Published: Dec. 19, 2012

Tongue in cheek is the best way Payson Sheets, a CU-Boulder anthropologist, tries to explain the supposed Mayan calendar prophecy of doom and gloom or spiritual enlightenment, depending on which side of the calendar fence you sit on. A specialist in ancient societies of Mesoamerica, Sheets knows a tad bit about Mayan culture and has this to say about what will happen on Dec. 21, 2012.

"I might surprise my academic colleagues a little bit by saying there actually will be a perceptible, maybe even significant change, from December 21 to December 22. And that is a change of one number – 21 to 22," says Sheets, with a smile evident in his voice.

The 2012 phenomenon comprises a range of end-of-the-world beliefs to which cataclysmic or spiritual transformative events will occur on Dec. 21. That day is regarded as the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle in the Mayan long count calendar. But according to Sheets, it’s not the end of the calendar, it’s only the end of what is called a ‘B’aktun, a millennium of sorts, of which there are 19. 

“We will be in the 13th B’aktun for about 400 years. New Agers listen in -- if you want to worry people in 400 years get them worried. But, don’t get them too worried because the Maya just put in what? From 13 they go to 14, and they go to 15, then go to 16. So how long do we have to wait until we get to the 19 th B’aktun? Well that’s a few thousand years away,” Sheets said. 

He also would like to point out that if there were a prophecy connected to the calendar it would most likely be a good omen instead of a cataclysmic event due to the number 13.

“Let’s say the that the Maya actually did a prophecy, that there are big changes – they didn’t -- but let’s say they did.  It would go from the 12th B’aktun to the 13th in the Mayan calendar on the 22nd of December. 13 is the luckiest number of all Maya numbers. There are 13 components to the heavens and good things happen from the heavens. So if anything related to the Mayan calendar happens, why, things are going to better not worse.”

Even though many scholars from many disciplines have dismissed the idea of the Mayan calendar prophecy, Sheets is not surprised that people put stock in it. He says remember the Harmonic Convergence from the late 80s or the Y2K scare.

"It doesn’t seem to take an awful lot to trigger prophesies of disaster. The Harmonic Convergence was happening and a number of ‘New Agers’ took people to Mayan archeological sites and said ‘boy, hang on, it’s going to be big. This will be the only place where we survive.’ Well, they survived but so did everyone who didn’t go to a Mayan site. Y2K generated huge amounts of concern and then people woke up on January 1 and looked around and noticed that things were pretty much like they were the day before.”

He says a number of what he refers to as “New Agers” have contacted him about the calendar asking if there is any proof to the prophecy. After telling them there’s nothing to the myth and yet they still don’t believe him he says he makes them an offer.

Sheets continues, "What I’ve done is that I’ve offered to everyone of them a bet and they can choose any amount of money they want. I will match it. And they bet something catastrophic is going to happen at midnight or thereabouts on the 21st of December. Want to know how many people have taken me up? I have yet to have one cent!”


Long Count Stela by Simon Burchell, image used under Creative Commons licensing.