Saturday, January 14, 2012

About the Mayan Calendar Part 5: Prophecy and the Short Count

It must be Thursday, I never could get the hang of Thursdays
-Arthur Dent

The mere existence of cycles calls out for us to try to find correlations between the present and the past. Arthur is having trouble with the conversation with Ford so he correctly concludes that it must be Thursday. Garfield has found Mondays unpleasant in the past, therefore future Mondays will be unpleasant. Friday the 13th is bad. (Though, actually, yesterday seemed just fine to me.)

A solar calendar, such as our own, is designed with this in mind. It's set up to track the seasons so that, “It got cold this time last year,” is actually useful information when trying to figure out whether it is likely to get cold at this time this year. If you happen to know what time it got cold the last six years, even better.

My understanding is that when the Maya made predictions about the future it was often based on the idea that what has happened before is a signpost to what will happen again. They definitely had a firm grasp of the idea of linear time, the Long Count (particularly the occasionally used extensions of it) proves that. None the less they had their cycles and believed that those could shed light on what was to come.

This is, unfortunately, something I know almost nothing about. It's no problem writing about how something like the Tzolk'in works with limited knowledge of the Maya because you don't need to know all that much. If you know that it works on interacting cycles of 13 and 20, and you know a bit of modular arithmetic, you can talk about how it works perfectly well. How it's interpreted is another matter entirely.

I know that there were meanings to the days, I believe that every one of the 260 days in the Tzolk'in had some kind of meaning associated with it, I'm guessing some in more depth than others. I could try to look up those meanings but I'm not sure how comfortable I would be simply relaying that here, unlike the math of the calendar I can't double check it using things I already know. I think taking about that should probably be restricted to people who actually know what they're talking about. I've seen what happens when people who don't know what they're talking about start going off on the Maya. I watch Ancient Aliens. (On occasion. I don't watch it all the time. Don't judge me.)

Also, there are 260 of them, which seems daunting.

Another set of prophecies I've heard brought up a lot has a much smaller number to deal with, by a factor of 20. That seems like a simpler thing to work with. It requires introducing yet another calendar.

If you're like me it probably occurred to you that the Long count could be connected to the Calendar Round to make a really big cycle. Not as big as it at first appears. I had completely forgotten that there were 13 of the largest unit (in part because in the extended version there are 20 of them.) That means that the Long Count is divisible by both 20 and 13 so adding the Tzolk'in wouldn't extend the cylce any. Adding the Haab', on the other hand, would create a cycle of 73 Long Counts.

That didn't happen and there is not a giant Mayan Calendar with a cycle of 377,151 years and change called the Longer Count.

But at some point someone did get the idea to make part of the Long Count cyclical. They threw out the Ba'ak'tuns so that the k'atuns (which last about 19.7 solar years) were there largest unit, and then they differentiated those using the 13 number days from the Tzolkin. Thus the Short Count was born.

For reasons I don't pretend to understand they named each k'atun after the last day in it.

The first one started on 1 Imix. Since the number of days in a k'tun is divisible by 20 the first day of each k'tun was Imix' and the last day was always Ajaw, which is also written Ahau (I think I've been inconsistent with how I have spelled it). What changed was the number day.

A k'atun is 20*18*20 days. Or 7200 days. That's 11 mod 13, so the last day of the first k'atun was 11 Ahau and that is what it is called. 11 = -2 (mod 13) and that'll be easier to work with. To find the order of the k'atuns we just subtract two from eleven repeatedly:

11, 9, 7, 5, 3, 1, 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2, 13

Just in case anyone was confused by it:
1 – 2 = -1 = 12 (mod 13) and
2 – 2 = 0 = 13 (mod 13)
So that's why it goes from 1 to 12 and 2 to 13. There are various ways to think about why that works, but I think the easiest is to just think of it as a circle where 13 is number before 1. One step before one can be called zero, but in this case it also happens to be 13, and we could call one step before that negative one, but it also happens to be twelve.

I'm never sure how much I should explain the modulo math. On the one hand, saying that one minus two is twelve looks like something that needs an explanation, on the other hand I don't know if people are getting frustrated that I explained it again.

So, moving on, there is this cycle of k'atuns and there are prophecies associated with them. The prophecies are created by looking at what already happened and assuming it will happen again. They're largely negative, probably because text I know about was written after the Spanish showed up and thus the past they were looking to wasn't exactly happy.

So what does it have to say about k'atun starting in December of 2012? (That is what everyone is supposed to wonder about these days, right? The History Channel won't stop making shows about it, after all.)

Well if you look to the internet you'll almost certainly find that it says something like, “For half there will be food, for others misfortunes. A time of the end of the word of God. It is a time for uniting for a cause.” And no one ever seems to say where they got it from. They'll tell you that it's from the prophecies of Chilam Balam, but there are multiple such books. Also, it isn't as if they were written in English, someone had to translate. But the quote always seems to be attributed to Chilam Balam as if he personally dictated it to them in English.

I think it comes from this article from 1996. Its version is, “For half of the katun there will be food, for half some misfortunes. This katun brings the end of the "word of God." It is a time of uniting for a cause,” and unlike most of the rest of the internet, it says where it gets that from. Before laying out its version of the k'atun prophecies the article states that, “The delineations below are a composite taken from the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel and the Codex Perez and the Book of Chilam Balam of Mani.

The Codex Perez is more commonly known as the Paris Codex. It was written in hieroglyphics and I cannot read it. If there's an easy to access translation I do not know of it. You can find photographs of it online, if you want them. It appears to be in poor condition.

In the case of the Chilam Balam book of Mani, just like the Paris Codex there's a problem of access to English translations. I don't see any online, and I'm not going to try to get a book from the library, probably involving inter-library loan, in the middle of writing a post.

That leaves the book from Chumayel. An English translation of that (from 1933) is available online, and is very easy to find at that. Here is a PDF of the translation that was linked to from Wikipedia.

Here is what it has to say:
Katun 2 Ahau Is the twelfth katun. At Maya [uaz] Cuzamil the katun is established. For half <the katun> there will be bread; for half <the katun> there will be water. <It is> the word of God. For half of it there will be a temple for the rulers. <It is> the end of the word of God.

There's nothing about uniting for a cause, but perhaps that came from one of the other sources. If you accept that that water == misfortune then the version from the 1996 article seems to stick reasonably close to the source.

I think that the reason for that is simply because the original is so short. Most of the things are significantly longer and more historical in their nature than the Katun 2 description. As the article's author puts it, “In the several books of Chilam Balam, the influences of the thirteen katuns are stated, usually as a description of historical events that occurred during previous cycles.

There is actually a lot of history in some of the accounts and it's hard for me to separate the history from the prediction*. The article attempts to do that creating short summaries. The problem is that these summaries then get taken, have the parts that might indicate they are summaries chopped off, and get sent around the internet as if they were the actual texts of the prophecies.

And it's not just the internet. The History Channel in all it's misleading glory has shows where a narrator with an imposing voice reads parts of those summaries as if they were the actual words of Chilam Balam with no indication that they're highly condensed summaries.

The prophecies take up 3451 words in the 1933 translation (which, recall, is stated to be but one of three sources.) The summaries 555 words. Some of those get thrown out. The summary for k'atun 8 is:
This may be the worst of the katuns as both Chichen Itza and Mayapan, the two great ruling cities of Yucatan, were destroyed during its period. The texts speak of demolition and destruction among the governors, an end to greed, but much fighting. It is the katun of "settling down in a new place."

It gets cut down to:
A time of demolition and destruction among the governors, an end to greed, but much fighting. A time to settle down in a new place.

So you can see how little of what was started with must be left in the version you end up with, but that is what is presented as the prophecy. Which is why it made me think that this would be something I could tackle so I could actually share some the the prophecies here. It looks like it would be significantly more difficult than I thought, and once again I find myself running out of day.

So I'll close on this. I may not know exactly what the Maya prophesied, I certainly have no idea if those oft quoted summaries are accurate (I only have access to one of the sources that we're told were used to make them), but I do at least have a grasp on how the prophecy was supposed to work.

The basic idea comes to us from Battlestar Galactica: All this has happened before, and all this will happen again. I'm told the phrase was taken from Disney's Peter Pan, proving that at least in the case of the phrase, it did happen before. The k'atun cycle gives you the schedule. About every 256 years. Closer to 256 and a quarter if you want to be more precise.

So that's the whole idea. Want to know what will happen from 2012 to 2032? Look at what happened from 1756 to 1775. Also try 1500 to 1519. Or the one before that, or the one before that.

This post did not turn out at all how I expected it to. I was hoping to be able to share at least some of the prophecy in an interesting way, but it looks like I'm really not equipped to do that. So instead I've given you the tools to make your own. Look at the past and you should be able you make your own prophecy the way the Mayans made theirs.


*In a certain sense history is prediction here, but I very much doubt that they thought the exact same thing would happen the next time around. I have no idea how similar they expected it to be. Did they expect white men with red beards to come from the east 256 years after the time written about in the prophecies, or did they just expect invaders from somewhere, or did they expect something that would feel like invaders from somewhere? I have no idea.


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