The Nature of Memory

The Maya Calendar could be intended as an aid to memory. Not just for one person or a generation, but to pass knowledge onto future generations. Through specifying days of importance, they pass along insight into what they considered important.

Uneventful days are not commemorated, non-occurrences not remembered. Great circumstances are. The more memorable the event, the greater the commemoration.

I have been through many New Year’s in my life but can remember only a few of them. Some retained importance because of the persons I was with or some other passage in my life, but most have passed into oblivion as non-eventful. New Year’s Day is an important day on our present calendar but is not necessarily a memorable day.

The Sun crossing the Galactic Center is such an event. It happens annually but its occurrence on the Winter Solstice is a rare event. But if nothing had ever happened during such a crossing, why would the event be important?

Social memory works in the same fashion. The Sun crossing a certain point in the sky may be heralded as it is approaching but if the day passes without some event to punctuate the passage there is no reason anyone would mark it down in memory – there is nothing to remember. The memory requires something to latch onto. A normal day – and most of us that work a forty-hour week have plenty of those – simply does not lend itself to being remembered in any detail, much less commemorated.

Many doomsdays have been predicted in the past, and the days are now forgotten because exactly nothing happened. The doom and destruction of Y2K may be remembered today only as a laughing matter. In a century, it will be less than a footnote.

Many historians create time-scales to plot the great moments in history. This is highly subjective and often say more about the historian than our history. The “great moments” they pick are from our perspective, gauged by what is important to us now. Usually, great battles and wars find their way onto such charts but they really important in the greater scheme of things?

I think an epochal moment in history was the year 1950. No great wars or battles took place, nothing most people would call momentous happened, but I always considered it the birth of the New Age. In that year four rather special books occupied the top of the bestseller lists: 1- Kon Tiki, by Thor Heyerdahl, which would forever change our view of the capabilities of ancient man; 2- the Sea Around Us, by Rachel Carson, which gave birth to ecology and our consciousness of the natural balance around us; 3- Worlds in Collision, by Immanuel Velikovsky, which gave life to modern catastrophism; and 4- Dianetics: the Modern Science of Mental Health, by L. Ron Hubbard, which hoped to change psychotherapy but evolved into the Church of Scientology and a myriad of New Age philosophies. (An interesting footnote that Hubbard – author of #4 on the list – based his book, Dianetics, on the theory of the “engram” which was hypothesized in a 1939 paper by Velikovsky – author of #3.)

No one includes this epochal year in any list. Perhaps most do not see anything of importance in these events. Milestones and catastrophes, however, are remembered. Milestones? Like the American Bi-centennial? Hey, where were you during the Bi-centennial? No, that’s not very memorable for most of us.

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot? Or, for the current generation, where were you on 9/11? Now, there’s a memory!

Epochal events are those that get remembered. So what is it that triggered the Maya? Certainly nothing as “memorable” as the Sun conjuncting the Galactic Center or passing over some other point in the heavens. Some sources tell us the 3114 BC date concerned the “birth of Venus” although that seems ludicrous to us as science informs us it has been around at least as long as our own planet. Or has it? Wasn’t that the subject of the book by Velikovsky mentioned above?

The birth of a new planet should be momentous enough to initiate a calendar, especially if the event was accompanied by some world-changing side-effects. But even then, the effects would dissipate over the centuries and when nothing similar repeated, the event would become less and less important than the celebration. Until all that was left was the date.

And the date alone has come down to us. But why, and why now?

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