The Olmec were a clever bunch of people. They had a talent for tackling complicated subjects like astronomy, and as such they dedicated copious amounts of time to observing the cycles of nature and studying the passage of planets, stars and the Earth’s own heliacal dance. They observed how the planet wobbles around its pole and tilts a few imperceptible but crucial degrees every 21,000 years. They watched, recorded and scribed everything in stone, in uncanny detail, wrapped in a symbolic language all their own. As one would expect, this gained the Olmec a reputation for wisdom, and when you are imbued with such wisdom, people take you seriously.
Sometimes too seriously. One of the great works of the Olmec was their Long Count calendar, so much so that it was later adopted by the incoming Maya culture. This calendrical masterpiece began marking time in 3114 B.C. – ironically the same year when the Egyptians claimed the first pharaoh of a purely human bloodline ascended the throne – and continued doing so in 394-year periods known as b’ak’tuns. But on the 13th b’ak’tun, the counting stops for no apparent reason. Olmec time comes to an end on December 21, 2012, the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
It means that for a goodly percentage of this planet’s seven billion human inhabitants, everything ends. And that includes you.
Or does it? For someone who’s studied and dedicated a sizeable portion of his life to ancient cultures and their sacred sites, I’ve always been curious as to why the Olmec should care one way or another about marking the end of the world. For one thing, they were undoubtedly an astute culture and thus would have worked out that they would expire long before the deadline for the rest of the world; in fact, by the time of Christ, hardly a trace exists of them. It does seem odd why anyone should go to all the trouble of calculating a point in distant time they would stand little chance of experiencing for themselves.
Perhaps they were just having a laugh at how preoccupied humans are with the end of the world, as though this morbid curiosity is hard-wired into DNA. As one latterday cartoonist sees it, a Maya stone mason rolls the infamous 2012 calendar stone into his home and says to his wife, “I only had room to go up to 2012,” to which she comments, “That’ll freak people out years from now.”
Humans are a crazy bunch of people. We fixate on death and mourning even more than elephants. We even publish statistics every year on the various ways we will come to meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, including the odds: heart disease, 1:6; stroke, 1:28; motor vehicle accident, 1:88; poison, 1:130; diarrhea, 1:4000; contact with wasps, 1:71,623. We even subdivide statistics by low, middle and high-income countries, even by occupation!
One of the great works of the Olmec was their Long Count calendar, so much so that it was later adopted by the incoming Maya culture.
One surprising statistic is the number of people who succumb to depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders – 1:112, a rate 600% above fatalities caused by war. For sure, one of the inevitable certainties of life is death, but I wonder, just how much depression is a direct result of a self-reinforced belief that 201 days from now we shall come to experience an unspecified end?
Apocalyptic eschatology – the study of theology and ultimate death scenarios – made its appearance in England around 1550. It generally concentrated on the four things we ought to concern ourselves with as we gaze upon our impending mortality: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Even here, only one out of four outcomes offers a glass-half-full scenario. But this was 16th century England and not a fun place to be. Puritanical beliefs were on the rise which meant intelligent women were to be burned as witches; ancient traditions of honouring the spirit of the earth were abolished, pagan monuments destroyed, and celebrations of life outlawed; furthermore, there was rapid inflation, a fall in labourer’s wages, and Catholics were burning Protestants and rebellion was upon the land. Generally speaking, joy was abolished. One sympathizes.
Depending on your religious viewpoint, the end of the world may be utopian or dystopian, and a number of organized religions have talked a considerable percentage of the population into favouring a very pessimistic outcome – fire, brimstone, comets, humans hunting each other with swords, and so on. Religions such as Bahá’í, on the other hand, favour a balanced approach: that creation has neither a beginning nor an end, that the course of human time is marked by a series of progressive revelations to help raise the level of understanding, and that failure to observe such pivotal moments leads to denial and thus exacerbates a downward spiral of suffering. Like Buddhist, Hindu or Native American eschatology, cycles are seen as symbolic regenerations in the evolution of human behaviour rather than necessarily catastrophic and geologic upheavals.
Olmec time comes to an end on December 21, 2012, the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
Over the course of the last two thousand years we’ve actually fared rather well with the apocalypse: between 30 and 1920 A.D. we lived through – and survived – no less than forty-six end-of-the-world predictions. A predicted Christian rapture during the 1st century failed to rapt; in 90 A.D. St. Clement I predicted the world would end at… well, any moment; bishop Hilary de Poitiers – whose name actually comes from the Latin word for cheerful – unhappily announced the end of the world in 365 A.D.. Clearly nothing happened, so one of his students moved the date to between 375 and 400 A.D.; the Christian academic Sextus Julius Africanus then rounded it off to the year 500. Such a lack of success meant other avenues were scoured for sure signs of the end of everything. In the year 988 it was the turn of the eclipse to be interpreted as the end of everything, but when that too failed to bring about a desired result, people survived an agonizing twenty four years before finally being delivered in 992 A.D. simply because Good Friday coincided with the Feast of the Annunciation, the effect of which would bring forth the Antichrist.
As the year 1000 approached, the end of the world coincided with millenarianism – the belief in a coming major transformation of society – and thus the issue of death was compounded. Many Christians came to the conclusion this was finally “it”, enough to validate a war against “pagan” countries in Northern Europe to convert them to Christ – by force if necessary – because the Saviour would most certainly appear this year. People gave all their possessions to the Church in anticipation of the end. When the end failed to materialize, along with Jesus, the Church conveniently forgot to return their property. Criticism of the Catholic Church ensued. The Church replied by denouncing the critics as heretics and exterminated them.
Whether you choose to judge people who follow such advice as simple-minded or gullible is beside the point. Mass belief in an idea – be it negative or positive – has the potential to bind individual energies and give them forward motion, the result of which is the most dangerous of all possibilities – the self-fulfilling prophecy. And while mass belief in millennial annihilation in the year 1000 didn’t bring about the end of the world, the consequences of group behaviour nevertheless led to widespread famine and outbreaks of plague. So, in a manner of speaking, their world did come to an end.
To understand projections and predictions it is necessary to understand the world through the eyes of the people who create them. Like the mythology common to Native American and Aboriginal cultures, Mayan literature has a tradition of “world ages”, and like the symbol of the snake eating its own tail, such traditions are based on cycles of perpetual regeneration. There is seldom an outcome – and certainly not an apocalyptic one – and the natural process of rejuvenation of life on Earth is, to a degree, dependent on the way human consciousness allies with itself and to the planet’s own resonant state of being. In other words, if we accept that we are part of a living, breathing organism, that organism responds to the accumulated energy generated by human thought, desire and emotion. Such a new age way of thinking is now accepted among the science community which over the past three decades has come to accept – even measure – how our thoughts interact, influence and alter the physical world around us.1
Because our world-view is nowadays skewed towards rationalism, we tend to be removed from the ancients’ appreciation of life, and as such their concepts are open to interpretation, even distortion by modern scholars. Part of the dysmorphism surrounding the meaning behind the Olmec/Maya calendar that ends in the forthcoming winter solstice stems from a successive series of interpretations going as far back as the late 15th century. During his voyages to the New World, Cristoforo Colombo was influenced by the writings of one Bishop Pierre d’Ailly, who foretold of the discovery of most distant lands, and a fulfillment of this vision would bring about the end of the world. By extension, this included the recently discovered Maya, but inevitably, the only apocalypse that ensued was the destruction by the Spanish of the Maya themselves.
Before the near-extermination of the Maya, at least one sympathetic priest managed to record their traditions in folding books called codices. Ernst Förstemann attempted to interpret one such book, the Dresden Codex, in the early 1900s. In his account, the German scholar certainly found references by the Maya to a global flood that brought about the destruction of the world. His views were later embellished by the archaeologist Sylvanus Morley, who added them to his book in 1946. Morley emphasizes the destruction of the world described in the Dresden Codex, and because it happens on the final page of the manuscript it is possible Morley took this a stage further to imply the Maya were referring to the present world. Certainly one would be hard pushed to disagree with Morley’s pessimism at the time, seeing as Europe had only just concluded the bloodiest war ever experienced, however, to be fair to his source, Förstemann had never associated his remarks with events yet to come, nor was he making a specific reference to the 13th b’ak’tun, the period in the Mayan calendar that specifically relates to 2012. That connection was made by the archaeologist and Maya culture expert Michael Coe who, after studying the Maya texts, wrote in 1966 that “there is a suggestion… that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b’ak’tun]. Thus… our present universe [would] be annihilated when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”2
It is Coe’s interpretation of facts plus his association with the Maya calendar of the word “Armageddon” that may have inadvertently lit the fuse of apocalyptic connotations. One can argue that basic human psychology and its desire to focus on the termination of life – such as Morley’s interpretation – has seen what it wants to see and generated the exponential rise in catastrophobia surrounding the end of the world several months from now. Regardless, we are witnessing a repeat of year 1000 mentality, except this time it isn’t the Church who’s sucking-in people’s property but an army of opportunists cashing-in on doomsday scenarios, including books, films and 2012 survival kits. Although how one is supposed to use such a kit on a planet that has ceased to exist is anyone’s guess.
Mass belief in an idea – be it negative or positive – has the potential to bind individual energies and give them forward motion, the result of which is the most dangerous of all possibilities – the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The end of a calendar should never be confused with the end of everything, and in the case of the Olmec/Maya Long Count, it merely states the close of an ‘age’. The calendar is the fulfillment of an era. The significance for that culture was not considered negative, in fact quite the opposite. According to the scholar Mark Van Stone, “There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012… The notion of a “Great Cycle” coming to an end is completely a modern invention.”3 A number of other scholars agree that the Maya did not conceive of this event as the end of the world, in fact there is no record of such an idea, only that the close of a great cycle was an excuse to engage in a lot of celebrating. As a simple analogy, in the western world we publish calendars that end every December and yet come January 1 we are still around to enjoy another year, hangover permitting. It would be safe to assume other cultures would engage in similar human fashion by honouring what has gone before and looking forward to the next experience.
When the Olmec first created the Long Count they most likely would have already calculated previous Great Cycles, and knowing they were alive and breathing in 3114 B.C. they probably accepted the notion that cycles come and go and life goes on. According to Ryan Rivet of the Middle American Research Institute, “We know the Maya thought there was one before this, and that implies they were comfortable with the idea of another one after this.”4
Written references to b’ak'tun 13 as a definitive end of the world prophecy are few. In fact, most Maya scholars cite only one: a stone tablet discovered in the 1960s at the archaeological site of Tortuguero in Mexico. Built around 670 AD, Tortuguero is the only remaining Mayan stone monument that depicts the end of time, but to add to the mystery, the stone is cracked and the glyphs on the tablet in question are partially damaged, which has made the end of the passage almost illegible. What exactly the tablet was supposed to say only adds to the speculation. The text was carved about 1,300 years ago and refers to the end of a cycle of 5,125 years since the beginning of the Mayan Long Count calendar in 3114 B.C.
But there's nothing apocalyptic about it. A number of scholars have attempted to translate the slab, and the overall interpretation indicates that a god will descend at the end of b’ak'tun 13 with Nine Supporters.5 There are echoes here of the Egyptian Grand Ennead and its nine entities, each of whom represents one of the natural forces underlying the Universe. The fragment appears to be a prophecy by then ruler Bahlam Ajaw who wished to make arrangements for the passage of this god, and he states how the land should be prepared to host the event. Mayan scholar Sven Gronemeyer agrees: the tablet describes the return of Bolon Yokte’ K’uh at the end of this date, the equivalent of December 21, 2012.
Bolon Yokte’ K’uh has been interpreted to be a god of creation and war. As such, he/she is not dissimilar to the Hindu god Vishnu – except Vishnu more correctly represents the complimentary opposites of creation and destruction. These characteristics were never meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically. Nor were the gods themselves; rather than being regarded as physical entities, they in fact depict aspects of nature, such as heavenly bodies: the Egyptian god Ra is depicted as a falcon-headed human bearing a red disc and represents the Sun; Isis represents the divine feminine in nature and the star Sirius, whose rising coincides with the flooding of the Nile which replenishes the soil for cultivation; Osiris represents the rejuvenation of the soul and is associated with the constellation Orion, and so on. Thus Vishnu or Bolon Yokte’ K’uh address the perpetual rhythm of the Earth, they are symbols of the passage of the ages, the birth and renewal of life, and how those cycles are intertwined with the crescendo or diminuendo of human whim and desire. Birth, death, rebirth, forever.
The end of a calendar should never be confused with the end of everything, and in the case of the Olmec/Maya Long Count, it merely states the close of an ‘age’. The calendar is the fulfillment of an era. The significance for that culture was not considered negative, in fact quite the opposite.
The interesting thing about the prophecy at Tortuguero is how Bolon Yokte’ K’uh is said to prevail on that day – December 21, 2012 – and how the event marks the passing of the god in the sanctuary of the temple. If so, the account more than likely describes an event shared with countless other ancient places of veneration. The Olmec – like all ancient cultures – were keen observers of the motions of stellar bodies, and aligned specific parts of their sacred sites to correspond with pivotal events taking place in the sky. In Europe, virtually all stone circles and mounds are precisely aligned in the same manner, and in the case of those oriented to the south-east, these align to the exact moment when the rising Sun appears over the horizon every winter solstice (summer in the southern hemisphere). The moment marks the return of fertility to the land, in other words, the Sun – a solar god – begins its course of ascendancy for the next six months of the year, bringing fertility back to the soil and the people who live off it. This ‘god’ was essentially a part of the recurring cycle of birth, death and rebirth that occurs each season like clockwork.
The monuments of Central America obey the same rules of temple-making as anywhere else on the planet. The local people were expert astronomers, they would have taken into account the precession of the Equinoxes – the Earth’s natural shift of one degree every 72 years – and calculated the exact position this event would take place in the future. Hence they would “prepare the land” for the arrival of this god by building a temple or marker where the god would make its first landfall on that precise date. Thus, it is highly likely that a pilgrim standing at the sanctuary in Tortuguero on December 21, 2012, will experience the return of Bolon Yokte’ K’uh to its rightful place, for at that moment the Sun will cast its radiance upon the most important part of the temple. But this time the event takes on increased significance, because the “god” is also completing a passage through the heavens that began 5125 years ago. The hosting of this special occasion will be a ceremony honouring the birth of a new cycle, not a comment on the fate of the human race.
Unlike doomsday theorists and their 2012 survival kits, this corner of Mexico is preparing for the arrival of Bolon Yokte’ K’uh by planning a year-long celebration which hopes to attract an estimated 52 million celebrators to the region; by contrast, Mexico’s total tourism trade in one year is just 22 million. Unlike the medieval European prophets of doom, the local people see this historic event as a message of hope, and they are using the positive idea of renewal as a bait. An eight-foot digital clock has been hoisted into position in a park and it is already marking the countdown to the event, and there is even a plan to bury a time capsule with messages and photos for future calendar watchers. At the sacred site of Izapa, Maya priests will burn incense and offer prayers; efforts are also underway to connect with the lost wisdom of the Maya so that their world-view may be better understood.
Another initiative called Peace2012 seeks to create a globally synchronized meditation around a “moment of peace” on December 22nd at 5:30am Universal Time – the exact point of this year’s solstice.
Does the Olmec/Maya calendar predict the end the world? No. That's just in our heads, and despite our expectations and fears being projected onto the Maya’s cyclical world-view, their cycle will continue and surely as the Sun will rise in the east. Their b’ak’tun will simply reset at the end of the 13th cycle, just like a Volkwagen Beetle’s odometer clicks over at mile 99,999.99 and resets to zero. Another age will take its place, as surely as this Chinese Year of the Rabbit is superceded by the Year of the Water Dragon.
There once was a great flood that inundated the entire world in 9703 B.C., but we forget it too was followed by a rainbow. Still, if you choose to follow the apocalyptic path portrayed in the avalanche of books cashing-in on 2012 as the end of the world, be sure to hold on to your receipts. You may want to use them when 2013 comes around.
Does the Olmec/Maya calendar predict the end the world? No. That's just in our heads, and despite our expectations and fears being projected onto the Maya’s cyclical world-view, their cycle will continue and surely as the Sun will rise in the east.
Freddy Silva is one of the world’s leading researchers of sacred sites, ancient systems of knowledge and the interaction between temples and consciousness.He is the best-selling author of Secrets in the Fields: The Science and Mysticism of Crop Circles. His new book is Common Wealth: The Origin of Sacred Sites and the Rebirth of Ancient Wisdom, a major work covering the rise of temple-building as a human legacy left behind by groups of initiates throughout the ages. He has also directed three documentaries.
He lectures internationally, with keynote appearances at the International Science and Consciousness Conference, the International Society For The Study Of Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine, and the Association for Research and Enlightenment, in addition to appearances on Discovery Channel, BBC, and radio shows such as Coast To Coast.
Described by the CEO of Universal Light Expo as “perhaps the best metaphysical speaker in the world right now.”
For more information visit www.invisibletemple.com
For example, the consciousness projects by Princeton University and P.E.A.R; many such experiments are documented in Silva, Freddy, Common Wealth, Our legacy of sacred sites and the rebirth of ancient wisdom, Invisible Temple, Portland, 2010. Coe, Michael, The Maya, no.52, Thames & Hudson, London, 1966, p.149 Stone, Mark Van, Proceeding of the International Astronomical Union, 7, 2011, 186-191 Rivet, Ryan, The Sky Is Not Falling, Tulane University, June 25, 2008 Houston, Stephen, and David Stuart, Of Gods, Glyphs and Kings: Divinity and Rulership among the Classic Maya, Antiquity, Cambridge, 1996
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