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.