The last New Year’s Day in human history is here.
You may not believe so, but millions do. They’re convinced that ancient Maya priests calculated Dec. 21, 2012, as the end of the world as we know it. These claims and warnings, prognostications and reassurances are on bookstore shelves, on Web sites, in museum exhibits and in tourist promotions. The global doomsday industry even has a name — 2012ology.
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. Among numerous native cultures in the Americas, the Maya 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 with it a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light.
Although the disaster flick “2012” — early to the game in 2009 — featured no Maya priests and portrayed largely tongue-in-cheek science, its promotional tagline succinctly captured the assumptions underlying 2012ology: “First, the Mayan calendar predicted it. … Now, science has confirmed it.”
The only problem is, the ancient Maya predicted no such thing. Nor has anything been confirmed “by science.”
During the heyday of their civilization, circa A.D. 250 to 900, the Maya produced thousands of artworks and hieroglyphic texts, a dazzling legacy of literature and learning, art and architecture. But they weren’t 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 actually 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 5,000 years. In our calendrical system it began in August 3114 B.C. and is due to end on Dec. 21, 2012 — or, in Maya numerology, 22.214.171.124.0.
But there is nothing to suggest that the Maya thought this date would be the world’s last. If anything, they might have worried a bit about the roundness of the number, like we did about Y2K. But 126.96.36.199.0 was not the end.
One glyphic text that records the date 188.8.131.52.0, a carved stone plaque from the Mexican site of Tortuguero, was ambiguously read by Maya scholars in 1996 as possibly predicting an ominous event — the “descent” of a deity associated with the underworld. The scholars posted their interpretation online and that reading spread rapidly across the Internet in the years that followed, promoted by 2012ologists as evidence of a specific Maya prophecy. Meanwhile, epigraphers — those who study the glyphs — gave the Tortuguero plaque a closer look.
The consensus today is that the text refers to a future commemoration of that date, when the local ruler will impersonate or represent that deity. It is not a doomsday prophecy but a bold assertion that the seventh-century building once marked by the plaque would still stand in 2012. For 2012ologists, however, the original interpretation is the true one.
End-times believers are also convinced that a carving made 2,300 years ago in Izapa, Mexico, depicting a caiman, a macaw and an elaborately dressed man is a cosmic map. While scholars of ancient Mexico debate the meanings of this image, 2012ologists have gone several steps further, insisting that it is a chart of the galaxy’s future — one that predicts a world-changing galactic alignment in the 2012 sky. This despite the fact that Izapa was a pre-Maya city whose people neither wrote nor recorded any dates. And despite the fact that most astronomers dispute the claim that galactic alignment is rare or ominous.
If the evidence for Maya doomsday predictions is so flimsy — if the impending Maya apocalypse is a mere myth — then why are so many people so willing to believe it is true? Why do some seem to want Dec. 21 to be the long-awaited end of the world as we know it?
One explanation is 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, why people listened to Camping’s predictions about Judgment Day and even, in a sense, why billions are attracted to religion.
That is also why 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.
Another explanation lies 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.
A final explanation lies in the comfort of belief, in the security of taking a leap of faith. 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.
But this doesn’t need to be disquieting. There is an upbeat tendency emerging even among hard-core believers in 2012ology. They see the “end” as a wonderful new beginning — that this year will bring the dawn of a new and better world. Let’s hope that those optimistic 2012ologists are right and that the ancient Maya — who most likely saw Dec. 21, 2012, as little more than a massive new year’s celebration — were wrong.
Matthew Restall and Amara Solariare the authors of “2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse.” They teach art history, history and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.