latest advances are fascinating,
 but much remains to be discovered.

December 21, 2012 marks a momentous
occasion on the ancient Maya calendar: the close
of the 13th Bak’tun period from their Long Count
Calendar. This transition is a cyclic event that
occurs approximately once every 5125 years—
every 13 x 144,000 days, to be exact—so the last
time a 13th Bak’tun ended was at the start of the
current Maya era, on 11 August 3114 BC. It was
a day that straddled the cusp of a new era—the
point between a cycle just ended and one about to
begin. Fast forward to today: in the entire corpus
of Classic Maya (250- AD 900) inscriptions, there
is but one surviving text that speaks of 2012,
found in the final passages of the stela known as
Monument 6 at Tortuguero, an archaeological site
in the southernmost part of Tabasco, Mexico.
Final Passage on Tortuguero Mon. 6 (drawing by Sven Gronemeyer)
As 2012 approaches, an exact interpretation
of the Tortuguero inscription has become the
subject of much scholarly and popular debate—a
Google internet search on “Maya 2012 prophecy”
produces a mere 1,200,000 hits! There is no
consensus within current academic discussion
about whether the Tortuguero inscription is
linked to a prophetic statement. Yet that said,
there can be little doubt the ancient Maya would
have seen the date as a numerological echo of
the current era’s start date, and they would
have marked the occasion of 13th Bak’tun with
great solemnity and fanfare—as they had done
throughout their history—erecting temples, altars
and carved stone pillars called stelae. Inscribed
stelae recorded time’s passage (typically in
20-year spans called “k’atuns”) by charting the
sun and moon’s exact positions, as well as by
celebrating those gods and sacred acts thought
to preserve community order and life.

For the ancient Maya time’s custodial gods were
tangible beings resembling humans, worshiped
and deified as living gods (for example, the
number eight was the Maize God). The dedicatory
date on a stele was often expressed in fully
animated portraiture, featuring the custodial
gods of time hoisting, dragging, and carrying the
day and month cycles into place, like packaged
goods being toted to a modern day marketplace.
Copan’s Stela D, from Honduras, illustrates this
time anthropomorphism wonderfully, depicting
personified and animated numbers who carry
Long Count cycles and days’ names in tumplines
strapped across their foreheads. The gods rest
just long enough to be recorded and then return
to fetch a new burden for a new day.
Copan Stela D  (drawing by Linda Schele)
 As mentioned, the last time the end of the 13th
Bak’tun occurred was at the start of the current
Maya era on 11 August 3114 BC. Its modern
notation is  4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. The era
date corresponded to the start of the Maya Long
Count Calendar that tracked the number of days
from a “zero date" or fixed point in time, from
which all mythical and historical dates were later
calculated. Historically, 3114 BC predates Classic
Maya civilization by at least 2500 years, so the
3114 BC zero date was most likely conceived
of as having taken place within the murky,
mythic depths of primordial time—a period of
cosmogenesis when germinal energies awakened
and the drama of creation unfolded. Fortunately
for students of Maya mythology, there are about
fifty ancient Maya inscriptions that detail events
thought to have occurred on this first day of the
new era. According to these texts, day one was
very busy, with at least fifteen distinct events
on the agenda. As a whole, events emphasize the
orderly framework of the cosmos. It is an order
not only related to knowledge of the world, but a
cosmic order that arises out of the great mystery
of the universe—the mysterium tremendum—a
secret that revealed itself both through the Maya
calendar’s intricate mathematical machinations
as well as through the culture’s priestly

In virtually every era-day text, this cosmic
order is in some way reaffirmed. One era-day
inscription is found on a chocolate cup known
as the Vase of the Seven Gods . The vase boasts
a fine-line painting that is the mythic “snapshot”
of a pivotal era-day event that occurred in the
underworld mountain palace of God L, who is
pictured on his jaguar throne inside a caiman-topped
temple. Like a group of ancient calendar
priests, the gods gather within the dark interior
of a primordial mountain. The accompanying
Vase K2796 (Photo by Justin Kerr from

text says that on the day 4 ajaw 8 Kumk'u, the gods
 present were “ordered.” The word—"ts’ak"—that
describes this ordering of the gods is intrinsically
linked to the same eternal and meaningful order
embedded in the natural world: cycles of wind
and rain, sun and moon, light and darkness.
Incidentally, this cosmic order—first practiced by
the gods—later became part of a sacred charter
that governed elite Maya conduct, so ultimately,
cosmic order was the source moral order. The vase scene
also shows that the gods arrive bearing tribute
caches and a bundled altar capped by feathers
(the altar is pictured in the lower register beside
the lower, front-most god seated before God L),
that will likely be set as a foundation stone
to mark this auspicious occasion.

Another era-day passage from Stela C at Quirigua
in Guatemala recounts the next stage in the story,
when four primordial gods set three like-in-kind
altar stones in a triad-based arrangement. A
 Quirigua Stela C (drawing by Annie  Hunter)
jaguar-, serpent- and water-stone are placed at the
edge of the sky, at a sacred locale called the New
“Three-Stone” Place. A creation event that is participatory, and where
no single god or causal force brings forth the
world, is a key pan-Mesoamerican idea. As in the
opening chapters of the Popol Vuh, a Colonial-era
document detailing the Quiché Maya creation
story, the world is built not by a single cosmic
force or god, but through a conversation between
two or more primordial gods. Specifically, the
opening chapters of the Popol Vuh state that
the Heart of Sky, along with the Sovereign
and the Quetzal Serpent, created the world
through council, by reaching agreements and
consolidating their ideas. This meeting of the
minds is not unlike how we humans might
initiate a building project: gathering together to
draw up a set of blueprints. Thus every invention,
divine or human, begins with a conversation.

Prior to this renewed order, another era-day
inscription reveals a glimpse of the frenzied
disorder that existed in what were most likely
the nocturnal hours prior to the first dawn. Page
Page 60, Dresden Codex Section a (photo courtesy of FAMSI)
 60 of the Dresden Codex, one of few surviving
Maya screen-fold books, shows two gods engaged
in combat. The god holding a spear thrower
and darts (on the viewer’s right) is Bolon Yokte’.
The deity on the left, under attack, is God N.
What forces of nature do God N and Bolon Yokte’
represent? Brandishing such fearsome weapons
as the spear thrower (and in other cases a rope,
a spear and a shield), the Bolon Yokte’ is shown to
possess a war-like destructive force and is a god
associated in the inscriptions with major calendar
transitions and death (though his exact duties
and profile are yet to be fully understood). God N
is well known as a sky-bearer akin to Atlas from
Greek mythology. An attack by the Bolon Yokte’ is
nothing short of disastrous. Logic dictates that
as God N, the sky-bearer, falls, the sky’s supports
are threatened, and with them, the space-time
continuum. It seems ancient scribes understood
that order only exists in juxtaposition to disorder.

Notably, Bolon Yokte’ is the primary god linked
to the Tortuguero Monument 6’s** inscribed
2012 passage. So Maya scholars must learn
more about this enigmatic deity as a way of fully
understanding the significance of his presence in
the context of the 2012 event.

Maya cosmology is a rich and varied realm that
in part expresses how the cosmic order first
came into being. So while the study of Maya
mythology is still in its infancy, the future holds
great promise for new insights and revelations.
As new texts come to light, scholars continue to
make inroads into the core mythos that shaped
and guided one of the great civilizations of the
Americas. Our hope is that 2012 will be a year
of new discoveries in Maya mythic history—a
year that will have us remembering the gods of
the ancient Maya as they take their rightful place
alongside those of Mesopotamia, Egypt and

*This article first appeared in the Dec. 2011 issue of Hacienda Magazine:

**For more information on this text see:

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