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The Mayan city of Seibal, in the jungle lowlands of the Peten region of present-day Guatemala, was attacked by a neighboring city, Dos Pilos, on 29 November AD 735. The date was carefully chosen to coincide with the rising of Venus as the evening star. The ruler of Seibal was captured alive. Twelve years later, at an inferior conjunction of Venus, the victors celebrated with a ritual ball game and sacrificed the defeated ruler – cutting his heart from his living body.

Maya diviners searched the calendar and the stars for signs favorable to negotiation or war. They used the same method to determine children’s prospects at birth, the best days for planting and harvesting crops, or the most propitious time to set out on trading or hunting expeditions.

Few civilizations have been so ruled by time. Drawing from calendar systems devised by the Olmec of the gulf coast of Mexico (1500-300 BC) and the Zapotecs of Oaxaca (600 BC – AD 900), the Maya of the Classic Period (AD 300-900) developed a sophisticated calendar with a starting date that corresponds to 2 August 3114 BC.

The Maya system combined a 365-day solar year with a 260-day sacred year, giving a 52-solar year cycle period, known as the ‘calendar round’, before a date combination recurred. Each day had its own name and associations, including numbers, animals, birds, colors, trees and deities. The Maya also tracked the cycles of the moon, Venus, Mars, and possibly Jupiter, as well as star constellations, such as the Pleiades.

The sacred calendar was most important for day-to-day activities. Its 260 days, divided into 20 day names paired with 13 day numbers, matched the human gestation period and were probably calculated originally by midwives. To assist with predictions, diviners combined the calendar and ritual practices, such as enema hallucinogens, drawing blood from the penis and tongue by passing stingray spines and knotted cords through them, and offering animal and human sacrifices.

So firmly were the Maya committed to their calendar that in AD 1695 the Itza Maya, who had withdrawn into the jungles of the Peten to escape the Spanish, decided that it was predetermined that they surrender. In December they sent word to the Spanish that they were prepared for defeat. At a battle on 13 March 1697 the Itza, knowing their enemy would triumph, were easily overcome.

The Maya believed the cycles of both time and events repeat themselves. The present creation cycle would, therefore, come to a catastrophic end, as did the four that preceded it. According to the Maya predictions this will occur on 23 December AD 2012!