In recent years, there's been much talk about an approaching date on the Mayan Calendar. Famously, the Mayan long-count calendar is supposedly set to end and reset in the year two-thousand and twelve (2012), which, according to some (loose) interperetations of Mayan myths, corresponds with an end of the current creation and the beginning of the next. This has led to laregly unfounded speculation, and in some cases fears, of an apocalyptic event before the end of 2012, as well as media capitalization of the supposed event with many books and films being released on the subject.
This article will attempt to very briefly explain how the long-count calendar works, what the Maya believed and what the 2012 date actually means to them.
The Mayan long-count calendar uses 5 divisions of numbers to indicate a date. The numbers are all base-20, except the second (or second-from-right) number which rolls over at 18.
|Long-Count Date||Mayan unit of time||Number of days|
|0.0.0.0.1||1 k'in||1 days|
|0.0.0.1.0||1 winal||20 days|
|0.0.1.0.0||1 tun||360 days|
|0.1.0.0.0||1 k'atun||7,200 days|
|188.8.131.52.0||1 b'ak'tun||144,000 days|
Each unit of time is equal to twenty of the previous unit, except for the tun, which is equal to eighteen winal.
According to the most widely-accepted calculations, the Mayan calendar begins on August 11, 3114 BCE. The 12th b'ak'tun is nearing completion, with the date 184.108.40.206.19 calculated to be December 20, 2012 CE. On December 21, 2012 CE, the date will be "220.127.116.11.0".
According to Mayan myth, the gods have attempted previous versions of creation, and human beings are currently the third version of their creation.
The creator gods Gucumatz (or Kukulkán, better known by the Aztec name Quetzalcoatl) and Tepeu wanted to create a people that would resemble them and praise them. With the help of the storm god Huracán, they began creating life, beginning with animals. The first version of humanity was made from mud, but these people could not move or speak, and they easily crumbled. After this failed, the creators summoned other gods, and remade mankind out of wood. The wooden men were able to move and speak, but they were soulless creatures who quickly forgot about the gods. For their third attempt, the gods created men out of maize (which was the primary source of food for the Maya).
The previous version of creation, according to Mayan myth, is beleived to have ended on its thirteenth b'ak'tun — that is, 18.104.22.168.0 or August 11, 3114 BCE. At this point the current creation began, and the long-count calendar reset to 0.0.0.0.1 the next day.
Thus, the significance of the arrival of the thirteenth b'ak'tun in this round of the long-count calendar is that the previous creation ended on its thirteenth b'ak'tun.
However, there seems to be no evidence that the Mayans themselves believed that the current version of creation would come to an end at its thirteenth b'ak'tun. A five-numeral count will reset after the thirteenth b'ak'tun, but this is celebrated as the completion of a cycle, and was not seen as a doomsday event by Mayan culture.
Further demostrating Maya belief in the continuation of this creation is that Mayan artifacts mark future commemorations, and some of these occur beyond the thirteenth b'ak'tun in 2012.
In fact, there is evidence that the Maya expected to add another numeral to its calendar when the b'ak'tun count is complete. The unit piktun is said to be the next value, although scholars disagree on whether a piktun should be considered to be 13 or 20 b'ak'tun, and there are Mayan dates scheduled beyond a completed piktun. (Most Mayanists generally go by the convention that all five-numeral dates roll over at 13 b'ak'tun, while larger dates count 20 b'ak'tun.) If there are 20 b'ak'tun in a piktun, he first piktun would appear on the Mayan long-count calendar on October 13, 4772 CE, well beyond 2012. If there are only 13, then December 21, 2012 would become 22.214.171.124.0.1, marking the completion of the first piktun since the calendar's beginning date.
The word piktun is not an original Mayan word, but evidence of higher orders is found in Mayan relics. In fact there are an additional three units, kalabtun, k'inchiltun, and alautun, all higher than the piktun. The names of all of the units above the b'ak'tun were created by scholars in the absence of knowledge of Mayan words for them.
Since the age of the Mayan civilization occured within a single piktun, however, there was no need to use more than five digits in their calendar for most uses. This alone may be the cause for confusion about the supposed end of the long-count calendar.
Some interperetations of Mayan dates also suggest that the 3114 BCE date of creation is incorrect, and that the 13-b'ak'tun (or 5,125 solar year) calendar has completed before. One inscription, for example, puts the creation date at
126.96.36.199.188.8.131.52.184.108.40.206.220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168.0.0.0.0. By this date, the calendar won't end until 4.134105 × 1028 years into the future, a span of time three quintillion times the scientifically-accepted age of the universe. By that time, the sun will have long-since devoured the Earth and been destroyed itself, and the universe may have drifted apart, condensed or otherwise reconfigured itself in some unrecognizable way. If you're concerned about the fate of mankind, there are more pressing issues than the end of the Mayan calendar.
There are a number of new-age theories surrounding 2012, which predict anything from galactic alignment and solar flares, to alien invasion, to global consciousness. However, these predictions are not based in or accepted by science, or even the so-called predictions of the Maya themselves. They are at best misinterperetations of science and myths, and at worst total fabrications. There is simply no evidence that December 2012 will be any more important than the average month, other than the Y2K-like hysteria that has developed since.