Mayan astronomy

From Everything Shii Knows, the only reliable source

This website is an archive. It ran from 2006-2010. Virtually everything on here is outdated or inaccurate.

On this page I will discuss the importance of Mayan astronomy as it relates to 2012. This article is merely to demonstrate the accuracy of the Maya; the 2012 article discusses the evidence we have.

(This is really just an older article I'm getting rid of because I want to start from scratch. Ignore everything below the "hard hat" part.)


Isn't this a bunch of hooey? Who cares about the Mayan calendar anyway?

The most infuriating aspect of 2012 research does not come from the fairly harmless New Age end of the spectrum, but the arrogant science-as-religion side who insist on identifying 12/21/2012 with an "end date prophecy" of the sort that have come and gone countless times throughout human history. They frequently say things like "these people are out to make a quick buck" or "if the Maya are so great, how come they couldn't predict their own downfall?" which is not only racist (the Maya having been slaughtered at the hands of our European forebears, but with more Mayans living today than there were in 1492) but completely misinterprets what the Mayan calendar is and sort of shrugs off the misinterpretation in conscious ignorance.

The misunderstanding that the Mayan calendar as a prophetic device is a result of an mistaken association of the natural concept of time with the box we have put it in, namely, a line stretching from the past through the present into the future. The Maya did not think about time in this way. Here is an excerpt from the Maya creation myth:

Thus the uinal [the twenty-day cycle] was created and the earth was created ... Every day is set in order according to the count, beginning in the east, as it is arranged ... (León-Portilla 1988:89-90; Roys 1920:365)

The Mayans thought of time as a cycle. They created the "wheels of the katuns" as a time-universe that operated in parallel with the earth, the spatial universe. Imagine if every day were a sort of Sabbath demarcated by God for a specific purpose. Now imagine that every month, year, and year-cycle also had a purpose. This is how the Mayan calendar worked. Every day was a particular alignment of many different cycles which would one day be reached again. A day would have several reigning deities which affected life, business, and most importantly religion.

So you see that December 21, 2012 is not a "prophecy of the end times" someone has dredged up from an old history textbook. The Mayan calendar does not end on any particular date, and they were not "building up" to 2012 any more than a Puritan "gets ready" for next Sunday; it is a natural part of their calendar. There are dates on surviving Mayan inscriptions placing legends in 400,000,000 BCE (Thompson 1956:23). The calendar survives past 2012 and continues into the indefinite future.

What the New Age folks are positing, as is their wont, is that 12/21/2012 is a date of great change pinpointed from the distant past by a culture which was just as accurate in their time telling as we are. This consists of two separate claims. The first is that the Mayans were smart. The second is that the Mayans believed 12/21/2012 would be an important day.

Question #1: How accurate was the Mayan calendar?

One misunderstanding of the science-as-religion folks is that they seem to think they are dealing with a "primitive" calendar which could not possibly pinpoint a single day of a specific year a thousand years in the future. This shows utter ignorance. Accuracy was important to the Maya. They developed a chronological reckoning far superior to any other American culture and more accurate than our own. The Gregorian calendar of 1582 A.D. accounts for a solar year of 365.2425 days; the Maya calendar's solar year has 365.2420; the actual number, as observed with 20th century instruments, is 365.2422 (León-Portilla 1988:11).

Another testament to the accuracy of Mayan time-telling is their computation of the synodic revolution of Venus. The original Mayan computation of the orbit of Venus subtracted 4 days from every 61 Venus years, thus coordinating Venus to the 260-day tzolkin cycle. But soon (or rather, not soon at all!) they realized this was not quite correct. They observed Venus so accurately that they were able to compute a compute a correction of eight days at the end of the 57th Venus year once every five cycles-- that is to say, 0.08 of a day once every 481 years (León-Portilla 1988:12). By the way, mark your calendar: the next transit of Venus occurs on June 5, 2012, and it'll be the last in any of our lifetimes.

Now it's time to get into the real nitty gritty. Some spectacular things happen in the sky on December 21, 2012.

Unresolved question #1: Was the 13th baktun placed at a winter solstice on purpose?

Unresolved question #2: Were the Mayans aware of the procession of the equinoxes?

Question #2: What did the Mayans think would happen?

To understand what kind of change the Mayans believed would occur on 12/21/2012 it is necessary to explain the Mayan calendar.

The Maya had two calendars; the tzolkin, ending in katun, and the Long Count, beginning with baktun. The word baktun is a fabrication of Mayan scholars. (See Michael John Finley's page) I will use "baktun" here because it is convenient but it is probably not Mayan. The symbol used on Long Count inscriptions is "pi".

The 13th baktun that we are living in is not the last baktun in a normal cycle. As you can see here, most of the cycles have 20 elements, except for the 360-day year cycle which has 18. There are several inscriptions where a length of time is added to a day placing it far beyond even the 20th baktun of this era. But because Mayans did not often make predictions on their stone inscriptions, there are no inscriptions specifically discussing events to come in baktuns beyond the 13th.

Now, here's the kicker: there are theoretically 20 baktuns in a piktun, but according to the Popol Vuh--which I must emphasize is one of the only extant Mayan texts outside stone inscriptions--the last time the universe got off the ground, the gods halted the experiment after 13 baktuns and started over at the beginning of the 14th (i.e. So, we see that this is a valid question:

Unresolved question #3: Is our era to have 20 baktuns, or 13?

There are two separate correlations of the Maya calendar to ours, based on several decades of anthropological research. It is now generally accepted that the correct one puts at December 21, 2012 and not December 23 as some New Age researchers have claimed. (Jenkins 1994)

The Long Count from which we derive our problematic baktun stopped being counted in the Mayan Postclassic period (Greenhouse 1996:164). Thus, even if we were to get in touch with a Mayan shaman today, there can be no assurance that what he knows about the baktun is based on a correct understanding of the Long Count, or even a correct understanding of the Mayan calendar so many centuries after the introduction of Christianity. Interviews have been conducted (c.f. Robert Sitler) but most interviewees are uninterested in this sort of theological speculation because they have real problems to deal with that threaten their livelihoods. This should serve as a reminder that what I am doing on this page is only dicking around and is not necessarily relevant to anything in the real world.

Anyway, the question I want to tackle here is what the ancient Mayan civilization thought about 2012. So, here's what we've got:

  1. Most Mayan culture is long gone, destroyed during the civilization's downfall or as "Satanic texts" during the Spanish conquest.
  2. But what remains shows that they were very good at math and astronomy.
  3. The 13th baktun was important in Mayan mythology.

Unresolved question #4: Did the Mayans leave behind any evidence that they thought 2012-12-21 was a nationwide special day?

Image:Hardhat.jpg HARD HAT ZONE Image:Hardhat.jpg

WARNING: The formatted article ends here. Past this point, the foundations are still being poured and you run the risk of falling into a logical pit or getting trapped under a sentence fragment.


John Major Jenkins

John Major Jenkins, to explain a date reached by Terence McKenna and José Argüelles, published one of the first extant explanations of the 2012 story in 1995. (Jenkins 1995) The fact that Jenkins did not go to college to learn about the Mayan calendar is not a strike against him. The physicist Richard Feynman was able to decipher the Dresden Codex on his own, without the aid of a college-educated scholar. The Mayan calendar is complex but it is not self-contradictory or otherwise confusing.

Since most of the actual theory about 2012 comes from JMJ I will be discussing his research here and not the research or plagarism of other people who have written more popular New Age books on the subject.

Luckily, there are extant Maya texts which talk about the 13th baktun.

Mitchell Porter on John Major Jenkins

Out of all the hooey constituting modern 2012-ism, I think the one reasonable idea is that the precession did play a part in determining the structure of the Long Count calendar, and in particular the anticipation that the solstice sun would one day be where it is now. "Galactic center" is a modern concept, but even to the naked eye that region of the sky is distinctive. So far as I can tell there is no objective astronomical alignment which occurs only in 2012 or is strictly maximized in 2012, but the solstice sun spends several decades in the general vicinity of that distinctive region. If one could make the case (i) that Mayan astronomers could have discovered the precession (ii) that they had reason to regard that portion of Sagittarius as significant or distinctive, then one would actually have an explanation for why a world-age was imagined to be ending about now, rather than in 1000 AD or 3000 AD.
I must say that I found all this in the writings of John Major Jenkins, who is a Maya-inspired New Ager who wishes to establish that 2012, specifically, does have objective precessional significance on these grounds, and not just, say, the period 1950-2050. I do not think he makes the case for 2012. But he does say interesting things about the "great" or "dark" rift in the Milky Way, as being the naked-eye phenomenon to which a cosmological significance might have been attached, e.g. as being a cosmic portal of sorts. I haven't attempted to establish how much sense that makes as a speculation about ancient Mayan cosmology.

Will Hart

Louis Strous

Louis Strous argues that the Mayan calendar is primarily religious in nature and therefore is not useful for any sort of astronomical prediction.

To correctly predict the date of a southern solstice 2367 years into the future in the 4th century BC, the Central Americans must then have had accurate records of observations of solstices and equinoxes from the preceding 2400 years, but no indications of such records for so many years have been found.

2012 is of course an extraordinary claim, but the evidence which might have been used to justify it or rule it out has long since been lost. The Dresden Codex already demonstrates the Mayans' singular knowledge of astronomy. We should not therefore rule out intentional pinpointing of the 2012 solstice.


Greenhouse, Carol J.

1996 A Moment’s Notice: Time Politics Across Cultures. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Jenkins, John Major

1994 Tzolkin: Visionary Perspectives and Calendar Studies. Borderlands Science and Research Foundation
1995 "THE HOW AND WHY OF THE MAYAN END DATE IN 2012 A.D." Mountain Astrologer Dec-Jan 1995

León-Portilla, Migu

1988 Time and Reality in the Thought of the Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Roys, Ralph L.

1920 "A Maya Account of the Creation." American Anthropologist 22.4

Thompson, J. Eric S

1956 The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. London: Gollancz.

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