Doomsday Averted; Long Live Doomsday Predictions

BY Allison McCartney  December 21, 2012 at 9:00 AM EST

Copan, HondurasGuatemalan shaman Christian Nottbohn holds a Mayan ceremony in Copan Archeological Park in Honduras. The apocalypse predicted for Dec. 21, 2012 is largely an American creation, not a Mayan one. Photo by Orlando Sierra/ AFP/ Getty Images.

As everyone knows by now, the apocalypse has been averted.

As detailed in movies, television shows and numerous advertisements, the end of the world predicted in ancient Mayan lore strikes on Dec. 21, 2012, the last day of the Mayan calendar, bringing with it floods, earthquakes, the reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles and the beginning of a new spiritual age.

This unlikely doomsday story has become a prominent thread in the national conversation. And if it resembles everything that Americans expect in a Hollywood blockbuster, that’s probably because it’s mostly an American creation, not a Mayan one.

Professor Mark Van Stone of Southwestern College, who studies Mayan hieroglyphs and calligraphy, says that early scholarly work on the Maya is partly to blame. “The scientists speculated that the Maya had this cycle and when the calendar went to 13.0.0.0.0, the gods started the clock running again,” he said in a phone interview from Mexico Thursday.

The Mayan Long Count calendar is separated into 360 day years called “Tuns,” 20 year periods called “Katuns,” and 400 year periods called “Baktuns.” The end of the 13th Baktun, or 13.0.0.0.0, falls on Dec. 21, 2012. In the mid-1970s scholars who had previously speculated on the Mayan cycle found references to dates far beyond 13.0.0.0.0.

“This escaped the general understanding,” said Van Stone in the interview, “The scholars said, ‘Oh, we were wrong,’ but the memo didn’t get out to the general public.”

Professor John Hoopes of the University of Kansas, who has studied the development of the 2012 phenomenon, says that the origins of the doomsday myth lay in speculative academia that was then co-opted and embellished by others.

“Specific assertions about 2012 derive from statements made by reputable scholars — the experts of their time — that were misinterpreted in unanticipated ways,” he wrote in an article last year for the International Astronomy Union.

Early scholars of the Maya in the U.S. and Europe derived their ideas of a Mayan prediction of the apocalypse primarily from documents dated to the 16th century, which led them astray.

“We don’t see doomsday myths before the arrival of the Spanish, and that’s an important distinction because there are end-of-the-world predictions that come after Roman Catholic missionaries,” said Dr. Hoopes in a phone interview. “It was a Christian end-of-the-world eschatology.”

However, all of this work might have remained on the dusty bookshelf of an academic library if not for the work of writers, poets and New Age spiritualists in the 1950s and 60s.

A book called “The Ancient Maya” published by archaeologist Sylvanus Morley in 1946 brought Mayan mythology to the masses, and inspired members of the Beat movement like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to travel to the sites of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations for further study.

Kevin Whitesides, who studies the emergence of 2012 mythology, says that there have been about 3,000 books written since 1966 that discuss 2012.

“There’s quite a huge variety,” he said over the phone. “You’ll find perspectives from all the major religions. There’s Buddhist books about 2012, there’s Muslim, Christian and Hindu books on 2012.

“Then there’s also all the new age books, those who are looking for the dawn of a new age, doomsday stories.”

However, he says, most of these books have been self-published by their authors. Along with them have come books about less well-known aspects of the Mayan apocalypse.

“There are books on how to make money off of 2012, 2012 cookbooks, that sort of thing,” he said.

The hold that 2012 has on the American imagination is so strong that astronomers and scientists have been asked to weigh in on the matter. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson vented his frustration at having to explain why the Earth isn’t going to end from a scientific perspective while appearing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon recently.

“There’s no greater sign of the failure of the American educational system than the extent to which Americans are distracted by the possibility that the Earth might end on Dec. 21, 2012,” he said.

The idea of setting a date for the end of the world is nothing new; American writers and religious leaders have predicted the end of time for centuries. Radio preacher Harold Camping signaled the alarm to his devoted followers on the coming of the “rapture” to no avail.

A recent Reuters poll found that one in seven people around the world think that the world will come to an end during their lifetimes, and that 10 percent believe it could happen in 2012 as predicted by the Mayan calendar.

If this is their fear, they should sit comfortable in knowing that the Mayan calendar accounts for many, many years to come.