Classical Mayan civilization snuffed itself out before the year 1000 (which in itself should give us pause about their prognosticating abilities – really guys, you nailed down what’s going to happen in December of 2012 but you couldn’t see THAT coming?)
But it raises the interesting question of just how we know so much about the Doomsday prophecies of these ancient people. Below, we’ll examine four of the main written sources of information that have been passed down through the ages:
The Chilam Balam
When was it written? The nine-to-twelve (depending on who’s counting) books that are recognized collectively as the “Chilam Balam” were written between the 16th and 18th centuries.
What’s it about? There’s a bit of a Farmer’s Almanac quality to the Chilam Balam (although that’s a pretty dated reference. Maybe a Wikipedia quality?). They span topics from recipes to popular stories to historical accounts and ancient prophecies, and they mix both Spanish Catholic and ancient Mayan traditions. Modern historians are interested in the Chilam Balam for the later – as we know plenty about Spanish Catholic lore, but these books contain some of our only surviving knowledge about the ancient Mayans.
Who exactly wrote it? It was written by descendants of the Mayans in the Northern Yucutan peninsula in the centuries following the Spanish conquest. The book tells of the fulfillment of ancient Mayan prophecies about the coming of the Spanish – but, as it was written AFTER the Spanish came, who knows how selectively they were remembered prophecies?
What does it say about Doomsday? Plenty. But it depends where you look. Perhaps this eerie passage describes our fate:
There will be scarcities of corn and squash during this katun and this will lead to great mortality. This was the katun during which the settlement of Chichen Itza occurred, when the man-god Kukulcan (Quetzalcoatl) arrived. It is the katun of remembering and recording knowledge.
Or maybe it’s this chilling prophecy:
Unattainable is the bread in Katun 13 Ahau. The Sun shall be eclipsed. Double is the charge of the Katun: men without offspring, chiefs without successors. For five days the Sun shall be eclipsed, then it shall be seen again. This is the charge of Katun 13 Ahau’.
But, then again, what about this syncretic Mayo-Christian passage:
But when the law of the katun shall have run its course, then God will bring about a great deluge again which will be the end of the world. When this is over, then our Lord Jesus Christ shall descend over the valley of Jehoshaphat beside the town of Jerusalem where he redeemed us with his holy blood.
The Popul Vuh
When was it written? The text as we have it now was supposedly put down in 1558, asterisk asterisk asterisk. Each of those asterisks are interesting enough to be worth relating the story in full. The Mayan legends contained in the Popul Vuh were passed down over the generations in books and artwork. But when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, they took a negative look at any art that wasn’t pictures of the Baby Jesus and writings that weren’t the Bible, and they destroyed a good deal of what they considered idolatrous Mayan art. For a few generations, oral history became the only transmission source for these legends. In 1558, a native who learned Latin transcribed the legends into the Popul Vuh. For 150 years, that manuscript kicked around the local area, and a Spanish priest discovered it in 1701 and translated it to Spanish. It was then lost to history for ANOTHER 150 years, when librarians found it in 1854.
What’s it about? The Popul Vuh tells us the creation story of mankind, and stories of early mythic heroes of the K’iche’ Mayan people and their genealogical lineages.
Their story of how man came to be is particularly cool as far as creation stories go. It starts as most entrants in this genre do – nothing but a blank calm sea; then a confab among gods who decide to create a world. The gods first made animals, but found the dumb beasts lacking in intellect. So they decided to make mankind to cap off creation. In their first attempt they made men out of mud. That didn’t go well. Next they tried wood. Even worse. Finally, they settled on a solution:
This the Forefathers did, Tepeu and Gucumatz, as they were called. After that they began to talk about the creation and the making of our first mother and father; of yellow corn and of white corn they made their flesh; of cornmeal dough they made the arms and the legs of man. Only dough of corn meal went into the flesh of our first fathers, the four men, who were created.
So – yes! You and I and everyone we know are essentially corn-meal, per the Popul Vuh. Bet you’ll never look at tortilla chips the same.
Who exactly wrote it? This is a key distinction. The Popul Vuh was written in the 16th century by the K’iche’ Mayans, who lived mainly in the highlands of modern-day Guatemala. So as any half-competent historian would gladly point out, it’s not exactly primary source material from the mouths of the ancient Mayans themselves – it’s an account by some distant relatives of theirs, off in the hinterlands, hundreds of years in the future, whose culture had likely fuzed in a lot of Aztec and European beliefs as well. You’ll often see the Popul Vuh referred to by Mayan-Doomsday enthusiasts online as “the Mayan’s holy book” – but that’s only true with the above qualifications.
What does it say about Doomsday? Directly? Not much. But the end of every story depends on having a beginning, and that is where the Popul Vuh comes in. It is from its account that we know mankind is now living in the Fourth World, after the gods destroyed the previous three (the mudman world, the treeman world, etc.) And it is from the Popul Vuh‘s account that we know the previous world ended on the 13th b’ak’tun – the Long Count Calendar date that will hit this December 21st.
The Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices
When were they written? The oldest codex dates back to the 1200’s. The Dresden, Paris, and Madrid codices (named for the cities whose libraries they ended up with) are the among the very, very few surviving books from America’s pre-Columbus past.
And yes – that means the Mayans made their own books (neat!). They used the innards of fig trees to make bark-cloth books they called “huun,” off a technique they developed sometime in the fifth century. Historians believe they wrote many, many, many books, but time was not kind to them in those hot rain-foresty jungles, and the Spanish were even un-kinder. As such, most of the Mayan’s favorite literary genres – true crime, romance, sci-fi, po-mo, local history, self-help, business, and humor – are lost to history. Only the three (maybe four – the Grolier codex was discovered in the 1970’s but is doubted by many historians) books survive.
What are they about? The codices are mainly about astronomy, divination, rituals, and calendars. One is all about tracking the motion of the planet Venus. Scintillating stuff.
What do they say about Doomsday? From what I can find about them – nothing.
Steles, Tablets, Temple carvings, etc.
When were they carved? Mayan times! I don’t care what the official rules to “rock paper scissors” say – if you want your writings to survive more than a few hundred years, rock beats paper, every time. As such, there are many, many more surviving hieroglyphs in stone format than in huun paper form.
What are they about? Like most statuary throughout history, lots of them are platforms for warlords to brag to future generations about how many heads they successfully severed from enemies. Otherwise, it’s mainly the Two Topics Even the Mayans Knew You Shouldn’t Discuss at Dinner Parties – politics and religion.
What do they say about Doomsday? Most of the recent interest has centered around the Tortuguero tablet, found in the spicy and delicious Mexican state of Tabasco. The tablet describes the return of the god of creation Bolon Yokte at the end of the 13th B’ak’tun – aka, December 21st, 2012.