Mayan astronomy for 2012: Looking ahead

7 March 2012 by Phil Bull

Chichen Itza, Mayan observatory

The Maya were keen naked-eye astronomers, and made various observations that were startlingly accurate for their time. This year marks the end of the major cycle of the Mayan calendar, which was based on astronomical events. Some people have interpreted the ending of the cycle as a portent of doom, a prediction that the end of the world is upon us! This is nonsense, of course. Celia Escamilla Rivera, of the University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, in Spain, takes us through the event from a Mayan perspective to discover the real significance of this event.

The Mayan astronomy was not written in a book, but in the very stars above their heads. The meaning of this story was not revealed through the study of obscure interpretations, but through associations assigned to the individual parts in the story. All we need to do is recognize those original associations and the story unfolds all by itself. With the Maya we have discovered another story associated with the Winter Solstice, the New Year and the fate of people on Earth. The astronomical alignment of the Cycle of the Winter Solstice and Galactic Center represents the "zero point" on the Cosmic Clock, thus marking the beginning of the New Age in our evolutionary journey in consciousness. It tells us that a New Sun is born, a New Year has dawned, a New Galactic Cycle has begun, and the transformation of our World is well underway.

The Mayans did not have any complex instruments for charting the positions of celestial objects, so their observations were made with the naked eye. They may have used rudimentary instruments, such as crossed sticks to chart position, but they lacked the armillary spheres or sextants of other civilizations. The big secret in this particular story is the date December 21, 2012, that marks a momentous occasion on the ancient Maya calendar: the close of the 13th Bak'tun period. This transition is a cyclic event that occurs approximately once every 5125 years - every 13 x 144,000 days, to be exact - so the last time a 13th Bak’tun ended was at the start of the current Maya era, on 11 August 3114 BC. It was a day that straddled the cusp of a new era - the point between a cycle just ended and one about to begin. Fast forward to today: in the entire corpus of Classic Maya (250-900 AD) inscriptions, there is but one surviving text that speaks of 2012, found in the final passages of the stela known as El Caracol observatory at Chichen Itza, Mexico.

Now that we have reached 2012, an exact interpretation of the inscription has become the subject of much scholarly and popular debate. A Google internet search on "Maya 2012 prophecy" produces a mere 1,200,000 hits! There is no consensus within current academic discussion about whether the Mayan inscription is linked to a prophetic statement. That said, there can be little doubt that the ancient Maya would have seen the date as a numerological echo of the current era's start date, and they would have marked the occasion of 13th Bak’tun with great solemnity and fanfare, as they had done throughout their history - erecting temples, altars and carved stone pillars called stelae.

Go out and look at the night sky - if it's dark enough, and you're lucky to get a good night, you'll be able to find the Milky Way. Nowadays, we know that the Milky Way is our own galaxy. Our solar system exists on the outer edge of a spiral arm, and we are looking at our galaxy sideways, so that we don’t see the spiral shape, but just a band of clustered stars. Looking out toward Gemini or Cancer, the Milky Way thins out because we are looking out into the universe beyond our Milky Way. Looking toward Sagittarius, we see the Milky Way at its thickest, because this is toward the center of our galaxy. It seems to bulge, like an impregnated womb. Without modern astronomical observations they could not have known the true shape of the Milky Way and it would have been impossible for them to determine the location of the galactic equator. In terms of Mayan Astronomy, the Dark Rift feature (which the Maya called the Black Road) lies along the galactic equator in the place where the December solstice sun will be in 2012. This entire region is targeted by the cross formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic between Sagittarius and Scorpio. This cross was also recognized by the Maya, and was called the Crossroads or Sacred Tree. This entire region is embraced by what astronomers call the nuclear bulge of the the center of the Milky Way. As any amateur astronomer or naked-eye star gazer lucky enough to have seen the Milky Way in all its glory knows, this nuclear bulge is recognizable without the aid of large telescopes. It is wider and brighter than other parts of the Milky Way. So, in a general sense we can also say that the alignment in 2012 is an alignment between the December solstice Sun and the Galactic Center.

Consider this: the Maya offer us the 2012 date and tie it to a rare galactic alignment that our science barely acknowledges. They believed, for reasons we cannot quite grasp, that such an alignment would signal great transformation on the planet. If we look around us today, and recall events of the last twenty, fifty, and a hundred years, great transformation is indeed what is going on. Perhaps we should pay more attention to what the ancient Maya teachings actually say, rather than injecting modern assumptions and distortions into the 2012 discussion? There is no better place for accessing this Mayan wisdom than the Creation Mythology, otherwise known as the Popol Vuh, or Hero Twin myth.

Image credit: Bruno Girin, released under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license.

Categories: history | 2012 | maya | astronomy | Celia Escamilla Rivera | Milky Way