Today's winter solstice, December 21st 2011, marks a year until the day the Maya Long Count Calendar ends, and what many believe is the end of the world.
Many credit the Maya for such prediction of doom, but the reality is that the Mayas never mentioned the "end of the world" in 2012 in their calendars, hieroglyphs, or codices. (I wrote a post that goes deeper into what the Mayas really said about 2012.)
But, what we do know for sure is that the Mayas were excellent astronomers and astrologists and that their culture and daily life was highly influenced by the sky and cosmos.
The Mayas are well known for their precise calendar and tracking charts of the planets and eclipses, based on observable lunar and solar cycles.
Astronomical building complex at Caracol Archeological site in Cayo, Belize. These buildings were used to track the sun, moon, Venus, and other celestial bodies. From this astronomical observatory, the priests would direct planting and harvesting, forecast the weather, and determine the times of each solstice and equinox with extreme accuracy.
Of greatest importance to them was the planet Venus, known as Chak Ek’. In Maya myth, Venus is the companion of the sun, which reflects the fact that Venus is always close to the sun in the sky, rising not long before sunrise as a morning star (Ah-Chicum-Ek’) or after the sunset as an evening star (Lamat). It is also believed that they thought it was more important than the Sun itself.
Venus also had an influence in Maya warfare and there is evidence of this in the hieroglyphs in the Dos Pilas staircase, an archeological site in Peten, Guatemala. They timed some of their wars based on the stationary points of Venus and Jupiter, also referred as "star wars" (like some of the wars between Tikal and other cities like Dos Pilas and Naranjo). In addition, humans were sacrificed when Venus was at its dimmest magnitude, but when it was at its brightest magnitude they feared it and believed it was a highly evil portent.
The sun, known as K’inich, was a god to the Mayas and was followed year round. The Mayas knew about the summer and winter solstice as well as the spring and autumn equinoxes (possible reference is the serpent created by the equinox shadow at El Castillo’s staircase in Chichen Itza). They believed the sun was a god that passed through the underworld when it set on the west, and then reappeared on the east.
The Haab’ was the Maya solar calendar made up of eighteen months of twenty days each plus a period of five days at the end of the year known as Wayeb’. These five days were either lucky days or bad luck days.
The Moon was a goddess known as Ix'Chel and the Maya had a lunar component in their calendric inscriptions. They had such accuracy in their astronomical observations that they were able to track the phases of the moon as well as predict lunar eclipses. The Tun'Uc is the moon calendar.
Stucco frieze in the east side of the structure known as El Castillo, located in Xunantunich Archeological site in Cayo, Belize. This frieze has an astronomic theme, where glyphs for the sun god, moon god, and planet Venus are present.
The Pleiades, one of the star clusters that are nearest to earth and visible to the naked eye during the night, is the reference from which the 260-day sacred calendar of the Tzolk’in is based on.
In the beginning, the Maya understood that they came from the Pleiades, or Tzab-ek as they knew it. Alcyone, which represents the Earth Goddess and is the central star of the Pleiades, was believed to be the home of the Mayas ancestors.
In Mayan cosmology the precession of the Pleiades is tracked using the Calendar Round. The Calendar Round dates are generated by the combination of the Tzolk’in and Haab’ calendars - like two cogs. Each date will repeat after 52 Haab’ years, which are 52 Gregorian years. This is so accurate that modern astronomy has measured the alignment between the sun and Alcyone to be every 52 years.
Also, still to this day, many of present day Mayas use the Pleiades to know when to plant their crops.
Representation of the Calendar Round. Image from Flickr's Creative Commons.
The Milky Way, called Wakah Chan, was also highly venerated. They referred to it as the World Tree and it was represented by the Ceiba, a tall and majestic tree.
The Mayas saw the star clouds that form the Milky Way as the tree of life - where all life came from. They paid special attention to it when it passed near Sagittarius, which is the center of our galaxy.
The Milky Way is related to the Long Count Calendar, which marks the "fifth and final cycle of the Mayan Great Cycle" on the winter solstice of 2012 (when the Milky Way will pass through Sagitarius). From this is where modern day interpretations derive the concepts of the end of the world. (Refer to this post for more information on the Mayan Calendar)
According to some scholars, "the place where the December solstice sun crosses the Milky Way is precisely the location of the 'dark-rift in the Milky Way…’Xibalb� be‘ – the road to the underworld.'"
So, it seems that the Mayas believed when such alignments occur the entrance to the underworld was possible. Maybe the reference of the word "underworld" could be misinterpreted by modern day "scholars"? (yes, scholars with quotes as I'm referring to doom fanatics)
The Maya astronomy is very complex and it goes way beyond what was explained above. But, with just that bit of information we can understand how deeply relate were the Mayas with the earth and cosmos.
Today marks the start of an interesting year that will slowly reveal the reality behind the speculations and theories developed in the past three decades. 2012 is the year of the Maya and the Mayas will celebrate every astronomical event throughout the year, culminating with the biggest celebration on December 21, 2012.
Let the countdown to the "end of the world" begin!