The "Mayan Calendar" is the popular name for a complex organization of time, number,astronomy, and astrology created and employed by the Maya (and probably some of theirpredecessors) in ancient Mesoamerica (central and southern Mexico and northern CentralAmerica). Archaeologists and historians of Mesoamerican civilization generally refer to thiscalendar as the Long Count. The Long Count has three elements that are shared with the WesternChristian calendar; a base date, a means of grouping large periods of time, and an astrologicalcomponent.
The base date of the Christian calendar is the year that Jesus of Nazareth was supposedly born.Everything in Western history is dated relative to that point, either before (B.C.) or after (A.D.).In the Western Christian calendar, time is grouped into years, decades, centuries, and millennia.The basic idea of this calendar is to organize time in multiples of the number 10. In the Christiancalendar, time is linear. There's a starting point, 0, and straight lines move forward and backwardfrom that point. Significance occurs when a multiple of ten is crossed, like the year 2000.The base date of the Long Count is August 11, 3114 B.C. In the Long Count time periods aregrouped into multiples of the numbers 13 and 20, numbers that Westerners less familiar with. Inthe Long Count, time is cyclic, and there are a finite number of days that must occur after thebase date before a new cycle commences.
The length of the Long Count is exactly 1,872,000 days, or 5,125.37 years. We know this to be sobecause we know the lengths of the fundamental units of Mayan time. For example, the katun is aMayan time period of 7,200 days. Interestingly, this figure is very close (within 54 days) to theaverage synodic cycle of Jupiter and Saturn. Perhaps the katun is an attempt to represent thatcycle as a mathematical ideal - similar to the way Western astrologers use 360 degrees to measurethe Sun's motion during a 365.24-day year. A katun of 7,200 days was considered a major timeperiod, a generation marker of sorts. We know that there are 260 katuns in the Long Count,which, when multiplied by the number of days in a katun, gives us 1,872,000 days again. We alsoknow about the baktun, a period of 144,000 days, and we know that there are 13 baktuns in theLong Count.
While the Western Christian calendar is based on the year that Jesus was allegedly born, itcontains a week of 7 days that are named for planets. This seven-day planetary week is actuallyan astrological remnant of pre-Christian culture, most probably that of the Near East. Embeddedwithin the week are the planetary hours, divisions of the day (time itself) that are said to have anastrological quality. The hour that begins each day at dawn gives its name to that day. At varioustimes in the history of Western astrology, the planetary hours were used in the search forpropitious times, to read the destiny of a newborn, and to evaluate the nature of the new yearitself. The planetary hours are a remnant of a kind of astrology that uses blocks of time as "signs."Nearly all of Western astrology since the Greeks uses blocks of space which hold symbolicmeaning, i.e. signs, houses, and aspects.
The Mesoamerican astrological tradition is built on a structure of blocks of time, which functionlike the spatial signs of Western astrology. The Long Count's divisions into 260 katuns and 13baktuns are amounts of time that have an astrological value, though much of the originalunderstanding has been lost or destroyed. What we do know is that the cornerstone ofMesoamerican astrology is the 260-day astrological calendar, the tzolkin, which was used forpersonality description and for choosing the best days for activities. The Long Count, with its 260katuns, appears to be simply a large-scale, mundane version of the 260-day astrological count.On a much vaster scale, the Long Count measures the precession of the equinoxes, a cycle ofapproximately 25,695 years. One fifth of the average precessional cycle is 5,139 years, very closeto the 5,125-year Long Count. In Mesoamerican myth, there are five great ages, each one endingwith a collapse of some sort. According to some Mesoamerican myths, we are living today in thelast years of the fifth and last age, the closure of a cycle of five segments of the precession cycle.Given the simple technology available to them, the ancient Mesoamerican astrologer/astronomersdid some amazing work. Not only did they estimate the length of the precession cycle, but theyalso anchored it with a remarkable alignment, the meeting of the winter solstice with the plane ofthe Milky Way, the equator-like plane that runs through the center of our galaxy.
It now appears that the Maya, or their predecessors, calculated in advance when the wintersolstice point would pass through the dark band in the Milky Way, a place very important in theirmythology and a place located on the plane of the galaxy. At least 2,000 years ago they calculatedthis date to be December 21, 2012. With this as the end date, they then strung the Long Countbackwards, arriving at its starting point in 3114 B.C. The so-called "end of the Mayan calendar"is both the terminal point of the current fifth part of the precessional cycle and the terminal pointof the entire 25,695-year cycle itself.