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Time, time, time is on my side

A forewarning: if you want to read about Paul went here and Paul saw that, but certainly not about examination of certain beliefs surrounding sensitive and provocative topics, I suggest you do not read on.

There are many superstitions and romanticisations about pre-Columbine Mesoamerica, the kinds of topics that tend to collapse after a small measure of fact-driven research. For example, I previously dealt with this concept that pyramids are the shape they are for magical reasons, when actually it is practical engineering reasons from eras before Newton's Laws and structural analysis. While the sociological function may have been religious, the shape is practical: essentially, pyramid-building cultures were building hills, because hills don't fall down.

The next I would like to treat is this December 2012 business. People have, quite seriously, asked me if now I am living in Mesoamerica I have any insight into whether the world is going to end.

Yes, yes it is.

No, of course the world is not going to end. To recap for those not in the know, on what is misinterpreted by those really, really not in the know, apparently the calendar of the Mayans ends on the 23rd or 25th of December in 2012. Sort of. Then the world is supposed to end. A more rigorous explanation is this: the Mayans, like most Mesoamericans, had several cyclic calendar systems. First, there was a 260-day ritual calendar, the Tzolk'in, and a 365-day solar calendar, the Haab' (i.e. like what we have). However, neither of these calendars have a 'years' digit, just days and weeks, and when 260 or 365 days were up, that calendar would reset to day 1. This is no good as then you can't record a date or event in either calendar uniquely: it's like saying "Man landed on the moon on July 20th", but without having a concept of the 1969 part to place it relative to all other events.

So, the Mayans would use the dates of both calendars together, and the combination of the 2 gives you a date which only repeats every 52 solar years. As a metaphor that may or may not help, imaging the 2 calendars are thus like co-ordinates: if I say my house is on University Avenue, this is not enough information, but if I give two pieces of information, say the corner of University Avenue and Copilco Avenue, you have enough to find where I live. This new, 52 solar year cycle, called a calendar-round, was useful, as it was close to a single lifetime and thus any event that occurred within your life could be given a unique date. At the end of each calendar-round, there was a ritual 'renewal'; this required a period of destruction followed by a period of reconstruction. For example, buildings might be destroyed, all fires might be extinguished, new fires lit, and a new layer was built on each pyramid over the top of the old, and my photos from Tajin and Tula both show some of this pyramid layering. But, we have the first element of this fantasy of the world ending - at the end of a cycle comes destruction.

A calendar-round also does not have a larger column to count the number of cycles that have occured, so if you need to record an event that happened more than 52 years previous, you again cannot do so uniquely. So, a third independent calendar, the long-count calendar, was formulated, in a fashion similar to ours: a linear calendar with increasing increments of time (the equivalent of days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia, etcetera). Everything is counted from a mythological start date, just like ours, and when one unit ends, the next highest clicks over by 1. The millennium-like unit, the b'ak'tun, is set to end on either 23rd of 25th of December, 2012, depending how you count, and we will be entering the 14th. Now the next element of this superstition come into play; a generally discredited theory was that 13 b'ak'tun made a larger cycle, so a very large cycle is ending.

So, given an uber-cycle (of questionable veracity) and destruction at the end of a cycle (and conveniently ignore the reconstruction bit), there must be uber destruction at the end of an uber cycle, and thus the end of the world. Well, no. The destruction at the end of a cycle was ritualistically performed by the people, not nature. And, while there are still Mayans practising their rituals down in the Yucatan Penninsula, even if they wanted to destroy things (they do not) there are not enough to overpower Mexican law-enforcement who would crack down on damage to private property, much less enough to destroy the world. But, even if you wish to give credence to ancient wisdom and whatnot, the Mayans predicted events after December 2012. You aren't going to do that if you think the world will end forever.

I won't even award column space to any other hoobajoob floating around about planetary alignments magically coinciding with December 2012 that will end the world, as I will take my astronomical data and its interpretation from real astronomers with formal education, not someone claiming spiritualism who can gain financial advantage from a misleading interpretation of third-hand data they come across.

Hence, this issue is merely another guise of millennium fever, this time obscured by a less familiar, more complex, more exotic, and thus more easily mystified calendar framework.

So, I pose these questions: if you consider the end of the world in 2012 to be probable or even possible for reasons of the Mayan calendar, did you feel the same about the world ending on (a date a year before) the end of the Gregorian millennium on New Year's Eve, 1999? And, did that come to pass? Also, if you believe these things, if you honestly examine your own mind, can you answer if this is because you want to? And, one I have no answer for, why?

Leading on from this self-examination, I come to someone once telling me they had an Aztec warrior as a spirit guide. I question not the spirit guide here, but the choice of an Aztec warrior. This choice would seem to stem from a unexamined cultural guilt which leads to a romanticisation of a culture (more or less) extinguished by European colonialism. Personally, and maybe controversially as a leftist, I don't find cultural guilt useful or rational; I find practically addressing the contemporary effects of sins that happened decades or centuries before my birth useful and rational. It is even less rational to feel cultural guilt over something for which your direct forebears were not responsible. If you are an Anglo-Saxon, for example, it was not your people who conquered the Mesoamericans.

And as for an Aztec warrior, cursory examination of the few surviving Aztec codices, the Codex Borgia in particular, dismisses any ideas that the Aztec Empire prior to Spanish arrival was a noble one - they were an exploitative society that came up against a more advanced exploitative society. Their own religious documents paint them as a society ruled by a priestly class of serial-killing psychopaths (oooo, tautology for dramatic effect). The spearing in half of live animals, the month-long wearing of the skin of flayed captives, the tying of captives to stones and providing them with swords with feathers for blades followed by ritual 'combat': these are not noble actions, and they are but a few of the atrocities carried out on neighbours and wild creatures. There is a simple reason Cortes and 300 Spaniards could overthrow a civilisation with a capital larger than any city in Spain. The local nations under the heel of Aztec fascism all threw in behind Cortes to take revenge. So, if someone came to me telling me they had a Totonac warrior as a spirit guide, I might say fair enough, that's not my belief, but at least you have done your research. Come to me with an Aztec spirit guide, and I will ask if you think that in 450 years it will be appropriate to have an SS storm trooper as a spirit guide.

And so, where I opened my last entry with the thought that I liked Mesoamerican imagery, I now end the next with the caveat that while the imagery is compelling, the taking of its implementation by the final of the dominant empires to its final conclusions is not to my taste.



( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 23rd, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
A great read, I am glad I was not scared off by your forewarning. Romanticisation of an extinguished in response to cultural guilt is in some ways similar to the romanticisation of nature in response to technological advances. Both are derived from a yearning for an idealised past (rose-tinted glasses applied to eras well beyond our own experience) with disregard for any grounding in fact and even a disdain for new-found knowledge.

Similarities to certain religious beliefs are striking; in particular the disregard for anything "modern" brings to mind a perspective in some branches of Christianity that all failings are inherent to man and that all successes are only achieved through the grace God, denying any acknowledgement of inherent ability or fortitude.

By the way, I find glorification and idealisation less painful words to process than romanticisation. My spontaneous reaction was a desire for romanticisation to be a real word, coupled with a suspicion that it was not.

Dr Rob

PS: I didn't intend for this comment to transpire the way it did, a quick "well done" turned into a brainfart.
Mar. 23rd, 2010 02:37 am (UTC)
Indeed, this yearning for the past neglects that life in past eras was almost as a rule brutal, insecure, and short, without guaranteed food supply, but with the guarantee that disease and violence were close by. But, this yearning also goes to a mistrust and fear of change, the very definition of conservatism.

I will write something on the Mesoamerican religion soon, as it is very interesting, as it does share many parallels with Christianity. It is also interesting as people tend to think monotheistic religions will endure due to popularity while the polytheistic will wither naturally. This one did not wither naturally.

Dictionaries seem to endorse romanticisation as a word. But, even if it isn't a real word, at least it is properly grammatical, unlike 'irregardless'. I really hate forums.

And, a brainfart comment befits a brainfart post.
Mar. 23rd, 2010 02:42 am (UTC)
And, this disdain for new knowledge in certain movements goes only so far as is convenient. I've heard New Age folk, who tend to want to get away from the modern world, declare that scientists know of and endorse their beliefs. It is, of course, always the faceless 'them' scientists, and of course, there is never a citation to refereed publication.
Mar. 23rd, 2010 03:58 am (UTC)
I find it amazing that so many people can choose only evidence and anecdotes that support your stance, whilst disregarding all evidence to the contrary, without any apparent concern or appreciation.

Your point about fear of change might well be the underlying cause (I'm no psychologist, thank goodness) but the kind of thinking that leads to people saying "the bible is correct and true because it says so in the bible" is something I find quite scary.

And yay for brainfarts!
Mar. 23rd, 2010 04:00 am (UTC)
PS: How do monotheistic believers justify the supposed longevity when compared to polytheistic religions, when polytheism was the dominant belief for so long? Isn't that like saying "sure, ancient Greece fell, and Rome fell, but our current civilisation never will because it's so dominant"?

Dr Rob
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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