On December 20, 2012, it’s all over ― the bak’tun, that is, the longest measure of time in the Mayan calendar. The Maya noted important dates using the Long Count, a 5,125-year cycle of 13 bak’tuns, each about 394 years long.
And if you’ve seen the trailers for “2012,” you know this is definitely bad news, as in end-of-the-world bad news. There are hundreds of books devoted to 2012, and millions of web sites, depending on what combination of “2012” and “doomsday” you type into Google.
Now NASA has announced that it isn’t the end of the world, but then they also claim to have landed a man on the moon ;-). However, others, including contemporary Mayan shamans, agree with this assertion, so it looks like Doomsday has been postponed yet again.
Mayan time was cyclic and experts say there is no evidence that the Maya thought anything special would happen when the odometer rolled over on this Long Count in 2012. There are references in Mayan inscriptions to dates both before the beginning and after the ending of the present Long Count, they say, just as your next birthday and April 15 loom beyond New Year’s Eve on next year’s calendar.
Whether the world ends or not, you’ve got to dig those Mayan glyphs. They are the only modeled, 3-D script around, and each individual scribe had his own “fist,” inscribing characters in his own unique and sometimes playful way, so the variety of glyph styles is endless. The big breakthrough in reading Mayan came when researchers realized that these scribes could never resist a pun when given hammer and chisel.
And the Long Count calendar itself is an amazing take on time, wheels within wheels, as the gods of the days turn by tun and k’tun in eccentric gearings. At the NYT they’ve posted a beautiful interactive graphic that will allow you to pick a date and see how it is written in Mayan. Very cool ― and useful for getting on the same page with ancient Mayan priest-kings (you do not want to blow an appointment with these guys, or next thing you know you’ll be handed your still-beating heart on a jade platter!).
Some months ago, NOVA did a special on cracking the Mayan code, which took a long list of brilliant scholars about 500 years to decode after the first Bishop of the Yucatán burned every Mayan book he could find. Great website with more interactive graphics.