As you may know, tomorrow at 3:12 a.m. (i.e., Friday December 21 at 11.12 a.m. GMT) is the moment of the winter solstice. The autumn of 2012 ends, the existence of the world probably does not end, but something in between them (longevity-wise) related to the calendar does end as well. This is the last date recorded in the Mayan calendar. We are at the end of the 13th b’ak’tun. If you were a Maya calendar-maker, 13 b’ak’tuns seemed like enough — which is why they stopped. “Who would really care?”, they may have thought to themselves. “Let them make their own new calendars if it’s so important!” Little did they know.
A b’ak’tun lasts a shade over 394-1/4 solar years, exactly 144,000 days, so the end of one truly is a momentous occasion — to which we’re giving short shrift right now by worrying needlessly about the destruction of the world. Actually, to be fair, the Popul Vuh supposedly states that the previous (flawed) word lasted for 13 b’ak’tuns, or 1,872,000 days, so this really is sort of a significant milestone! We of the fourth world, created on August 11, 3114 BC(E), are tonight going to break the flawed prior world’s record for longevity! Some scholars have suggested that we’re still in the 13 b’ak’tun era; others say that we’ve now entered the 20-b’akt’un era (warning, PDF!), giving us another 2750 or so years until the end of this creation. Assuming that the former are wrong regardless of whether the latter are right, rather than ending this fourth world we expect that tomorrow we will wake up in a new era: the 14th b’ak’tun. In fact, it will be the first 14th b’ak’tun ever! Heady stuff!
As with a New Year’s celebration — but with 394 times more force — this is therefore a good time both to look back at the b’ak’tun gone by. It’s a good time to make some new b’ak’tun resolutions. (Those resolutions should probably be made more on a cultural than a personal level. Unless you’ll be getting your brain cryogenically frozen, no living one among us are seeing another b’ak’tun after this one, so far as science can predict.) This b’ak’tun began, if my calculations (supplanted by references to Wikipedia) are correct, back on Sept. 18, 1618.
Previous b’ak’tuns began (calculations not guaranteed) starting with the 6th, in 1142 B.C. (just after the first Trojan War and the coronation of Nebuchadnezzar), then 749 B.C. (7th, shortly after Romulus founds Rome), 355 B.C. (8th, roughly birth of Alexander the Great), 39 A.D. (9th, just before death of Emperor Caligula), 433 (10th, St. Augustine dies, St. Patrick enters Ireland, Rome nears Sack), and 828 (11th, algebra recently invented a decade after Chinese invest paper money.) Are these dates significant? Some of these seem more epoch-marking than others.
But what about our own familiar and beloved 13th b’ak’tun? Back across the pond, we unfortunately just miss out claiming William Shakespeare’s final works as ours– he was a man of the 12th b’ak’tun, which began in mid-June 1224. (If you want to bookend Shakespeare with someone at the beginning of his b’ak’tun, you can try St. Francis of Assisi; it’s also less than a decade after the signing of the Magna Carta.) Thy year 1618 is actually a pretty decent time to suggest that a new era began. It’s about half a year after Johannes Kepler developed the third law of planetary motion — which, being so elementary, I won’t bother describing to you — and a month before the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, famous tobacco merchant.
It’s also less than a year before the Virginia House of Burgesses, the first representative assembly in the Americas, first convened in Jamestown. (Actually, I have no idea whether the Maya or the Olmecs — who actually created the “Long Count” Calendar — or their peer societies had representative assemblies. Sadly, you know what I meant.) With the settlement of Jamestown came the introduction of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — pardon me, that would be the “kidnapped African indentured servant trade” for a few decades, prior to the establishment of chattel slavery in the Virginia. But it’s two years later that something so era-marking that even schoolchildren know about it took place: on November 21, the Pilgrim’s ship Mayflower lands on Cape Cod, and then on December 21 — 392 years to the day before the turning of the b’ak’tuns! — that they land on Plymouth Rock. And so you have Puritanism here as well.
Hell of a way to start a b’ak’tun, isn’t it?
So: looking back to that 1618-1620 area as a marker, do we have any resolutions to make? Anything bad happen for which we’d like to make amends between now and March 2407? (By the way, the 15th b’ak’tun will end almost midway in the year 2801. That’s when I’d look for an apocalypse, if you ask me: right around a nice round number.) On the one hand, you have Kepler and Raleigh; on the other, you have Jamestown (democracy and slavery) and Plymouth (Calvinism and literature) on Anglo-American shores. If we want to pledge to do better in the next several centuries, there are some good ideas to concentrate on there — science, democracy, literature, beheading tobacco vendors.
I like considering the procession of b’ak’tuns because it connects me to bygone days, makes me think. It’s an honor, in a way, to be present at the end of the big One Three. I hope to be around to contemplate the experience in retrospect next week. But what is strangest to me about thinking about the passage of the b’ak’tun is the connection between our day and the year 2407, whose denizens I can barely imagine. And that, in turn, makes me think of the wild audacity of the Maya civilization, seeing connections and coherence in periods of 394 years apart. It’s an admirable act of connectedness with the far past and far future — an inclination that allows me to identify with these people long past.
Happy New b’ak’tun, everyone! Don’t go driving around 3 a.m.; you don’t know who’s out there! (I sure hope some people read this. In fact, I sure hope that they have more than six hours to do so!)