Here's a picture of an Aztec calendar.
To be more specific, it's the Stone of the Sun, which once stood in the heart of Tenochtitlan, the splendid Aztec capital that later became Mexico City. So precious was it that the Aztecs buried it during the siege of the city in 1521 to preserve it from the Spanish invaders. By the time it was dug up again, during repairs to Mexico City's cathedral in 1790, the Christian rulers were sufficiently enlightened to see it for the important cultural artefact that it was. To call it a calendar is perhaps misleading, though it does have calendrical markings. It has been variously interpreted as a representation of the five ages through which Aztec mythology held that the world had passed, as a mappa mundi, as a political statement declaring and legitimising Aztec rule over the four corners of the world, and as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for use during human sacrifices. Perhaps it was all of those things.
You probably recognise the picture, because it has been endlessly reproduced these past weeks to illustrate stories about the "Mayan apocalypse". As you will have heard by now, Friday probably marks a significant date in the Mayan calendar, the ending of the 13th Baktun, or cycle, of that calendar's Long Count. A much-publicised New Age theory holds that the date will be marked by world-changing or apocalyptic events, though no-one seems quite sure what they will be. As has also been widely publicised recently (so I don't need to go into it all again) the Maya, whose civilisation was based around the Yucatán peninsula and was at its height roughly during the period of the European Dark Ages, did not in fact have a prophecy of doom connected with this date. Or any future date, so far as can be established. The "Mayan apocalypse" is a modern myth.
Not, of course, that the world would be any more likely to end on Friday if the ancient Maya had predicted it.
Most recent reports, at least those to be found in the mainstream media, have accurately noted the non-existence of the alleged Mayan prophecy of doom. Unfortunately, they have usually reproduced the Aztec Sun Stone as an illustration. If you type "Mayan calendar" into Google Images, almost all the images that come up are of the Aztec stone. Whether this is the cause of the confusion or its effect is unclear. Both, probably. But the result is now that this is what most people imagine a Mayan calendar to look like, even though it is neither Mayan nor, quite possibly, even a calendar.
This is what a Mayan calendar actually looks like, or at least one version of it.
You'll see the difference straight away. Most obviously, instead of the scary-looking head with the lolling tongue - so evocative of some nameless apocalypse - there's a human figure weighed down with a burden (in fact, a Mayan glyph), more suggestive of the endless, grinding repetition of days which represents the reality of time.
The Mayans and the Aztecs could not have been more different. They were as different as the ancient Greeks and the Vikings: different in language, in culture, in mythology, in architecture, in attitude, in agricultural techniques, in politics, in artistic expression, in geographical location. For a start, the Mayans were much older. Early Mayan settlements cluster around what is now Soconusco in South-West Mexico, on the central American isthmus and date from as long ago as 1800 BC. Classic Mayan civilisation, associated with spectacular ruined cities in the Yucatán, collapsed around 1000AD although the Maya themselves lived on and are still around today (as are the Nahuatl-speaking descendants of the Aztecs). The Aztecs, meanwhile, started out as barbarian invaders from the North, who arrived in central Mexico in about the 12th century. It wasn't until the 15th that they became the dominant power in the region: their empire was still expanding when Cortes arrived in 1519.
Like many other barbarian invaders (including the Vikings in Northern France, aka the Normans) the Aztecs adopted some of the civilisation of the more settled cultures they came to rule over. But in their case, it was mainly that of the Toltecs, previously the dominant people in central America, as well as the artistically-inclined Mixtecs in the South West. There was some contact between the Aztecs and the surviving Maya, but the Maya were never Aztec subjects and by the time of the Aztec empire the days of Mayan greatness were a distant memory, or legend.
As for the calendar, it's true that some basic principles, such as a 52-year cycles of years, were shared by most Meso-American systems; but each civilisation had its own, which differed in details, nomenclature and underlying myths. The Mayan version was especially elaborate, involving multiple interlocking cycles including the famous Long Count whose starting date was placed at August 11, 3114 BC - a time centuries before Mayan civilisation got going. The present "baktun" ends this Friday (or perhaps Sunday), but the Long Count itself carries on. A far more significant date, experts say, will come on October 13, 4772, when a full cycle of twenty baktuns will be completed, though even that wasn't associated with any known apocalyptic event. The Mayans didn't really think like that. They seem to have enjoyed calculating dates far in the future or the past purely for the mathematical pleasure it afforded.
The Aztecs, on the other hand, did have a belief in world ages punctuated by apocalyptic events. According to Aztec myth there had been four previous ages, or "Suns", the ending of each of which was attended by great destruction and renewal. The present age was destined similarly to end. But this cataclysm wasn't tied to any particular date - and, in any case, the Aztecs' calendar lacked the mathematical complexity of the Mayan one. Rather, it was seen as perennially threatening, to be warded off with daily offerings of human hearts to the gods. Like the Romans, the Aztecs paid great attention to regularly recurring dates of good and bad omen throughout the year and the 52 year cycle. The year One Reed was especially to be dreaded: by coincidence, it was in such a year that Cortes turned up. But even that wasn't, exactly, a prophecy - though it is often popularly identifies as such.
Put it this way. The Norse myths told of the day of Ragnarok, when the gods of Asgard would go into battle with the giants and Valhalla would be consumed. The Christian calendar takes as its hinge point the supposed date for the birth of Christ. Putting the two together and making five, a confused Mayan observer might have deduced that Ragnarok was bound to take place on 31st December 1999. Especially if it represented a publishing opportunity.