ITS ABOUT TIME: A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE END OF THE MAYAN WORLD
As I sit here on Dec. 22, 2012, having tried desperately to avoid the need to try to deal with all the misinformation about the so-called "Mayan Prophecy", which I have often had to deal with as an archeology teacher and writer over the last few years leading up to this amazing moment, I have finally been forced to give up and try to address just what "went wrong" so-to-speak in the eyes of the masses who have been so obsessed for so long with this latest in a sequence of failed doomsday moments. I suppose the final straw for me came when circumstances forced me to watch the usual idiots on Fox News (I do live in South Carolina, where every TV in every public place is inevitably set to this one channel)--and then later some speakers of similar ilk on ESPN--lampooning the fact that, as always, the doomsday predictors--this time the ancient Mayas--had obviously gotten it all wrong because the world was not ending in some amazing catastrophe. Therefore, for those of you out there who may have more than a passing interest in finding out what went wrong, I will attempt in a few paragraphs to try to explain what it was the Mayans were trying to tell us about Time as they understood it and as it is revealed through their amazing calendar system, along with their even more amazing view of the three dimensional universe in which they reckoned that Time. This will not be easy--and this is perhaps one of the reasons I have fought against trying to write something about this subject for so long. However, since my entire purpose in writing this blog and the six books that it is based upon is to educate as many as possible about our relationship with our deeper past, as well as understanding how that relationship continues to affect both our present and our increasingly insecure future, I will try to cut through as much as I can of what is a truly mind-boggling world view and get to the heart of what it was the Mayans were trying to tell us about themselves, and what there is about it that we might adapt to our own uses.
CAN ANYONE OUT THERE TELL ME WHAT DAY IT REALLY IS TODAY???
Today in our calendar is December 22, 2012. Aside from being the day of the Winter Solstice and the beginning of a new year by the reckoning of most ancient peoples, it is an otherwise ordinary day (so far at least). However, because of the date we have affixed to it, it is also forever fixed in our records as a unique, non-repeatable date which can always be placed in the context of any other date, no matter how far backwards or forwards in time our reckoning may ever go. Tomorrow will always be Dec. 23, 2012, and in the context of ancient societies it would be the first day in a new cycle of repeatable days making up a year until the next annual cycle was calculated by using some solar and lunar counting device--Stonehenge would be a good and ancient example here--and a new annual collection of lunar months or a "year" begins. To us today, Time is linear--a straight line that we can reckon with no single fixed point either past or future. True, we use a year zero as it were with the concepts of BC and AD to count forward or backward from that point, but that is purely an arbitrary point we have artificially established for our own convenience. We could not easily eliminate this point now, however, without causing an adjustment of each year date before or since, and the need to have such a fixed point somewhere would continue to enslave our calendars, no doubt. Real time as we figure it, though, is infinite with each day a uniquely numbered one that will never repeat.
To the ancient Maya tomorrow is 220.127.116.11.0. The ancient Maya also reckoned Time as linear going both forward and backwards as far as their unique numbering system would allow it to go. But to the Maya Time was also Cyclical. That is, while days, months, and years were unique they were also repeatable. This repetition was based primarily on the repetition of predictable celestial events that were observable and recordable over both shorter and longer periods of time, even multi-generational lengths of time. Days were named individually, as were their equivalent of months, years, and cycles of years--the main one being a 52 year cycle. In order to count these various cycles the Maya needed a counting system unlike any that humans had heretofore developed. Our primary means of counting is a decimal system based on units of 10--possibly developed by the obvious ability to "count" on the fingers of our hands. The Maya went a step further and developed a system based on units of 20. Perhaps, they decided to include their toes as well. However, such a system, projected beyond this basic numerical unit immediately cries out for the ability to multiply itself. Hence we credit the ancient Maya with also developing the critical mathematical concept of zero, no small feat in itself given how many others might have made this discovery before they did. Variously repeating cycles of 20 individually named days formed the basis of their system.
However, the Maya also viewed Time as three-dimensional, just in the same way as they saw their entire existence in the here and now. There was earthly time, heavenly time, and the time in the underworld. The Mayans were the true 'Hobbits" of our past, existing in a "Middle Earth" where the various spirits, ancestors, gods, etc. still interacted with their everyday lives from both the heavens above and the underworld below. Life and Time was divided into great directional quadrants, with certain days (or blocks of time) assigned to or looked over by various sky gods (Venus being prominent among these) and or a particular one of the nine great lords of the underworld. Each day was unique in the sense that it was divided into two parts, one of light and one of darkness; but beyond that each day also had a unique, repeatable function in their ritualistic three-dimensional view, depending on to whom and for what purpose that day was assigned. Hence, each day must be named and placed within a larger named context that carried multiple significance within an ever-expanding cycle or grouping of mythical events assigned to one of their three different but interconnected worlds. Cycles, quadrants, gods even were delineated on the basis of other factors, such as color for example, and each was assigned a certain number of days to figure the progression of time. Each quadrant was looked after by a god with 819 days assigned to it The east, for example, was represented by the color red for the sun rising; north was white; south was yellow; and west was black, where the sun went to die each day. (NOTE: Incidentally these same colors fixed to directional associations are common throughout much of native American mythology, and elsewhere as well.) All of these various factors combined to provide an elaborate structure within which the Mayan view of both linear and cyclical time could be controlled for ritual purposes as well as counted in some fashion. As such, many numbers were important in the Mayan time counting system: named day (20) numbers like 18 x 20 (months in an annual cycle=360); 400=their equivalent of a millenium of 20x20; as well as others. Each of these had their own name which, fortunately, allows us to assign actual year dates in our calendar system when they are encountered in hieroglyphs, which can also now be read properly by using something of a Mayan decimal system. All of these names and repeating cycles were interlocked, much like the gears of a fine clock--or more precisely, perhaps, a Chinese water clock in which each gear eventually finishes its cycle, tripping a movement of other interlocking gears representing months, years, groups of years, etc. etc. Every movement then becomes interwoven in time with any number of other important groupings in the ever-expanding cycle--until all of the gears have completed a full cycle and the great Time Clock must be reset at a zero point to begin the entire process once more. Its just that the Mayans put more such gears in their clock than anyone else has attempted. Hence, tomorrow's date of 18.104.22.168.0 referred to above.
Unfortunately for the Maya, as well as for those of us who try to get inside their incredibly complex system, their obsession with groupings and numbers, some of them odd such as the use of 9 to assign days to different lords of the underworld, as well as their obsession to account for the long term regularity of planetary, stellar, lunar, and solar repeating cycles, left their priests and kings with an incredible need to have multiple fixed points with which they could reckon. Even with their amazing development of the concept of zero and the concurrent ability to measure time lineally with a stick of infinite length, they did not choose to do this. To do so would have eliminated much of the ritualistic significance of their calendar by submerging past dates beyond their collective memory in meaningless numbers, just as many of ours are. (For example: Who out there can quickly provide the date for the fall of Rome, the death of Socrates, the invention of the printing press, or any such date we assign some significance to in our own ceremonial worship of our past--not to mention important "prehistoric" events for which no recorded date even exists?) There are no such unremembered dates in Mayan Time; for every family or lineage had to lay claim to important past events and the control thereof. Additionally, the Mayans were obsessed with rituals of death and rebirth almost to the point of self-destruction in some cases (See my earlier article below on this blog entitled "Stone Ball Court Imagery"). A repeating cycle featuring the rebirth of an entire new age would have fit perfectly within their larger cosmology and belief system.
Therefore, the Maya needed controllable, repeatable fixed points to avoid infinitely expanding their system and thus losing the naming systems and cycles within which rituals could be properly conducted and placed within a larger construct of time. Since each Mayan king had the responsibility of fixing his own reign (and family name and future) to these important rituals, Time had to be a controlled commodity that could be delivered to the masses and to the important ancestors in the heavens and in the underworld through which each ruler claimed his power and his family's right to rule. In order to accommodate all of these important named days, months, years, and cycles with all their associated three-dimensional significance the Maya had to develop a method of limiting the counting to some kind of a repeatable ERA-based system. From this developed the so-called LONG COUNT system by which an era of 5,126 years (in our time their last era would have begun Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. In their time that date would have been 22.214.171.124.3 to be exact.) Each of their past Eras, of which the fourth is now just ended, is based on a pattern that simply runs out of solar time and repeatable, named cycles and must then be started all over again in order to continue with the naming significance of each new, yet not totally unique, day that is coming and the many attendant rituals and myths that must be fit into their daily existence. LIFE DOES NOT END; THE WORLD DOES NOT END; EVEN TIME DOES NOT END. IT SIMPLY HAS TO BE RE-STARTED PERIODICALLY TO PROPERLY MAINTAIN THE ORDER OF THEIR THREE DIMENSIONAL UNIVERSE, THE SPIRITS THAT INHABIT ALL THREE PARTS OF THAT UNIVERSE, AND THE HUMAN CONNECTION IN REAL TIME WITH ALL THE VARIOUS PARTS OF THAT UNIVERSE IN THEIR MANY DIVERSE MANIFESTATIONS. Now then, what's not to understand about that Fox News?
Well readers, I hope you are not too disappointed that the MAYAN PROPHECY turned out to be something of a dud. Actually, from their point of view everything turned out just the way it was supposed to. The sun and the new, fifth era are begun right on schedule it seems. If your "End of the World" Party did not go as you might have hoped, don't blame the Maya. They got it right--at least from their perspective. It seems to me that after the events of much of 2012 and the last few days in particular we could use a bright and shiny new age to begin about now--a "do-over" as it were for all mankind. I hope this somewhat brief and cursory look at the Mayan view of Time neither confuses more of you nor insults those out there far more competent to render any such explanation than is this writer. Understandably, to go much deeper into Mayan terminology and their specific use of numbers would only serve to further cloud an already misty subject. I certainly must apologize to any serious Mayan scholars out there who might be offended at what I have left out. As always, I am attempting to reveal to the lay reader both the complexity along with the universality and uniqueness of the wonderful ancient peoples who came before us and left us all such amazing records of their TIME on earth in the hopes that we may gain a better understanding of them and of ourselves.
As always the reader is invited to post his or her own comments to this article at the end by clicking on Comment at the bottom of the article page and logging in to our secure Log-In procedure. You are also encouraged to communicate comments or questions directly to the author by clicking on Contact at the top of the page and accessing our direct email address. Merry Christmas and a Happy 126.96.36.199.0 to all.
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