There is little doubt that ancient civilizations and the thought of visitors from outer space are two subjects that easily capture the imagination. Most people are fascinated by one or the other or both. In fact, even science fiction gained some mileage out of combining the two; 'documentaries' often run on the non-major network stations purporting to show that earthworks of various kinds, and even patterns in fields of crops, were made by visitors from outer space. Often, the documentary makers attempt to draw parallels between the work of ancient civilizations, from the Celtic to the Mayan, and the 'work' of the visitors from outer space. It's a shame that they have to do that. The connections that have already been found between ancient civilizations -- particularly the Mayan -- and life on earth today are quite amazing enough.
Forget 2000; the real danger will arrive in 2012
The Mayan calendar was based on detailed astronomical observations and stipulated a 5,125-year cycle, according to Peter N. Stearns. In his book, Millennium III, Century XXI: A Retrospective on the Future, Stearns contends that one of the Mayan cycles will end on December 21, 2012. At that time, there will occur what Stearns calls a "transformative vision" (Stearns 1998 112).
In fact, while not a soothsayer himself, nor, apparently, an out-of-control believer in visitors from outer space, Stearns does suggest, through retelling some of the more outlandish beliefs of the self-proclaimed astroarchaeologists, that there is at least something truthful in the basis for the outlandish beliefs, if not the beliefs themselves.
For example, he notes that in 1987, Mexican author Jose Arguelles wrote a book called The Mayan Factor, in which he revived the 2012 date and claimed, as well, that the Mayans were "an extragalactic people who would come back in the waning years of the 20th century to prepare the New Age" (Stearns 1998 112). Now, of course, the millennium has come and gone. The common fear as it approached had more to do with computers running amok, water purification plants being contaminated when their machinery went offline, weeks without access to cash when the banks' computers that had not been 'remediated' seized up and more horror stories. (At the time, we lived about a mile from a huge reservoir, but a neighbor actually asked me what we would do if no water came out of the tap on January 1, 2000. I suggested a walk of about two miles round trip -- that's if the car wouldn't start or the gas pumps wouldn't deliver fuel -- with bucket in hand.)
Despite the intrusion of the Mayan calendar, the millennium was a Christian calendar event (although Mayan true believers would contend that the differences -- what with the old pre-Vatican-interference Julian calendar in which Christ was born in the spring, and the 'new' Gregorian calendar -- are no more than the natural imprecision in calculations of that magnitude.) Plus, of course, there have been subtle changes in the axis of the Earth and so on. Stearns contended that the Mayan intrusion did perhaps have some effect, if only to add to the excitement and cause modern people to look more closely at their lives. If an ancient people could go around making calendars that basically worked to the present day, and, moreover, predicted what would happen, perhaps that means it is time to take a good look at what we are doing and how we are doing it, and to stop congratulating ourselves on how clever we, of all history, claim to be.
Actually, Arguelles predicted that the intergalactic saviors would 'present' as inner lights (fairly hard to detect, unless you are the one they're in), or as "feathered serpent rainbow wheels turning in the air" (Stearns 1998 112). Arguelles was probably safe from being called on that prediction; not too many people who value their liberty would go around claiming to see serpents cavorting in the etheric, with or without feathers.
It is likely, however, that this New Age astroarchaeologist-soothsayer did know something of Mayan culture, as serpents are a frequently seen image in their art. What Arguelles did with the reality of the serpent image was argue that the Mayan gods would reappear and that the "serpent god of peace, Quetzalcoatl, would come for a brief reign, revitalizing humanity as he did before on the Yucatan peninsula, before departing in -- you guessed it -- 1999, when a goddess of destruction would take over for humanity's last act" (Stearns 1998 13). It is clear Stearns had not been taken in by what is apparently a fairly egregious misuse of all the Mayan were and did. They accomplished a great deal in terms of their calendar, the modern mishmash made of it notwithstanding, and to do it, they needed two things: a system of numbers and a keen eye for the sky. Those are two things we thought their 'primitive' culture lacked, before we really began to understand, through better practice of archaeology, what the Mayan accomplished.
Magical and mystical, but based on real science
Montezuma is one of the best-known of the Mexican/Mayan personalities. Although he was protected by conquistador bodyguards, he was pelted by arrows and stones in one fight and struck down. Although his wounds did not seem serious, he did not recover, laying "as if dead for several days, and then, as morning star Venus was fading and going into conjunction with the sun, he died" (Hawkins 1983 67).
Montezuma was not just a chief, but rather a priest and a god/emperor; to himself and to his own people, therefore, he was part and parcel of the cosmos. The Mayan believed that "movements in the zodiac were played out in the mirror of the earth" (Hawkins 1983 67). Still, to contend that the pre-Columbians had a simple view of the cosmos, the earth -- the universe -- would be wrong. To the complicated movement of the sun, moon and planets, the Mayan added more complications. One of the most interesting is that their year was 260 days long, meaning that the earth did not complete a circuit -- there had not been a cycle of all four of the same season -- in a single year. Each year would have different 'seasons' than the one before. In fact, it took 73 Mayan years for "the natural seasons to return to the starting point in their calendar -- 73 Mayan years of 260 days precisely equaling 52 years of 365 days" (Hawkins 1983 67). Of course, since they were in an equatorial climate, the seasons' changes are quite a bit more subtle than in temperate zones, but they do exist. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Hawkins' calculations is how ethnocentric they are. Since the Mayan did not know about our calendar until after the Spanish arrived, it is impossible that they had it in mind when constructing their own.
Numbers, in the western world, tend to revolve around three and seven (the Trinity and the number of days in a week according to the Bible), but Mayan numbers conform to a different rubric, one that ends up corresponding to the number of days Venus, their most important star, is seen from the earth (Mehra 1994 587).
Not us, but them
The Mayan had other concerns, in fact, that make it clear that the movement of the object in the sky, not the cycle of life forms on earth, was the raison d'etre for their calendar. For example, they knew "Mars was a brilliant midnight star every 780 days," (Hawkins 1983 67). Since this was an important celestial marker:
This might have been the reason for the hitherto unexplained length of the religious calendar -- 3 sacred years equaling 1 synodic revolution of Mars. Maybe it was an astronomical choice, or maybe there was no rationale behind it save a fascination with the play of numbers (Hawkins 1983 67).
There was also a fascination in the play of the planets; first was the year of the sun, then the year-step of Venus and so on as each celestial marker appeared in the sky.
Even the early Christian missionaries noticed that celestial observations were central to the Aztec way of life. The round temple of Quetzalcoatl was in front of the main pyramid in Mexico City, with two temples side by side atop that. These objects were used with measuring devices depicted on walls to set the times of great festivals. Not only that, but one of the temples was slightly out of perfect position and Montezuma had wanted to reconstruct it so that the calculations for honoring the gods would be right (Hawkins 1983 68).
Such bits of information as this, Hawkins notes, are just a small part of the knowledge that existed, and especially, a small part of the astronomical knowledge. Although he contends that modern astronomers, "being a breed of physical scientist," do not like to speculate about what might have been.…