Rusty Barrett, professor in the UK Department of English and Linguistics Program, studied Mayan hieroglyphic writing and Mayan linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, where he received his Ph.D. in 1999. His doctoral dissertation was a grammar of Sipakapense, a previously undescribed Mayan language. Barrett has taught Mayan writing and Mayan linguistics at UK and is co-director of an intensive K’iche’ Maya language program, taught in alternate summers in Guatemala. Barrett is currently working on a book manuscript about language revitalization in Maya communities in Guatemala.
Barrett weighed in on how the Mayan calendar works, discussed his research with the Mayan population, and shared his observations of the Maya’s reactions to the idea that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.
Q: How does the Mayan calendar work, and is it really ending?
A: So, there are two Mayan calendars: one is a lunar calendar that is 260 days, which has a lot of religious and cultural importance for the Maya, and that is the one that the Maya really pay the most attention to. The other one is the long calendar — the one that counts days forward from Aug. 4, 3114 B.C. However, they talk about time before that date as well.
Earlier archeologists and anthropologists thought there were only 13 baktuns (a baktun is a 400 year cycle in the Mayan calendar) in the calendar, but that’s really not the case. There are actually 20 baktuns in a cycle in the long calendar, but there really is no ending when you reach the 20th baktun. There’s a cycle above that and another cycle above that.
Saying that the Mayan calendar ends is sort of like saying that when our calendar gets to 9999 that it ends. Well, all you do is add a 1. The Mayan calendar is the same, but their math is a base-20 system, so when you get to 20 you just move up a unit.
This is really more like a millennium for the Maya, except it’s much longer than a millennium: since the cycle started in 3000 B.C., it’s a 5,126 year cycle. It isn’t the case that it actually ends; Mayanists have known that for quite some time, and the Maya have never assumed that it ends.
Q: Where do the theories about the end of the world originate?
The entire idea of the Apocalypse is a European idea that was introduced to the Maya during the Colonial period, and occasionally you’ll find things that Maya wrote during that period that talk about an end of the world, but they’re all heavily influenced by Christianity. So the end of the world is not an idea that exists in Mayan culture.
In the 1960s, when the archaeologists still sort of thought that there were only 13 baktuns, there was a lot of popular press about the idea of ancient aliens. The idea that the Maya built things because extraterrestrials came and built it for them became popular. The whole notion that extraterrestrials built Mayan communities is very offensive to the Maya and sort of suggests that somehow they weren’t capable of the great achievements they made themselves.
Ever since I started studying the Maya I have sort of known about what some people call “Mayanism,” just this weird sort of religion that has developed over wrong ideas of the Maya. Anytime you have a group that has had a high point in their culture that is gone, it’s sort of like the mystery of Atlantis; people tend to exoticize it and add stranger and stranger ideas to it until you get these sort of weird cult-like ideas about what they might have believed and what they might have prophesized.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about the Mayan calendar and the Maya in general?
A: One of the biggest misconceptions is that the calendar has an end date and that that’s Friday, the 21st or Sunday the 23rd. The other misconception is that the Maya sort of all disappeared and died. There are actually about 6 million Maya living today in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, and the majority of the population in Guatemala is Maya. The languages that I study and work with are all spoken in Guatemala, and one of the main languages I work on, K’iche’, has over a million speakers.
So there are still Maya here, and the 21st of December is an important day to them because it’s an important ending of one cycle and moving on to another, but they don’t believe it’s the end of time or the end of the world or anything like that.
For the Maya, that day is seen as sort of an important change in the calendar and a time to reflect and think about positive things related to Mayan culture, so for the Maya it’s the beginning of a new cycle particularly one of Maya independence. In Guatemala there was a civil war from 1960 to 1996 that involved an attempted genocide of the Maya, and more than 200,000 Maya were killed. So for today’s Maya, the ending of the 13th baktun represents sort of a new dawn of the end of violence against the Maya and the revival of Mayan culture.
Q: From your experience with the Maya, how have you seen them react to the idea that their calendar predicts the end of the world?
A: The Maya that I work with in Guatemala have been extremely irritated with how this moment in their calendar is being represented, particularly in the U.S. and Europe. It’s something they see as entirely positive and that would only really have significance within their culture, and after seeing people outside saying that it’s this horrible, negative thing and movies like 2012 about the end of the world, they find it extremely frustrating.
So my Maya friends on Facebook are always posting angry messages like, “Did you see this, I can’t believe this,” or “why do they keep saying this? Why don’t they stop?” So yes, it is really kind of strange that it has come to a point where people just assume that there’s an end of time and the Maya predicted something negative to happen, which is not the case at all.
Q: It’s obvious that you have a lot of passion and respect for this culture. What can you say about that?
A: I spend a lot of time living with the Maya. In a lot of the villages where I do my research, it’s not like there is a motel you can go to stay in, so I’ve lived with people and become very close with them. I have lots and lots of friends who are Maya and people that I have worked with for 20 years, so having spent that much time with them and learning about their culture, it’s hard not to have respect because it is a vast and really interesting and amazing culture.
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