Posted by: Johan Normark | December 5, 2012

2012: The Aztec Five Suns mythology is not compatible with the Late Formative and Classic period Maya mythology

If you search “Maya calendar” on Google you will see images of the Aztec calendar stone. The reason why this non-Maya monument has become the symbol for the Maya “end date” is understandable only from taking a look at the history of the 2012-phenomenon. As Whitesides and Hoopes writes, it was the Mayanist Michael Coe (1966) who related the 13 baktun “cycle” with that of the Aztec 5 Suns. This, in combination with Goodman’s (1897) earlier assertion that the Long Count was cyclical and the cycles of creations in Postclassic Maya sources like Popol Vuh, have laid the foundation for a belief, both among academics and 2012ers, that the Late Formative and Classic period Long Count calendar will end at 13 baktun and restart again. However, there are monuments, such as Stela 10 at Tikal, that inserts the five units Long Count in greater temporal contexts and there are no indications that there is a change at 13 baktun. Distance numbers also indicate the lack of a break at 13 baktun. For example, one of the astronomical tables at Xultun contains a time period of 17 baktuns. In fact, apart from a few “pre-era” dates (recorded as if they were part of another 13 baktun cycle), there are no records of dates from an era preceding the one supposedly preceding this one (which would be the case if the Classic period Maya believed in several World Ages).

What happened in the Postclassic Maya area was the emergence of the Short Count, a cycle of 13 katuns. These cycles would end and start all over again. During this period the Maya area became more “international”, being more influenced by Central Mexican ideas, ideas that likely arrived already during the Classic period when Teotihuacan played a substantial role in Early Classic Maya politics. However, as long as the divine kingship (ajawlel) was in existence this earlier influence did not affect the already established Long Count. With the collapse of Teotihuacan and the later Maya collapse, in combination with the earlier Late Formative collapse, ideas of cycles of history, World Ages if you want, got foothold in the Maya area as well. Hence, we must remember that Popol Vuh and the Five Suns mythology are from the same time period (Late Postclassic/Early Colonial periods), and they were the result of over two thousand years of waxing and waning of political systems and the calendars they utilized.

There are other reasons why the Five Suns mythology is incompatible with the Long Count as it is perceived by many 2012ers. In the 2012-mythology it is believed that the Five Suns are the same as Five 13 baktuns because this equals 25,675 years which is close to the length of the precession of the equinoxes (a Platonic Year), which is roughly 25,800 years. This is an idea promoted by Frank Waters (1975) and more recently by John Major Jenkins and other New Agers. However, for this model to work all five Long Counts must have the same length (13 baktuns). Is that the case for the Aztec Five Suns? Nope.

According to Miguel Leon-Portilla (1982) the first Sun (4-Ocelotl) began 2513 years before 1558. This would be 955 BC (long after the Long Count began).  This Sun lasted for 676 years (this is 13 x 52 years). The second Sun (4-Ehecatl) lasted for 364 years (7 x 52 years). The third Sun (4-Quiahuitl) lasted for 312 years (6 x 52 years). The fourth Sun (4-Atl) lasted for 676 years (13 x 52 years). In-between the fourth and the current fifth Sun (4-Ollin) there is also supposed to be a transitional period of 2 x 13 years. There is no recorded “end date” for the fifth Sun but the next time it might end is October 2, 2027.

Now, although 13 is common in the Five Suns mythology, as 13 is an important number in the Maya Long Count, the Aztecs include two Suns with multiples of 7 and 6 (13 combined) and at least one transitional period. This is not even compatible with Jenkins and other 2012ers conceptualization of the Long Count where there are no transitional periods. Further, Jenkins argues that five 13 baktuns equals one cycle whereas Goodman argued for a cycle of 73 baktuns. 73 divided by 5 does not even give us an even number and hence the Jenkins/Waters cycles are incompatible with the numerical cycles Goodman sees in the structure of the calendar. However, in my view both cyclical views of the Long Count are wrong.

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  1. As Castillo Cocom (2012) writes:

    “In the Occident notions of time and space are often arbitrarily segmented into the before, the during, and the after. I don’t know why. Maybe it is an attempt to think about concepts of being or decode the temporalities of being human or possibly to respond to questions such as who am I/who are we. Deleuze (1991) would say that I am/we are habits. In my opinion this is a partial and incomplete answer, that it is detached from its spatial and temporal context, or perhaps the opposite, that it is tied too closely to such contexts. Whichever. Who cares.

    “Understanding” how indígenas latinoamericanos conceptualize time/space is a habit among anthropologists, archeologists, linguists, sociologists, ethnologists, historians, historical anthropologists, ethnographers (la lista es extensa). It is a fixation. It has been written, for example, that the Maya imagined time as a permanent and repetitive calendar of cycles (León-Portilla 1994; Tedlock 1992). Inspired by Levi-Strauss (and before Sahlins’ swam to his Island of History), they proposed Maya time as cyclically repeating historical prophecies and returning prophetic histories (Bricker 1973, 1981; Hunt 1977). Reconciling prophecies and cycles, they proposed Maya time as a spiral and debated whether it was a helix or conic spiral, but always with no beginning or end. When the Mayanists realized that what they thought was the Mayan calendar had lots of diverse cycles, including cycles that correlated cycles of cycles associated with cycles that were metaphors of other cycles, the idea was revised to be cycles of cycles of calendars with cycles that remain inscrutable, such as the 819 day cycle.

    Then they discovered it was “also but not quite” linear. Maya time for the Mayanists was proposed to be discrete layers of sedimented temporalities that originate in cosmogenesis and separated by catastrophic destructions … that repeat! Debating whether there are three or four creations, archaeological Mayanists proposed their own three-era cosmologies and grand epic narratives of civilizational-genesis and armageddon: Pre-Classic, Classic, and Post Classic Maya; ancient, traditional folk, and postmodern traditional — almost but not quite modern (Wilk 2005). As well, in Mayanist thought the Maya thought that time was not quite line-like accumulations of stones, reeds, rattles, or other symbol-things — even gods themselves are said to be time-symbols! — piled up, bundled, counted, carried, or sat on by gods, kings, and priests. While these Mayanists continue to debate their metaphors, they nonetheless all agree that the Maya are obsessed with worshipping time.

    Wait, who is? “The many faces of time, a primordial reality and obsession for the Maya, was an object of veneration for them… The Maya man sees his existence marked by time. Time is the presence and cyclical action of all the faces of divinity” (León-Portilla 1994:51). It has been said that los indios are obsessed with time/space: colors, corners, calendars. We are? The only cycle is the everlasting imposition of western notions on us. It is an epistemological act of violence…
    The idea of time as an epitome of before, during, and after does not exist in the thought of the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula, not even in their language. Maybe this is also the case with other people and languages that anthropologists have named Maya and Mayans (see Castañeda 2004, Restall 2004, Castillo Cocom 2004 for the meaning of these terms). I don’t know. Perhaps, but I do know that Bricker is correct when she explained: “Maya does not have tense as such. Instead, it has a system of aspectual inflection which indicates whether an action has been completed or not, whether it is just beginning or ending or has been in progress for a while” (Po’ot Yah 1981:4).

    Castañeda tells me (personal communication, July 16, 2010) that he often reads in grammar books how linguists explain that Maya does not have tenses; and, then, nonetheless, the authors of such books use “tenses” to describe and analyze the Maya conjugation of verbs according to “tenses.” Castañeda calls these linguistic constructions of Maya grammar “nontense tenses.” It seems that explaining Maya language or understanding “The Maya” and “Maya Time” is much like watching Reality TV or Hollywood film — Pirates of the Caribbean, Bourne Supremacy, Apocalypto: It requires a suspension of disbelief, but not of the fiction as fiction. Rather, it is a permanent suspension of belief in the real; that is, an active disbelief in what is the real, reality, actual, in order to construct “the really real” in a way that is more really real. It is an acceptance of the fiction as real, as if it were real: “the fiction as experience” (Castillo Cocom and Castañeda 2002). Realism, a more really real, is substituted for real actualities: Mayanist Realism. The real is erased, elided for the science fictions of anthropology and linguistics: No future, no present, no past tenses, yet the Maya have nontenses of Future, Present, Past. Maya time is not Cyclical, Spiral, Epic, Narrative, Eternal Time as imagined and worshipped by Mayanists.

    Hence, departing from a non-laicized belief, time/space is not conceived by the Maya people as epic narratives, not in any of the western metaphors of epic, of a time-things or sets of events that initiate, finalize, accumulate, repeat ad infinitum. It is not conceived as “something” that turns over and over as it moves away from a set point, rolling farther and farther away from a center or “zero date” with each turn. It is not a cycle, nor a flat line extending forward endlessly, deep into the intergalactic space of Mayanist fascination.

    Time. It’s a not a cycle, not a spiral. Almost but not quite. Neither a line with no end, nor a line with an endpoint. Maya time is neither eternity, nor is Maya time an eschatology, Christian or otherwise. Derridean? Is Time geometric? Maya time is both “almost but not quite” Time and “Neither/Nor” — neither the geometric space of timelessness, nor the imagined prophecies of Christian futurologies” (Castillo Cocom, 2012, pp. 230-232).

    Castillo Cocom, Juan A. (2012). Hot and Cold Politics of Indigenous Identity: Legal Indians and Cannibals, More Words, More Food. Anthropological Quarterly, 85(1), 229-256.

  2. Thanks for that comment! I definitely must read your article. My opinion of what time is (no matter the “cultural perception”) is that it is a tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities. This tension may be conceptualized in very different manner. I look forward to see how it is conceptualized in your text.

  3. […] cannot be predicted in advance, why not opt for October 2, 2027? I am sure one can combine the Aztec Five Suns with Meillassoux’s four Worlds. Why not? It is entirely possible in Meillassoux’s […]

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