Apocalypse not now

There is much in serious Mayan scholarship to assuage fears about the world ending on December 21, 2012

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Thursday 20 December 2012

Winter solstice is usually a pleasant time. Christmas is barely four days away and the New Year is close by. This year, though, doomsday mongers have honed in on the solstice.

The Internet abounds with stories about the world coming to an end on December 21. In the Russian city of Tomsk, for example, a company is selling an “Apocalypse kit” that includes food and medicine with a bottle of vodka—or tequila if the customer prefers. In the French Pyrenees, authorities have temporarily closed access to a mountain in the southwest of the country to avoid throngs of people fleeing the apocalypse. Chinese police have detained more than 500 people from a fringe Christian group for spreading rumors about the world's impending end

Mayans and 2012 winter solstice
At the centre of this trepidation is the calendar of the ancient Mayan civilisation, which on the stroke of this winter solstice will strike its 13th ab’aktun: it will read 13.00.00 for the first time in 5,125 years. The Cassandras of doom see that as a terrible augury.

It’s a line of thinking that angers serious Mayan scholars. This is merely one calendar replacing the other, explains Mayan enthusiast Dirk van Tuerenhout.  “An ab'aktun is a period of 144,000 days (about 393 years) in one of the Mayan calendars: the Long Count. Thirteen is a sacred number for the Mayans, so the completion of 13 ab'aktuns, or 1,872,000 days, lends much significance to December 21, 2012 in the Mayan scheme of things,” he says.  What is so apocalyptic in that? asks van Tuerenhout who is the chief curator of the anthropology section of the Houston Museum of Natural Science.


“Two ancient carvings, one discovered this year, reference the date. The first, which dates back to about 669 AD and which was found in Tortuguero, Mexico, mentions the return of a deity associated with calendar changes on that day. The second, found in Guatemala, dates back to about 696 AD. In that text, a struggling king attempts to shore up his rule by linking it to the 13th ab'ak'tun that ends this year,” van Tuerenhot explains.

Originating in the Yucatán in modern day Mexico around 2600 BC, the Mayans rose to prominence around 250 AD in present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras. Its high urban culture, temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools, their farming and weaving skills and accomplishments in astronomy have made the Mayan civilisation the cynosure of the West. Scholarship has abounded, and so has pseudo history and Indiana Jones-style pseudo archaeology.

Many Mayan buffs are fascinated with Mayan astronomers'  ability to coincide the end of their Long Calendar with the winter solstice. That they did so without using modern telescopes have placed the Mayans on a high pedestal amongst the ancients. But, as van Tuerenhout argues, this also means, “The world of the ancient Maya colliding with the Western world which has all kinds of religious traditions anchored in apocalypse.” Just the right masala for doomsday mongers.

Doomsday sayers
Some of the current concern about the Mayan calendar goes back to a 1966 book, The Maya, by Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe, who briefly suggests the Long Count Calendar might have been used to predict Armageddon. But the doomsday theories actually came into their own with Jose Argüelles 1987 book, The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology. Argüelles, who trained as a historian and was one of the initiators of the Earth Day concept in 1970s, argued that the end of the world would be accompanied by “the return of the ancient Mayan sages”. Argüelles, who passed away in 2011, preached a rather curious philosophy that drew eclectically from pre-Columban Mayan cosmology and theories about extra terrestial life. Andrew Wilson, assistant head of social sciences at the University of Derby, believes that Argüelles popularised his theories about the Mayans in his new age circles. As the belief evolved, it became associated with even wilder predictions—such as the idea that Earth will be hit by a ‘rogue planet’, Nibiru, or swallowed by a black hole. These theories have some currency amongst new age creeds in the West. “What this and other apocalyptic dates have in common across new religious movements is that they are often predicted to occur within a believer’s lifetime—making their beliefs urgent and important,” argues Wilson.

Hollywood has been a ready accomplice for the Cassandras. Mexican archaeologist Jose Romario blames Hollywood movies, like 2012, for fostering pseudo theories about Mayans and many cineastes see the influence of Argüelles work in the 2012 Ridley Scott film, Prometheus.

Having said that, a world rife with calamities does provide breeding ground for doomsday theories. The brouhaha about December 21 offers an outlet for some of our deeper and real anxieties. Most of the apocalypse-mongers who predict an explosion of solar flames, on December 21, 2012, live in Europe and America where summers have been fierce of late and where hurricanes and typhoons have disturbed the tranquil of prosperity.

There is much in serious Mayan scholarship, though, to assuage fears about the world ending. Marc van Stone, a Mayan hieroglyph specialist and author of Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya, writes,  “There is nothing in the Maya or Aztec or ancient Mesoamerican prophecy, to suggest that they prophesied a sudden or major change of any sort in 2012. One Mayan text has an inscribed date correlating to 4772, proving that Mayans not only expected to survive December 21, 2012, but to worship their kings and gods for thousands of years after that.” “The Mayans believed in cyclical concept of time. There is no place for the end of the world in that,” the Mexican archaeologist Romario says.

Chicago Natural History Museum Curator Gary Feildman puts it aptly, “Its like the odometer of your car turning over. It doesn't stop running when it goes from 999999 to 00000.”

Let's enjoy solstice then. But with an eye and ear for some of the more sobering and considered theories that say life on Earth is in peril. 


Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.