Predicting the End of the World

The movie 2012 opens Friday, predicated on the notion that on December 21, 2012, as the most recent Mayan long-form calendar cycle (5,125.366 years) comes to an end, along with a unique planetary/solar alignment and a high level of solar activity, the world will cataclysmicly end one era and enter another. With earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and all sorts of devastating destruction in the process.

The movie is not the only source of prophetic notions of doom, or at least cataclysmic change, that are gaining increasing play and attention as 2012 approaches. There are books, websites, and even several other movies scheduled for release on the subject with all kinds of angles, from secular and New Age to religious and indigenous folk legend.

Now, even if it were true that the Mayans had predicted some apocalyptic ending of the world at the end of their long calendar cycle (they had several calendars and ways of marking time; that was just one of them), it's a bit odd that we'd grab onto that one particular prophesy and belief system of theirs. After all, the Mayans also believed in human sacrifice, and we don't exactly leap on board that train in attempting to maintain civic and theological order.

But according to Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), the truth is, the Mayans didn't have any apocalyptic predictions for 2012. "There is NOTHING in ancient Maya records that predicts the end of the world; no apocalypse, no destruction, no cosmic clashes. Nothing," she says.

But, wait. What about Quetzacoatal returning and all that? Big sigh from the folks at FAMSI. In a fascinating paper available from the FAMSI website, Dr. Mark Van Stone, who has studied the Mayan culture for over a decade (and can read and write in Mayan hieroglyphs) provides an illuminating and entertaining cataloging of why all the doomsayers are off the mark and includes some great photo exhibits regarding the astronomical events scheduled for 12/21/12. Here's a sample, from his "9 Reasons Why The Mayan Prophecies Should Be Read Very Critically":

Though Aztec, Mixtec, and Maya sources provide us a number of narratives, different versions disagree. For example: the Aztec predict that this Creation will end on a 4-Movement day in a 2-Reed year, if it ends at all. The next possible Aztec end-date will be in 2027. Maya literature does not explicitly predict any end at all, and their so-called "end date" in 2012 is a 4-Ajaw [4-Flower in Aztec cycle] not 4-Movement. Mixtec Creation stories mention 2-Deer in 13-Rabbit, and other dates.

So perhaps in on the 2-Deer day in the 13-Rabbit year, under a 4-Flower Moon, we might have cause to worry -- except that it seems the Mayans never corrected written mistakes (the original, and literal, "carved in stone" approach). And the Aztec official responsible for a lot of how that culture's history was written apparently had a bit of a Machiavellian propaganda minister's streak in him. Which is to say, even what they did say should be taken with a handful of archeological salt.

December 21, 2012 is still a significant day for the Mayans. It's the equivalent of our Gregorian Calendar's December 31, 1999; the turning over of a new millennium and era of timekeeping. So it would be a big celebration. But that's about it. Of course, there were also a slew of predictions about disaster and doom surrounding our own "end of a cycle" mark at the end of 1999. None of which came true, as you may recall.

So why are we so drawn to these apocalyptic notions and prophecies of doom, gloom, and destruction (even if it eventually leads to a shining new era for the select few who are chosen or manage to survive)?

The answer apparently dates back to the very earliest days of human existence. "Apocalypticism," as it is academically known, arises from a deep evolutionary sense or need for social justice, according to Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in Religions of the Ancient World at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"The sense of social justice, fairness in dealing with each other, and a felt need to cooperate with each other was already in place long before our hominid ancestors reached the cognitive ability to reflect on it," Professor Kerkeslager says.

As long as humans lived in the relatively egalitarian hunting and gathering societies that dominated up until about 10,000 years ago, that need was sufficiently met and enforced, because the survival of the group depended on cooperation. But when humans moved into more agrarian societies with land ownership, where a more hierarchical structure evolved, disparities increased. So those who had less had to come up with a way to explain the differences and satisfy their need for an eventual leveling of the scales. Apocalypticism, according to Kerkeslager, fulfilled that need and gave people a way of still believing that the gods were good and fair, even in an unfair world.

"Typically," he explains, "[apocalypticism] involves claims to prophetic authority among the leaders of the movement, an emphasis on visions and other forms of direct experience with the gods, and prophecies of a future transformation of the world that will bring relief to the afflicted members of the apocalyptic group and destruction on their enemies."

Not surprisingly, the phenomenon typically springs up among groups who find themselves in the minority, threatened, or repressed unfairly--at least, in their own view of the world. The Christian Book of Revelation came about under perceived Roman repression of the fledgling faith. The Anabaptists of the 1500s came out of a society stressed by economic disparity between rich and poor. Native American cultures developed apocalyptic narratives in the 1880s and 1890s, when those cultures were in danger of annihilation.

Visions and prophecies have been found in writings dating as far back as 2,000 B.C., according to Kerkeslager, although not all cultures had an equal need for thunder and lightning delivery of justice. In a polytheistic culture like ancient Greece, the need for apocalyptic beliefs was less, because a multitude of warring gods could explain misfortune or disparity. You might simply be the casualty of a power struggle between Hera and Zeus.

But as cultures became monotheistic, the disconnect between a supposedly fair and just God, and an unjust world, became harder to explain away. Hence, Kerkeslager says, apocalyptic notions in the Hebrew Book of Daniel, which was written only three years after a Greek King named Antiochus had begun a brutal repression of the Jews in Jerusalem, including turning the Jewish Temple into a shrine for Zeus. The revolt of Jewish revolutionaries, including the restoration of the temple in 165 B.C. (the same year that the Book of Daniel was written) is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. But at the end of the Book of Daniel, the author predicts that an apocalyptic end will come to the repressive Greeks 1,290 days after their desecration of the temple. Unfortunately, as with other apocalyptic prophecies, it didn't happen. So the last line of Daniel changes the date to 1,335 days.

The fact that that date, too, came and went, didn't seem to fluster believers, any more than a failure of the earth to end on January 1, 2000 has stopped people from believing that it might still happen in 2012.

"The stubborn and often surprising ability of apocalyptic groups to ignore or explain away the failures of their prophecies is one of the most well-known features of apocalyptic groups," Kerkeslager says--a phenomenon also known as "motivated reasoning," as I discussed in an earlier piece here.

So with all that knowledge and understanding, can we all breathe easy? Not quite. "The belief in an apocalyptic doomsday is still alive even in the most skeptical societies," Kerkeslager says, "because it is very much a real possibility ... The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has sometimes been characterized by global transformations that have indeed had an apocalyptic scope." Some of those events were natural disasters that caused mass extinctions. But many civilizations, he points out, have brought about their own extinction "by practices that exhausted their natural resources and gradually undermined their ability to sustain their own populations." Including, ironically enough, the ancient Mayans.

So perhaps the Mayans did leave us a prophecy or warning worth heeding. Just not the one everyone's talking about. But in director Roland Emmerich's defense, I have to admit that it would be a lot harder to make a blockbuster action-adventure-thriller out of recycling your grocery bags and developing renewable energy sources than something that results in an aircraft carrier on a tidal wave wiping out the White House. Which is something spinners of apocalyptic tales figured out long before there were aircraft carriers, movies, or really cool special effects.