Contrasting the Mayan Sense of Time with Our Own

To understand a little more about the Mayan view of time, it's very helpful to understand a little about our own view of time. To illustrate this, it is useful to look at the European view of time at the same point in history as the height of the classic-era Mayan civilization.

A Cyclical World

The life of a seventh-century European would have been dominated by saints' days and the seasons, and the traditional pagan holidays of the equinoxes and solstices were still very strong. Past and future were, relative to modern times, ill-defined concepts. They were, at best, ideas to be debated by ecclesiastical scholars arguing about the date of the world's creation and its inevitable ending at the revelation of the Apocalypse.

Most people measured periods longer than a year in the length of the reign of the current king. The overwhelming sense of time would have been simply of cycles repeating. It's also important to remember that this was a time when it was also believed that the earth was flat and that the sun and moon revolved around it. The world, and the sense of time in it, was very human centered. It was marked by births and deaths and seasonal return; nothing at all like the accelerating global progress of our own times.

The Origin of the Past and the Future

At the height of the classic-era Mayan civilization, on the very northern edge of Europe in a Northumbrian monastery, a scholar called the Venerable Bede was reinventing the Roman idea of Anno Domini.

First proposed by the Roman scholar Dionysius Exiguus, this dating system creates a linear chronology. It places Year 1 as the year of the birth of Jesus and dates everything in reference to that, either in years after or in years before. Bede popularized this by using it in his much-revered book the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which was published in 731. This convention not only established the “timeline” against which all dates are now measured, it created the sense of a past and future that could be defined against this fixed point in time. This was a defining moment in establishing how we now think of time as having a “before” and “after,” rather than as a repeating cycle, like the seasons of the year.

Though they seem to be like laws of nature, our laws of time are essentially theological dictates handed down from the days of the Roman Empire. They shape a remarkable amount of our experience, but, nonetheless, they are just conventions. If we change our conventions, our experience of the past and future also changes. In order to change our ideas about time, there have been many attempts to reform or replace the calendar we use today.

Calendars are important to the way that societies organize themselves. Our current calendar is called the Gregorian calendar, after Pope Gregory XIII, who presided over its last significant reform. Every country in the world uses it for commerce and business, but the Vatican, not the United Nations, makes its rules.

Changing Our Sense of Time

Some calendar reforms — like the Khmer Rouge's Year Zero policy in Cambodia — were designed specifically to destroy the previous notions of the past and the future. In that case, the change brought about terrifying and terrible results. Pol Pot's regime was able to use the ideology of Year Zero to “restart civilization.” In reality, this meant forced labor in collective farms and a purge of intellectuals and Buddhist monks that resulted in more than 1 million deaths.

A revolutionary calendar was introduced at the time of the French Revolution. It had strange and wonderful new names for each of the months. It was seen as an embodiment of the break with the past, the very essence of the revolutionary spirit. It too resulted in a reign of terror, though not on the scale of the Khmer Rouge. Although it survived for a few years, it never really took hold in rural areas, and as revolutionary fervor faded, so did the calendar. A major objection was the abolition of Sundays, which caused a massive rift between the church and the new revolutionary state. Eventually, on the date 15 Fructidor, Year XIII (September 9, 1805), it was quietly abolished. Our habits of thinking about the past and future are well engrained and take a large amount of energy to change!

It may come as a surprise, but science has remarkably little to say about time. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity is based on the formulation that time is the fourth dimension, but Einstein was able to say very little else about the actual nature of time. Past and future are overwhelmingly cultural concepts and the perception of time radically changes as cultures change.

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