It’s the End of the World as We Know It?
By Benjamin Radford
If you’re reading this, the world didn’t end at the beginning of this infamous year. 2012 is a date shrouded in mystery, controversy and—some say—doooom.
The concern began when books and movies started popping up with tie-ins to Mayan civilization and end-time prophecy. Perhaps the best known was the 2009 disaster film 2012 (which, though set in 2012, actually had nothing to do with the Maya or the significant date).
It seems that anyone with an opinion on the year and access to a keyboard (though not necessarily spell-check) is trying to cash in on the interest. John Major Jenkins, a Mayan scholar and author of The 2012 Story: The Myths, Fallacies, and Truth Behind the Most Intriguing Date in History, notes that “when the 2012 bug started to bite the mainstream press and many more books started to appear, I noticed that authors and the media were pulling the 2012 topic in predictably weird directions.”
Jenkins takes a refreshingly skeptical stance on the whole cottage industry of books and films surrounding 2012. “Mass media documentaries have lately gone in the direction of infotainment,” he writes, “and have frequently presented 2012 in the most salacious way, doing little justice to the topic.”
And annoying modern-day Mayas in the process, I might add. Jenkins represents the more academic Mayan scholars, but there are two other main groups interested in Mayan prophecy: the new agers and the pseudoscientists.
The New Agers
These folks tend to fall into one of two broad categories. The first is a gloom-and-doom sort who believe that the world will (or at least might) end in some sort of unpleasant global cataclysm involving death, fire, disemboweling and other such Grand Guignol grandeur. The second group, led by authors like Daniel Pinchbeck in his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, thinks that instead of disaster, the year will usher in a new age of global consciousness and cosmic harmony—and we can help prepare for it by stocking up on hallucinogens and being more environmentally conscious.
The new age crowd has embraced the Mayan calendar largely because it fits in with their romantic ideas about wisdom held by ancient civilizations; the idea that Mayan mystics somehow knew of the world’s end millennia ago—while modern scientist are clueless—has a certain populist, potboiler appeal for this crowd.
While most of the concern and panic is confined to new agers, there are a handful of science-minded folk who are more worried about reality-based problems than cosmic shifts in reality. Some believe that at some point this year, the Earth will collide with a mysterious (and, incidentally, nonexistent) planet called Niburu. It’s a scenario that’s been embraced by many conspiracy theorists. Others (such as Lawrence Joseph in his headily titled book Apocalypse 2012: An Investigation into Civilization’s End) suspect that increased sunspot activity will fry the Earth’s electric grid and lead to global disaster.
Why the Mayan Calendar?
The day you’re reading these words “ends” at midnight, but that doesn’t mean that 12:01 a.m. won’t roll around like, well, clockwork.
OK, but what does all this have to do with the Maya? The link is not accidental, and it’s not a hoax. Their calendar ends this year. Just what that means—if anything—is the question. Perhaps you’re wondering why we should pay special attention to the Mayan calendar. What’s so special about it anyway? After all, there are hundreds of calendar systems. This year may be 2012 to most folks, but in the Jewish calendar it’s 5772, a difference of about three millennia, give or take; the Hijri Arabic calendar says it’s 1433. And so on.
Since all calendar systems are man-made, it can be whatever year you want it to be. The calendar on my wall “ends” on Dec. 31, but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a Jan. 1. The day you’re reading these words “ends” at midnight, but that doesn’t mean that 12:01 a.m. won’t roll around like, well, clockwork.
The Mayan calendar, also called the Long Count, is too complex to describe in much detail, but here are the basics: It’s divided up into different units, including the kin (one day), uinal (20 days), tun (360 days), katun (7,200 days), baktun (14,400 days) and 13 baktuns (1,872,000 days). Adding notation from another Mayan calendar system (blending a 260-day tzolk’in cycle and a 365-day haab cycle—don’t ask), the first day of the 13 baktun is written as “0.0.0.0.0 4 ahau, eight cumku,” and the final day is written as “220.127.116.11.0 4 ahau, three kankin.” The calendar began Aug. 11, 3114 B.C. (0.0.0.0.0) and will end on Dec. 21, 2012 (18.104.22.168.0).
As John Michael Greer notes in his book Apocalypse Not: A History of the End of Time, it’s revealing “how much attention the ancient Mayans paid attention to the end of the thirteenth baktun: It apparently didn’t interest them at all. There is precisely one Mayan inscription, among all of the thousands that survive, which even mentions the date.” This stone inscription appears on a rock known as Stela 6, which was found at a ruin called Tortuguero in the Mexican state of Tabasco. It describes the descent of a minor Mayan god named Bolon Yokte Ku, which will happen when “the thirteenth baktun will be finished / four ahau, three kankin.”
“There are many ages or cycles, and therefore many cycle endings, but the dynamics of each cycle ending are essentially the same,” Jenkins notes about Mayan creation mythology. “In the four previous eras alluded to in the Popol Vuh [the Mayan creation story], the cycle ending always exposes an error in the activities, thinking, or understanding of humanity, leading to a corrective sacrifice followed by transformation and renewal as the next cycle begins.” I interviewed Jenkins at the press junket for the film 2012, asking him why he saw anything particularly significant in the Mayan calendar system. “It’s very clear that 2012 is anchored to this empirical astronomical alignment,” he said. “That’s why the Mayans chose Dec. 21, 2012, to end this vast circle of time. So unlike other vague prophecies or prognostications, this cosmology is very sophisticated and involves astronomical signs.”
Despite breathless claims to the contrary, the Mayans didn’t hold much significance for the date, and they certainly didn’t think the world would end on that date. In fact, “hundreds of Mayan inscriptions refer to dates after 2012, sometimes a few decades or centuries beyond it, sometimes a million years or more,” Greer points out. “There’s nothing at all to distinguish the 2012 date from the hundreds of other future dates in Mayan sources, except that it has become yet another temporary anchor for the apocalypse meme.”
In fairness, it should be noted that, according to several prominent astrologers including Bodo Capeller, the Mayan calendar already came to an end—25 years ago, on Aug. 16 and 17, 1987. Capeller, writing shortly before the event, claimed that mankind would experience “a major realignment of our perception of reality. The cosmos itself is carrying us through a major step in evolution. We are all participating whether we like it or not.” Indeed, added astrologer Joseph Jochmans, “the etheric web of new earth crystal has been completed by Aug. 17, 1978.” If the cosmic reality realignment (not to mention the “etheric web of new earth crystal,” whatever that is) came about, no one seems to know anything about it.
So, what will happen this year on on Dec. 21? I’m no psychic (despite my documented, amazingly accurate predictions in earlier years for the Alibi), but I predict there will likely be widespread stress and panic. After all, it’s just before Christmas.
A Brief History of End-Times
Doomsday: April 23, 1843
Who: The Millerites, a sect led by farmer William Miller
Why: Miller carefully studied his Bible and realized that God planted clues in the good book informing those who were wise enough to understand (e.g., Miller and his thousands of followers) when the world would end. April 23 came and went, annoying his followers (some of whom had given away their property, assuming it would not be needed in heaven). Some of them became what is now the Seventh Day Adventists.
Who: An astronomer on the late, great planet Earth
Why: In 1881 an astronomer concluded that a component of the tail of comets includes a deadly gas related to cyanide. Not a big deal, except that Earth would be passing through the tail of Halley’s comet in 1910. Many in the public panicked, expecting to be gassed as the comet passed, but scientists explained there was little real threat.
Doomsday: March 26, 1997
Who: Leaders Bo, Peep and their 38 Heaven's Gate followers
Why: The UFO/Christian cult Heaven’s Gate listened to paranormal radio talk show “Coast to Coast AM” (aka the “Art Bell Comedy Hour”) and believed the rumors that an alien spacecraft was closely following comet Hale-Bopp. They assumed that Jesus was piloting that spaceship, using it to return to Earth. (It’s not clear where Jesus had been hanging out before this.) The cult members committed suicide in preparation for his arrival.
Doomsday: Jan. 1, 2000
Who: The developed world—especially anyone with a computer
Why: A programming shortcut could cause computers to think the year was 1900 instead of 2000. It was feared the error would create catastrophic problems including plane crashes, spam filter failures, vast blackouts and even nuclear holocaust.
Doomsday: May 21, 2011
Who: Fundamentalist Christian Harold Camping, leader of the Family Radio Worldwide ministry
Why: Like many Bible scholars before him (including William Miller, see first entry), Camping carefully studied the Bible and concluded that he knew when Jesus would return, triggering the Rapture. Camping and his crew made international news. When May 21 came and went, he admitted that there must have been a miscalculation somewhere. He forgot to carry a two, or he misplaced a decimal point: The real, true, actual, certain, final date for doomsday was in October. (Apparently you missed it.)
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