(This article was originally published in Alternate Perceptions, issue #37, 1996.)
We hear the term "Mayan Calendar" fairly often these days. It's usually in association with its "end date," or maybe linked with some sort of prophecy put forth by modern "would-be" prophets of both Native American and Anglo heritage. There are many believers in the Mayan Calendar. They are very sure that it is a way of reckoning where we, as humans on planet earth, are at right now. One thing I've noticed over and over again, however, is that very few of these believers truly understand what this alleged calendar is all about.
The astrology of ancient Mesoamerica has been a passion of mine for many years. I was drawn to the subject because I thought it would lead to insights into the phenomena of astrology itself. (It has.) Mesoamerican astrology is uniquely time-based (unlike Western astrology which is almost completely spatial) and consists of symbolic time-periods grouped symmetrically in fours, fives, nines, thirteens, and twenties. Such calendar-like groupings are a kind of astrology, a truly Native American astrology.
What is popularly known as the Mayan Calendar is what archaeologists, anthropologists, and archaeoastronomers call the Long Count. The Long Count is a large segment of time (1/5 of the 26,000-year cycle of the precession of the equinoxes) with a definite starting and ending point. The period began on August 11, 3114 BC and it ends on December 21, 2012. The Long Count, a span of 5,125 years, was further divided by the ancient Maya into 13ths, 20ths, and 260ths. The 13th parts (394 years) were called baktuns. The 260th parts (19.7 years) were called katuns. The 20ths of the Long Count were groups of 13 katuns (256 years) sometimes referred to as the "short count." This later grouping had a long prophetic tradition and it is the main topic of this article. (1)
The 256-year cycle of thirteen katuns, the "short count," was clearly a Mayan prophecy cycle. Each of the 13 katuns has a specific "fate" attached to it and the Maya believed that the occurrence, or arrival, of each katun brought with it this fate. We know this from surviving records, including the various books of "Chilam Balam" (jaguar priest) that were written after the Spanish conquest of Yucatan.
The manner of distinguishing these thirteen katuns from each other is complex and requires an understanding of the tzolkin/Tonalpouhalli. But for now let's just say that the name of each katun in the 256-year cycle is taken from the day on which it ends, or, from the perspective of the Maya, the day it reaches completion. It turns out that each of the thirteen katuns in the cycle is indicated by a number and the name Ahau, this being the day of the 260-day astrological calendar on which the last day of the katun falls.(2)
The katuns did not follow each other in numerical order. Any given katun in the cycle was always followed by a katun that was numbered two less. For example, katun 10-Ahau was followed by Katun 8-Ahau. The katun from which the cycle was said to begin was katun 11-Ahau. (3)
Essentially, the cycle of thirteen katuns was for the Maya a kind of mundane astrology, not an astrology of the individual, but of the society and its history. In the several books of Chilam Balam, the influences of the thirteen katuns are stated, usually as a description of historical events that occurred during previous cycles. It becomes clear to the reader, however, that the Maya always expected history to repeat itself and it is also obvious that the ancient Maya were not very optimistic about their fate. Most of these "fates" are negative, but then this may have been was how life was for them. The delineations below are a composite taken from the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel and the Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam of Mani.
Katun 11-Ahau: Apparently food is scarce during this katun and invading foreigners arrive and disperse the population. There is an end to traditional rule, there are no successors. Since this is the first katun it always opens up a new era. It was during the span of this katun that the Spanish began their takeover of Yucatan and imposed Christianity on the natives.
Katun 9-Ahau: This is a period of bad government where the ruler abuses his people and commits misdeeds. Rulers are so bad that they wind up losing some of their power to the priests. Carnal sin and adultery are practiced openly, by rulers and others, and it is also a time of wars. It is the katun of the "forcible withdrawal of the hand," a phrase the meaning of which is unclear.
Katun 7-Ahau: This is apparently a time of social excess including drinking and adultery, a low point in the history of the society. Governments stoop to their lowest. The "bud of the flower," an allusion to eroticism, is said to sprout during this katun.
Katun 5-Ahau: During this katun of misfortune, rulers and their subjects separate -- the people lose faith in their leaders. Leaders may be harshly treated, even hung. There is also an abundance of snakes, a great famine, and few births during this period.
Katun 3-Ahau: This katun brings changes and calamities such as drought and wars. The people will become homeless and society will disintegrate.
Katun 1-Ahau: This katun brings even worse troubles, weak rulers and destruction. Governments fall apart due to rivalries. There may also be a great war which will end and brotherhood will return.
Katun 12-Ahau: Finally a good katun. During this period government and rulers are wise. Poor men become rich and their is abundance in the land. There is friendship and peace in the land. There will be six good years followed by six bad before well-being returns.
Katun 10-Ahau: Although this is a holy katun, there is trouble in the land once again. This katun brings drought and famine and is a time of foreign occupation, calendar change, and sadness.
Katun 8-Ahau: This may be the worst of the katuns as both Chichen Itza and Mayapan, the two great ruling cities of Yucatan, were destroyed during its period. The texts speak of demolition and destruction among the governors, an end to greed, but much fighting. It is the katun of "settling down in a new place."
Katun 6-Ahau: This is a time of bad government and deceptive government. There is also starvation and famine.
Katun 4-Ahau: There will be scarcities of corn and squash during this katun and this will lead to great mortality. This was the katun during which the settlement of Chichen Itza occurred, when the man-god Kukulcan (Quetzalcoatl) arrived. It is the katun of remembering and recording knowledge.
Katun 2-Ahau: For half of the katun there will be food, for half some misfortunes. This katun brings the end of the "word of God." It is a time of uniting for a cause.
Katun 13-Ahau: This is a time of total collapse where everything is lost. It is the time of the judgment of God. There will be epidemics and plagues and then famine. Governments will be lost to foreigners and wise men, and prophets will be lost.
This extremely depressing set of "fates leaves much to be desired. Out of thirteen katuns only one, katun 12-Ahau, has a positive reading, and perhaps katuns 4-Ahau and 2-Ahau could be construed to be somewhat positive. One would hope that clearer distinctions could have been made between the various katuns, but such is not the case and if any kind of astrological value is to be found here, we will have to find it through observation.
Here are the dates of katuns during the past 1,000 years
Katun # Western years 13 Ahau 1007 1263 1520 1776 2032 11 Ahau 1027 1283 1539 1796 2052 9 Ahau 1046 1303 1559 1815 7 Ahau 1066 1322 1579 1835 5 Ahau 1086 1342 1598 1855 3 Ahau 1106 1362 1618 1874 1 Ahau 1125 1382 1638 1894 12 Ahau 1145 1401 1658 1914 10 Ahau 1165 1421 1677 1934 8 Ahau 1185 1441 1697 1953 6 Ahau 1204 1460 1717 1973 4 Ahau 1224 1480 1736 1993 2 Ahau 1244 1500 1756 2012The table shows that we have recently lived through katun 6-Ahau: 1973-1993. During this period there was deceptive government (Watergate, Iran/Contragate) and we did have an actor for a president. There has also been an acute awareness of famines in Africa. The last time this katun occurred was between 1717 and 1736. During this period the "South Sea Bubble," a major business failure caused a financial panic, and in England, the old and young "Pretenders" continued to claim the throne. It was during another katun 6-Ahau, this one from 1460 to 1480, that the Spanish Inquisition was established and Lorenzo the Magnificent ruled Florence. Finally, katun 6-Ahau of 1204 to 1224 saw the Children's Crusade, an example of mass deception if there ever was one. Perhaps there is something to this cycle of katuns.
And what of the present katun, katun 4-Ahau? According to the Maya inscriptions, the katun began on 4/6/1993 and ends with the entire Long Count/creation epoch on 12/21/2012. Following the prophecy scheme of the cycle of the 13 katuns listed above, we could expect scarcities and the arrival of great leaders. It is also the katun of "remembering knowledge and writing it down." It does appear that in the past this katun coincided with a questionable measure of stability in the world and also significant advances in the written word. For example, katun 4-Ahau lasted from 1224 to 1244. During this time Frederick II took Jerusalem, but he took it diplomatically. The next time this katun came up was between 1480 and 1500. Clearly, this was a period of great voyages and discoveries -- but things were also relatively stable politically which made exploration possible. This period also marks an important period of growth in printing. Katun 4-Ahau came up next between 1736 and 1756. Interestingly, it was during this period that the first encyclopedia was published. The War of the Austrian Succession 1740-1748 did bring a settlement of territories and a measure of stability, and there were a number of alliances formed during this time as well. Power kept shifting, but did not erupt in an all-out way. Such may actually be the case from 1993 to 2012.
Finally, the present Long Count/creation epoch of the Maya comes to an end on December 21st (the winter solstice), of 2012. What will the katun that begins this new era be like? The Maya regarded katun 2-Ahau as half good and half bad, a time of uniting for a cause, but also as the katun during which came the "end of the word of God." And what does that mean? It is true that in previous 2-Ahau katuns there were great religious or ideological crises. Between 1500 and 1520 the Aztecs were conquered and forced to convert to Christianity. Also in 1517 Martin Luthor started the Protestant Reformation. 256 years later, between 1756 and 1776, the ideas of liberty and the rights of countries and individuals became a growing trend and this led to the American colonies declaring independence from England. One could say that a new era was indeed dawning, although it took a few more katuns before it could stand on its own two feet. Quite possibly some of our most taken-for-granted beliefs, secular and religious, will begin to lose cohesiveness and credibility after 2012, paving the way for a genuinely new age. If the Maya were right, then don't hold your breath for the mere millennium, the year 2000, hang on for the real changes that should begin twelve years later in 2012 and culminate with katun 13-Ahau which starts in 2032.
Like a biorhythm, which is the perfect form of a natural, though usually numerically inexact cycle, the katun allowed the Maya to better organize their life and to predict the future. Like a fractal wave, the Maya saw history as repeating itself on differing scales. With this knowledge they timed their rituals and gave meaning to human life. Perhaps we can use a few of their ideas.
(1) For more information on Mesoamerican astrology see the author's books "Signs of Time: An Introduction to Mesoamerican Astrology" and "Day-Signs: Native American Astrology from Ancient Mexico." Both are available from One Reed Publications.
(2) The reason for this was that the previous katun ended with the last day in the 260-day calendar, the day 13-Ahau, which gives its name to that katun (see the diagram). The first day, therefore, of any given katun always falls on the day Imix, which follows Ahau and is usually considered to be the first of the twenty day-signs. Because 20 is one factor of the katun cycle (20 x 360), each katun always ends on a day with the same name in the 260-day calendar, though not on the same number.
(3) See Diego de Landa's "Yucatan Before and After the Conquest." Trans. William Gates. New York: Dover Publications.
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