My reading on Maya Eschatology has lead me to some interesting findings. It seems that early scholarly thought, which was based on incomplete information, has been taken, re-miss-interpreted and introduced by non-scholars in contradiction to recent discoveries and scholarly interpretations. In short, there’s a lot of bad Mayanism going on out there, especially with regards to 2012.
The Maya were very cyclical in their beliefs and rituals, as are most (if not all) early agricultural civilizations. That much is true. What is not so true is the belief they had an obsession with death, destruction and doomsdays. It is more likely, as argued by the scholars Matthew Restall and Amara Solari, that the Maya system of cycles had more to do with the rebirth and growth that began each year’s planting cycle. They also have argued that the introduction of any apocalyptic preoccupation in any of their manuscripts came after the Spanish invasion and the introduction Christian beliefs, especially the prominent millenarian ideas of their day.
Some of the difficulties that prevent a solid definition of Maya eschatology are: 1) the scant information available - much of it has been lost to time; 2) the Maya were not, as is often misconceived, a single culture - they were in fact a loosely knitted group of peoples united through commerce and some cultural similarities but they often spoke dialectically differing languages and warred amongst themselves; 3) the years of misconceptions that were lain as the foundation of Mayan study and have since made their way into the mainstream but have in many instances been clearly refuted through further investigation; and 4) the misconceptions that have flourished because non-scholars have either unwittingly or by devise misinterpreted information and used this to promote sensational findings (especially those related to 2012).
I am reading continually and will update this page when I am confident I can write something that is respectably informative. I do not desire to fan the flame of ignorance, no matter how exciting it looks. I think the history of Mayan research is an excellent example of how media driven hyper-sensationalism is thwarting the learning process. Too often a scholar makes a mistake, which is part of the scientific process, and this is latched on to and run with by media because of its sensationalistic theme, but when the mistake is reported that is too often overlooked, thereby derailing the scientific process of hypothesis-investigation-discovery-try again.
Above Image: National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Maya mask. Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche.
The Maya had developed a 365 day solar calendar, a 260 day lunar/gestational calendar three to four thousand years ago. Then added to this, approximately 2200 years ago, was the long count calendar that lasted 5126 years. The Long count was broken into kin (day; literally, sun), uinal (20 days), tun (18 uinal, equaled 360 days, approx. a year), katun (20 tun), and the baktun (20 katun, equaled 400 years). The long count calendar lasts 13 baktun, (5200 tun, or years).
Above Image: High resolution photo of inscriptions on the La Mojarra Stela, at the museum of anthropology at Xalapa, Vera Cruz, Mexico taken by an uploader and released into the public domain. I adjusted contrast, tint, etc. to help the markings stand out.
Image: Aztec round calendar, likely from the time of Moctezuma.
This particular calendar is often printed and used to represent the Maya calendar - in fact it is an Aztec calendar and has no association with the Maya as it is several hundred years younger, and was found several hundred miles away from any Maya sites. It then represents a lot of the poor investigation being done by so many who would try to use it illustrate their own mystical beliefs.