The Mayan Vision of History
The Maya used the Mesoamerican Sacred Calendar to compute large cosmic and historical cycles. These vast computations were accomplished by the use of a system of reckoning called the Long Count.
The Long Count is one of the greatest achievements of Mayan civilization. It endowed the Maya with a sense of cosmic vision that made them unique. Though all Mesoamerican civilizations made use of the Sacred Calendar, only the Classic Period Maya practiced the Long Count. Whether or not they "invented" it, they adapted it as their own and made it one of the foundation stones of their culture. In a way, it is a measure of their unique mathematical and philosophical gifts.
The Long Count Calendar began on August 11, 3114 B.C., when First Mother and First Father brought the present world into being, as the Palenque Creation Myth tells us. It will end on December 21, 2012. While populist prophets, basing their ideas solely upon the monotheistic or Abrahamic traditions of linear time, have seen this as an apocalyptic “end of history,” it is clear that the Maya had an entirely different intent. Before we can understand the significance of their historical vision, we need to place their ideas in context.
A cyclic philosophy of history was part of the Mesoamerican world view. The surviving Aztec codices speak of four previous eras, worlds or "suns" that have come and gone before the advent of our present world, the "fifth sun." The Pueblo tribes of the American Southwest, such as the Hopi, conceive of humanity as "emerging" through successive worlds. Many Hopi elders perceive our present era as a transition from the Fourth World to the Fifth.
The Mayan Popol Vuh records a similar progression of worlds. The gods make several attempts at creating human beings, but the first few attempts fail. The earliest effort results in howling, chattering creatures, which the gods transform into the animals. The next try results in a man of mud who dissolves in the rain. The third try produces men of wood who are able to function in a primitive fashion but cannot worship the gods properly—they are not yet spiritual beings. The gods destroy them in violent rains and floods, even sending the animals to attack them. Their descendants are the monkeys. Finally, on the fourth try, the gods create men.
The analogies with the Aztec cycle and the Puebloan drama of emergence are obvious, and we shall be on firm ground if we suspect that the Mayan Great Cycle corresponds in some way to one of these "worlds" or "suns." It is relatively certain that the Classic Maya believed that the Great Cycle constituted a map of the Fourth World, and that the notorious 2012 “end date” signifies the transition to the Fifth World.
The Classic Maya were unique in their passion for mathematics. Though we now know that their religious practitioners were shamans, like those of other Mesoamerican societies, the Classic Maya were mathematicians and shamans at the same time. Mayan mathematicians independently invented the concept of “zero” at around the same time in history that it was also invented in India.
We can be certain, beyond any reasonable doubt, as to what the ancient shamans were attempting to do with the invention of the Great Cycle. The Maya were making a bold and powerful effort to mathematically quantify and define the “worlds” or cycles of emergence. By placing mathematical values upon the patterns of emergence, they created a model for the course of human history.
But should we believe them?
A skeptic would argue that history has no intrinsic pattern or “shape.” The random events which make up “history” – the annals of kings and conquerors, wise men and tyrants –are the product of chance and circumstance alone.
And yet philosophers have always sought to find an implicate order in the seemingly disconnected incidents that make up the human story. The great Arab thinker ibn Khaldun believed that civilizations were like biological organisms; their inception, growth and decline could be understood in the same way as that of any other life cycle. Oswald Spengler, in his book The Decline of the West, saw the history of Western civilization in mythic terms, envisioning the rise and fall of “Western man” through archetypes such as Prometheus and Faust. Friedrich Nietzsche, another mythic or symbolic thinker, sought to divide the currents of history into an Apollonian or ascetic and Dionysian or ecstatic polarity, while Arnold Toynbee, in his classic Study of History, saw history as a montage of patterns within patterns.
Magic has proven, over and over again, to be the godfather of science. We may well ask ourselves whether the Mayan Long Count Calendar, with its startling blend of mathematical sophistication and shamanic magical insight, may be just as valid as the speculations of a Toynbee, a Spengler, or an ibn Khaldun. If there is, indeed, a shape or pattern to human history, is it not possible that the Maya somehow intuited its inner structure and its vital meaning?
If we accept the idea that magic and metaphysical philosophy may prefigure the discoveries of science, then we must at least entertain the notion that the Mayan Great Cycle may in fact have a validity and a meaning worthy of our attention.
But does the Mayan Great Cycle embody anything resembling a perceptible pattern? Does it give human history a shape or a rhythm?
It was Jose Arguelles who first drew attention to the fact that the precise midpoint of the Great Cycle, at 551 BC, corresponds with uncanny accuracy to what religious historians call the “axial age.” This important era serves as a virtual starting point for many of the world’s most important spiritual traditions. It encompasses the lifetime of the historical Gautama Buddha, Lao-tse, and Pythagoras, as well as the compilation of the Hindu Upanishads. It seems a powerful “coincidence” that the midpoint of the Mayan Great Cycle lies here. More recently, Carl Calleman has pointed out that the beginning date of 3114 BC is equally uncanny as a marker for what we might call “the beginning of civilization” in Egypt and the Near East, though some may raise a skeptical eyebrow as to whether urban lifestyles and better military technology ought to be taken as the definition of civilization.
The beginning of the Great Cycle seems to correspond to a major transition in the way human beings lived their lives, a transition marked by the development of powerful new technologies which caused a quantum leap in the human experience. The midpoint of the cycle indicates a time in which spiritual concepts and ideas, after a long period of development, reached a kind of apex, and one which disseminated itself throughout the world during the second half of the Great Cycle.
If this is indeed the outline of a pattern, we ought to be able to test this assumption with reference to a wider world view. If 3314 BC – 2012 CE constitutes the Fourth World, it will be easy enough to calculate the previous “worlds of emergence” and examine them for a similar pattern.
|First World||18,489 BC – 13,364 BC|
|Second World||13,364 BC – 8,239 BC|
|Third World||8,239 BC – 3,114 BC|
|Fourth World||3,114 BC – 2012 CE|
The First and Second Worlds
At the very outset, we are faced with a certain difficulty. Both of these World Ages fall within the extremely long span of the Paleolithic. Advances in technology are subtle and difficult or impossible to date; speculations regarding spiritual ideas are even more so. Yet despite these difficulties, the midpoint of the Second World, which falls at 10,801 BC, stands out with remarkable clarity, for it corresponds nicely with current archaeological dates for the Magdalenian Culture of Western and Central Europe.
It is now clear that the painted caves of Europe were not created in a single burst of creative energy, but developed gradually, over a long period of time, with the actual point of origin as yet unknown. Many of the most beautiful of the caves were used over and over again throughout generations. Even so, the Magdalenian Period stands out as the very apex, the high point of prehistoric art. This would seem to be the period of time in which the finest artwork of Lascaux and Altamira was accomplished. While the motivation behind the painted caves has been argued over and over again by generations of scholars, many have suspected some sort of religious impulse. If our hypothesis about the structure of the Mayan World Ages is correct, we might suspect that the great artistic achievements of the Magdalenian Era were inspired by the essential spiritual world view of that time – that the cave paintings, in fact, constitute the human expression of that spiritual outlook at its finest. Recent work in the field (for example, David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave) has focused upon the shamanic content of the cave paintings. Using our Mayan model of history, we might call Shamanism the principal spiritual paradigm of the Second World, and the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira its apex of expression.
The Third World
It is with the advent of the Third World or cycle of emergence that the Mayan dates begin to show a spooky accuracy of correlation with actual events. By 8,239 BC, the Ice Age is over. The world is a warmer place. The substance of human life has changed dramatically, and a new technology – agriculture – emerges to create a whole new lifestyle with a whole new world view.
Earlier generations of scholars spoke of a “Neolithic revolution,” as if agriculture and village life had suddenly burst upon the human scene all at once. It is now clear that the adoption of the Neolithic lifeway was a process rather than an event, and that it occurred independently in various parts of the world (Southeast Asia seems to be a bit earlier than the Near East). Scholars now date the primary impulse of this process from 9000 to 7000 BC. The beginning of the Mayan Third World pinpoints the axis of this process with great specificity. The Third World is the Neolithic Era. The new technology which characterizes this World Age is agriculture. Its principal lifeway is village existence, replacing the camp existence of the Paleolithic.
The agricultural impetus began to flow into Europe c. 6500 BC. Earlier scholars saw this as a massive migration of successive waves of colonists from Anatolia into a sparsely populated continent. Recent DNA studies suggest that Europe was more densely populated than was once believed, and that the migratory colonists were few. It wasn’t the colonists which spread across Europe; it was their technology.
At the midpoint of the third cycle of emergence, 5,677 BC, the world view of the migrants combined with the world view of Europe’s ancient citizens to formulate a new spiritual paradigm, one which characterizes the Neolithic as a whole and which still has repercussions to this day. Goddesses of various types were worshiped as far back as the Paleolithic era, and goddesses of agricultural fertility seem to have been part of the spiritual “tool kit” of the migrants from Anatolia, but it is between 6000 and 5000 BC that the religion of the Great Goddess develops its unity and its principal mode of artistic expression. This development took place in present-day Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania among village societies which are currently called the Starcevo and Karanovo cultures. The site of Lepenski Vir, near Belgrade, clearly shows that the new iconography resulted from a mixture of Paleolithic themes with new concepts more intimately related to the agricultural lifeway. This iconography of the Goddess, formulated in pottery styles and sculpted figurines, continued to develop and flourish during the rest of the Third World; indeed, the dissemination of the Goddess religion reaches its most beautiful artistic florescence with the Cucuteni Culture of present-day Moldavia, Romania and the Ukraine which spanned most of the second half of the Third World Age (5000 – 3000 BC).
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas describes the European phase of the Third World Age as “Old Europe” and argues that it is a true “civilization.” Its iconography passed into Greek and Roman mythology, and through that medium it continues to influence us in the present. The Mistress of Waters, depicted as a bird or snake goddess, is ancestral to Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera. The Lady of the Animals, as dog, deer, or bear, develops into Hecate and Artemis. Goddesses like Demeter and Persephone are the direct descendants of the Pregnant Vegetation Goddess upon her cosmic throne. Greek myth is the common heritage of Western civilization, and it is Western civilization that imposed its values upon most of the planet during the latter part of the Fourth World. In that sense, the spiritual impetus which reached its characteristic expression during the long-ago European Neolithic at the midpoint of the Third World Age is an authentically global inheritance.
In accordance with the Long Count Calendar, the civilization of Old Europe begins to decline at the end of the Third World. Earlier generations of scholars saw this as a sudden event, due to the violent incursions of nomadic Indo-European tribes, a concept which led revisionists like Gimbutas to envision brutish patriarchal savages destroying the utopia of Old Europe and replacing it with a culture of pillage, rape and murder. It is now clear that this never happened. The few Old European sites which showed evidence of a violent end (some of which were excavated by Gimbutas herself) proved to be an anomaly rather than a prototype. Since the end of the Soviet Empire, tremendous advances have taken place in the archaeology of Eastern Europe. It is now clear that Old Europe declined due to climate change in the form of a “little Ice Age,” and that the Indo-Europeans entered the region peacefully, as merchant traders who intermarried with the Old European population. They did, however, bring with them war tools made of metal. This new technology, emerging with great force around 3000 BC, marks the beginning of the Fourth World.
The Fourth World
We are still living in the Fourth World, at least for a few more years (until 2012). According to the Long Count Calendar, the present world began on August 11, 3114 BC. Once again, the real story involves process rather than a singular event, but once again the Mayan Calendar pinpoints the vortex of that process with great accuracy. King Menes united the upper and lower kingdoms of Egypt to found the First Dynasty of the Egyptian Pharaohs c. 3100 BC, within fourteen years of the inception of the Fourth World.
The beginning of the Fourth World – sometimes described as the “beginning of civilization” – was characterized by the development of metallurgical military technologies which assisted the rise of “sacred kings” who were able to command public resources through force and power alone, mobilizing populations into the building of cities, ziggurats and pyramids, thus creating a whole new urban lifeway. This process of urbanization occurred at the same time (c. 3114 BC) in at least four different regions of the world: Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and coastal Peru.1
Since the 1960s, a better acquaintance with the spiritual and philosophical sophistication of traditional indigenous cultures has endowed us with a healthy skepticism as to whether superior military might and urbanization ought to be taken as the definition of “civilization.” I share that skepticism and am unwilling to describe the advent of the Fourth World as the “beginning of civilization,”2 though it certainly marked a quantum shift in the way that human beings lived, which is all that our model of the Great Cycle actually requires.
The midpoint of the Fourth World is 551 BC, as noted at the beginning of this essay. Here again the Mayan Great Cycle reaches a degree of extraordinary accuracy, for this is demonstrably the primary vortex of religious thinking for the entire Fourth World. Sometimes called the “axial age,” it marks traditional dates for the lifetime of the historical Gautama Buddha and is the precise birth date of Confucius. Lao-tse, the author of the Tao te Ching, is also believed to have lived at this time. Ezekiel was active in the Near East. Pythagoras and other pre-Socratic philosophers were flourishing in Greece. The Upanishads were being compiled in India.
In terms of global thinking, this midpoint for the Great Cycle, its apex of spiritual expression, may force us to re-envision some of our most commonly accepted notions. That the Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, and the original teachings of the Buddha share a somewhat common world view regarding the nature of the mind and of reality is well known. Less well known, but equally arguable, is the fact that the pre-Socratic philosophers (especially Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Parmenides) shared that same world view, so much so that some scholars (notably Thomas McEvilley in The Shape of Ancient Thought) have asserted that the actual terminology can be translated quite directly (e.g. the Sanskrit term karma is precisely the same as the pre-Socratic praxis). If this is accepted, then the religions of the East would appear to represent the primary spiritual impulse of the Fourth World. Their eventual development and global dissemination through Vedanta, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen illustrate the flow of spiritual ideas which, as we have seen, typically characterizes the second half of any Great Cycle. From the perspective of the Mayan World Ages, the monotheistic or Abrahamic religions, long the focus of Western scholars, seem to be merely an anomaly rather than an expression of the spiritual mainstream. Thus the nodal point of Fourth World spirituality, corresponding to Western Europe during the Magdalenian Period or Southeastern Europe during the Neolithic, lies not in Palestine but in the Himalayas. 3
Now we can develop a schema for the “shape of history” inherent in the Mayan Great Cycles:
TECHNOLOGY & LIFEWAY
|First World||Paleolithic Technology
|Second World||High Paleolithic Technology
|Shamanism, Magdalenian Cave Painting|
|Third World||Neolithic Technology
|Religion of the Great Goddess|
|Fourth World||Metallurgical Technology
|Himalayan Mind Teachings|
This schema may also be usefully represented in a visual manner in the shape of a graph:
At present, we stand upon the threshold of the Fifth World. There can no longer be any question as to what sort of technology will be responsible for powerful, indeed overwhelming changes in the way that human beings live. The proliferation of cybernetic technology during the last forty years of the Fourth World speaks for itself. It has already wrought immeasurable changes in human lifeways, and it is clear that the process is only just beginning.
And as for the spiritual expression of the new Fifth World?
Ah, we still have a long while to wait!
1 It is not by any means certain that the cities of the Indus or of coastal Peru were ruled by powerful hieratic monarchs, as in Egypt or the Near East. The impetus towards urbanization may well have come from entirely different factors.
2 I agree with Marija Gimbutas that Old Europe qualifies as a genuine “civilization.”
3 Geomancy or “sacred earth teachings” rather obviously comprised an important theme in Classic Mayan thinking; different geographic centers became “activated” or “awakened” during different katuns or twenty-year prophetic periods. This subject is far too complex to be covered in this essay. It is, however, worth noting that occult circles have often insisted, ever since at least the early 1960s, that a coming change in world ages would involve a transference of the locus of spiritual “earth energies” from the Himalayas to the Andes. Though early speculation linked this with the so-called “Age of Aquarius,” one wonders if this concept might actually be more comprehensible when considered against the background of the Mayan Great Cycles.