It’s Baktunalia! Astronomy VP Carolyn Sumners on why Dec. 21 is cause for celebration, not wild imagination

December 21, 2012: It’s not the End of the World — it’s the Baktunalia! It’s time for a celebration, not an apocalypse.

Here are the facts: The Maya long count calendar will go from to as we go from December 20 to December 21, 2012. So December 20 is New Baktun Eve and December 21 is New Baktun Day.

(FYI for those who like numbers: The five digits of the Mayan long count are base 20, except for the second number from the right, which is base 18. Our numbers are base 10. We have ones, tens, hundreds, and thousands. The Maya long count has kins, winals, tuns, katuns, and baktuns. For the Maya, a day is called a “kin.” Twenty kins make a winal. Eighteen winals, or 360 kins, equal a tun, making the tun about a year long. Twenty tuns make a katun and 20 katuns equal a baktun. Thirteen baktuns is just over 5,125 years.)

The Roman Saturnalia festival also occurred at this time — a celebration featuring food, gifts, and celebrations around the Winter Solstice. Early Christians could celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, hiding their event within the Saturnalia festivities. Hence, I’m calling this year’s rare event a Baktunalia!

See 2012: Mayan Prophecies at the Burke Baker Planetarium

Did the Maya calendar-makers over 2,000 years ago plan for their long-count calendar to reach the 13th Baktun on December 21? This is possible, but it seems unlikely. However, December is the Winter Solstice, a day the Maya recognized as the shortest day and longest night of the year — the day when the sun rises furthest in the southeast, sets furthest in the southwest, and makes its lowest and shortest path across the southern sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The Maya astronomers observed the sun on the winter solstice to document its southernmost rising and the promise that the sun would now start moving northward. There would be another spring and a new growing season.

Unlike the Internet doomsday prophets, science does not support an apocalypse in 2012. Solar activity maximum is happening in 2013. Thus far, all natural disasters in 2012 have been within the normal range of activity on a geologically active planet with dynamic weather patterns.

But there is one interesting astronomical alignment. On December 21, the sun will reach its lowest point in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere while it is in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way and directly between Earth and the Milky Way Galaxy’s center. This alignment has been in place for several years, but is often cited by the doomsday prophets. The black hole near the galactic center has the same effect on us today as it does on any day. This alignment makes no difference. Nor is it significant on December 21. After all, the sun is its strongest on this date south of the equator.

Lost in all the apocalyptic talk are the very significant achievements of the Maya regarding both time-keeping and astronomy. In the Burke Baker Planetarium, we have a show called Mayan Prophecies that visits four classic Maya cities (Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Palenque), as they would have looked over a thousand years ago. At Uxmal, we see a Maya astronomer watching the sun’s rays entering the Temple of the Magician just two 20-day months before the sun would stand overhead and the rains would come. After this event, the astronomer could prepare farmers to plant their corn and the king to plan festivals.

At Chichen Itza, the feathered serpent god called Kukulcan would climb down his pyramid, El Castillo, on the first day of spring. Astronomers would then know when to have festivities with human sacrifices, trading human blood for the coming rains — all to appease Kukulcan and the rain god, Chaac. We actually show this sacrifice (tastefully) in the full dome and very up-close in the Mayan Prophecies planetarium show.

At Tikal (located in the lowlands of Guatemala), the astronomer would climb his pyramid, now called Temple 4, to watch the rising sun on December 21. When the sun rose over Temple 3, it marked the winter solstice. After this date, the astronomer knew that the sun would rise more to the north each day and that the rainy season would come again.

At Palenque, there are inscriptions inside major temples featuring trees for the seasons. The great King Pacal supposedly rose and journeyed to the heavens on December 21. Inscriptions at Palenque also explain the beginning of the long count cycle on a date we know now as August 13, 3114 BCE. Three temples at Palenque symbolize the three hearthstones of creation, with a central fire lit at the beginning of the current long count cycle. There are also three stars in our constellation Orion that represent these hearthstones.

For all their predictive power, the Maya astronomer could not foresee his own apocalypse, which happened over a thousand years ago. A combination of factors adding to decades of drought brought famine to the Classic Mayan cities. This great civilization, that had measured time and predicted the rains, collapsed and its people returned to the rainforest and mountains. The story of the Maya people is perhaps a greater predictor of the challenges we face in 2012 and beyond.

Fascinated? Discover how the Maya aligned their pyramids and temples to watch their sky gods and used interlocking calendars to record the past and predict the future in our Mayan Prophecies lecture. Dr. Carolyn Sumners will share how archaeological, historical and astronomical records were pieced together to learn more about the Maya. This lecture includes a viewing of film 2012: Mayan Prophecies. For lecture tickets, click here.

Celebrate the maybe-end of days at HMNS Dec. 21 with Grupo Ka-Che!

An end-of-the-world party is nothing new. People have been looking for excuses to party like there’s no tomorrow for millennia. But come Dec. 21, we’re throwing a cocktail party of a different color.

You’ve probably heard by now that the ancient Maya, who developed one of the most advanced calendrical systems in the world (in addition to impressive advances in mathematics, architecture and writing), predicted the end of a 5,125-year, 13-baktun Maya “long count” on Dec. 21, 2012.

Will Prophecy Become History? Find out at HMNS Dec. 21!This modern date projected by the ancients has been the center of much hoopla. Luckily, HMNS is here to elucidate things. Our special exhibit, Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History, examines the history of the real Maya, with special attention paid to the Maya calendar, inscriptions of the Dec. 21 date and what it all means, if anything.

Know how it ends on Dec. 21 at HMNS, where our esteemed exhibit curator will be on-hand throughout the night to answer any burning last questions. Traditional Maya dance group DANZA CHIKAWA will perform, along with live music by beloved local and award-winning group Grupo Ka-Che. (If you were fans of Mixers & Elixirs, we know you were fans of their energizing brand of Latin fusion).

Admittance to this once every 13-baktun event includes access to our special Maya exhibit (the only dedicated exhibit in town); admission to a special planetarium film, 2012: Mayan Prophecies; and all the fabulous food truck fare and countless cash bars you’ve come to expect. To book your tickets before it’s too late, click here!

What the ancient Maya really anticipated: The 2012 Phenomenon and December 21

Speculation about what ancient Maya have to say about 2012 is becoming a global phenomenon in popular culture. These speculations — largely apocalyptic and uninformed — are often based on a superficial acquaintance with Western historical interpretations rather than a familiarity with Maya texts and culture.

On Nov. 5, Dr. John B. Carlson will approach the 2012 phenomenon through an examination of Maya sources considered within the contexts of ancient and contemporary Maya culture, as well as Western scholarship. In an HMNS Distinguished Lecture, he will focus on images of mythological events depicted on two Late Classic Maya vessels, including the enigmatic “Vase of the Seven Gods.” These images are interpreted as representing deities gathered in “cosmogonic conclave,” preparing to re-create the world with their sacrifices at the last completion of a Great Cycle and the beginning of a new 5,125-year, 13-baktun Maya “long count.”

K2796Maya God L at the creation event

The rites of passage are presided over by an enigmatic Venus warrior/sacrificer deity previously known only as “God L.” God L’s principal name and nature had remained a mystery, and his identity obscure, until the image above was deciphered. This study offers an explication of why God L — who is portrayed as the Maya god of tobacco, among other aspects — takes the senior role in presiding over these 13 baktun completion rituals and why it is reasonable to hypothesize that the ancient Maya would have anticipated that the same entities would return again for the fulfillment of the present long count cycle on December 21, 2012 to re-animate the world.

For tickets to see Dr. Carlson speak at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5, click here. This lecture is included in a course co-sponsored by Rice University’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

blog - Maya, John CarlsonJohn B. Carlson, Ph.D.

About lecturer John B. Carlson:
John B. Carlson, a radio and extragalactic astronomer by training, is the Director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy, a non-profit institute for research and education related to interdisciplinary studies of the astronomical practices, celestial lore, religions and world-views of ancient civilizations and contemporary indigenous cultures of the world.In this capacity, Dr. Carlson is an expert on Native American astronomy specializing in studies of Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the ARCHAEOASTRONOMY Journal published by the University of Texas Press.

The art, iconography, calendar systems and hieroglyphic writing of the Maya and Highland Mexican civilizations are particular interests, and the “archaeology of pilgrimage” is a current special research interest. Researches into ancient and contemporary Maya calendars and the “2012 Phenomenon” have been areas of Carlson’s expertise for more than 30 years. Dr. Carlson is Senior Lecturer in the University Honors College, University of Maryland – College Park, where he teaches courses in Astronomy, Anthropology and the History of Science.

What do you know about 2012? [Quiz]

To celebrate our new Planetarium Show 2012: Mayan Prophecies, we are testing your knowledge of the significant Maya date of December 21, 2012. How much do you know about this important day?

Are these statements TRUE or FALSE?

1. Dec. 21, 2012 marks the end of the longest Mayan time cycle.

2. The Aztecs knew about 2012.

3. In 2012, solar storms will burn the surface of the Earth.

4. Dec 21, 2012 is a significant celestial date.

5. The Maya used the 26,000-year precession cycle to predict events in 2012.

6. There will be a cataclysmic event in 2012.

7. An impending pole shift will tear the Earth apart in 2012.

8. There is a special alignment of the sun in front of the Milky Way galaxy on Dec. 21, 2012.

9. A rogue planet, such as Nibiru or Eris or Planet X, is going to destroy the Earth in 2012.

10. A geomagnetic reversal in 2012 will devastate the planet.

11. A “global awakening” is coming in 2012, leading to a societal transformation.

12. The Earth will pass through the Galactic plane.

2012: Mayan Prophecies
A scene from 2012: Mayan Prophecies, Now Showing in the HMNS Planetarium!


1. Dec. 21, 2012 marks the end of the longest Mayan time cycle.
TRUE: Dec. 21, 2012 is the beginning of the 13th Baktun in the Maya Long Count. This is a day of celebration, much like Jan. 1, 2000 was for us.

2. The Aztecs knew about 2012.
FALSE: There is no archeological evidence that 2012 was significant to any other MesoAmerican civilization.

3. In 2012, solar storms will burn the surface of the Earth.
FALSE: A massive solar storm could take out a satellite, but cannot reach Earth’s surface. Also sunspot maximum will occur in 2013.

4. Dec 21, 2012 is a significant celestial date.
TRUE: Every year, December 21 is the winter solstice when the sun makes its lowest trip across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere.

5. The Maya used the 26,000-year precession cycle to predict events in 2012.
FALSE: The Maya may have observed slow changes in the sky due to precession, but this cycle was never recorded.

6. There will be a cataclysmic event in 2012.
TRUE: There will be volcanic eruptions, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes in 2012 – just like every year on our dynamic planet.

7. An impending pole shift will tear the Earth apart in 2012.
FALSE: The poles wander at a speed of about 1 degree per million years.

8. There is a special alignment of the sun in front of the Milky Way galaxy on Dec. 21, 2012.
TRUE: On the winter solstice, the sun is now in front of a dark rift in the Milky Way band, close to the direction of the Galaxy’s center as it has been for several years.

9. A rogue planet, such as Nibiru or Eris or Planet X, is going to destroy the Earth in 2012.
FALSE: Eris is now beyond Pluto. There is no Planet X. The Babylonian Nibiru was probably Jupiter. The Maya only knew Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

10. A geomagnetic reversal in 2012 will devastate the planet in 2012.
FALSE: Geomagnetic reversals do happen and we may be overdue for one. These take thousands of years to occur and are not destructive.

11. A “global awakening” is coming in 2012, leading to a societal transformation.
TRUE: Well, 2012 is a presidential election year for the United States and for Mexico and the diamond jubilee of the Queen.

12. The Earth will pass through the Galactic plane.
TRUE: The Earth will cross the Galactic Equator, but in about 27 million years.

Come learn more about Maya culture and their calendar in our new Planetarium show, 2012: Mayan Prophecies, open now.