The Center of Mayan Life
The way the Maya viewed time is radically different from the way most people living in the industrialized world see it today. Time wasn't something to be spent or whiled away or even passed.
For the Maya, time was the essential center of their culture, an all-important singular focus that pervaded every aspect of their way of life. The question, “What time is it?” was a monumental search for meaning that was conducted daily throughout the civilization. Its answers were given on ornately carved monuments and in beautifully illustrated books filled with long tables of glyphs. By learning to see through the eyes of the Maya, you can begin to explore the refreshingly different perspective the Mayan calendar system offers to present times.
The Divine Order of Time
For the Maya, each day was conceived not just as a moment in time, but also as a god. The god of the day would carry that time as his burden before passing it on to the next in the succession. Each god would have particular influences, making a particular day good for hunting and another day inauspicious or unlucky. For the Maya, each day would be a unique combination of the influences of the various presiding divine energies. Mayan priests and prophets would try to determine the influence of each god to come up with the most auspicious course of action.
Keeping track of all of the different cycles and the corresponding astronomical observations required huge amounts of time, energy, and dedication. For example, tracking some of the eclipse cycles and the appearances and disappearances of Venus took many generations of meticulous observation and accurate recording. This was a culture that was immersed in time and ruled by it. For the Maya, the changing influences of the gods of time were the NASDAQ and Dow Jones stock indexes of their time. They dictated the popular mood and had to be tracked at all times.
The Katun cycles, the most important prophetic cycles, lasted just under twenty years each. Their influence was determined by the energies attributed to the very last day. These were always one of the Ahau signs, the very last in the sacred calendar sequence of twenty days. Most of the existing Mayan prophecies we know of relate to the Katun cycles.
Using the Past to Predict the Future
The Maya belief in prophecy was based on the idea that if you had enough information about each time cycle, you could successfully use that to see into the future. Certainly, the practice of prophecy was associated with rites and rituals, but at its core was observation of the cycles of nature. In essence, Mayan prophecy was as much a science as a religious or divinatory practice.
A lot of the surviving Mayan prophecies are relentlessly gloomy. Many warn of bad harvests, pestilence, and political turmoil. In the midst of these, there are a few more favorable ones, but they are definitely in the minority. Then again, if you were to take all of the newspaper headlines of one year and use them to predict the events of the next year, it would probably make pretty grim reading, too. This is the point of prophecy. If life were inherently stable, there would be little of value to report as life went on in the villages and ceremonial centers. Good news is not very often big news. It was the big events that the Maya were interested in predicting and these, by their nature, were more inclined to include conflict and disaster.