Mayan Cosmology

The real cosmology of the ancient Maya, as Mayan apocalypse fever hits American pop culture.

A frieze of skulls adorns the side of the Tzompantli, the platform probably used to exhibit sacrificed prisoners at the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza, with the main pyramid, El Castillo, in the background, in Mexic. (AP)

A frieze of skulls adorns the side of the Tzompantli, the platform probably used to exhibit sacrificed prisoners at the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza, with the main pyramid, El Castillo, in the background, in Mexic. (AP)

The shorthand has got the world’s attention.  This Friday marks the end of a 5,000-year cycle in the Mayan calendar.  Twist and reduce that a little further and you get the “Mayan apocalypse.”  Further still and you get the “end of the world.”

Before we all run screaming from the end times, maybe this is a good time to learn a little more, for real, about the Maya and their calendars.  Scholars who know roll their eyes at the “end times” talk.  It’s just an odometer rolling over, they say.  The Maya would laugh.

This hour, On Point:  the real cosmology of the ancient Maya versus pop culture’s “Mayan apocalypse.”

-Tom Ashbrook


William Saturno, professor of archaeology at Boston University. He discovered ancient Maya astronomical tables near Xultun, Guatemala in 2011. In 2001, he found of one of the oldest extant murals yet discovered in the Maya region, at the site of San Bartolo in northeastern Guatemala

Edwin Roman, a native Guatemalan, he is an archaeologist at the University of Texas.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “The discovery at Xultún, made by a team led by William A. Saturno of Boston University, was reported in the journal Science, published online on Thursday, and at a teleconference with reporters. The National Geographic Society, which supported the excavations, will describe the research in the June issue of its magazine.”

Daily Beast “To prepare for the approaching end of the world—a.k.a. the Mayan calendar’s doomsday on Dec. 21—Russian shoppers are clearing out the store shelves in the country’s far north and east, the first places that the apocalypse will supposedly hit. (That fateful moment is known to believers as the time when “the planet enters the Zero Stage,” a total blackout.) The end-timers are buying vodka, of course. They’re also stocking up on matches and candles, which have been going for three to four times the normal rate and have practically disappeared from stores in the cities of Chita and Krasnoyarsk. Even skeptics are stocking up on a few extra kilos of buckwheat, pasta, oatmeal, rice, and salt “for the black day.””

National Geographic “Some 1,600 years ago, the Temple of the Night Sun was a blood-red beacon visible for miles and adorned with giant masks of the Maya sun god as a shark, blood drinker, and jaguar. Long since lost to the Guatemalan jungle, the temple is finally showing its faces to archaeologists, and revealing new clues about the rivalrous kingdoms of the Maya.”


Check out this gallery of Mayan art discovered by William Saturno.


Tongue firmly in cheek, the Australian prime minister took on the end of the world in this recent video address.

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