What did the Maya prophecies actually say?

author Mark Van Stone
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As detailed in the accompanying downloadable PDF presentation, only a few fragments of Mesoamerican prophecy survive to enlighten us, and few of these are Maya. All we have are splinters, tatters, a tiny fraction of what was once a vast and substantial literature. The ancient prophecies we have pretty much reduce to two categories: Stone inscriptions and the Books of Chilam Balam. The "Talking Crosses" of the 19th and 20th-century Caste Wars provide more recent material. (The Return of Quetzalcoatl is Aztec, not Maya, and isn't due till 2039 at the earliest.) Everything else, the "Maya Great Cycle" of 13 Bak'tuns, the Resurrection of the Hero Twins, even the Aztec "Sixth Sun," is pure conjecture, modern interpretation, or projection, an externalization of millennialist fantasies. Maya prophecies are most useful when we examine what they do not say.

Maya monumental inscriptions often predict ceremonial events. They use the future-tense verb utom, "it will happen," and nearly always predict trivial events, like, "137 years hence, it will be a Tuesday, the 200th anniversary of our king's birthday." For example (see the accompanying presentation), 7th-century tablets in Palenque's Temple of Inscriptions foretell something over 4000 years in the future. What momentous occasion was worth calculating so far ahead, and carving in stone? The 80th Calendar-Round anniversary of the coronation of Janab Pakal, the great king buried directly below. Besides the powerful numerological implications of the interval (4 x 4 x 13 x 20 x 365 days), this anniversary fell on the Maya date, eight days after a momentous period-ending.

The conjunction of these two numbers was the main event, a prophecy that only a numerologist could love. The Maya prophets tell us nothing about galactic alignments, transformations of consciousness, the fall of nations, nor even the actions of gods, kings, or priests. What can we deduce from this prediction? (1). They expected people thousands of years in the future to remember Pakal, to have much the same concerns as they themselves did. Life as they knew it would go on, far beyond 2012. (2). The Long Count calendar would not reset after, it would continue up past, to the six-digit In other words, don't worry about 2012.

One monument –and one only–, Tortuguero Monument 6 (also shown in our presentation), does seem to predict an event on 21 December, 2012. Be warned; it is unique in many ways, and some very important scholars doubt that it really is talking about the future. Steve Houston, for example, believes the text's verb-endings imply that it is talking about then-contemporaneous events; noted archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni agrees. However, it seems pretty straightforward, calculating with a correct distance number to "the end of 13 Pik (Bak'tuns)," using the utom verb, and then telling us, uniquely, something apparently non-trivial. Unfortunately, two of the glyphs are nearly obliterated, so the inscription tells us that on that date, Bolon Yokte' (a god of change) will descend to (from?) the "Black"-(??) and do (??).

The Book of Chilam Balam ("Interpreter-Jaguar") survives in several versions, highly customized for each community which preserves it. Some versions date from the 16th century, but most of them, including the apparently-most-coherent of the lot, the Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, (featured in our presentation) date from the end of the 18th century, 250 years after the Conquest. These books are products of a highly-decayed and -embattled tradition, and such works are often corrupted by various influences and the errors inherent in multiple-copies-of-copies.

For example, they confuse the 365-day year with the 360-day "year," and some refer to the old K'atun of 20 years, while others use a 24-year K'atun. Some of the dates given are simply wrong. The numbering of the K'atuns is confusing, and seems corrupt, or follow a system we don't yet understand: after describing and numbering the first five K'atuns, the Chumayel manuscript starts numbering anew, calling the sixth cycle "The first katun. Katun 1 Ahau is the seventh katun." Likewise, the next they call the "second katun," then the "third," followed by the "ninth," which puts the numbering back on track. And so on.

They contain K'atun- and year-prophecies, auguries for periods that repeat eternally; the K'atun-prophecies apply to 20-year eras that repeat every 256 years. The K'atun for the era 1992 - 2012, for example, also applies to 1736 - 1756, and to 1480 - 1500. So Columbus's voyages and the reign of Emperor Qianlong prefigure the period through which we are presently passing, and the prophecy for all three of these eras are the same: "The quetzal shall come, the green bird shall come. Ah Kantenal shall come (kante is a species of tree, source of a yellow dye). Blood-vomit shall come. Kukulcan ("Feathered Serpent" = Quetzalcoatl) shall come with them for a second time. The word of God. The Itza shall come." This prediction rivals Nostradamus for its vague and arcane assertions. It tells us nothing.

More importantly, of the 13 K'atun prophecies, most are unequivocally bad.
The first will suffer "niggardly, scant" rains;
the third "carnal sin" and "dissolute rulers."
"Harsh tidings" characterize the fourth;
"locusts, fighting," and "little profit," the fifth.
The sixth is consistently "evil."
The eighth will suffer "drought,"
the tenth from "lewd speech,"
and the 13th will have "no lucky day."

The other five are good or non-committal (the Katun 4 Ahaw prophecy quoted above is one of these). The future will be miserable, interrupted occasionally by a transient ray of hope. Now there's a forecast we can all agree with! It certainly has been true for the Maya.

The pronouncements of the "Talking Crosses" are often hopeful. Compiled during a time of profound rebellion, they tell of tribulation and triumph, projecting a day when the dominant White folks disappear from the land, leaving it to its rightful owners, the Maya. None of these forecasts proffer specific dates, beyond "Very soon, …" It is important to note that, according to Prof. Robert Sitler, who has done extensive original interviews with traditional Maya elders and such in the Highlands, that while many foresee better times a-comin', none believed that the transfer would arrive in any specific year. None assigned any important meaning to the date we call 2012.

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