LONDON: There is clearly something about the combination of pyramids and ancient calendars which appeals to our inner kookiness. In the 19th century, even a scientist as brilliant as Piazzi Smyth, the astronomer royal for Scotland, was convinced that the future of the human race had been encrypted within the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Nowadays, enthusiasts for predictive code-matrices look not to ancient Egypt but to the Yucatan. There, back in the first Christian millennium, calculations are widely believed to have been made that foretold the end of the world.
The date? A mere six days’ time: December 21. Time to stock up on the baked beans, then? Not quite. To worry that the world will end next Friday would be to misunderstand these ancient people. The Maya, unlike their contemporaries in Christian Europe, did not live under the shadow of apocalypse.
Their conception of the immensity of time was precocious: an inscription on a temple in the great city of Palenque discusses events that are scheduled to take place in the year AD 4772. The cycles of the Maya calendar, far from ending in 2012, are destined instead to revolve for eons.
Why, then, the current hysteria? In part it springs from the fact that December 2012 was significant in the Mayan calendar as the turning point of a bak’tun, a 400-year cycle. One of only two known direct allusions to the date was discovered just this summer, and makes clear that those recording it were as concerned with contemporary politics as with any grand chronological sweep.
In AD 695, the two superpowers of the Mayan world, the rival cities of Calakmul and Tikal, had met in battle. Calakmul, under the command of its ruler, Jaguar Paw, had suffered a resounding defeat.
Early the following year, Jaguar Paw went on a morale-boosting tour of his wavering allies. The association of his own reign with the distant date of 2012 was designed to place his defeat in a cosmological context. Bad news was being veiled behind a recitation of numerals. British Chancellor of the Exchequer would surely have approved.
The attempt to make sense of the vanished civilisation of the Maya, and to give back to it its silenced voice, has been one of the great projects of Mesoamerican scholarship, and offers one further clue to the roots of the 2012 panic.
When European archaeologists were first venturing into the Yucatan in the 19th century, many of them found it impossible to accept that the monumental architecture they were finding could possibly have been built by indigenous people.
The existence of pyramids and hieroglyphs seemed to suggest settlers from Egypt — or perhaps from Atlantis. Erich von Daniken argued that the influence had been extraterrestrial. Indiana Jones then set the seal on this by finding a spaceship in a pyramid.
All the while, advances in the reading of Mayan inscriptions had been busy revolutionising the scholarly understanding of the Maya. The written record is now largely understood, and has revealed a people who derived their cosmology from their own fears, desires and aspirations.
By arrangement with the Guardian