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The 2012 Apocalypse, or Why the World Won’t End This Week

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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If you believe The Daily Mail, we’re all convinced that the world is going to end on 21st December 2012. Apparently people are stockpiling food and weapons, flocking to remote villages and heading for mystical peaks from whence ‘an extra-terrestrial mothership’ housed for centuries in an alien temple inside the mountain ‘will pluck believers to safety’. ‘With ten days to go before the Mayan apocalypse supposedly casts Earth into oblivion, time is running out for believers to find alien salvation’ the Mail proclaims.

So why all the recent hysteria? According to Maya myth, the world was created on 11 August 3114 BC in the Gregorian Calendar; or by the Maya count. This creation was the fourth incarnation of the world, the previous age having ended after the thirteenth b’ak’tun (a c.400-year cycle). On 21st December, it will once again be and the ‘Great Cycle’ will be completed, bringing the thirteenth b’ak’tun of the current age to an end. Some translations of the glyphs from a partially illegible Maya stela suggest that the end of the present b’ak’tun will see the ‘descent’ of the god Bolon Yookte’ K’Uh (sometimes translated as the ‘Nine-Footed God’). This convergence of dates and prophecies has been seen as marking the transition to the next world, and hence the end of this one.

For many years, a scarcity of Maya calendrical references to dates post-2012 was also seen as a possible indication of a cataclysmic end to the world this December. But, quite apart from the question of practicalities (I mean, how many of you have a calendar on your desk which reaches to 2406 – a b’ak’tun from now?) even this tenuous evidence has recently been refuted  by the discovery of an early Maya mural in Xultún which includes calendrical and cosmological calculations stretching some 7,000 years into the future. Certainly, the Precolumbian Maya might have considered 21st December 2012 a symbolic date, a moment of potential transformation. But does that mean they thought the world would end?

It’s easy to mock The Daily Mail (far, far too easy) but for some people, the prospect of apocalypse is a very real fear. David Morrison, of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, says that they have received thousands of questions about the 2012 doomsday predictions, some of them from people who have considered suicide, because they are so terrified by the horrific idea of living through the end of the world. Some people are clearly deeply troubled by the recent obsession with apocalypse, but that the origins of their fear lie in a highly disputed and extremely tenuous Maya prophecy is a fascinating and baffling situation.

According to the Maya legends eloquently recorded in the sixteenth-century Popol Vuh, humans were created in this, the fourth world, when the gods moulded our ancestors from maize dough (after unsuccessful attempts at fashioning men from monkeys, wood and clay). I doubt that many of the so-called ‘preppers’ who are ‘preparing’ themselves for the end of the world or an ascent into the stars with their alien overlords believe in the Precolumbian myths of creation, so (even if we had conclusive evidence of a Maya belief in a 2012 apocalypse) why would they believe in the myths of destruction? And if you don’t believe me, why not listen to the Maya themselves. Modern-day Maya see the ‘apocalypse’ as a European invention. For them, the end of the b’ak’tun is a time of renewal and celebration, a new beginning, not an end.

So, despite the spectre of impending doom, I’m going to carry on Christmas shopping, and looking forward to my imminent research leave, secure in the knowledge that the ancient Maya didn’t believe the world will end on Friday. And even if they did, I don’t.

Image: Temple at the Maya city of Chichen-itza. Cross-posted at History Matters.

Caroline Dodds Pennock About the Author: Dr. Caroline Dodds Pennock is Lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, specializing in Mesoamerica and the Atlantic world. Caroline blogs with her colleagues at History Matters and her book, Bonds of Blood: Gender, Lifecycle and Sacrifice in Aztec Culture came out in paperback in 2011. Follow on Twitter @carolinepennock.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. rloldershaw 5:51 pm 12/18/2012

    We are not approaching the “end of the world”.

    Rather we are approaching a fin de siecle, which heralds the end of an old way of thinking and living, and much more importantly the beginning of a new way of thinking and living.

    We will understand the cosmos and our place within it in a new and highly unified way.

    As a visionary physicist said not that long ago:

    “How can physics live up to its true greatness except by a new revolution in outlook which dwarfs all its past revolutions? And when it comes, will we not say to each other, ‘Oh, how beautiful and simple it all is! How could we ever have missed it for so long!’.” John Archibald Wheeler

    The failure of the LHC to find any “new physics” beyond the standard model of particle physics (with its 7 well-known problems) and the impending demise of “WIMP” theory, string theory and supersymmetry are a prelude to a completely new paradigm for understanding nature: an infinite discrete fractal paradigm for the structure, organization and dynamics of the cosmos.

    None too soon.

    Robert L. Oldershaw
    Discrete Scale Relativity

    Link to this
  2. 2. Acoyauh2 7:18 pm 12/18/2012

    What?! I WILL have to pay my credit card after all? Rats…!
    No, Caroline, not even the stelle suggests catastrophe; at least not by any knowledgeable interpretation. But hey, in times like these, the voice of reason is drowned by all the prophets, doomsayers and… ahem… experts out there, right? *sigh*

    Link to this
  3. 3. hanmeng 9:52 pm 12/18/2012

    The only kind of doom we’re expected to fear is the doom that we can blame on humanity.

    Link to this
  4. 4. OBagle 10:17 pm 12/18/2012

    People face their doom every day. What difference does a mass extinction event make – whether 100 million people died over the course of a decade, or overnight? The best that anyone can do is to delay their inevitable demise, and this takes a disciplined, conscientious effort. There are plenty of people who die in youth as a result of debt, substance abuse, recklessness, and even factors beyond anyone’s control, i.e. war, pollution, depression. Stop worrying about calamitous events that announce themselves with earthshaking violence and brimstone. In fact, death is already at our doorsteps, and it is killing us silently from the inside.

    Link to this
  5. 5. SVXinc 11:08 pm 12/18/2012

    Another article telling us that ‘surprise!’ the world is not going to end! And of course the Mayans never said anything about it, but here is a link to an article about the theory, written by a Guatemalan expert. check it out.

    2012 Prophesy

    Link to this
  6. 6. andymikel 3:33 am 12/19/2012

    Guys must see this.

    Link to this
  7. 7. endofworldbook 6:48 am 12/19/2012

    This article makes a good point: The Mayans never pointed to December 21, 2012 as the date the world ends — people from modern society did that on their own.

    In the book, The End-of-the-World Delusion: How Doomsayers Endanger Society, it is shown how the same pattern emerges from other doomsday theories. For example, the Bible never predicted May 21, 2011 as the date the world ends — people from modern society did that on their own.

    It’s all psychology. Some people just see what they want. They look at the same set of facts and misinterpret them, jumping to the conclusion that the world’s coming to an end.

    Link to this
  8. 8. carolinepennock 3:14 pm 12/19/2012

    Hi everyone.
    Thanks for all your comments! Some really interesting ideas and links. As many of you point out in one way or another, this is all about perception and the idea of impending doom isn’t something new. (We’re running a whole series about Apocalypse through the ages in fact at our History Matters blog, where this originally appeared.)

    SVXinc, you’re absolutely right that this isn’t exactly news to historians, but you’d be surprised how many people still believe the Maya thought that the world was going to end this Friday, even if they don’t think it actually will.

    Thanks again for reading :-)

    Link to this
  9. 9. Paul Manes 11:11 pm 12/19/2012

    I would like to live (???) to see the End of the World. Wouldn’t you? It would be so cool. Only 7 billion people, of all who ever lived, would be able to say ‘I’VE BEEN THERE WHEN IT ALL ENDED!’.

    Anyway, it makes me sad to see people talking about ends of cycles as if that would change anything. When our calendar ends in December, does the world end? Do things change? Only for the worse, I guess.

    Also, Lady Author, you are so beautiful *o*

    Link to this

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