Mayan “Statements” and Beliefs About 2012: The Evidence


John Major Jenkins

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A good and not too common critique against my work is the following: If the end of the 13th Baktun was so important for the Maya, then why is there so very little in the way of recorded statements concerning what they thought about it? Similarly, of all the Long Count dates preserved in the archaeological record, why are there only one or two that could be construed as referring directly to the 2012 end date?


There is really no way to give a completely satisfying response to this critique, because I can’t offer what the question implies must be found: direct, literal statements, carved in hieroglyphs that have been thoroughly deciphered. My response will typically frustrate critics who are unwilling to hear some contextual caveats. When I identify the evidence that does relate to what the ancient Maya “said” or “believed” about 2012, critics will probably dismiss it as secondary evidence that can’t be allowed. But there would be a double-standard in such a dismissal, as the following explanation should make clear.


The Literal Evidence


We have carved monuments dated in the Long Count, stretching from the 7th Baktun to the 10th Baktun (1st century BC to the ninth century AD). Some scholars have criticized the continuity of this sequence, suggesting that Long Count dating in different regions was in disagreement. Although this is a possibility, it would be highly unlikely, since the Mesoamerican calendar was intimately involved with religious beliefs about the inviolable sequence of sacred days and deities. In the manuscript tradition of the Yucatan, Long Count dating via the Katun prophecies seems to have continued up to the time of the Conquest. 


The vast majority of Long Count dates record local events and chronology. Very few of them have anything to say about “Creation events,” but there are a few. Of these, we learn that a 13-baktun cycle was considered to be one epoch or World Age. The date is recorded as, and it’s corresponding tzolkin date is 4 Ahau.  Scholars now know, via the established 584283 correlation, that this 13-baktun period began on, August 12, 3114 BC and will end on, December 21, 2012 AD. We should note right away that the 2012 cycle ending date is a solstice date. This indicates that the early Maya creators of the Long Count system — those who inaugurated it and fixed its placement in real time — must have intended the end date to target the December solstice. This is an important indicator, because then we can strongly suspect that the  cycle ending was not just a mathematical consequence of the beginning date; no, some kind of intentionality is very likely. The alternative explanation is “coincidence.” Mayan scholars have been almost universally unwilling to consider this strange circumstance as a vector for deeper inquiry. Instead, they have often, incredibly, dismissed it as a coincidence.   


[I omit a lengthy analysis of the correlation question. The red herrings offered by David Kelley, Floyd Lounsbury, and others have been seriously looked but they are anchored to unsupportable data and/or assumptions — analysis on my website]


In the Books of Chilam from the Yucatan, there are references to prophecies concerning the end of the 13th cycle. Their relation to 2012 is implied but indirect. It should be noted that these prophecies would be a late terminal pre-Conquest tradition concerning 2012, written at least 15 centuries after the 2012 calendar (the Long Count) was invented. Nevertheless, such perspectives should be appreciated for the simple fact that they preserve Mayan beliefs about cycle endings.


For this reason, we can also access the cycle-ending prophecies in the Quiché Maya Popol Vuh, recorded in Guatemala in the 1550s. According to Popol Vuh translator Dennis Tedlock, the Popol Vuh document was probably read directly from a hieroglyphic book possessed by the Quiché elders. It contains migration legends as well as cosmological beliefs about the World Ages. The transformations of previous World Ages are briefly sketched, and great attention is given to the demise of a World Age ruler named Seven Macaw, and the culture heroes who would succeed him by reinstating their father, One Hunahpu. As Dennis Tedlock showed, the mytho-cosmic topography of these events corresponds to astronomical features and processes scheduled by the sacred 260-day calendar. The Creation Myth of the Hero Twins also involved the sacred ballgame, journeys to the underworld, and events to occur at the end of the World Age. Whether this is a previous World Age or the current World Age is unclear and, ultimately, irrelevant. In folkloric narratives of the Maya, time is mythic time; the message is perennial and the events “happen in” or “apply to” the past, present, and future. In other words, the teachings and beliefs recorded in the Popol Vuh reveal what the Maya believed about the transition between World Ages. They reveal insights and beliefs about cycle endings. As such, they apply to the end of the 13-Baktun cycle.


[I omit a lengthy discussion of the “controversy” over whether the Maya considered a 13-Baktun period important; this debate derives from Linda Schele’s tongue-in-cheek  dismissal of pop-culture Mayan prophecy books by an emphasis on a 20-baktun date recorded at Palenque. Her assertion was seized upon by the media as long ago as 1997 (Newsweek, February 17th issue), but the logic is paper thin, and I treated it thoroughly in an appendix to my 1998 book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 (also online at Those interesting in doing this entire topic justice must be willing to avail themselves of clear, thorough, and careful analysis of motives and content. Paradoxically, that kind of cogent analysis is not offered by academes themselves, who often do not evince an understanding of what they are quoted as authorities on; for example, Schele professed to unquestioningly follow her mentor Floyd Lounsbury on calendar correlation issues, and also professed to be an inept numbers person.]


Secondary Evidence


So, we begin to glimpse how an entire set of  already existing beliefs and perspectives about “2012” can be considered allowable. Critics would say that such secondary evidence is not allowable, because they would wish there to be direct statements recorded in hieroglyphs that have been thoroughly deciphered. This is a bias of the modern mind, and it reveals a double standard. For example, Maya epigraphers made progress in deciphering the hieroglyphs because they took clues from modern Mayan linguistics, from modern phonology, from modern and ancient iconography, and from ethnographic data on Mayan concepts. These sources are all SECONDARY to using the internal evidence within the hieroglyphic texts themselves. But they were helpful in making breakthroughs. Similarly, archaeoastronomers look at a site like Uaxactun and find central, prominent, key alignments to the sunrise positions on the equinoxes and solstices. They thereby conclude that the temple builders at Uaxactun were aware of these solar quarter-positions and considered them important. Notice that the archaeologists did not find hieroglyphic texts stating “We the builders of Uaxactun consider the equinoxes and solstices to be important.” No, but the evidence is there, secondarily. So, if we can allow such a methodology in these other realms of Mayan studies, then how can we not allow it when it comes to understanding what the Maya thought about 2012?


2012 is a cycle ending. It is a World Age transition. Thus, the World Age Creation Mythology recorded in the Popol Vuh must be allowed. That’s where documentary “statements” can be found. And within the mythology, astronomy is encoded.


Izapa and the Popol Vuh


To take this one step further, we can look to the statements preserved on carved monuments at the site of Izapa. This archaeological site dates to 400 BC – 100 AD. Mayan scholars (such as Michael Coe) consider “the Izapan civilization” to have been involved in the invention of the Long Count calendar.  Izapa's carved monuments are pictographic, and portray the earliest coherent episodes from the Popol Vuh Creation Myth found in the archaeological record. Those monuments, and the three primary monument groups, are oriented to the solar horizons in specific, meaningful ways. For example, the December solstice sunrise position is pointed to by the lengthwise axis of the Izapan ballcourt. The ballcourt’s monuments depict events in the stories of Seven Macaw, the Hero Twins, and the resurrection of their father, One Hunahpu. These are stone “documents” and “statements” that are as valuable for understanding the Mayan World Age doctrine, and therefore 2012, as any Rosetta stone clearly spelling things out. Perhaps more so, because the site and monuments of Izapa are integrated in a unified paradigm that touches upon mythology, prophecy, religion, and astronomy. In fact, because of this, the Izapan monumental corpus IS a Rosetta stone, since it integrates different representational "languages" into a unified whole; it shows how we can cross-reference symbols and motifs from different representational categories used by the Maya (mythology, prophecy, religion, and astronomy). We should not try to fit the data into a preconceived methodology, but should instead learn how to see the data for its full import and worth, to see the message that was intentionally put there by its creators. (Please see my brief summaries of Izapan monuments and cosmology, here and here.)


In conclusion, once we see that the Popol Vuh Creation Myth (the book and its stone prototype at Izapa) is the playbook for 2012, then we can see that there is not a dearth of “statements” about 2012. If we disregard the “secondary” or “indirect” sources as viable evidence for reconstructing beliefs about 2012, then how can we accept the methodology of epigraphers, who have been helped in their decipherments by secondary data from modern phonology, linguistics, and ethnography? 


A final note. The Classic Period dates from Coba and Quirigua were carved seven or eight centuries after the first Long Count dates appear (cycle 7 dates, 1st century BC). The preoccupations of the Maya Classic Period were, in general, far removed from the activities of the Izapans. Although it seems that several Izapan innovations were centralized within institutions adopted into Mayan civilization (e.g., the Creation Myth and the Long Count), we should suspect that the core insights encoded into those traditions could easily have been layered over with reinterpretations, redactions, modifications, and localized socio-political agendas. This is exactly what happened to Christianity, when early gnostic and hermetic aspects were occluded and even rejected at the Council of Nicea.  So, although the core galactic references remain embedded in the Mayan ballgame and the Creation Myth, the import of those references for the Classic Maya may have been severely muted. The galactic alignment references may have been as relevant to the Classic Maya as the visionary ascent of the Poimandres was to a ninth-century Pope. In this sense, the recovery of early Christian hermetic texts in the 1940s (the “Nag Hammadi” library) was as revolutionary and upsetting for establishment Christianity as the reintegration of the core teachings at Izapa might be to our picture of Classic (and modern) Maya cosmovision.


Copyright. March 18, 2006. John Major Jenkins