The Maya Calendar:
The Maya, whose culture in Central America
and southern Mexico peaked around 800 A.D. before going into steep decline, had an advanced calendar system that incorporated the movement of the sun, moon and planets. For the Maya, time was cyclical and repeated itself, making certain days or months lucky or unlucky for certain things, like agriculture or fertility. The Maya calendar "reset" in December of 2012, inspiring many to see the date as an end-of-days prophecy.
The Maya Concept of Time:
To the Maya, time was cyclical: it would repeat itself and certain days had characteristics. This notion of cyclical as opposed to lineal time is not unknown to us: for example, many people consider Mondays to be “bad” days and Fridays to be “good” days (unless they fall on the thirteenth of the month, in which case they are unlucky). The Maya took the concept further: although we consider months and weeks to be cyclical, but years to be lineal, they considered all time as cyclical and certain days could “return” centuries later. The Maya were aware that a solar year was roughly 365 days long and they referred to it as a “haab.” They divided a haab into 20 “months” (to the Maya, “uinal”) of 18 days each: to this was added 5 days annually for a total of 365. These five days, called “wayeb,” were added at the end of the year and were considered very unlucky.
The Calendar Round:
The earliest Maya Calendars (dating from the preclassic Maya era, or about 100 A.D.) are referred to as the Calendar Round
. The Calendar Round was actually two calendars that overlapped one another. The first calendar was the Tzolkin cycle
, which consisted of 260 days, which roughly corresponds to the time of human gestation as well as the Maya agricultural cycle. Early Mayan astronomers
used the 260 day calendar to record the movements of the planets, sun and moon: it was a very sacred calendar. When used consecutively with the standard 365 day "haab" calendar, the two would align every 52 years.
The Maya Long Count Calendar:
The Maya developed another calendar, better suited for measuring longer periods of time. The Maya Long Count
used only the "haab" or 365 day calendar. A date was given in terms of Baktuns (periods of 400 years) followed by Katuns (periods of 20 years) followed by Tuns (years) followed by Uinals (periods of 20 days) and ending with the Kins (number of days 1-19). If you added all of those numbers up, you would get the number of days that had passed since the starting point of Maya time, which was sometime between August 11 and September 8, 3114 B.C. (the exact date is subject to some debate). These dates are usually expressed as a series of numbers like so: 188.8.131.52.13 = November 15, 1968, for example. That's 12x400 years, 17x20 years, 15 years, 4x20 days plus eleven days since the beginning of Maya time.
2012 and The End of Maya Time:
Baktuns - periods of 400 years - are counted on a base-13 cycle. On December 20, 2012, the Maya Long Count Date was 184.108.40.206.19. When one day was then added, the entire calendar reset to 0. The thirteenth Baktun since the beginning of Maya time therefore came to an end on December 21, 2012. This of course led to much speculation
about dramatic changes: some predictions for the end of the Maya Long Count Calendar included the end of the world, a new age of consciousness, a reversal of the Earth's magnetic poles, the arrival of the Messiah, etc. Needless to say, none of those things happened. In any event, historical Maya records do not indicate that they gave much thought to what would happen at the end of the calendar.
Burland, Cottie with Irene Nicholson and Harold Osborne. Mythology of the Americas. London: Hamlyn, 1970.
McKillop, Heather. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. New York: Norton, 2004.