Will the "2012 Problem"
be a cataclysm or a Mayan Y2K? A event or a nonevent? The number
comes from the Julian calendar year, 2012 A.D., and results from a
confluence within Mayan timekeeping. The question may therefore
hinge on the accuracy of the calendar itself.
Maya Calendar is properly called the Mesoamerican calendar system,
since it does not originate solely with the Maya, nor is it a single
calendar. The Maya are most frequently associated with it perhaps
because of their gift for astrometric precision, and the closeness
of their mythological traditions to the practice of
The two most
important Mayan calendars, and the only ones common to all
mesoamerican societies, were both vigesimal (based on units of 20).
The shorter, ceremonial Tzolk'in "year" consists of 13
twenty-day "months", and the longer Haab' counts 18, plus
a "bad luck" five-day period at the end called the Wayeb'.
The months have such eclectic names as "white storm",
"bat", "red conjunction", "planting time",
"water", etc. The numerology of the Tzolk'in, is not
arbitrary. It probably originated with an astronomical periodicity
or with the term of human gestation, such that midwives may have
contributed to its definition.
ceremonial and solar years number 260 and 365 days, respectively.
The lowest common multiple of these numbers, 18980, is equivalent to
52 Haab (solar) years; these 52-year cycles are called "calendar
rounds". Therefore, "New Years' Day" for both
calendars coincides every 52 years. The next time this will happen
is December 21, 2012.
of any calendar should include an examination of its accuracy, which
can be gauged on different levels: as a temporal demarcator, as a
chronology, and as a predictive device. Accuracy in the latter holds
the implications for the 2012 problem.
the temporal level, the Mesoamerican system has been dead accurate
for millenia. The Mayas' adjustments were not limited to adding the
five extra days; they also compensated for the six or so extra hours
in each solar year. Their Roman contemporaries solved this by
instituting leap years. The Maya solution is unknown, but it
existed; the Spaniards discovered the Mesoamericans using a calendar
as least as accurate as their own.
the chronology level, a calendar can be seen as accurate if
historical or geological events can be precisely dated within it, or
if there is collateral support in mythic traditions, whether those
of the society that originated it, or, better still, in the
mythology or chronology or other societies. The Popol Vuh, the Maya
creation myth, is progressively murky the further back we look.
Nevertheless, the Popul Vuh records a flood that was seen by the
Mayas as universal; not surprisingly, it was at the beginning of a
calendar round about halfway through the third millennium, B.C.E.
Other (non-Maya) traditions back up the Popul Vuh, and therefore its
chronology, by recording a flood at about the same time (note: the
Popul Vuh is not among the accounts that mention anything like an
So, as a marker of
seasons and as a aid to chronology, the Mesoamerican calendar system
wins points for accuracy. What about as a predictive device? No
cataclysm occurred in 1960 (the completion of the previous calendar
round). A comet apparently stuck Siberia back in 1908, but even if
Mayanists were predicting anything like this, there is no record of
In fact, Mayanists are not
the ones forecasting cataclysm for 2012. The anticipation is found
instead within pagan and esoteric circles, and was first advanced by
New Ager Jose Arguelles. Armageddon may indeed come in 2012, but not
because of the completion of a mesoamerican calendar round. The
Mesoamerican system, for all its elegance and virtue, has no probus
as a forecasting mechanism.