KauKauGhe has a big head. Literally. When my old Ojibwa yard dog was nine, his dad — a semi-pro hockey player — brought home the Encyclopaedia Britannica and put it in the boy’s room. So he read it. All of it. Repeatedly. The big man may not be the one you want teaching your kids life skills, but you would lose money betting against him on the minutia of the Hapsburg dynasty.
I thought of that today while reading about Maya. As a life-sentenced prisoner with an allergy to suicide, and no hope for a legal release in this lifetime, I’ve developed more than a passing interest in end-time prophecies. So I wanted to know more about this 2012 calendar of theirs and how they reached their conclusions.
A popular electronic reference work that begins with the letter E (that I am not paid to endorse) opened its article as follows: “Maya Civilization, an ancient Native American culture that represented one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. The Maya built massive stone pyramids, temples, sculpture and accomplished complex achievements in mathematics and astronomy.” Culture, art, advanced math. So far, so good.
Then, after a dozen pages of agriculture, architecture, and astronomy, you get to this: “A Maya nobleman wore… an elaborate feather headdress that was sometimes as large as himself. His head had been fashionably elongated by being pressed between boards when he was a few days old, and his eyes had purposely been crossed in childhood by having objects dangled before them. His nose was built up with putty to give it an admired beak shape, and his ears and teeth were inlaid with jade. A noblewoman’s head was also elongated, and she filed her teeth to points.”
I had to read it three times. I mean, everybody has seen Mesoamerican art somewhere in their life. Pre-Dali abstracts, right? Who would have thought we were looking at family portraits? So how did a squashed skull nation of crazy-eyes figure out a 365-day calendar? The same way the rest of us figure out stuff; trial and error.
By watching the sun, instead of the moon (the same way Gregorian monks an ocean away did), the Maya found the solstices and the equinoxes. From there it was as simple as two-times-two equals four. And because they had spent a thousand years carefully tracking the movement of Venus — a god for them — they also knew about the 584-day Venetian year. Once you have that down, the rest is just statistics; measure, record, multiply — it’s the sort of think pointy-heads have always excelled at. But is it really possible that the multiplication tables Canadian kids learned in grade three can tell us something that the Weather Channel can’t? Well, this is where it gets a little weird, folks– as in Jim Jones weird.
According to the afore-mentioned reference work, “the Mayas believed that the universe had been, and would continue to be, created and destroyed multiple times, and that each such cycle lasted somewhat longer than 5000 years. By their estimate, the current universe had begun in the equivalent of the year 3114 BC and would be destroyed in the equivalent of the year AD 2012.” And upon what solid scientific method did “one of the most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere” base their analysis? That great liberator of human consciousness: manmade religion.
The Mayas believed that earth was actually the exposed back of a giant caiman, flat and four-cornered, floating in a pool. Each corner represented the cardinal points of the compass, and above the earth was a heaven with 7 steps up and 6 down (a remarkable semblance to the European Union, I thought). The universe was linked by a tree that stood at the center of the world, its branches in the heavens and its roots in the underworld. But here’s where it gets really good.
“The ruler of the Maya city-state [who was also the principal religious leader] could be seen as an embodiment of this tree,” says the encyclopaedia, “and thus a physical link between the earth and the supernatural world. One of the ruler’s principal duties was to determine proper courses of action by communicating with their ancestors and the gods in visionary trances.”
2012 — another bastard lovechild of the religion and politics orgy. Why am I surprised? After all, the 21st century has already proved itself to be more like the dark ages than anything that Star Trek ever promised. Inquisitions, crusades, human sacrifice to Venus (that ancient God of war); the past eleven years have served it all up — on a steaming bed of holy books. In a world where rulers now craft their environmental, social, and foreign policies on what God revealed to them at last Sunday’s sermon (or last Friday’s Juma prayers), it only makes sense that a seventh of the educated world thinks it at least possible that the world will end in December, 2012. I’m just glad that Mayan plastic surgery didn’t catch on.