You may have seen Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto where a young tribesman, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), runs for his life through the Mesoamerican jungle with a trio of Maya warriors in pursuit. He’s within seconds of death when they emerge from the trees to encounter Spanish conquistadors sailing ashore.
The sight is so shocking it momentarily distracts the warriors and allows Jaguar Paw to escape.
To the Classical Maya — who inhabited the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico until their mysterious disappearance around 830AD — the Spanish arrival would have been less astounding as it was foreshadowed in their Long Count calendar centuries before (The Maya had several calendars of which the Long Count was, well, the longest, spanning 5126 years).
The Maya were exquisitely attuned to cycles, especially the close of a bak’tun, the lengthiest of the five cycles within the Long Count. Bak’tun endings were considered times of vast change and the 12th bak’tun’s exit coincided with the fall of the Itza (the last Maya kingdom) to the Spanish in 1618.
The end of a 13th bak’tun is momentous as it heralds the dawn of a new era – at least to the Maya – and the possibility of unprecedented change.
If your eyes haven’t glazed over by now, you may be interested to hear that this change is unlikely to encompass a nauseating earth crust displacement or mountains of volcanic spew. This is because the Maya said not one word about such an earth splitting crescendo and there is the distinct probability we will all have to show up for work sporting a whopping apocalypse-party hangover on, you guessed it, December 22nd, 2012.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that the Maya and their extraordinarily advanced civilization have nothing to say to us today; I simply have no idea how they’ll make themselves heard over our shrieking din. What makes it even harder is our insistence on reducing their insights into a melodramatic stage play of (mostly) dubious books and a movie imaginatively titled 2012. The movie, especially, makes the whole thing look like The Marx Brothers meets The Four Horsemen and promptly shuts down any serious consideration of deeper possibilities.
This is all entirely predictable. It’s too easy in this distracted culture to turn away from the significant, especially when it’s packaged in a cheap box wrapped in cartoon images of the latest apocalypto vision. Much easier to surf the net and discover your favourite celebrity’s Bacon Number.
Google, in its wisdom, recently launched a new tool that tracks a famous person’s degree of separation from Kevin Bacon. So, if a notable person has directly worked with Kevin Bacon, his or her Bacon Number will be one. If a famous person has worked with someone who once worked with Kevin Bacon, then their Bacon Number is two. And so on and so forth.
What hope, you may ask, has a bunch of genius Maya mathematicians and calendar wizards got against number crunching of this caliber?
We don’t know what will happen on 21st December, 2012. What we do know is the Maya would view it as a time of immense change and prepare accordingly. Rather than succumbing to fear, they saw bak’tun beginnings as an opportunity and an obligation to change.
Maybe we could think about doing the same.
By the way, Mel Gibson and Rudy Youngblood have a Bacon Number of 2.
For a far more erudite explication of the wondrous workings of the Mayan calendar system, please go here.
A scholarly and lucid view on the Maya 2012 fandango is Daniel Pinchbeck’s 2012: The Return of Quetzalocoatl. All John Major Jenkin’s books are also excellent reading.