The Origins of the Mayan Calendar Myth

It turns out that, in addition to the Wayans’ prediction of a disaster in 2012, there may actually be a Mayan connection to the prophecy after all. The following story comes from the Mayan mythology; I’ve rendered a colloquial translation here.

Our story takes place in the year 606 AD [by modern reckoning] in the jungles of the Yucatan, in the village of Yaxmuul, part of an empire headed by the Mayan city-state of Palenque.

Kan B’alam, the chief of the village, approached the local priest, Yikin Chan, who was conferring with the high priest of the empire. The chief bowed his respect to the high priest, then turned to the local priest.

“How fares Savan’Tok?” the chieftan asked. Savan’Tok was a villager who seemed smart but always precipitated disaster around him. Savan’Tok was currently working as an acolyte under the priest’s supervision.

“Not well, my chief! He tried to help out with the last sacrifice, but his hand slipped while he was cutting, and he ended up offering the sacrifice’s spleen to K’inich Ahau, the sun god. Not the heart, the spleen! Surely this insult prompted the great storm the next day that damaged our maize crop so badly. I think we should put him back in with your warriors,” the priest replied.

“No! The one time he went with us to scout the village of our enemies, he crashed through the jungle like a crazed spider monkey. As we approached their border, he stumbled over a tree root and rolled down a hill, alerting our enemies. Ix Chel, the war goddess, took offense at his foolishness and did not favor us that day,” said the chief.

“Well, what is to be done with him then? He is one of the educated and is always obedient, indeed enthusiastic. To demean such a one by forcing him to work in the fields as a simple farmer might also invoke the displeasure of our gods. Besides,” the local priest’s voice turned sardonic, “he’d probably just wreak his havoc in the fields directly then.”

The high priest then spoke, asking “What talents has the man shown?”

After a moment’s thought, the chief said “Well, he’s good at counting.”

“Almost obsessively so,” the local priest added.

The high priest considered this. One does not become high priest without a great understanding of human nature (and, given the practices of their religion, much first-hand knowledge of human anatomy as well). When Savan’Tok appeared, walking towards the temple, the high priest said, “Come. I will deal with this man.”

Savan’Tok stopped when he saw the approach of his chief and his priest, accompanying a man still more finely dressed. His countenance was disheartened, suspecting further chastisement and humiliation for his failures was forthcoming.

The High Priest stepped forward and spoke in a formal tone. “Greetings, Savan’Tok! I am Uaxaclajuun, High Priest of our nation. Word of your talents reached me in the mother temple, and I have traveled here to ask you to undertake a great task for us.”

“I am honored, holy one,” Savan’Tok stammered in surprise, bowing. “How can I serve you?”

“You know that our rituals are performed in harmony with the cycle of the heavens,” the High Priest said. Savan’Tok nodded nervously. “And therefore that it is important that our rituals are timed correctly.”

“Very important, holy one.”

“Well, I would like you to perform the astronomical calculations to extend our calendar into the future. Right now, we only have the next four years made. The calculations are challenging and consume much time, so just continue as far as you can. I will see how your work fares when I next return to your village, within two moons.”

“Yes, your holiness. Thank you! Thank you!” Savan’Tok hurried off, his face bright, eager to begin his new honored task.

“That should keep him busy for a while,” the high priest said conversationally. “It took four of my acolytes two months to do the calendar for a single year.”

A month and a half went by, and the village of Yaxmuul prospered. The gods appeared pleased with the piety of the villagers and blessed them. (The people sacrificed to those gods were probably less pleased, but they didn’t count.)

The High Priest returned again to the village. The chief and local priest reported that Savan’Tok was seldom seen and thus rarely caused accidents, but he appeared happy when he did venture from his hut. “I should check in on him, as I promised, though,” the High Priest said.

They went to Savan’Tok’s hut, knocked, and entered when bidden from within. Their eyes widened when they saw carved stone tablets stacked from floor to ceiling along every wall of the hut. Savan’Tok was busily chiseling another. He stopped and looked up with pride in his eyes.

“I have made calendars, holy one, as you instructed me.”

Looking around in perplexity, the High Priest asked “How many?”

“Just the next 1406 years.”

The chief let out an exasperated breath and demanded, “Why so many? What can we …” he trailed off as the local priest stepped forward and motioned for silence.

“Ah, that’s good, Savan’Tok. Truly you have exceeded our greatest expectations,” the local priest said, glancing around the room (though this was hard to distinguish from him rolling his eyes). “But a situation has arisen with the grain store that we need your special talents for. We need you to conduct a full inventory. Down to the very grain, in fact.” The high priest nodded his approval of the local priest’s deft handling of the situation. Clearly the local priest had been learning from the high priest’s example.

“I’ll start that as soon as I finish this particular year,” Savan’Tok promised eagerly.

“Just leave it. There’s certainly no rush to finish it,” he added with a wry sarcasm that the enthusiastic Savan’Tok always missed.

“But if someone sees the calendar ends so abruptly, don’t you think they might misunderstand, maybe think that I calculated that time itself ran out there?”

At this, even the High Priest joined his companions in rolling his eyes and sighing in exasperation. Stepping forward, he said, “Look, Savan’Tok, nobody is that stupid. Please commence with the grain inventory right now.”

Which just goes to show that even a high priest’s understanding of human nature can be incomplete.
The village was later wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from their food supply, after every grain in their store had been handled repeatedly. Thus, everyone, past and present, would have been better off if they’d just left him making calendars.