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  Number 354 | Enero 2011
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Will the World Really End in 2012?

In various countries, Family Radio’s Evangelists proclaim the world will end on May 21, 2011. Some more serious researchers, who cite ancient Mayan prophecies, say it will come on December 21, 2012, What do the Mayan steles themselves say? Are we at the threshold of the end of the world? Or perhaps the end of the world we’ve constructed?

Ricardo Falla

It is being said that the world will end in 2012. Even some scholars have backed it up. Novels have been written and movies filmed on the subject. Those who tout this idea say it’s based on a very ancient Mayan prophecy. Before examining their arguments, however, it’s worth remembering that history is full of unfulfilled prophesies about the end of the world. A single Internet page mentions more than 60 examples.

Many prophesied its end,
but the world kept turning

The first Christians, including Saint Paul, believed that the end of the world, which they called the second coming of Christ , would come very soon. They didn’t have an exact date, but just felt it was imminent and that they would be present. It was an idea fostered by Saint Paul to console them and help them endure the persecutions they were suffering for their new religion.

A Roman priest predicted that the year 500 AD would bring the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. A biblical number cruncher, not altogether unlike Harold Camping, author of the current apocalyptic prophesy on Family Radio, this presbyter had closely studied the Bible and found that Noah’s ark measured 500 cubits long. Reasoning that the ark was the symbol of the end of the world, and that each cubit represented a year, he figured that the world would end in 500. But that year came and went and the world remained.

Many people thought Christ would return and the world would end in 1000, as it’s another round number, this time ending in three zeros. During the final months of 999 everyone began doing good works. Their fear was so great that they started selling their properties or giving them to the poor. They stopped cultivating the land and thousands made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, abandoning their place of birth. But 1000 came and went and again nothing happened.

These prophecies haven’t been espoused only by Christians. For example, the great 12th-century Persian poet Anwari claimed that September 16, 1186, would be the fateful date because five planets would be grouped together in the constellation called Libra that day, triggering catastrophic energy. The poet watched the sky, but the end of the world still didn’t come.

Again working with the theory that the end of the world would come from the stars, a German wise man from the University of Tubinga predicted the date as February 20, 1524, when other planets would come together in the constellation Pisces. Because this man was highly respected, wealthy Germans began building arks. In fact a huge torrential rainstorm caused flooding on February 19 and people stormed the boats, which overturned due to the excessive number of passengers, causing deaths. But after 24 hours of anguish, the 21st dawned splendorous.

Numbers have also held a fascination for those speculating about the end of the world. Some believed it would happen in 1666 because three sixes are the sign of the Beast of the Apocalypse, but 1667 came and the world went right on spinning on its axis.

Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been fanatic peddlers of these prophecies. Jehovah’s Witness founder Charles Taze Russell announced the end of the world for 1874. When nothing happened, he changed the date to 1914. When still nothing happened, he said he had been incorrectly interpreted and that he had really said 2914. None of us will be around to see if he got it wrong again.

The number 20 is like a person

There are admirers of the Mayan civilization who say the world will end on December 21, 2012, day 4 Ahau (the Kiché call it 4 Ajpú and call the Mayan calendar the cholq’ij, which means the counting of the days). They add that if the world doesn’t end, at least there will be a spectacular change in the sky, on earth and in all of humanity that day.

They base their arguments on calculations and assumptions they imaginatively combine to provide this meaning to the Mayan calendar. They explain that a cycle of 13 b’ak’tuns, which covers 5,125 years and began on August 11, 3114 BC, will be completed on that day. They say this cycle began when the world was created and will end when it must logically destroy itself so another creation can be born. The one about to end isn’t the first, but the fifth. In other words, there were others before. The current creation, the one that’s ending, is also called the Fifth Sun.

The ancient Mayan calendar is made up of multiples of 20 days. The Kiché spiritual leaders (ajq’ijab’) still study and use these same 20 days from the cholq’ij. The number 20 is like a person (winaq), who has 20 fingers and toes.

Multiplying a winaq by 18 months gives a tun, which has 360 days, nearly a solar year. A tun is like a drumbeat. If we then multiply 20 tuns by 360 days, we have a k’atun, (7,200 days), and 20 k’atuns make up a b’ak’tun (144,000 days). The Mayans used this complicated base-20 math, always centered on the human being, in their inscriptions on steles to record dates. The 13 b’ak’tuns, referred to above, for example, totals 1,872,000 days, or 5,125 years.

Mayan steles are tall stones carved with such inscriptions of dates and other accounts that epigraphists are only now beginning to decipher. The Mayans wrote numbers with points and dashes. One point is worth 1, two points 2, three points 3, etc., until reaching 5, which was written with a dash. The 6 is a dash with one point above it and so on until reaching 10, which was written with a second dash over the first one.

All this appears in the steles, frequently on one side only. A date told how many days, winaqs, tuns, k’atuns and even b’ak’tuns, if it was that long. The inscription means the beginning or end of a cycle of 13 b’ak’tuns. Starting with the last 0, we say that there are 0 winaqs, 0 tuns, 0 k’atuns and 0 b’ak’tuns 13 times. This date always corresponded to 4 Ahau (or 4 Ajpú).

According to the inscriptions discovered, the prophetic use of 4 Ahau ( is very infrequent, despite what those prophesying the end of the world next year, who usually aren’t Mayans, would have us believe. In the entire Mayan area, only one stele has been found in which refers to December 21, 2012. That stele was found in Tabasco, Mexico, and was named the Tortuguero monument, surely because there were many turtles (tortugas in Spanish) where it was found. Epigraphists have tried to understand what it says, but it’s very hard to decipher, because the stone is broken precisely across some important glyphs. The experts read it as follows: “Black will happen on 13 b’ak’tun… B’olon Yokte’ will descend to red.” That’s it.

B’olon Yokte’ is a seldom mentioned obscure god. Its name means something like “new tree of many roots.” It is a god of change, destruction and the end of periods. In the monument it is prophesied that it will “descend” and “black will happen.”

Certainly this is a prediction of something catastrophic at the end of 13 b’ak’tun, but it’s the only such prediction in the Mayan region; the god that descends isn’t famous; and we can deduce that the catastrophe predicted will be very big because it’s the end of the cycle but there’s no mention of it being about the end of the Fifth Creation. These are very fragmentary data from which to deduce that it refers to the end of the world and not just the end of a specific community in Tabasco.

13 b’ak’tun is also found
on a Quiriguá stele

13 b’ak’tun appears on another stele—one of the ones in Quiriguá, Izabal—but there the reference is historical rather than prophetic; it’s about the past, and says nothing about the future. The reference is to the date on which the 13 b’ak’tun cycle began: 3114 BC in our calendar reckoning, and what the stele describes is the creation of the world. The brief narration introduces us to two gods making the world, as if they were raising a barn, beginning with “the household fire that was revealed” and the three stones on which to place the comal [a Nahuatl word for a smooth flat griddle still used for cooking tortillas, searing meat, etc.]. The gods place stones both on the earth and in the sky, where they are like stars, and use a canoe to move about in the sky. The gods are oarsmen in this infinite sea of the firmament.

Thanks to the Quiriguá stele, we know how the world was created, and the most this can do is give us some idea of how a new creation might initiate on December 21, 2012. We could use our imagination to combine what this stele says with the one from Tabasco, but doing so is risky because, while the Mayan calendar was used everywhere during that civilization, the story of the cycles and the interpretation of their reading was very different in each place. Given the distances and differences it’s very unlikely that if the end of an era was being prophesied for that date in Tabasco, the same belief also existed in Quiriguá. The only coincidence in the two steles is the use of the b’ak’tun, not its prophetic nature.

The stele of infinite origin

Quintana Roo is currently a major tourist spot in Mexico. A stele found there in a place called Coba also has and 4 Ahau chiseled on it, but in this case neither to prophesy anything nor to set a past creation date. Nonetheless, the inscription is incredibly interesting in that it breaks all previous molds for thinking that for the Mayans the current creation had begun 3,144 years before Christ.

Those who made the stele looked backwards to a date that exceeds all imagination. It’s like someone were telling us: “If you think the world began 5,125 years ago, you’re very wrong because we don’t even have any idea how old it really is.” How did they say that? They did it by writing but preceding it by nineteen 13s, like this:

This sum of years is so gigantic it means they believed Creation to have taken place an infinitely long time before the Big Bang theory. This perspective is nothing like that of the Tortuguero monument of Tabasco or the Quiriguá stele, although it is based on the very same calendar. But while this calendar was a bond that kept them all in the network of the great civilization, each Mayan city had its own way of interpreting it to see the past and the future.

If we wanted to project the vision of this stele toward the future, we would have to say that the end of the world is not until an infinitely distant date, tantamount to saying the world will have no end. Such an interpretation, however, would also be risky, because this stele is talking about the past, and any conclusion about something it isn’t saying would be the product of our imagination. It is equally risky to suggest that all Mayans believe what’s written on it, since it expresses an intuition about the past in one single place: Coba.

Although the Mayans had a common way of thinking, a shared cultural substratum, they differed a lot when applying it to govern society. Making general conclusions for particular expressions would end up impoverishing the wealth of that diversity.

The prophecy of the
Chilam Balam of Chumayel

All these steles were carved some 700 years after Christ, well before the Spanish Invasion and Conquest. But there is a document written not on stone but on paper, over 200 years after the Invasion. It is the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, Yucatán, a prophetic book very difficult to interpret that was written between 1773 and 1800. Its prophecies, above all the Prophecy of the K’atun 4 Ahau, which is the eleventh one according to the count, are used as the basis by many of those predicting a radical change of the world or even its end.

These prophecies, however, don’t use the b’ak’tun cycle, but another smaller one, the k’atun. According to a translation cited by Mark Van Stone, author of “It’s Not the End of the World: What the Ancient Maya Tell Us About 2012,” the K’atun 4 Ahau prophecy says: “The quetzal shall come, the green bird shall come. Ah Kantenal [‘He of the yellow tree place’] shall come. Blood vomit shall come [as it did in the last K’atun 4 Ahau, the k’atun just before the Conquest]. Kukulkán shall come with them for a second time. The word of God. The Itzá [a Mayan people] shall come.”

This prophecy announces the coming of the Plumed Serpent (Kukulkán), a very famous god throughout the Mayan and Aztec areas, including that of the ancient Kiché Mayans. The arrival of Kukulkán will be of death and life at the same time. Its coming will be tragic, like blood-vomit, for the Itzá Mayans. But at the same time it will be new learning, brought by Kukulkán. The place where it will come is Chichén Itzá, the main base of the Itzás.

According to this prophecy, the arrival of Kukulkán or Quetzalcoatl—its Aztec name—will take place on 4 Ahau and is repeated every 13 K’atuns. As a k’atun equals 20 tuns and a tun is a 360-day year, it is repeated every 260 tuns (or every 256 years of 365 days, given that the solar year is five days longer than the tun). The first arrival of Kukulkán was in 1244 AD, the second in 1500 and the third in 1756. The fourth will be in 2012.

A tragedy and new awareness

This prophecy appeared in the town of Chumayel some years after the third 256-year cycle had already been completed in 1756. It must have been a period of great suffering, perceived as a prolongation of the Spanish Conquest, which had already consolidated itself irrevocably. The conquered people must have found new learning in the midst of their pain. So by prophesying, they looked backward, to 1500, shortly after the Spanish Invasion, and forward, to 2012, when the same adversity would somehow be repeated. That is how they project the features of the Invasion toward the future, albeit a distant one.

That future will be the fourth coming of Kukulkán and the features of its coming will be vomit of blood, but also the learning of something new, something astonishing, like the civilization that the blond Spanish brought, whose novelty confused the original inhabitants into believing the Spanish were Kukulkán.

This prophecy isn’t about the end of the world, but about a great tragedy combined with a new awareness. Nor is it about a cycle of 13 b’ak’tuns, but of cycles of 13 k’atuns that began with 4 Ahau. And finally, it isn’t a universal prediction either, as it refers only to the Itzá Mayans.

The return of Kukulkán, or Quetzalcoatl, was a belief shared by both the Mayans and the Aztecs, but there’s no agreement between the two with respect to dates. Although they both used the same calendar, sometimes with different names for certain days, they interpreted the great cycles differently and in some ways the two peoples were very far apart. The Aztecs, for example, did not use the long count of the b’ak’tun. Theirs was a 52-year cycle. The day of Kukulkán’s return for the Mayans would be a 4 Ahau, which in the Kichés’ cholq’ij is equivalent to 4 Ajpú. For the Aztecs, in contrast, Quetzalcoatl would return on 4 Ollin (4 Movement), which in the Kiché cholq’ij is equivalent to 4 No’j. According to the Aztecs, that day (in the year 2 Ah) would be in 2027, not 2012. In short, there are many discrepancies in the dates. And exact dates are pretty critical to predictions about the end of the world.

The Aztec Sun Stone
and the five creations

According to the famous Aztec Sun Stone, there have been Five Creations, also called the Five Suns. The Aztecs took that belief from the Mayans. But the Mayans didn’t leave us as complete an explanation of the different eras of the world as the Aztecs.

The stone is a round altar and on its four cardinal points are glyphs that represent the Four Creations. In the center appears the Sun, which represents the Fifth Creation. A different color corresponds to each cardinal point, a tradition the Kiché people still honor in their celebrations, when they orient towards the north, south, east and west with white, yellow, red and black.

The first Creation began on 4 Jaguar of 956 BC (4 Jaguar corresponds to 4 I’x of the cholq’ij) and lasted thirteen 52-year cycles (676 of our years), ending on another 4 Jaguar in 280 BC. That creation ended when its inhabitants were eaten by Jaguars. The second Creation began on 4 Wind (4 Iq’ of the cholq’ij) and lasted seven 52-year cycles (364 of our years). It ended with a hurricane and the inhabitants of that creation were turned into turkeys. The third Creation began on 4 Rain (4 Kawoq of the cholq’ij) and lasted six 52-year cycles (312 of our years), ending with a rain of fire in the 4th century AD. The fourth Creation began on 4 Water (4 Toj of the cholq’ij) and like the first one lasted thirteen 52-year cycles. It ended with a flood and its inhabitants were converted into fish. That happened after 1125 AD.

All these creations covered periods divisible by 52 years. That is, they were cyclical and were better each time. Perhaps for that reason it is more exact to say that they were elliptical rather than cyclical. All, however, were unstable. They carried the seeds of destruction in their name and had to end. In contrast, the Fifth Creation, which is ours, was the definitive one. The others belonged to the different cardinal points, while this one was in the center and began on a 4 Movement day (in either 1143 or 1195 AD), when the gods made a blood sacrifice to put the sun in movement.

This Fifth Creation could go on forever. It’s the last Creation, the Fifth Sun. If it ends it will be due to tremendous earthquakes. And it would finish on a 4 Movement (or 4 No’j in the cholq’ij) at the end of a 52-year period, i.e. in 2027 or 2079 or 2131, etc., but not in 2012, and not on an Ahau day.

The four creations of the
Kiché Mayans’ Popol Vuh

In the Popol Vuh, a Kiché Mayan tale, the structure involved Four Creations, not five. The definitive one is the one in which we are currently living, which began when man and woman were made out of corn. The Popol Vuh doesn’t give dates, although it closes each creation that came before the definitive one with a punishment. After the animals were unable to recognize the Former and Creator, they were condemned to be eaten. End of the First Creation. After the humans couldn’t recognize the one who molded them from mud, they were punished by being dissolving in water. End of the Second Creation. After the humans made of wood were also unable to pay homage unto the Creator, they were devoured by animals and punished with a black rain that destroyed them. Monkeys are what remains of those humans. End of the Third Creation.

The Fourth Creation is the last of all: the humans recognize the gods and there is no more punishment, unless by some change in their semi-divine nature, when Juracán or Heart of the Sky comes down and obscures their vision with the steam of its breath.

There may be an absence of the Fifth Creation, insinuated by the time the first mothers and fathers spend without seeing the sun. One might think that, to be complete, the start of the last creation should coincide with the coming up of the sun. But that’s not the case. This allows us to think that in the time of the Kichés, who were warriors and not contemplators like the Itzá Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula, the long count of the b’ak’tuns must have already been lost and only the short one remained, the same one our spiritual leaders (ajq’ijab’) use today, without realizing that they could go up by the same base-20 logic to the long count.

For that reason, there’s also no awareness among the current spiritual leaders of the prediction of either the end of the world or a catastrophe for December 21, 2012, unless they’ve heard of it from outside. This type of discourse and pronouncement is alien to them. It does find receptivity, however, among the more educated Mayan sectors and in the spirituality of the Mayan movement, influenced by “New Age” beliefs, although there’s a more critical mind among some who have a more professional understanding of the hermitic inscriptions of the past.

The end of what?

All this doesn’t mean humanity isn’t facing the change of a great stage of history or that the ancient Mayan culture couldn’t enlighten us on how to live through such a fundamental change. But it’s not a stage that changes overnight, nor does it imply the end of the world, even if there are great catastrophes, such as those we’re already experiencing due to ecological disasters, the countless and horrendously cruel wars around the world, the global-level population movements that forecast conflicts between North and South, the shortage of energy sources, the scarcity of and struggles over water…

We’re in a time of transition, even of knowledge, to quote the famous Portuguese thinker Teotonio dos Santos, from regulating knowledge to emancipating knowledge.

It is a time of transition that must also spark our imagination. Let’s imagine that we aren’t at the threshold of the end of the world, but of the end of the world we’ve constructed, of our end. What human footprint would remain of us if what was ending weren’t “the world,” but rather all of humanity, the human species that populates the world and the civilization we’ve constructed? Surely the world wouldn’t collapse, but would actually flourish without us.

In 2012, starting now in fact, we’re invited to think what we must put an “end” to in this stage of history so that the world, Mother Earth, will continue wanting us here.

Ricardo Falla, S.J. is an anthropologist and an envío correspondent who has lived for many years in Guatemala.

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