It’s been awhile since I’ve written about anything substantial, so I figured that a suitable comeback would be a little subject I’ve very recently been boning up on, i.e., the end of the world. Or I really should say, The End of the World, since title-casing is much more ominous. I’ve been watching Lost again these past few days (season 4 is a triumphant return to form), and as usual, the theories have been flying around the net with terrific intensity. A couple of these theories use the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar as a foundational concept—the calendar, of course, being the main topic of this discussion.
The Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar is, as the name suggests, a system for counting long periods of time. (At a glance: 1 Winal is 20 days, 1 Tun is 360 days, 1 K’atun is 7,200 days and 1 B’ak’tun is 144,000 days.) The calendar itself kicked off on the 11th of August, 3114 B.C, so all its counting essentially just picks up from that point in time. It’s similar to how we picked an arbitrary point in time to start counting dates using our 2,000-year-old Gregorian calendar, or how January 1st, 1970 UTC marked the beginning of UNIX Time due to the fact that we track computer time by counting the seconds since that point. (Rather ironically, UNIX Time has its own unique apocalypse approaching in circa 2038.)
But we were talking about The End of the World, weren’t we?
Hidden in the analysis of the Mesoamerican Calendar is a belief that it wasn’t just meant for tracking time, but for foreseeing the future. The Mayans believed that we (i.e., all humans) are currently in a creation cycle, with the past three cycles of creation having ended abruptly right before the new one came along to take its place. As it happens, the cycle that we’re currently in (called the “4th world”) is winding down on the 21st of December, 2012. The theory was first brought forth by Terence McKenna, one of the most prominent figures in the New Age movement, and is actually one of many, many theories in a field of inquiry spanning religions, cultures and eras called Eschatology (literally, “the study of the End”).
Nearly every belief system has an eschatological branch—as Christians, we know about Armageddon, and as geeks, we know about the Nordic Ragnarok. Islam, Zoroastrianism, and even the Native Americans all believed in a coming “Day of Judgement,” where the world was to be purified in some final way (the precise reason for which is unique to each religion). But what I particularly love about the Mayans was that they actually cast a date, so that there was no doubt as to when it was supposed to happen. Their counting system was precise enough over 5,000 years ago to tell us that we’ve got about 4 years left, even with the Mayan civilization itself long gone.
This is fascinating stuff, and I’ve been poring over every bit of Mayan-related info I can get my hands on. I’m a fairly secular person, and I have a natural dislike for the vagaries and ambiguities of religion. As such, the wonderful exactness of this eschaton has really got my curiosity piqued. See you all in 4 years, 10 months and 11 days!