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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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  • http://www.facebook.com/jhayesboh James Hayes-Bohanan

    Thanks for doing this show today — much-needed fun along with some serious learning. We will be listening as we prepare for our course Maya Gold in Belize next summer. http://webhost.bridgew.edu/jhayesboh/chocolate

  • Billastronteacher

    I don’t think the Mayans knew of a black hole at the center of our galaxy – I doubt they “knew” about our galaxy (at least not in the way we ‘know’ it now). Anyway, the Sun will not align with the center of the Milky Way on December 21 (as seen from the Earth) this year or next or in a century or in a million years. And, this issue has nothing to do with the precession of the Earth (the drift of the vernal equinox along the ecliptic in a 27,000 year cycle).

  • sickofthechit

    Maybe we just need to flip the calendar over. Has anyone looked at the backside?  Or maybe we just need to spin it backwards and we get another 5,000 years.  charles a. bowsher

  • AC

    my neighbor asked me if i wanted to go in on a bunker with him and his friend. i just stared at him speechless. i’m sure he walked away thinking the loss was mine……

    • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

      Well, if the apocalypses don’t get you, there are the coming superstorms… so maybe a bunker wouldn’t be a bad idea in case an F6 tornado comes your way :^)

      • AC

        maybe, but in that case, i want my own bunker – his is apparently filled with enough weapons to deal with the potential zombie invasion, as he confidently told me….i’d prefer to fill mine with batteries, food and enough reading material to last at least 80 more years…..

        • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

          I’m with you: although the average magazine is a quick read, you can only read a single issue of Guns and Ammo so many times. I’ll stick with a library filled with classic masterpieces.

          • AC

            on point should do a show on fantasy bunkers on doomsday, lol

    • ToyYoda

      Well, he might have been indirectly asking you for sex…. guys will take advantage of any dooms day myth.  I know, I’m a guy.  And no, I am not asking you for sex.  :)

      • AC

        no, he’s my neighbor and YUCK!!! i can’t even contemplate that idea!!
        but i honestly think he belives it all. it was really shocking to realize it….he’s a very nice man, but i had no idea.

  • fakeDIY

    Jesus, Tom, stop interrupting and let the guy talk!

  • AC
  • ToyYoda

    Fear-mongering aside.  I have a question about the Mayan calendar.  The earth goes through much longer astronomical periods than a year.  So for instance, the Earth wobbles about it’s axis every 26,000 years known as precession.  Earth’s orbit changes shape and that is periodic.  There’s also a periodic variation in how much the earth tilts.

    Is it possible that the Mayan’s may have noticed these long periods and tried to represent them in their calendars by these thousands of year resets?  If so, that would be amazing that they could measure these things with the instruments that they had.


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Patrick-Dwyer-Jr/100002088204784 James Patrick Dwyer Jr.

    You think there is anyone that takes this stuff seriously?

  • DrewInGeorgia

    The “end” is simply the end of a cycle and might denote drastic change as best I understand it. My hope is that it will mark a fundamental shift in Human Development and Progression as a species, if it actually marks anything.

    Many are thinking Dooms-Day, I’m hoping it’s more like New-Day.

  • Gary Trees

    To be fair, our culture has an everpresent fear of annihilation. Our country is always on the verge of siege, invasion, plague, revolution, secession, financial collapse and moral corruption.  Always, the end of the world is only moments away; or so we are so often told. This is the reason we are so fearful and intrigued by the concept of a phantom apocalypse. When the enemy wears a mask (a supposed Mayan end-of-days) it is more comfortable and fantastic. When the enemy is so antihumanistic as to baffle and disgust (human corruption on any level against it’s own species) it is repulsive and depressing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/sage.radachowsky Sage Radachowsky

      Yes, very true. Last night i saw The Hobbit and four — yes, four — of the six previews were for apocalypse movies. I think it’s because we’re the late stage of a colonial culture that knows it is falling, and we also know that we’re not in tune with the Earth.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sage.radachowsky Sage Radachowsky

    Here is what an *actual Mayan* named Juan Gonzalez says about the prophesies spread by New Age types: http://ia601507.us.archive.org/4/items/National_Day_of_Mourning_2012/1227.juan-gonzalez-messageFromMayanEldersToNationalDayOfMourningWav.mp3

    Recorded at the Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Massachusetts this year, by The Roving House.

  • PithHelmut

    The Mayans couldn’t predict their own demise, so how could they possibly predict the end of the world, hundreds of years into the future?  No one can predict the future. No one could predict 9/11. I hope that allays those who are worried about the end of the world.

  • ToyYoda

    OT1:  Great show!  I love this show addressing pop culture.

    As a suggestion, can we also, if possible, have a show addressing the youtube phenomena Psy’s Gangnam Style?  It’s about to cross the 1billion  views.  No other video in youtube has ever done this.  None.  Plus, if you look at the flash mob  videos (especially ones from Italy), the video is a silly, but popular movement… of what?  I don’t know..  I think we should talk about it.  :)

    OT2: similar to OT1.  I think we need to revisit conspiracy theories AGAIN.  Last show about the Connecticut shooter, a guest called about 400,000 Russians in a mountain with machine guns.  That guest brings up issues about gun control and violence.  In this case, perhaps it’s the conspiracy theorist who are the ones resisting gun control?  Perhaps it’s the consipracy theorist who go on shooting rampages.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    I am amazed by the Mayans’ understanding of astronomy. The last educational program I watched on the subject explained how they built a map of the precession of the inclination of the lunar plane over a span of 18.6 years into one of their sites.

  • Michiganjf

    Yes, Mayan astronomers were among those impressive ancient observers and mathematicians…

    … but the really astounding skill of the Maya was in their architectural engineering.

    At Chichen-itza, the steps of the pyramid of Kukulkan not only cast a serpentine shadow of the sun god, Quetzalcoatl, on the summer solstice, but the steps of that pyramid have also been shown, by audiologists, to perfectly mimic in echo the call of the quetzal bird when one stands before them and claps in a particular way.


  • PithHelmut

    I’m hoping the Mayans were referring to a coronal mass ejection. That would take down our grid and send us back to pre-electronic times and give us a few years to rebuild a new energy future, one based on renewable energy. This could save the climate for our children so that they can live on this planet with a climate that is familiar. The way we’re heading with all this continual burning fossil fuels is going to be the demise of civilization and of all creatures. Of course, we’re not going to think about this because it is reality, we’d rather believe in myths.

  • sickofthechit

    I think if we turn the Mayan Calendar over it says “To order refills call 1-800-438-2-2583 or if you need it spelled out try this way 1-800-GET-A-CLUE!”

  • AC

    i like this caller – i’m still having an end of the world pary tho….

  • johnsloth

    Look around. Within the last 5 years I have witnessed the arrival of a new world and the end of an old one. Prophecies of change and ends are always being fulfilled, however, the exponentially speeding rate of change occurring right now collectively in global culture is perhaps unprecedented. I put it to you: The “world” has already ended… bring on the new! In my lifetime, science and its own high priests have been wrong so often about their interpretations of ancient cultures and events I hardly think they’re in a position to scoff at anyone.
    Also, don’t forget about Terrence McKenna and his Time-Wave Zero theory which coincidentally predicted the end of a great cycle falling on this same date.

  • http://twitter.com/setaspellmedia setaspell media

    didn”t we do this at the turn of our calender.. Y2K?

  • AC

    the forecast doesn’t lie….

  • Steve__T

    Amazing that a circular calender made of five different components  has brought so much thought.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001728781737 Noiko Ikonomi

    We have a beginning to work from.  Everyone is paying attention and information is available.  Everything will still be in process of evolving through these three days of special spiritual awareness to the learned people of the Americas.

  • mezure

     Instead of looking at Mayan civilization in isolation, perhaps we need to examine their culture in light of the other cultures that came before them and the cultures from which they evolved.  This can easily be done by looking at those who currently claim to be direct descendant of the Mayan.  We can use the male y-chromosome of these decedents to track the migration of the original group. If people carry their verbal skills and the stories of the ones that came before them then from these biological findings alone we would be able to glean some of the origins of the Mayan belief system. We should be able to see the similarities to other stories that include astronomical incidents and tract how these stories are often influenced by local perspectives of the sky.  Sadly our educational teaching is so limited to isolated interpretations that we fail to understand the connections between cultures that existed long before our current ability to connect through satellite technology.

  • TyroneJ

    Nothing brings out the loons like an “ancient” calendar coming to the end of it’s cycle. Never mind that the people who made the calendar’s knowledge of Nature was so poor that most of their children died before they reached adulthood, and those that did make it to adulthood, died on average before their 40th birthday.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=57301527 Ben Lownik

    Western culture tends to simplify Aboriginal peoples either as savage and uncivilized or somehow divine and more in touch with nature and the cosmos.  Can we please note that there might be a racist undertone in our “belief” in this made-up myth?

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.ferguson.1426 Matt Ferguson

    Do you think we should look at life like they do? looking at things in a bigger way? in a longer view?

  • http://www.facebook.com/carl.schroeder.750 Carl Schroeder

    I just caught this show on podcast, now can someone please explain to me why the whole show refers to 12 baktuns or about 5000 years as the big turning over of the odometer?  12 baktuns is this December 21 and the one everyone is freaking out about with no real basis, as the show deftly explains. But I thought the Mayans counted 20 baktuns before going to the next piktun, about an 8000 year period.  Baktuns are just every about 400 years, so saying this baktun is the big deal is like saying the end of July is a bigger deal than the New Year, or that the end of a decade in the middle of a century is more important than the century itself. On wikipedia they list the dates of each baktun, so what would be interesting to show whether the Maya were tuning into anything would be to correlate the ends of baktuns with a step of historical civilization. Their 0 baktun or start of the world is somewhere in the early bronze age, which is arguably important, but other dates like 1618 of the last baktun seem almost random to me. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayan_long_count

  • Regular_Listener

    Technical problem here too, when I download it, I only get the first 9-10 minutes.

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