by David Stuart
As many know, the upcoming completion of the 13th bak’tun on December 21 is represented in the Maya Long Count as 18.104.22.168.0. It’s an important day in the Maya calendar, to be sure, but not the End of Times of course. The Maya never once said anything of the kind. Nor is the approaching day even the end of the bak’tun cycle, as it has often been described — that idea comes from an old and outdated conceptualization of Maya time. Here I’d like to explain a bit of the actual structure of the bak’tun calendar as we presently understand it, summarizing the work of a number of scholars as well as a few points I made in my 2011 book The Order of Days.
This upcoming 22.214.171.124.0 date is a repetition of the “base” of the system which fell in 3114 BCE, also represented as 126.96.36.199.0. Back then, the subsequent bak’tun number was re-set as 1 (188.8.131.52.0) and thereafter their count progressed forward until the reappearance of 13 bak’tuns on December 21 of this year. This repetition of 13s has led some to suppose that a similar re-set of the bak’tun system is upon us now, and that we are destined to go back to 184.108.40.206.0 in some 400 years from now. This is not true. Based on texts from Palenque that project calendar stations far into the future, we know there will be a linear sequence of bak’tuns from here on, represented as 220.127.116.11.0, 18.104.22.168.0, and so on. This will run forward still until 22.214.171.124.0, about 2,400 years from now.
Here’s an illustration of the sequence of bak’tuns just described:
126.96.36.199.0 August 13, 3114 BCE
188.8.131.52.0 December 21, 2012
184.108.40.206.0.0 October 13, 4772
Notice that at the end of this roughly 13,000-year span that the bak’tun changes to 0 and the next higher period, the piktun, turns over as 1. As it happens, the piktun unit before this date was set at 13, although this is left unwritten in the dates above. (Mayanists have long tended to just write five numbers of the Long Count, following the convention of the ancient Maya scribes themselves. But we know that this is a truncated representation, and that there were many more cycles above bak’tun and piktun. The full system I call the “Grand Long Count” encompassed 24 units!)
People often ask me why 13 was chosen as the re-set point for the bak’tun in 3114 BC. Why restart everything at that point? The way I see it, it’s all about two key numbers in Maya math, 13 and 20. For the Maya, both 13 and 20 were seen as key factors in a larger mathematical system, especially with regard to time. The most simple and fundamental calendar unit was a 260-day cycle (13 x 20 days), widely known as the tzolk’in, that was used for divination and had widespread use even among the general populous — one reason why it still holds importance among some Maya today and the Long Count does not. This 260-day span is about equivalent to nine months in our reckoning, the period of human gestation, and the modern Maya of highland Guatemala who still use the 260-day calendar are adamant that it’s specifically tied to the biological clock of human conception and birth. 13 thus emerges automatically as a key factor — and a sacred number — since 20 is simply the basis of the entire vigesimal (base 20) counting system found throughout Mesoamerica. Beyond this, 13 came to be widely applied to other temporal spans and cosmological structures. In fact, the interplay of the two key numbers 13 and 20 turns out to be the basis of other time structures they developed, including the Long Count.
We see this in the list of bak’tuns above, which is comprised of a sequence of 13 bak’tuns followed by 20 bak’uns — i.e., the same two key numbers of Maya time reckoning. So, the bak’tun calendar as I’ve described it shows how these two all-important numbers could relate to one another in another way, now on much bigger temporal scale.
It’s an elegant system, designed to reflect a deep cosmic structure that’s at once cyclical and lineal, as well as mythical and historical. In this way I hope we can appreciate the bak’tun we’re about to enter is a continuation of a time reckoning system that’s been in place for a long time, and that still has a long way to go.