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Hold the baked beans for now

The Mayans were not New Age gurus. Relax, the world won't end on Friday. Tom Holland writes.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2012 21:36 IST

There is something about the combination of pyramids and ancient calendars that appeals to our inner kookiness. In the 19th century, even a brilliant scientist like Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, was convinced that the future of the human race had been encrypted within the Great Pyramid of Giza. Today, enthusiasts for predictive code-matrices look not to ancient Egypt but to the Yucatan. In the first Christian millennium, calculations are believed to have been made that foretell the end of the world on December 21.

Time to stock up on the baked beans? Not quite. To worry that the world will end on Friday would be to misunderstand the ancient people whose calendar supposedly pinpoints the date as terminal. The Mayan did not live under the shadow of apocalypse. Their conception of the immensity of time was so precocious as to be almost chilling. The cycles of the Maya calendar, far from ending in 2012, are destined instead to revolve for eons.

Why, then, the current hysteria? In part it springs from the undoubted fact that December 2012 was significant in the Mayan calendar as the turning point of a bak'tun, a 400-year cycle. One of only two known direct allusions to the date was discovered just this summer, and makes clear that those recording it were as concerned with contemporary politics as with any grand chronological sweep.

In AD 695, the two superpowers of the Mayan world, the cities of Calakmul and Tikal, had met in battle. Calakmul, under the command of Jaguar Paw had suffered a resounding defeat. The following year, Paw went on a morale-boosting tour of his wavering allies. The association of his own reign with the distant date of 2012 was designed to place his defeat in a cosmological context. Bad news was being veiled behind a recitation of numerals.

"Who will be the prophet?" asked a Mayan author in the colonial period, when Calakmul, Tikal and all the other great cities of his people's golden age had long since been lost to the jungle. "Who will be the priest who can accurately interpret the word of the book?" The attempt to make sense of the vanished civilisation of the Maya, and to give back to it its silenced voice, has been one of the great projects of Mesoamerican scholarship, and offers one further clue to the roots of the 2012 panic. In the early 19th century, when European archaeologists were venturing into the Yucatan, many of them found it impossible to accept that the monumental architecture they were finding buried beneath creepers could possibly have been built by indigenous people. The existence of pyramids and hieroglyphs seemed to suggest settlers from Egypt - or perhaps from Atlantis. Erich von Däniken updated this presumption by arguing that the influence had been extraterrestrial. Indiana Jones then set the seal on this by finding a spaceship in a pyramid.

All the while, advances in the reading of Mayan inscriptions had been busy revolutionising the scholarly understanding of the Mayans. The written record is now largely understood, and has revealed a people who derived their cosmology, not from Atlantis or outer space, but from their own fears, desires and aspirations. The Maya elite, had they survived to witness 2012, would certainly not have been hot-footing it to the Pyrenees. Instead, they would have regarded it as their duty and their privilege to stabilise the universe themselves. This they would have done in accordance with their own highly sophisticated understanding of how the natural and supernatural worlds were interfused, by letting blood and by piercing their tongues with thorns.

As is so often the case, ancient reality is vastly more interesting than modern fantasy. To recast the Mayans as New Age gurus risks obscuring everything that makes them most authentically remarkable.