|Jaguars fall, everyone dies
||[Dec. 19th, 2012|07:21 pm]
The world probably won't end on Friday, but it's still a good time to remind yourself that Mesoamerican eschatology is really really neat.
The Aztecs believed that the creator-god, Ometeotl, created four main gods for the four cardinal directions. These four gods tried to create the world, but it was too dark and they kept screwing up and dropping stuff into the Great Void, where it was eaten by Cipactli the Crocodile Demon With Extra Mouths Upon Every Joint And Teeth Protruding From Her Entire Body.
"I will consume and destroy everything in an abyss of eternal darkness!
Also, I run a Latino honor society!"
The gods realized they had to get their act together. They slew the Crocodile Demon and placed the world atop her body. They created mankind out of ashes. And they elected Tezcatlipoca, God of Darkness And Killing Everybody, to become the sun so they could see what they were doing a little better.
But - and this is what happens when you don't have a God of Staffing Decisions - the God of Darkness made a predictably terrible sun. The stories say he was "only half a sun", although they don't specify whether they mean only half the desired brightness or literally semicircular. In any case, Quetzalcoatl, God Of Niceness And Maybe Not Killing Everybody All The Time, knocked Tezcatlipoca out of the sky, took over as Sun, and did by all accounts a much better job.
Tezcatlipoca, remember, was emphatically not the God of Not Killing Everybody All The Time, so he reacted to this insult by killing everybody. In particular, he arranged for jaguars to fall from the sky and eat everyone in the world. This was the First Apocalypse.
This is actually supposed to be a picture of a man in a jaguar costume,
not of an anthropomorphic jaguar eating a guy.
But I feel like it could work either way.
Quetzalcoatl created some more humans, but they became sinful. As God of Niceness, Quetzalcoatl was totally prepared to forgive them, but as God of Darkness Tezcatlipoca couldn't let them get away with it and turned everybody into monkeys. Quetzalcoatl got mad and created a giant hurricane to blow the monkeys away, precipitating the Second Apocalypse. In the wake of the ensuing scandal he was forced to step down as Sun in favor of Tlaloc, God of Rain And Killing Everybody.
Tezcatlipoca, who was kind of a jerk even for an Aztec god, decided to sabotage the new era by stealing Tlaloc's wife Xochiquetzal, Goddess of Flowers And Killing Everybody. Tlaloc was so upset by this that he neglected his duties as God of Rain. When the people, dying of drought, prayed to Tlaloc, this annoyed him and "in a fit of rage he answered their prayers with a great downpour of fire" that killed everybody. This was, unsurprisingly, the Third Apocalypse.
The gods managed to sort everything out and give Tlaloc a new wife, Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of Rivers And Killing Everybody. She also became the new sun. She did an excellent job and was known for her kindness and love for all mankind. Tezcatlipoca very quietly made the suggestion that maybe she was only so kind and loving because she wanted the praise and worship of the people, and this slander made Chalchiuhtlicue cry. And because this is Aztec mythology, she cried a deluge of blood that lasted fifty-two years and - say it with me - killed everybody.
That was the Fourth Apocalypse, and Quetzalcoatl had to go down to the Underworld to get some bones back with which to start up humanity. By the time he had gotten back everyone had chosen Huitzilopochtli, God Of War And Killing Everybody, as the new Sun.
Unfortunately Huitzilopochtli came with baggage. His sister Coyolxauhqui, Goddess Of The Moon And Killing Everybody, had tried to kill his mother when she was pregnant, and Huitzilopochtli had been forced to jump out of the womb fully armed to fight her off. In the ensuing battle, Huitzilopochtli killed Coyolxauhqui and 400 of her brothers. Then he "tossed his sister's head into the sky, where it became the moon, so that his mother would be comforted in seeing her daughter in the sky every night". Because there's nothing more comforting than seeing your daughter's bloody severed head in the sky every night. Apparently.
This seems to have offended the ghost of Coyolxauhqui, because every night she and her 400 brothers the stars attack Huitzilopochtli anew. Each morning Huitzilopochtli must defeat them anew or the sun will fail to rise. Only aid from his human worshippers can give him the power he needs to prevail. As Raemon puts it:
The Sun is a guy who travels through the sky
in a great big chariot of fire
It's getting pretty dark, looking like he might depart
Leaving nothing but an everlasting night
The sun is bright but quite a spiteful
Jerk sometimes we've learned,
But if we sacrifice some goats,
We hope he might return.
...except the Aztecs didn't have any goats. Or cattle, or horses, or chickens. And probably best not to piss off the jaguars, after what happened last time.
"Yeah, thanks but no thanks."
In fact, there was really only one animal of whose blood the Aztecs had a reliable supply...
And if Huitzilopochtli doesn't get enough human sacrifices? Then Coyolxauhqui will prevail, defeat Huitzilopochtli, and invite all the humans to a huge victory party with delicious nachos and fajitas.
No, just kidding. She'll kill everybody, of course.
Why do the Aztecs need such a horrible mythology with so many apocalypses? One of my sources suggests it was a natural reaction to living in Mesoamerica, an area that combined an impossibly ancient history - three thousand years of civilization by the time the Aztecs came around - with a total failure to invent written history. The Aztecs were surrounded by the ruins of colossal cities - Tula, San Lorenzo, and most of all titanic Teotihuacan. An Aztec warrior in the 15th century couldn't fling a stone from an atl-atl without hitting a godlike ancient city that had been mysteriously destroyed. Eventually you just start thinking in terms of civilizations arising and then being destroyed by angry gods leaving only mysterious stone ziggurats as a fact of nature.
Imagine you're running away from a jaguar and suddenly you stumble across *this*
Or imagine you're a medieval European, and you suddenly stumble across the ruins of Rome, having only the barest of legends that such a place even existed. Your first thought might be something like "What happened to them? And how many people do I have to kill to make sure it doesn't happen to me?"
I also saw speculation that the legend of the Five Suns actually maintains some history of the gods of different civilizations. For example, the current sun, Huitzilopochtli, is the patron deity of the Aztecs; his ascendance as Sun might be a mythological way for the Aztecs to declare that this is the Aztec Era when Aztecs are on top. Quetzalcoatl, one of the previous suns, is closely associated with the Toltecs, a civilization that preceded the Aztecs, and Tlaloc is sometimes associated with Teotihuacan. The whole thing could be an Aztec way of saying "First Teotihuacan was a great power, then they collapsed. Then the Toltecs were a great power, then they collapsed. Now we are a great power, and as long as we sacrifice enough people the gods will favor us and we won't collapse like everyone else, we hope."
Except that the link between gods and civilizations is speculative, and it's hard to make it come out in the right order. Quetzalcoatl was Sun before Tlaloc, but the Teotihuacan civilization preceded the Toltecs. So maybe it's all a coincidence. Fun to think about, though.
The Long Count
The Mayans are one of several great civilizations who are not the Aztecs. This point will become important later.
They are best known for their fiendishly complicated interlocking calendar systems. Although they may have had as many as nine simultaneous calendars, the most important were the 260 day calendar (tzolkin) and the 360 day calendar (haab).
It's pretty obvious why you would have a 360 day calendar, but why a 260 day calendar? Theories range from "it was about the length of a planting season" to my favorite, "260 days is the length of a human pregnancy from first missed period to birth", but the most likely explanation is that it was 20x13, and 20 and 13 were both important numbers to the Mayans.
The Mayans counted in base 20 (based off of number of fingers plus toes) the same way we count in base 10 (based off of number of fingers). 13 was sort of their alternate holy number based off of the months of the year (rounded up), the same way 12 is our culture's alternate holy number based off of the months of the year (rounded down) and gives us our term "dozen" as well as a host of weird mythological things like the Twelve Olympian Gods, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the Twelve Labors of Hercules, et cetera. So since 20 and 13 were the Mayans' two big important numbers, multiplying them together to get a 260-day calendar might just have been the logical next step.
But the 360 day calendar was where it was at. The Mayans used a metric system just like us, but theirs was base 20 (based on the number of fingers and toes) rather than our base 10 (based on the number of fingers). So whereas we have decade, century, millennium and so on, the Mayans had approximately-20-year-period, approximately-400-year-period, and approximately-8000-year-period. Since the Mayan year was 360 days instead of our 365, the actual period lengths are 20, 394, and 7,885 of our years, and these were called a katun, a baktun, and a piktun respectively.
The Mayans had the same "the world has been destroyed and recreated several times" thing going on as the Aztecs, but, crucially, we don't really know as much Mayan mythology as we do Aztec mythology. The mythology we do know is awesome and there is definitely a part where a pair of heroes go to Hell and challenge the Devil to a ball game for their father's soul using a bladed ball that decapitates anyone it touches. But we're just not sure about all the intricacies surrounding the creation and destruction of the world in the same way we are with the Aztecs.
*Finally*, a sport that isn't super boring.
What we do know is that the Mayans seem to have had one fewer world than the Aztecs: they seem to think we are in the Fourth World rather than the Fifth (at least we're not in the Third World; I've heard that's super depressing). Other sources however say anywhere between one and six worlds, so this number is controversial. There are a few vague stories about the gods creating people without speech or without souls, then wiping them out and trying again until they got it right.
The previous world lasted 5,126 years. For the Mayans, this would have been a nice round number: exactly 13 baktuns (remember a baktun is 20*20 Mayan years = equals about 394 of our years). Since 13 was also a round number for the Mayans, this is no more unusual than the Biblical prophecy saying that the rule of Christ will last exactly 1000 years: pretty much the first thing you think of when you think of a long length of time. When the last world ended, the calendar, which had just reached 126.96.36.199.0 (thirteen baktun/400-year periods, zero katun/20-year-periods, zero years, zero months, zero days) reset to 0.0.0.0.0.
So the current round of the Mayan calendar began at 0.0.0.0.0 on the day of the last apocalypse. This was August 11, 3114 BC, which is a sufficiently precise date to be interesting. Is there anything at all interesting that we know of happening around that time?
And the answer is: not really. Some people have pointed out that this sort of corresponds to about the time when civilization began in Mesoamerica, but any date two thousand years either direction would also have sort of corresponded to about the time when civilization began in Mesoamerica, so screw that.
More interestingly, the Hindu cosmology also consists of a series of four world ages each followed by an apocalypse, and in their calendar the current world age began on February 18 3102 BC, or only about 12 years away from the Mayan date. I find this really weird. It seems too close to be a coincidence, but I can't think of any non-coincidental explanation unless there was some spectacular astronomical event around that time - but we have no records of such.
Wikipedia also lists as "c. 3100 BC" Narmer becoming the first Pharaoh of Egypt, construction starting on Stonehenge, and the invention of writing. So as far as times to start calendars go, it was a good choice coinciding remarkably well with the beginnings of human civilization, but as best anyone can tell not with any sort of obvious astronomical or natural event.
But getting back on track: last world ends in 3114 BC at the beginning of baktun 13. If we assume that the current world will follow the last world's example and last exactly 13 baktun ie 5,126 years, then the current world will end in an apocalypse on December 21 2012, ie this Friday.
But this hinges on the idea that the Mayans meant to create a general principle of worlds lasting only 13 baktun. Back in the 1960s, archaeologists assumed that because the last world reset the calendar from 188.8.131.52.0 to 0.0.0.0.0, that was just how the Mayan calendar worked and after 13 baktun you started over. But more recent Mayanologists think it's more likely that the Mayan rule was "reset the calendar after an apocalypse" rather than "reset the calendar after 13 baktun". And recently Mayan dates have been found that seem to refer to years after baktun 13. So now the scholarship thinks maybe that the Mayan calendar just keeps going and going until the next apocalypse, and there's no particular reason to think that has to happen after 13 baktun without the highly unparsimonious assumption that apocalypses arrive like clockwork after exactly the same number of years each time.
I think the confusion might come from the tendency to confuse the Aztec chronology, which is sexy and interesting, with the Mayan chronology, which is math-intensive and confusing. To the Aztecs, our world is already living on borrowed time, and whenever an important calendrical event or round number comes along, it's a pretty safe bet that everybody's going to die and Quetzalcoatl's going to have to clean up the mess. The fact that everyone uses the (Aztec!) Calendar Stone as a symbol of the Mayan calendar is pretty revealing here.
"The current time is...kill everybody."
But the Mayans were less pessimistic. For them, the gods have finally gotten humankind right (ha!) and there is no real need for further apocalypses. A stele in Palenque exhorts the populace to remember to celebrate the 80th 52-year-cycle anniversary of the coronation of Pacal; that anniversary will occur on October 21, 4772 AD. This "party in the 48th century, and everyone's invited!" attitude doesn't seem like the attitude of a fatalistic culture that believes in constant apocalypses, let alone any kind of final doomsday.
Except that there is one mysterious Mayan inscription that seems to relate to the end of the 13th baktun:
It will be completed the 13th b'ak'tun.
It is 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in
and it will happen a 'seeing'
It is the display of B'olon-Yokte'
in a great "investiture".
I can't find anyone who has any bright ideas how to interprest this except to note Bolon Yokte is some kind of obscure war god. There's a claim that maybe this just means they should have a celebration honoring Bolon Yokte on that day.
But if you see this guy on Friday, you should
probably still run the other direction
As far as I know no one is going to have a celebration honoring Bolon Yokte on this day, which is sad. So if anyone in the Bay Area wants to get together for Mexican food / new baktun celebration / apocalypse survival celebration / Bolon Yokte-honoring, meet me at my place in Berkeley on Friday night at 7 PM. RSVP if interested. If you don't have my address, give me your email and I'll send it to you.