THE GREAT MAYAN COUNTDOWN

~ Posted by Charles Nevin, November 28th 2012

Lu Zhengai, from Urumqi, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China, is, I note, busy building a large ark in preparation for the apocalypse allegedly and famously predicted by the ancient Maya for this December 21th at 4.12 am (local time). 

While applauding the prudence of the undertaking, I would counsel those nervously disposed against similarly setting to with the hammer, nails, and metre-to-cubit calculator. For one thing, there seems to be an excitable school of thought that this apocalypse will be the end of the world rather than just a cataclysmic revelation: if so, an ark would be fairly redundant, and a lot of effort wasted. For another, as I am not the first to point out, it seems a bit rich to rely on a prophesy made by a civilisation that failed to predict its own demise. 

No, the more scholarly view is that December marks the end of one of the 5,000-year cyclical Mayan calendar calculations known as the Long Count, and that there is no reason to suppose that this should mark the end of the world rather than the start of the next cycle. 

Indeed, I might point you in the direction of the popular cartoon featuring a Mayan holding a stone calendar and explaining to another, "I only had enough room to go up to 2012", provoking his colleague's response, "Ha! That'll freak somebody out some day". And, moreover, to the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of Xultun, where, in August, calculations were uncovered on a wall going 7,000 years beyond us now. (Interestingly, too, I see that Lu Zhengai has plans to use the ark as a ferry should things turn out unexpectedly.)

All of which suggests that we should happily and admiringly celebrate the achievements of these mighty mathematicians and advanced astronomers on December 21st: their successors, displaying a trademark delight in human folly that might well be inherited, have organised celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador featuring countdowns and any number of visitors. (CNN headline: "Apocalypse Tourism: Where Will You Celebrate Doomsday?")

I would recommend Chichicastenango, in Guatemala, where, four years ago, I met Sebastian, an 80-year-old who, in the Mayan way, doubled as both shaman and sacristan at the Calvario church. In his silent sacristy, sparely lit by flickering candles, Sebastian confirmed that this year would be not the end but the beginning of a new cycle, and added that disasters would usher it in—which nobody can deny—not mark it. I then asked him, in the hackish way, what was the secret of his long life: he laughed, revealing quantities of gold. Beer, he said. Happy New Count.

Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. His most recent piece for Intelligent Life is After the fade. is His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include The world according to socks and Golf's rowdiest weekend