Itzamana, the creator of the Mayan calendar 370.
(photo credit: Edgard Garrido / Reuters)
If you’re reading these words, great news: The world has not ended. The
5,200-year-long Mayan calendar, which ends on Friday, has prompted a global
frenzy about the end of the world. Uh oh, millions of people have worried, what
did the ancient Mayans know that today’s scientists don’t? But an Israeli expert
in pre- Hispanic communities in Latin America wants you to know that the Mayans
never predicted the world would end today.
“People like to be scared,”
explained Dr. Barak Afik, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who
specializes in the ancient history of Latin America, on Thursday. “We’re humans.
We need to feel some kind of belief. This ending is an example of that belief.
For many people, it’s easier to say that it’s the end rather than that it’s the
He pointed out that this same hysteria could be found on
major dates in the Gregorian calendar, most notably in 2000 with the Y2K
Western culture gives us a linear notion of time – a beginning, a
middle and then some kind of ultimate catastrophe that leads to the end, he
“We’re always looking for the end,” he said. “When will
everything end? When will we die?” Afik hypothesized that this obsession with
the end of days – and the perpetual state of fear accompanying it – was a
natural human reaction to the uncertainty of death.
“One day, it will
happen, you will die, but it will come as a surprise,” he said. “But we don’t
like that surprise.”
As a way to combat this sense of uncertainty, he
continued, humans cling to things that could spell the end of the world – for
example, the end of an ancient Latin American calendar.
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equivalent of a millennium is a “great cycle,” which lasts 5,200 years. The
current great cycle, which they believed was the fifth such cycle since the beginning of the world, ends on December 21, 2012.
contrast to the Western concept of time, Mayans believed that time was cyclical.
Afik described the Mayans’ view of time as a spiral: We have now finished one
circle and are climbing upward to the next. For them, the end of the calendar
was a time of deep introspection.
The HU professor explained that if
Mayans were alive today, they would ask themselves – as a community – what did
we learn during the last cycle? What wars did we fight and how can we learn to
make peace with our neighbors? What technology did we invent and how can we use
it to improve our individual and communal lives? What is the state of our
environment? How are we impacting the natural world? What did we do well, and
what did we do poorly? Mayans also firmly believed that an unbalanced natural
world, suffering from uncharacteristically strong storms, or what today’s world
would call pollution, could only be balanced once internal problems within the
community were solved, he said.
The Mayans called themselves “the lords
of the time” because they understood that measuring time allowed them to improve
their agriculture, by predicting and understanding the seasons with greater
accuracy, Afik explained. The society of astronomers and mathematicians
understood the concept of zero 1,000 years before the Europeans, and could
predict major weather patterns with some accuracy.
He noted that the
Mayans had also predicted their extinction with the arrival of “men wearing
beards”; they were exterminated by the Spanish 500 years ago.
spiritual texts talk about a period of many “20-year cycles” (the Mayan
equivalent of a decade) for which their people will be gone from the earth
before they begin to come back.
Afik gave dozens of interviews with the
media around the world about Mayan history and beliefs, amid the speculation
surrounding the end of the calendar.
“Because of this calendar, people
are becoming really interested in the Maya,” he said, hinting that this could be
the comeback the Mayans had predicted hundreds of years ago.
the new movement of studying Mayan spiritualism to people who studied Zen
Buddhism or Kabbala.
“There is something really important with all their
knowledge, which was so advanced even though they had no access to maps or other
technology,” he said. “People think, maybe there’s something we can learn from
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