All right, the Maya special exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum is not about the supposed Mayan prophecy that the world will come to an end on December 23, 2012. But even in a serious exhibition, you know they had to address the question. Yet the discussion of the Mayan calendar was just the icing on the cake of a fascinating and absorbing look at the Classical period of this culture (which existed roughly from 250 to 900 AD).
Even people who love Egyptian ruins don’t always know much about actual Egyptian history or culture. With the Mayans, people are probably even less well informed, recognizing only famous pyramids like the one at Chichen Itza, but knowing little beyond that. That’s not really anyone’s “fault,” though; the Mayan logographic writing system has been deciphered only slowly, with the majority of the work being done just since the mid-twentieth century. So the tale of Mayan culture has only recently begun to be told.
The exhibition at the ROM doesn’t provide king lists or battle histories, but it focuses primarily on one city: Palenque. Through films and models, stone carvings and building panels, utensils and bowls, jewellery, and even a few small weapons, we learn a great deal about the everyday lives of nobles and citizens alike. You’ve heard about that ball game played by warriors, where sometimes the penalty for losing was death? We see one of the actual balls they used — fashioned, it seems inevitably, in the shape of a skull. We see the tall, intricately carved incense burners that stood guarding the doorways of temples. And view the portrayals of gods and kings and their doings, on vases and walls.
One thing that fascinated me was the many similarities between what seemed to be the Mayan view of the world’s structure and the Norse view. Each believed in a tripartite world, each had a world tree ascending through all three levels (underworld, earthly world, and heavenly world), and each had a divine bird sitting at the top of that tree. There were other minor similarities too, but I had to be careful not to carry this too far: I overheard one young, enthusiastic gentleman telling his friend how certain he was that Mayan culture was mostly created by Egyptians who found their way to the region. There seems to be a popular need to deny that complex cultures (before our own) could ever be created by “primitive” people; they always seem to have to have needed help from outside, whether those outsiders were Egyptians or space aliens.
But human ingenuity is far greater than that, and always has been. The Maya of this period had no wheeled vehicles, for example, yet they found ways to trade goods from city to city (often caravans of messengers carrying goods in pouches on their backs). They also had other ways of transporting the stone and mud bricks they used to create their intricate buildings. They were excellent farmers and hunters. And they built cities, temples, and palaces of immense sophistication. Magnificent Palenque, even after a couple of centuries of investigation, still probably has at least a thousand buildings covered by jungle, yet to be explored.
The Mayan exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum covers everything, from geography to gods and worship to home life, play, death — and of course, time. The calendar this culture used was another indicator of their sophistication. It involved several different cycles, based on the moon, the solar year, and other astronomical observations. It’s true that the Mayans believed in the destruction and recreation of the world at certain periods (their beliefs resemble Hinduism in that respect), but it’s not true that they believed the next period of destruction would be December of 2012.
That is simply when their latest Long Count of years will come to an end. The Maya viewed it more like we view the end of a century, though on a larger scale. And after all — it was going to be about 1000 years in their future. Were they really going to start carving out the next calendar for the next Long Count, that far ahead of time? (That would be something like our making a calendar, right now, for 2111 A.D. We just don’t need it yet.) They might have started creating the new cycle’s calendar in recent years — except, of course, the Mayan culture as it then was has been gone for about 1060 years. But as it turns out, some of their inscriptions do mention things they expected to happen well after December of 2012. So it simply isn’t the case that they “prophesied” the end of the world at that time.
For anyone who wants to know what Mayan culture was really about, this exhibition is a thorough and fascinating introduction.