To understand the significance of December 21, 2012 to the Mayans (and today’s mass media) it’s necessary to recognize and understand the Mayan numbering system, theology and astronomical prowess.
First, the Mayan had two numbering systems which more-or-less are akin to our distinct decimal system for counting things, and our Gregorian system for counting dates. However, their numerical system is a base-20 vigesimal, not base-10 decimal system. This owes to the fact that they felt perfectly comfortable using their toes for counting, and relished the ability to represent petabyte-scale numbers like faraway dates efficiently. The downside of this and some unfortunate anomalies they introduced was that they never were able to master multiplication or division. Unlike the ancient Romans though, Mayan data modelers did invent a symbol for the number zero, which turns out to be an important part of the story.
However, unlike most of our cultures the Mayans also had two distinct calendar systems: the “Short Count” and “Long Count”. The Short Count derives from a sacred count of 260 days known as the tzolkin munged with Venus’s relatively-protracted year. Although based in part upon astronomical observations, this calendar was purely for ritualistic purposes, still used by Guatemalan highlanders today, and bears no relevance to our imminent ominous occasion. The Long Count calendar is also based on astronomical observations and cycles, and multiples thereof.
The longest of the five nested Long Count cycles is the Baktun which is 144,000 days or about 400 years – interestingly the same as our present-day quadricentenial leap year cycle. The 13-Baktun “Great Cycle” spans 5125.36 years, completing (and iterating, I hope) on December 21, or 18.104.22.168.0 in Mayan nomenclature.
But why December 21st? What happened 5125 years ago on 0.0.0.0.0? The answer that has perplexed scholars until recently is: nothing. Nothing happened on that date—which happens to predate the Mayan civilization by some 3000 years. Unlike most modern-day cultures whose ethnocentric calendars begin on an important date in their own history, the Mayans saw themselves as part of a much bigger and longer picture…one of astronomical scale. It wasn’t until scholars determined that the date 22.214.171.124.0 coincides with a confluence of Mayan theology and rare astronomical events (due to the astrological precession caused by the slow wobbling of the Earth’s axis) that they realized the Mayan calendar is reverse-engineered.
After decades and centuries of data collection (i.e. ancient Big Data curating methods), the Mayan’s best data scientists projected that on December 21, 2012 the Sun’s ecliptic will pass through the center (“dark region” or “dark road”) of the Milky Way, not just on any old day, but on the Winter solstice. It is on this day that the Mayan’s depict their sun god Pacal (no relation to Blaise) traveling into the underworld to do battle with the lords of Xibalba.
So if you want to really impress someone this holiday season, wish them a Happy 14th Baktun or “May you have a renewed Great Cycle!”
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