By Kevin Barney
In coming weeks, Patheos will be running several articles from Mesoamerican scholars on 2012. In the meantime, enjoy this summary.
When I was a boy growing up, it was pretty much a given in the Church that the end of the world would come in the year 2000. A friend told me of a BYU religion professor who actually had the then number of years to 2000 as the answer to a test question, "In how many years will Jesus return?"
Well, Y2K paranoia notwithstanding, 2000 came and went with no Armageddon in sight. So now some Latter-day Saints appear to have recalibrated their apocalyptic expectations on the year 2012, complete with a cgi-overloaded movie coming soon to a theater near you. I have been getting a lot of questions about this, and the short answer is, no, the world isn't going to end in 2012.
The reason some people have become fascinated with 2012 has to do with the Mayan calendar. The details are very complicated, but I'll try to make it as simple as I can.
The Maya used a number of different calendrical systems. Two of the main ones were the 365-day solar calendar (called the Haab) and the 260-day ceremonial calendar, consisting of 20 periods of 13 days each and called the Tzolk'in. (Twenty and 13 were important numbers in Mayan calendrical calculations.) These two calendars named the days but did not identify years. By combining the two dates it would be possible to identify a given date with specificity within a cycle of 52 Haab years, which was good enough for most purposes, since life expectancies were shorter than that. One of these 52-year periods is called a calendar round. But this method was inadequate as a way of designating dates before or after the current 52-year period. To accomplish this, the Maya created something called the Long Count Calendar.
Long counts are written with five digits, as so: 0.0.0.0.0. From the right, each digit represents the following passage of time:
Solar Days / Cycle Name
So 0.0.0.0.1 represents 1 kin, or 1 day from the start date. 0.0.0.0.19 represents 19 kins. When you reach 20 you roll up to the next level: 0.0.0.1.0, which stands for 1 uinal (= 20 kin). (Remember that Mayan number systems tend to be based on 20 rather than 10.) For some reason, the third digit only goes to 18, not to 20. So when you get to 0.0.0.17.19, and then you add one more day, you roll over to 0.0.1.0.0, which is 1 tun or 360 days. The two digits on the left go back up to 20. Do you see how this works?
18.104.22.168.0 is a baktun, or 144,000 days. The limit on baktuns is 13, or 22.214.171.124.0, which is 1,872,000 days (= 144,000 times 13). This is 13 baktuns, which is as far as the long count calendar goes.
It was a puzzle to correlate this calendar to our western calendar, but there is a scholarly consensus these days that the starting point for this great cycle was September 6, 3114 B.C. on the Julian calendar. If you add 13 baktuns to that date, you come up with a date of December 21, 2012. So this is the "end" of this Mayan calendar, which has inspired contemporary people with an interest in an imminent end of the age (New Age folk, Christians, and others) to see this as the date for the coming apocalyptic end of the world.
But there is no accompanying Mayan prophecy of dire events to occur on that date. There are various indications that the Maya would have simply started the cycle over again, like a car's odometer rolling over. For instance, they could state dates beyond the end of the great cycle by adding a distance number, which would be added to the end of the 13th baktun and extend into the next cycle. It makes as much sense to see 2012 as the end of the world as it would to see January 1, 2010 as Armageddon, since that date will mark the end of our current calendrical year cycle.
There are a lot of interesting questions involved in this. For instance the Maya apparently created this calendar circa 500 B.C.; why did they set it up with a start date going back to 3114 B.C.?
But so far as we can tell, if the original Mayan culture had survived to today, they would probably do like Prince and have a big party at the turning of the cycle. There is no indication in their own writings that they saw this as indicative of the end of the world.
Kevin Barney is a tax lawyer, LDS scholar, and blogger at bycommonconsent.com.