It's almost the winter solstice, Dec. 21, when the Mayan long count calendar, which began 5,123 years ago, comes to an end, a time of portent and predictions if you follow such things. What intrigues me most about this is the grand astronomical alignment said to occur.
On that date, the Milky Way will rise to a position vertical in the sky. The elliptical path the Earth takes around the sun will cross the galaxy horizontally, and our sun itself will line up where they meet. Something like a Celtic cross will be formed, or, if you will, a crossroads.
This is revealed in the film "2012: The Beginning" - created by writer-director-producer Shannon King Buset and cinematographer Gabriel Noble - that Barry and Stella Rivers showed last June as part of the Maui Film Festival.
Buset and Noble decided to find out what all the fuss is about and traveled to Mayan sites in Mexico and Honduras to speak with archaeologists, anthropologists, experts in sacred Mayan texts and an "archaeo-astronomer."
The bottom line: The Mayans used the long count calendar to know whether it's time to change things or to stick with the status quo.
The Mayans loved lowest common multiples and highest common divisors. They were skilled mathematicians. They looked at the stars with the naked eye but kept careful records and were able to observe cycles. They have several calendars, some shorter, but the long count calendar is measured in 400-year-old segments called baktun.
At the classic Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras lies a temple complex that is to the Mayans what Athens was to ancient Greece. Margarita Temple, located 65 feet under Temple 16, dates to 435 A.D. Discovered in 1993, rarely visited or filmed, its symbols describe the destruction of the previous age and the creation of the new era. The idea of 13 cycles may have begun in Copan.
At the end of the ninth baktun, an expert in the film explains, the age of kingly states began, and at the end of the 10th, the age of kings ended. At the end of the 11th, the Mayans abandoned Chichen Itza (40,000 people walked away and created a new capital). At the end of the 12th, the Mayan Indians initiated a rapprochement with their longtime enemies, the Spanish.
We are coming up on the ending of the 13th baktun, a time considered highly significant by John Major Jenkins, chief proponent of a theory predicting a time of disaster after 2012. The theory is said to come from the Mayan city-state of Palenque, which flourished in the seventh century, and in the Yucatan, where the Mayans were "intensely great astronomers."
"Something is coming that has never happened before," Jenkins said.
On Tortuguero Monument 6, a ruler named Lord Jaguar recorded his biographical testament on two flat stones about 6 inches thick, now in a museum. They noted the relationship between his birthday in 612 A.D. and the end of the 13th baktun in 2012 when the the sun lines up with the crossroads of the Milky Way and the ecliptic, the plane in space continuous with the sun's equator around which most of the planets revolve.
The left panel counts time from the king's birthday, where a war god appears, to the upper-right corner of the right panel, where a figure of the same god appears. Said anthropologist Barbara MacLeod, "This guy's coming back again, and he's a god of war."
The last piece of evidence for the theory lies in the Dresden Codex - one of the few surviving Mayan books, and named for the German city where it is housed in a museum - which, on page 74, depicts a flood scene at the end of the 13th baktun, a cataclysmic event that a German anthropologist decided was predictive. Others suggest is was merely a depiction of a past event.
Ac Tah, a contemporary Maya spiritual leader and descendant of the Yucatec Maya of Mexico, says there will be no apocalypse. The Maya do not believe in the end of existence. "We begin again and never die."
"They believe baktun endings are about renewal, but at the sacrifice of previous ways of being," said an archaeologist. The end of a baktun offers the opportunity to change, to put aside what is stale and to come up with a new agenda.
"It is the time to put aside things that are not working and apply those that will."
The most important thing, according to Ac Tah, is to develop a unifying consciousness that will lead to a more harmonious world. "May we all be strong in will and faith in ourselves, and may we enter a cycle of peace."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.