In December of 2012, the supposed ‘end of the world’ predicted by ancient Mayan civilizations came and went with great fanfare but no actual planetary demise. The event is composed of the K’iche’ words Oxlajuj, meaning thirteen, and B’aqtun, a period of time measuring 394 years, and it refers to a resetting of the Mayan calendar. The Mayans did not actually predict that the world would end; they saw the closing of the 5,125-year cycle as a spiritual rebirth, an opportunity for self-analysis, and the start of a new era. It is a time for reflection on our place in the universe, our relationship with the natural world, and our connection to other human beings. The next Oxlajuj Baqtun will take place in the year 7137.
Ancient Maya civilizations were known for accurately predicting astronomical phenomena using a series of cyclical measures of time. The method can be compared to gears or the interior of an analog watch. Small quickly spinning wheels mesh with larger gears, forcing the entire structure to steadily mark the passage of time. The two smallest wheels are made up of 20 sets of 13-day intervals, which come together to form the 260-day Tzolkin year. Each day is assigned a combination of a number from 1-13 and a nahual, the word for a Mayan spirit or totem. Each nahual is associated with an animal and its associated traits or qualities, which people born on that day are believed to possess. A cool website to find your nahual and what it means can be found at here. The problem with the Tzolkin system alone is that it could only measure short period of time.
As a result, the Maya incorporated progressively larger wheels formed by multiples of the number 20, a number that symbolizes digits on the human body (10 fingers and 10 toes). A tun (360 days) is made of twenty 18-day months. Twenty tuns makes a katun (7200 days), twenty katuns makes a baq’tun (394 Gregorian years), and thirteen b’aqtuns form the Great Cycle, a period of approximately 5,125 years. At the end of every Great Cycle is the Oxlajuj Baqtun, a time of spiritual renewal and change often misinterpreted as the end of the world. Completely unrelated to the Mayan Calendar is the tendency for locals to refer to weeks by groups of eight, not seven days. For some unknown reason, Guatemalans have adopted cada ocho and cada quince to describe one and two-week periods.
Photo Credit: Grupo Sotzil