Mayan Apocalypse Watch

Culture Watch


Matthew Restall is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Anthropology at Penn State University and the author of sixteen books, including "2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), co-authored with Amara Solari. The two are currently team-teaching a Penn State class on “The End of the World,” the final exam for which was scheduled by the university for the evening of December 20.

Credit: Flickr/Vitor Bellote.

You may need to do your holiday shopping a little earlier this month. You will also need to give those gifts sooner. The world is ending four days before Christmas Day. It is not clear what will happen, exactly, on December 21, but we know something is going to happen. In the words of the tagline that promoted Sony Pictures’ movie 2012, the end is “Predicted by Mayans, Confirmed by Science.”

You may not believe it, but hundreds of millions apparently do. No matter that “science” has not “confirmed” anything of the sort. No matter that scholars of Maya civilization have been insisting for years that the ancient Maya never predicted the apocalypse. As co-authors of a book on 2012 and the End of the World, fellow Mayanist Amara Solari and I have been reassuring audiences during talks on this topic given over the past two years; but we have found that a small percentage of attendees and readers remain restless regarding that final date. Polls around the world put the global anxiety level -- that is, the proportion of the population that is worried about December 21 -- at about ten percent. It is highest in the United States and Russia (whose Cold War taught recent generations to fear apocalypse), lowest in countries such as France (where skepticism has long been an art). The spread of pockets of panic in Russia prompted the minister of emergency situations to announce on November 30, four weeks before doomsday, that he had “methods of monitoring what is occurring on the planet Earth” and could confirm with confidence that December will not be our last month.

Ministerial declarations are unlikely to stem the tide of 2012ology, as the global doomsday industry is often called. Claims and warnings, prognostications and reassurances are on bookstore shelves, on Web sites, in museum exhibits, and in tourist promotions. There are dozens of countdowns online. Two new reality TV shows, Doomsday Preppers and Doomsday Bunkers, document people preparing for civilization to collapse -- and some of the companies profiting from that paranoia. As one Russian lawmaker recently told the press, “You get the sense that the end of the world is a commercial project.”

None of this is necessarily surprising. After all, apocalyptic anxiety is, if anything, reassuringly familiar. This most recent phenomenon taps into a well-established tradition in our society. Just this past year, religious broadcaster Harold Camping took two swings at predicting doomsday, pinpointing one date in May and, when the world emerged unscathed, one in October.

What makes 2012ology different is the starring role it gives to the ancient Maya, who seem to have captured the popular imagination. They are cast as a mysteriously wise civilization, one that disappeared into the tropical forests of Central America, taking a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light. During the heyday of their civilization, circa AD 250 to 900, the Maya produced thousands of artworks and hieroglyphic texts, a dazzling legacy of literature and learning, art and architecture. But they were not preoccupied with apocalypse. Maya creation mythology recorded tales of a past world, but it did not detail how and when the current world would end -- or even if it would.

Instead, the Maya appear to have been particularly fascinated with re- creation, as it figured prominently in myth and in ritual performance. The Maya perceived time as a complex set of infinite cycles, not a clock ticking toward doomsday. One of these cycles, known by scholars as the Maya Long Count, consisted of more than five thousand years. In our calendrical system it began in August 3114 BCE and is due to end on December 21, 2012 -- or, in Maya numerology, But there is nothing to suggest that the Maya thought this date would be the world’s last. They were interested in -- perhaps a little concerned by -- the roundness of the number, as we were with Y2K. But, in the words of Maya epigrapher Sven Gronemeyer, “marks a transition to a new era, not the end.”

Evidence for Maya doomsday predictions is therefore flimsy (with recent discoveries confirming its flimsiness). But so many people are willing to believe it is true partly due to the persistent power of ancient wisdom. All societies are drawn to knowledge that seems time-worn, mysterious, coded -- and to the magic of its decoding. That is partly why The Da Vinci Code has sold 100 million copies and why people listened to Camping’s predictions about Judgment Day. We are drawn to ancient civilizations whose knowledge has been buried -- literally -- for hundreds or thousands of years. A century ago, ancient Egypt was in the limelight, as archaeologists excavated the tombs of pharaohs. In recent decades, the Maya have taken a star turn, as more of their ancient cities in Mexico and Central America have been unearthed and their hieroglyphic texts deciphered.

The roots of 2012ology can also be found deep within our own Western civilization and religious traditions, which include teachings about the end of the world. In stark contrast to the Maya, medieval Europeans generated a vast body of literature and artwork predicting and describing the world’s end. Nobody questioned that it would come; the issue was how and when. Some were willing to stick their necks out and predict a specific day. Thousands then took those specific end-day predictions seriously, as millions do now -- from Joachim of Fiore’s calculation that 1260 would be the end, to William Miller’s selection of 1843 (and then 1844), to Camping’s 2011 predictions. Apocalyptic imaginings and doomsday gullibility are woven into the very fabric of Western society -- and they are very unlikely to disappear once December 21 passes uneventfully.

A final explanation may lie in the comfort of belief, in the security of taking a leap of faith. The great revolutions in science, industry and technology have profoundly transformed life on Earth. But science has not replaced religion. Instead, the two have developed a complicated relationship. Science is a religion; religion has become a science. Anxiety and skepticism abound. The more answers science offers, the more questions we have. Overwhelmed by the evidence for a phenomenon such as global warming, some choose to believe in it or not.

In a similar way, what evidence exists -- or does not -- for Maya predictions, biblical prophecies and astronomical prognostications is less important than what we simply choose to believe. In the end, for some, 2012 is a matter of faith. For many of 2012ology’s true believers, the “end” is seen as the dawn of a new and better world. Those optimists are probably closer in spirit to the ancient Maya themselves and their expectations for as a day or celebration and renewal. Let us certainly hope so.

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