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 websites, 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.
The only problem is, the ancient Maya predicted no such thing.
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, 184.108.40.206.0.
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 220.127.116.11.0 was not the end.
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? 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.
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.
RESTALL and 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.