This week, Guatemala is proudly calling itself the heart of the Mayan world. On December 21, the thirteenth b’ak’tun will end, concluding a 90-year academic struggle about the destined outcome of this cosmological event. While new discoveries such as the finding of a new calendar in the Xultún ruins this past May continue to shine new light on the debate, the accepted view is that the world will not end—as some apocalyptic people have speculated.
To ancient Mayans the numbers 13 and 20 were extremely important due to their significance to crop farming. The Mayan calendar was split into kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k'atuns (20 tuns), and b’ak'tuns (20 k'atuns). In other words, a b’ak’tun consists of 144,000 days, or over 394 years.
The linear Mayan count of days is referred to as the Long Count, and its start date is August 11, 3114 B.C. on the Gregorian calendar; 13 full b’ak’tun cycles will occur on December 21, when many believe the full Long Count will be complete.
As tuns are five days less in duration than a solar year (365 days), the five-day difference is known as Wayeb—nameless days that are considered the most dangerous. In Lynn V. Foster’s 2002 book Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, the author wrote, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters." To counteract this, Mayans would try to avoid leaving the house; others would not wash or comb their hair during the period.
The Popol Vuh, one of the most important collections of Mayan documents, indicates that humans are currently living in the fourth world, as Mayan gods created three failed worlds before. This is seen as the zero date for the Long Count circa 3114 B.C.
How did the b’ak’tun 13 turn into a doomsday scenario that even Hollywood caught on to? One reason is a groundbreaking piece of literature by Michael D. Coe circa 1966, entitled The Maya, which said: “There is a suggestion […] that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b'ak'tun]. Thus […] our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”