Book Review by Marta Barber
The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012
recently released by David Stuart, Ph.D.
The Classic Maya left written that the creation of the calendar cycle in which they were living took place on 126.96.36.199.0 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u (Aug. 13 – or 11–, 3114 BCE). This date involves three calendars: the 260-day t’zolkin, the 360-day-plus-five-day ha’b and the Long Count.
The t’zolkin is the divinatory calendar and it consists of 20 days, each with its glyph, one of which is Ahaw, day 20. These 20 days are repeated 13 times, thus 260.
The ha’b is the 360-day+ calendar, used mainly as a civil calendar for festivities, mostly of an agricultural nature. This calendar has 18 named months, each with 20 numbered days. Kumk’u is month 18, followed by the group of 5 days, thus, 365 days.
The Calendar Round positions are determined by the confluence of the ha’b and the t’zolkin. The 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u date repeats every 18,980 days or every 52 years.
Then there’s the Long Count, a historical calendar, the one that, when written, most of the time, uses 5 positions: baktun (400 years), katun (20 years), tun (one year), uinal (month), k’in (day). Thirteen was a special number for the ancient Maya. If we extrapolate that day using the GMT (Goodman, Martinez, Thompson) conversion of 584,285 (or 584,283) days, and if the ancient Maya referred to their history in the future and not the past (as in the majority of the cases), that day would be Dec. 21 (or 23), 2012. In the Classic Maya calendars, the date falls on the Calendar Round position 4 Ahaw 3 K’ank’in.
David Stuart, Maya epigrapher extraordinaire and studious chronicler of the written inscriptions left by the ancient Maya, uses his new book, The Order of Days, to explain the cultural and historical essence of the Maya calendars. In a meticulous – and sometimes tedious – attention to detail, Stuart defines what these calendars – and their use – meant to the Maya of the Classic period, the time when they actually left a written record. Don’t expect to read the book as a novel; and those uninitiated in matters of Maya calendars, will find the reading difficult.
Stuart leaves no doubt that he is irate about what he sees as misuse and misinterpretation of dates written by the Maya. As he points out clearly, the Maya were not that precise with actual dates, which they changed to make those dates fit in a cycle of their own making.
Furthermore, the manipulation was done on a local basis. “If politics is always local,” he writes, “mythology for the Maya is also always local.” Thus, what is written in the sites of the Petén, Guatemala, he writes, involves events and beliefs in the Petén. The same applies to Copán and Palenque – two sites that have left a treasure trove of written texts.
This principle also applies to the Popol Vuh, the “Community Book.” It is a Colonial manuscript, he states, “written in archaic version of the K’iché Mayan [of the Guatemala Highlands] language [which] relates how the cosmos began, how the moral universe arose ... and how humanity was created. ... It’s devoted to the exploits of the K’iché kings who ruled at Cumarcah, their capital. ... linking them to the cosmic heroes of the primordial past. ... It reflects the real political and social landscape of the K’iché Maya.”
According to Stuart, the apocalyptic idea of an end of the world or a “transformation of consciousness,” fed and fueled by New Agers about the significance of December 21, 2012, was never written by the ancient Maya. For Stuart, as well as with most true Maya scholars on record, nothing in the scientific study of archaeology and epigraphy from the 5th-to-9th centuries hints at a sophistication of the cosmos that the Maya never had. In fact, Stuart even puts to rest the theory discussed by Linda Schele in her 1993 Maya Meetings in UT Austin and later the focus of her book, Maya Cosmos, in which the enthusiastic Mayanist says that the Maya looked at the stars – especially to Venus – to declare wars. “These [stars]” Schele wrote, “had to be the same three stones that were laid at Creation.”
Stuart writes: “As it turns out, both interpretations are based on highly problematic readings of the glyphs.” In other words, according to Stuart, Schele rushed to judgment before all the evidence had been researched. “I doubt astronomy can still hold enough weight to be the powerful, overarching paradigm for the culture that it once was.”
What you get from The Order of Days is a much better understanding of the use of calendars by the ancient Maya of different locations together with a detailed timeline of their histories. It is true, as he states, that the 260-day calendar, the divinatory t’zolkin, managed to survive in Momostenango, in the Highlands of Guatemala, the onslaught of the Spanish. He calls this a miracle.
In the Yucatán, the ancient calendars were not as lucky and ceased to be used in the 19th Century. By then, in both cases, the Long Count was long gone.
In other words, the Long Count belongs to the period when the Maya had kings who called on gods to oversee their kingdom. It is historic and it died when the belief of the omnipotent king also died. That was around 800 CE.
What Stuart doesn’t do is engage in the debate that the Maya could foresee the date of December 21, 2012 as a day to mark in our calendar. Obviously, if you are a believer of the theories put out there by less than academic star-gazers, nothing written by Stuart or other glyph-readers will change your mind.
For those of us more earth bound, who like to stick to the evidence presented by scholars, The Order of Days confirms what many Maya amateurs, in the strict sense of the word, have come to know as truths: that the accomplishments of the Maya are great enough to need the embellishment of unproven theories.
As we approach the date in question, I hope Maya students everywhere concentrate in the fascinating discoveries made in the last years of the last decade when, by leaps and bounds, archaeologists revealed more of the not-so- mysterious Maya.
The Order of Days, by David Stuart. 352 pages. Harmony Books. ISBN: 978-0-385-52726-2.
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