This article is a reworking of an essay submitted to The Millennial Institute at Boston University
The calendar cosmology of the ancient Maya of Central America states that the world is due for renewal in the years around A.D. 2012. Recent breakthroughs in understanding the astronomical underpinnings of this “millennial” temporal turning point show thatthe Maya believed a rare alignment of the solstice sun with the Milky Way (or Galactic Plane) would be responsible for an era of great transformation on earth. We can refer to this event as a Galactic Alignment. It is an astronomical fact that the solstice meridian will be precessing (by way of the precession of the equinoxes) through the Galactic equator in roughly the year 2000. Although the sociological implications of the concept of Galactic Alignment is unfamiliar to mainstream scientific discourse today, there is ample evidence in the scientific work of several researchers that suggests our changing relationship to the Galactic Plane is important. There is further evidence in the traditions of the major ancient civilizations (namely, Egypt, Mayan, and Vedic) that this alignment was thought of as being a significant transformative event for human beings on earth. The Galactic Alignment of era-2012 served the Maya, as well as many other ancient civilizations, as a type of temporal marker around which gravitate sociological effects typical of what we call “millennial fever.” My paper identifies the underlying empirical reason that Maya cosmology holds responsible for millennial visions, calendars and traditions.
Maya cosmology is a complex science primarily concerned with understanding the nature of time. It utilizes calendar systems invented by the Maya to calculate important eras during which the Maya believed that divine energies, or gods, would manifest on earth. Maya calendar systems are intimately involved with, and based upon, the movements of celestial bodies including the sun, moon, and planets. Maya calendars also track more subtle astronomical phenomenon such as eclipses and, most significantly, the slow shifting of the heavens known to modern astronomy as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession of the equinoxes (which also could be called the precession of the solstices) was believed to be responsible for a succession of World Ages, a doctrine central to Maya Creation mythology. As such, Maya mythology ultimately describes astronomical processes – this being a key to understanding the true scope of Maya cosmology that Maya scholars began to take seriously in the late 1980s. Based upon this initial survey, it is clear that Maya cosmology encompasses astronomy, calendrics, and mythology.
The World Age concept of the Maya is very similar to the millennial turning of the Judaeo-Christian calendar. The next large turning point in the Maya Long Count calendar, a date which marks the end of a period of over 5,125 years in Maya chronology, occurs on December 21, 2012. Whether it’s coincidental or not, it is important to note that the Maya 2012 date is relatively close, in turns of the vast expanse of time involved, to the millennial turning of A.D. 2000. The ancient Maya believed that the years around 2012 would be attended by great changes and, in accordance with their World Age Creation mythology, the transformation of human beings into something completely new. Here we see an important distinction in the Maya conceptualization of World Age “millennial” eras, as compared to the apocalyptic, doomsday scenarios of other traditions: for the Maya, time is cyclic and period-endings are filled with chaotic, unpredictable changes that result finally in renewal and a new birth. This is more closely related to the Chiliasm of early Gnostic Christianity than to the doomsday phenomenon of Year 1000, which seems to be faithfully reemerging as we approach Year 2000.
The Maya calendar cycle that ends in A.D. 2012 is called the 13-baktun cycle of the Long Count calendar. The Long Count calendar first starts appearing in the archaeological record in the first century B.C. It was apparently perfected and inaugurated by a late-Olmec / Pre-Maya civilization called the Izapan civilization. Esteemed Maya scholar Michael Coe, and others, credit the Izapan civilization with the invention of the Long Count calendar. Based upon the five place values used in the Long Count dating system, and the dates on several so-called “Creation monuments” which describe the end of the last cycle and the end of the current one, a period of 5,125 years (13 Baktuns) was considered to be one World Age, or cycle of creation. After many decades of interdisciplinary study, Maya scholars were able to determine how the Maya calendar corresponds with the Judaeo-Christian calendar, such that, for example, we know that a Long Count monument dated 126.96.36.199.1 equals May 7, 755 A.D. Consequently, the date 188.8.131.52.0, which represents the end-date of the current creation cycle in Maya thinking, occurs on December 21, 2012 A.D.
It is important now to recognize that Maya calendars reflected the Maya assumption that important events happen atthe end of a time cycle or process. The analogy we can use is the human gestation period – birth happens at the end of that time period. Likewise, the Maya utilized “end-naming” in their calendars; they named time-periods by their last day rather than their first day. This piece of information is important for understanding that the Maya fixed the Long Count calendar in real time by something they believed would happen on the end-date rather than the beginning date. That “something” is an astronomical alignment, an alignment so compelling and rare that the ancient Maya astronomers believed it to signal the commencement of the next World Age.
It is an astronomical fact that the precession of the equinoxes, the slow wobble of the earth on its axis over a 25,800-year cycle, changes our orientation to the stars, constellations, and other celestial “background” features. Importantly, precession alters our angular orientation to the Galactic Plane of our Milky Way, such that the sun’s sidereal positions on the equinoxes or solstices periodically align with the Milky Way. It is an astronomical fact that the solstice sun will be in alignment with the Galactic Plane in the years between 1980 and 2016. In more precise terms, both the U.S. Naval Observatory and astronomer Jean Meeus (inMathematical Astronomy Morsels, 1997) calculated that the solstice meridian will align with the Galactic equator in 1998. Since the sun itself occupies roughly ½ degree, the zone of alignment can be extended to a 36-year range centering upon 1998. We can call this a solstice-galaxy alignment, or simply, galactic alignment. This alignment occurs roughly once every 12,900 years (one-half of a precession cycle).
The ancient Mesoamerican astronomers of the first century B.C. were mathematically and astronomically sophisticated. According to leading Maya scholars such as Anthony Aveni and Gordon Brotherston, the ancient Maya could have fairly easily noticed, and then calculated, the rate of precession. The end-date of the 13-baktun cycle of the Long Count marks the precession-caused alignment of the solstice sun with the Milky Way, and based upon evidence in other Maya traditions including the Maya ballgame, king accession rituals, and the Maya creation mythology, there is every reason to believe that this was intentional. For a reality-check on this suggestion, we can note that the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who is attributed with discovering and calculating precession in the second century B.C., was using star data that was only 170 years old. For detailed documentation of these arguments, I direct the reader to my bookMaya Cosmogenesis 2012. At 450 pages, with 6 appendices and 22 pages of academic source material, this book addresses the immediate dilemmas and questions that arise for scholars, as well as laying out the evidence in a systematic and clear way.
The ancient Maya cosmologists understood the precessional alignment of era-2012, what we can call a solstice-galaxy alignment, as justification for a World Age shift. Furthermore, they believed that this alignment would stimulate change on the planet, ultimately to bring upon the universal renewal of death and rebirth that they attributed to each new dawn in the cosmic cycles of creation. It’s important to understand that we are discussing here a reconstruction of Maya calendric cosmology based upon academic scholarship, the points being to elucidate how the Maya understood their World Age ending of A.D. 2012 and why they chose that particular date. We don’t have to agree with their interpretation that an alignment of the solstice meridian with the Galactic equator has any direct causative effect on human beings, human civilization, or the “pace of change” on earth. However, it is important to recognize that the ancient Maya believed this to be true, and thus they offer an alternative interpretation, one with empirical underpinnings, of the millennial fever attending Year 2000.
We may want to entertain the possibility that Maya cosmology is a rather late expression of a profound and ancient understanding of our changing relationship to the larger universe. Evidence from at least two other major ancient civilizations suggest that they too believed that the exact same type of solstice-galaxy alignment to which the Maya oriented themselves heralds transformative events for life on earth. Egyptian cosmology describes a Zero Time, or Zep Tepi, of 10,800 B.C. during which the gods reigned supreme and the foundations of Egyptian civilization were laid. This period indicates the previous time that the solstice axis was lining up with the galaxy. The ancient Vedic material with its World Age doctrine of the Yugas also points to a time some 13,000 years ago that was a Golden Age of light. Specifically, Vedic astronomy describes the cycling of the sun around a celestial origin point called Vishnunahbi (this would be the apparent motion of the sun around the zodiac resulting from precession), and implies that we are now approaching a turnaround point. The alignment of the sun and the Milky Way occurring now would be that turnaround. These traditions are ancient and suffer from the steep attrition of the ages. However, the Maya material represents a more recent flowering of this intriguing cosmological model, and there is abundant evidence that the Maya held this era-2012 alignment to be the most significant evolutionary event that human beings experience. For example, the image of the sun moving into alignment with the Milky Way is played out in the Maya ballgame. It is equivalent to the movement of the game-ball, symbol of the sun, into union with the Milky Way, the cosmic “goal.” Likewise, the Maya Creation story of One Hunahpu’s resurrection in the cosmic game court also symbolizes the 2012 alignment. A wide spectrum of source material from varied fields such as iconography, archaeoastronomy, ethnography, calendrics, and epigraphy, contribute to the conclusion that the Maya anchored many of their cosmology ideas and cultural traditions to the solstice-galaxy alignment of era-2012.
In modern terms, the ancient Maya insight about era-2012 is this: Our changing relationship to the larger universe is important. Human beings are ever being challenged to expand our time-concept. From a dim appreciation of the solar year cycle to our current appreciation of the larger Platonic Year, we are now moving into a greater vision of our relationship to cosmos larger than previously imagined.
There is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests the changing relationship between the solstice/equinox axis and the galactic plane is important. In a book published in 1973 called Cosmic Superimposition, Wilhelm Reich showed that the position of aurora borealis phenomenon was related to the angular relationship between the celestial equator, the ecliptic, and the Galactic equator. Furthermore, he showed how hurricane trajectories also were related to the angles between the plane of the solar system and the plane of the galaxy. Philosophical deductions by Oliver Reiser, Rene Guenon, and R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz all state the importance of the galaxy as a formative player in the evolution of life on earth.
So, having ventured into the possibility that perhaps the Maya were tuned into something empirically “real”, we can abandon that line of thought as being secondary to the importance of my breakthrough reconstruction of the Maya end-date cosmology. This new reconstruction, based upon over a decade of interdisciplinary research, reveals a cosmogonic system of myth, astronomy, and humans evolution, that is undeniably brilliant, unique, sophisticated, and worthy of our utmost awe and respect.
Copyright. © John Major Jenkins. All rights Reserved. June 1999