2. What is the Long Count calendar and what does it have to do with 2012?
The ancient Maya tracked time according to increasingly larger cycles. How they did this has been understood in detail since the late 19th century, when American journalist Joseph T. Goodman successfully deciphered the complicated system of the Maya calendar. He published his results in 1897, describing a "Long Count" system of a "count of days" based on several units or periods of increasingly larger size: the k'in (1 day), winal (20 days), tun (360 days), k'atun (7200 days), and bak'tun (144,000 days). The ancient Maya kept track of time using this system, which was combined with additional counts of 260 days (the tzolk'in) and 365 days (the haab) to produce Long Count dates. Goodman believed there was also a larger "Great Cycle" of 13 bak'tuns (1,872,000 days) and determined that the start of the present Great Cycle was on 18.104.22.168.0 4 Ajaw 8 Cumk'u (that is 13 bak'tunob, 0 k'atunob, 0 tunob, 0 winalob, and 0 k'inob, followed by counts on the tzolk'in and haab). Later scholarship showed that this was a sacred "Creation" date for the ancient Maya, who referred to it in their mythology as a kind of "birth" of the present world. The Gregorian equivalent of this date is August 11, 3114 BCE. The next day was 0.0.0.0.1, with each day clicking another unit in the count. According to scholars who support Goodman's idea of a 13-bak'tun Great Cycle, the current period will conclude on 22.214.171.124.0 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in, the Gregorian equivalent of which is December 21, 2012 (or possibly December 23, or yet something else...)
It's important to remember that calendars are complicated! The Gregorian calendar system, currently used in the Americas, Europe, and other countries with heavily Western influence, is one that carries with it the legacy of many changes, some of which originated with the Roman (Julian) calendar with modifications under Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), the head of the Roman Catholic church at the time of the Spanish Conquest (for whom the calendar is named). Explaining the magical or divinatory aspects that many people believe about them is even more complicated, but it is a problem literally as old as time.
3. Does the Maya calendar end on December 21, 2012?
No. It's not even clear that the date will represent the end of a 13-bak'tun cycle. Goodman's theory was that the present 13-bak'tun Great Cycle was the 54th in an even larger Grand Era, comprised of 73 Great Cycles. However, some ancient Maya daykeepers appear to have favored counts in 20-bak'tun cycles. The Maya calendar does not end with a 13- or 20-bak'tun count. The Maya projected dates far into the future. For example, one inscription predicts that the anniversary of the coronation of K'inich Janaab' Pakal, a 7th century Maya king of Palenque, will still be celebrated in AD 4772. Epigrapher David Stuart has pointed out that there are Maya dates that project farther into the future than modern astronomers project backward to the origin of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.
Scholars are currently divided over whether the correct Gregorian correlation with 126.96.36.199.0 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in is December 21 or December 23, 2012 or even some other date. The date of December 21 has been especially popular for many intepretations because it happens to fall on a solstice (winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the southern). Whether this was intentional or fortuitous remains a matter of debate.
4. What's the origin of the claims about the end of the world?
Shortly after Goodman's work was first published, German scholar Ernst Förstemann interpreted the symbols and images on the last page of an pre-Hispanic Maya book called the Dresden Codex as references to the end of the world in a cataclysmic flood that he interpreted as "destruction of the world," "apocalypse," and "the end of the world." Förstemann's ideas were repeated by American archaeologist Sylvanus Morley in a 1915 book on ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing. Morley added his own embellishments, writing "Finally, on the last page of the manuscript, is depicted the Destruction of the World... Here, indeed, is portrayed with a graphic touch the final all-engulfing cataclysm" in the form of a Great Flood. These comments were later repeated in Morley's popular book The Ancient Maya (1946). Mayanists disagree about these interpretations, with some suggesting that the image represents the annual arrival of the rainy season, not a cataclysmic flood.
The ideas of Goodman, Förstemann, and Morley influenced American archaeologist Michael Coe, of Yale University, who also interpreted elements of Aztec mythology, particularly the "Legend of the Five Suns" (first recorded in the 1550s) as evidence for ancient beliefs in cyclical periods of destruction. He summarized his ideas in a popular textbook, The Maya (1966). In each edition (there have now been eight), Coe associated the completion of the 13th bak'tun with "Armageddon," a reference from Christian beliefs expressed in the New Testament (in the Book of Revelation) that there will be a final, world-destroying battle associated with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. He also noted (based on Aztec beliefs) that the present world would be destroyed by earthquakes. Coe never thought this would actually occur. He was simply trying to express what he thought the ancient Maya actually believed using Cold War lingo so as to grab the imagination of his readers.
In the mid-1970s, Michael Coe's speculation became associated with pseudoscientific speculation by bestselling Swiss author Erich von Däniken through a popular made-for-TV program called The Outer Space Connection (1975) written and produced by Alan Landsburg. This program and a popular book of the same name promoted claims that the ancient Maya had been contacted by "ancient astronauts" or "ancient aliens," identified as extraterrestrial visitors from another planet who were "prophecied" to return to Earth on December 24, 2011 (an erroneous date given by Coe in his 1966 book). Narrated by Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, the program was seen by millions, planting elements of mythology in popular culture. The same year, author Frank Waters, best known for his Book of the Hopi (1963), published Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth World of Consciousness (1975), in which he associated the same erroneous date with myths about Quetzalcoatl (an Aztec deity and legendary culture hero), Atlantis, and hints about extraterrestrial visitation. Waters wrote, "On the assumption that the Mayan Great Cycle, comprising 13 baktuns or 5,200 years and beginning on August 12, 3113 B.C., marked the end of the Fourth World and the beginning of the Fifth World, one would expect the great catastrophe attested by Nahuatl-Mayan myth. The end of the Great Cycle and the Fifth World, according to the same Goodman-Martínez-Thompson correlation, will occur on December 24, 2011 A.D., and it too will be destroyed by catastrophic earthquakes" (Waters 1975: 257-258). Notions of world destruction resonated with people familiar with stories of the destruction of the legendary "lost continent" of Atlantis and also doomsday prophecies made by new religious movement (NRM) leaders such as David Berg of the Children of God, who in 1973 had predicted that the Comet Kohoutek was a harbinger of doom.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Maya calendar also caught the interest of counterculture hippies who were using psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT, psilocybin, and cannabis and who were also interested in astrology (including the "Age of Aquarius"), numerology, Tarot, and the Chinese divinatory practice of the I Ching (Yì Jīng). These included authors Terence McKenna and José Argüelles (one of the creators of the Whole Earth Festival in 1970), who wrote books, taught workshops, and gave lectures describing mystical experiences based on their use of psychedelics. They saw similar patterns in the Maya calendar and the I Ching that suggested to them the 2012 date would be associated with a spiritual "transformation of consciousness," an idea that became popular among people interested in New Age beliefs. In 1975, both McKenna (with his brother Dennis) and Argüelles published books in which they identified 2012 as the year this would happen. However, they did not narrow the date down to December 21, 2012 until 1983, when archaeologist Robert Sharer published that correlation in an appendix to the 4th edition of Sylvanus Morley's classic book The Ancient Maya.
The significance of the date was popularized during a counterculture event known as the Harmonic Convergence that was organized by Argüelles on August 16-17, 1987. Argüelles, who thought that the problems of Western civilization were due to the use of a calendar that was not directly linked to the movements of the Sun, the Moon, the planets, and the stars. He sought to revive a version of the Maya calendar based on solar and lunar cycles, creating a new system that he called the Dreamspell. Following the Maya calendar, it was based on the numbers 13 and 20 rather than 12 and 60. He thought that the use of this different calendar ultimately bring about world peace.
The Harmonic Convergence, which built on the success of Shirley MacLaine's book and TV miniseries Out on a Limb (1986), was promoted using new computer technology (especially the Apple Macintosh, first introduced in January 1984) and early computer networks. Since the 1960s, interest in astrology, Tarot, the I Ching, and the Maya calendar had been widespread among programmers associated with the new personal computer and software industry in what was to become Silicon Valley in northern California. Counterculture and New Age concepts, including those of psychologist Timothy Leary, McKenna, and Arguelles, had been a part of cyberculture since its inception, so it was only natural that early digital social networks of the mid-1980s, such as FidoNet and The WELL, played a role in spreading the word about the Harmonic Convergence and 2012 among psychedelic and computer "hacker" subcultures that frequently overlapped (cannabis and psychedelic users included influential programmers and innovators such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steven Jobs of Apple, and many others.) The 2012 mythology emerged from the same counterculture environment of San Francisco and the campuses of UC-Berkeley and Stanford that contributed to significant cultural changes of the 1960s, including radical politics, environmental awareness, and the "liberation of knowledge." It was from this same milieu that came computer and Internet pioneer Doug Englebart (whose inventions included the computer mouse and hypertext) as well as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters (among whom was cyberculture pioneer Stewart Brand) and the Grateful Dead. Its cultural legacy survives today in such phenomena as alternative medicine, environmentalism, ayahuasca therapy, Burning Man, Wikileaks, and the Occupy movement.
As computer networks grew, the ideas spread among individuals using the World Wide Web, especially after 1995. With growing concerns about Y2K, the mythology spread rapidly and became popular in global mass media. People created websites promoting the idea of either: 1) the literal end of the world, or 2) a spiritual transformation. However, this happened independent of academic scholarship on the ancient Maya, which did not support the idea of any "prophecy" or either scenario. The "prophecies" about 2012 are best considered a kind of folk mythology of the digital age, a collection of myths and legends that are spreading via commercial publications, television, and especially digital computer networks. The attention being given to the Maya date 188.8.131.52.0 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in (December 21, 2012) is largely the result of persistent folk beliefs about astrology, numerology, mysticism, and revelation. (Notice, for example, the unusual appearance of the numbers "184.108.40.206.0" and "12-21-12".)
5. What are some good reasons to consider a "2012 doomsday" as groundless?
The first is that doomsday prophecies have been a part of Western culture for at least 2500 years and the world has not yet come to an end. There are other reasons (explored below) for why these prophecies are popular.
There is no clear "prophecy" in the records of the ancient Maya. There is only one known ancient inscription, Monument 6 from the ruined site of Tortuguero (Chiapas, Mexico), that makes reference to the date of 220.127.116.11.0 4 Ajaw 3 K'ank'in, but the text is not very clear because the monument has been damaged. Epigraphers Sven Groenmeyer and Barbara MacLeod think it refers to a future ceremony in which a specific deity would be honored by dressing him in special clothes and perhaps carrying him in a procession. However, this remains a subject of debate. The other Maya "doomsday" prophecies that do exist in documents such as the 18th century Books of Chilam Balam, are difficult to interpret and do not specify 2012. These accounts, as well as the Popol Vuh ("Council Book"), a traditional Creation story of the Maya that refers to the destruction of subsequent worlds, were collected after the Spanish Conquest and may have been influenced by the end-of-the-world beliefs of Franciscan missionaries to the Maya. That is, the "2012 doomsday" beliefs attributed to the Maya are actually Western ideas, not ones that come from ancient Maya beliefs. When the Maya of the Colonial period were referring to catastrophes and devastation, it seems likely that they were referring to their own culture's destruction at the hands of Spanish invaders.
Some people have emphasized the fact that the special date on the Maya calendar--calculated over 2000 years ago--falls on a winter solstice (December 21). They think that the skills and precision of the ancient Maya daykeepers indicate that they had the ability to predict many things about the future. However, academic scholars disagree on whether the correct date is December 21, December 23, or something else. Many feel that the correspondence to a winter solstice is a coincidence. (They also dismiss notions about a "galactic alignment"-the position of the Sun in a special place relative to the Milky Way galaxy on that date-as a fantasy based on inaccurate, non-traditional astrology.)
Promoters of the 2012 mythology tend to ignore current academic scholarship and the opinions of professional Mayanists (archaeologists, epigraphers, art historians, linguists, etc.) about what ancient Maya people actually believed. Their interpretations are based on outdated and antiquated ideas of the late 19th and early 20th century, ideas that are useful for the construction of mythology and ideology but do not reflect contemporary academic knowledge. Mainstream scholars and scientists also view this movement as the source of a great deal of pseudoscience, ignorance, credulousness, and incorrect thinking because it privileges subjective over objective knowledge.
6. How did the concept of a 2012 doomsday or transformation become so popular?
The notion of a "2012 doomsday" is one that is successful because it uses people's fears to get them to pay attention to movies, television documentaries, books, magazines, websites, and other media sources that are designed to sell products and make money. It is a myth that is being promoted in part for commercial reasons. However, it has also become associated with spiritual goals by people who want to promote world peace, attention to environmental problems, global communication networks, and positive social change. It has become a powerful theme in commercial, political, and spiritual ideologies.
There are lots of reasons why people are genuinely concerned. These include issues of nuclear proliferation, political tensions in the Middle East, North Korea, Pakistan, and elsewhere, uncertainty because of the global economic recession, increasing pollution and global climate change, rapid changes in various aspects of society that are the result of new technology, and the speed of global communications. I think people feel anxious because they do not feel that they can control these changes that are affecting their lives in significant ways. However, problems similar to these have occurred in every generation. The is no reason to think that 2012 will be any different other than whatever effects result from beliefs in popular mythology.
7. Have popular media contributed to hyping the 2012 mythology?
Yes. Absolutely! Since the 1970s, sensational and popular TV programs, movies, books, and magazines have taken advantage of the public's general ignorance about the ancient Maya to promote nonsense, myths, and folklore that has little basis in academic scholarship. It is also clear that this has increased with the creation of personal computers, digital networks, the World Wide Web, and online sources of information (both good and bad) such as Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular online media. These make it much easier and faster to spread popular mythology. While they also make it easier to spread high-quality educational materials on the ancient Maya, people who do not have good educations are drawn more to the sensational stories than to responsible academic scholarship that is based on scientific investigation.
There are currently over 1500 books in English about the "2012 phenomenon," of which only a handful represent the beliefs of academic experts. Most are written for an audience that is seeking sensational interpretations.
8. What are the mainstream arguments concerning other "doomsday " prophecies?
Some Christians believe in what they call the "Rapture," an event when the souls of true believers will be taken up into Heaven. They prepare for this with prayer and devotion, but do not claim to know when it will occur. In their beliefs, Rapture comes before the Armageddon and doomsday events. The interpretations of Christian beliefs about the end of the world are highly varied. There are mainstream beliefs of Christians, which are actually extremely diverse, and mainstream opinions by both Christians and non-Christians about those beliefs. However, the ideas about these are extremely complex and difficult to summarize. There are some Christians who believe in a physical end of the world and others who consider it to be something metaphorical and figurative. It depends on who you ask.
9. How did 2012 mythology become popular outside New Age circles?
A significant factor influencing New Age thought in the 1980s and 1990s was the success of the publishing house Inner Traditions (founded 1975), which merged with the existing Bear & Co. (founded 1980) in 2000. Inner Traditions - Bear & Co. has published key books by 2012 authors José Argüelles, John Major Jenkins, Carl Johan Calleman, Barbara Hand Clow, and many others. Inner Traditions has been especially successful in marketing its books via Amazon and (until it closed) the Borders Bookstores chain. They have been translating a number of their titles into Spanish to take advantage of a growing market in Latin America.
The 2012 mythology gained recognition outside of New Age circles as the result of some astute publishing and marketing decisions. The meme reached a tipping point in 2007. This was due to several things. One of these was the book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (released in May 2006) by Daniel Pinchbeck, whose previous book Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (2002) had been a big hit in counterculture and New Age circles but also made a big splash in the mainstream media. (Rolling Stone magazine featured a major profile of Pinchbeck titled "Daniel Pinchbeck and the New Psychedelic Elite" in its Sept. 7, 2006 issue). Pinchbeck was likened to 1960s LSD-promoting guru Timothy Leary. The second book was heavily marketed by publisher Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc. Unlike many similar mass-media books, it was first published in a high-quality hardcover edition (with the design of a crop circle on the cover) and came with a big promotion budget that took the author to bookstores around the country. He has since founded online magazine Reality Sandwich, a social nework called Evolver, and has been an active user and promoter of new media. Of course, his 2012 book took advantage of interest from the psychedelic subculture and related cyber-counterculture along with aficionados of such bizarre phenomena as crop circles, alien abductions, psi phenomena, and the pseudoarchaeology of British author Graham Hancock.
Indirectly, buzz about 2012 was used to promote Mel Gibson's action-adventure film Apocalypto,released in December 2006. Although the film itself makes no specific reference to 2012, the title of the film, the reference in promotional imagery to a solar eclipse, and the ancient Maya setting drew upon an audience that has already been intrigued. Gibson, with The Passion of the Christ (2004) had already experienced the success of undercover marketing with a religious/spiritual theme. Did his marketing team take advantage of existing New Age buzz and Internet chatter about 2012 to promote Apocalypto and in so doing contribute to its spread? That's something to consider.
Another important influence was Apocalypse 2012: A Scientific Investigation into Civilization's End (released in January 2007) by Lawrence Joseph. Joseph, who capitalizes on the authority of a strong science background, is also an opportunist with a keen sense of the market. He has the distinction, for example, of having published the first post-assassination biography of John Lennon, published just weeks after the former Beatle's death. Joseph used both media appearances and his website to promote interest in Apocalypse 2012. He's also published a sequel: Aftermath: Prepare for and Survive Apocalypse 2012 (2010) That is, he has been prepared with both the problem and the solution! Joseph's books have been heavily promoted in both the U.S. and the U.K. He has been featured in several major documentaries (for the History Channel, Discovery Channel, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and others).
Accompanying these publications, there was a tremendous explosion of websites and blogs devoted to 2012. Most of these came into being after Y2K, but drew upon some of the same energy that was vested in Y2K preparedness (which included such phenomena as the creation of a globalized software industry in India due to outsourcing of computer programming to be "Y2K-ready." They also drew upon many of the same skills from the same people. Of course, Roland Emmerich's blockbuster disaster film 2012 (2009)--inspired to a large extent (according to Emmerich) by the imagery in Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods (1995)--helped pop the meme out into general consciousness. (What few people know about is its background in fringe literature going back to pseudoscientific myths about the lost continent of Atlantis.)
10. Apart from Hollywood, who is exploiting the mythology for profit?
There are now more than 1500 books (only in English) that deal in some way with the 2012 phenomenon. There are countless websites.
Recording industry hits such as "2012 (It Ain't the End)" by Jay Sean and "Til the World Ends" by Britney Spears, brought the 2012 mythology to pop music, nightclub, and music video audiences. Since the "end of the world" is such a big party opportunity, I'm sure we'll see many more of these!
Needless to say, the survivalist industry is going strong, with sites selling all kinds of packaged food, water, and supplies. Entrepreneurs such as Patrick Geryl (in Belgium) are selling mountaintop refuges. In Kansas, a developer is transforming an abandoned Cold War-era missile silo into multimillion-dollar underground survival bunkers.
Reality Sandwich, Evolver.net, and associated New Age- and psychedelic-themed services (including ayahuasca retreats to South America and online workshops with "mystics" and "visionaries") are taking advantage of the 2012 hype to re-package and re-market older 1970s themes such as pyramidology, UFOs, psi, and the like.
11. Are the Maya's home countries using the 2012 phenomenon to sell tourism?
Absolutely! Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are pulling out all of the stops for promoting tourism of Maya sites and other destinations for 2012, including a government-sponsored documentary on the theme. Mexico's Instituto de Antropología e Historia (INAH) has already been using strategic press releases to fuel interest in the 2012 phenomenon, most recently with stories about the discovery of a second inscription "confirming" the date (which actually seems to be a spurious interpretation).
One of the oddest of the tourist phenomena is in Bosnia, where entrepreneur Semir Osmanagic has been connecting the 2012 mythology with his discovery of ancient Bosnian "pyramids" to revitalize the tourist industry in that country. His publication The World of the Maya, for example, ends with New Age claim about 2012. Just google on "Bosnian pyramids" to see some examples of the way this myth is being marketed. (My impression is that Bosnian merchants are delighted, while Bosnian scientists are appalled.)
12. Why are people so attracted to theories of an Apocalypse?
The word "apocalypse" means "unveiling," which implies revelation of something heretofore unknown. Part of it is the legacy of Christian beliefs in the Book of Revelation and the hope for a better world in the future. If a deus ex machina arrives--whether the return of Jesus Christ or a wise extraterrestrial or perhaps both in one (!)--to provide solutions to the world's problems, that relieves humankind of responsibility for solving the problems and cleaning up the mess. There are probably deep psychological roots for that, including childhood memories of being provided for by a benevolent parent.
As for fear, or even just attraction to the strange and bizarre, recent psychological studies that show that the human brain has adapted to be hypersensitive to dangers, anomalies, and things that are "not quite right." We recognize things that are unusual and different as part of a cognitive strategy for survival.
Fear sells, even better than sex. (The study of this phenomenon is called neuromarketing.) I think there has been a positive feedback loop between fear and commercial consumption, whether one is selling terrorism (and security/defense systems, pre-emptive wars, and the like) or plastic surgery, cosmetic products, clothes, cars, image, etc. The 2012 mythology just taps into this on a higher level. If one pays attention (2012 is what Malcolm Gladwell calls "sticky"--something that repeatedly draws one's attention and holds it), then one can be better prepared to survive than the people who don't. Knowing about it gives a sense of advantage, perhaps even an edge on survival in the event of a catastrophe. Anxiety about the world's financial, environmental, and political climates feeds this, of course.
13. Where can I get accurate information about the Maya and 2012?
The 2012 phenomenon article on Wikipedia, which has been written and edited by multiple contributors with a wide range of perspectives for several years now, is the most accessible, accurate, and up-to-date source. It is likely to remain so. Two other web resources with extensive documentation are the 2012 FAQ and It's Not the End of the World: What the Ancient Maya Tell Us about 2012 by Mark Van Stone, and 2012 Hoax: Debunking the "2012 Doomsday".
Four books by academic scholars that provide sober and critical appraisals of the 2012 hype are: The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012, by archaeoastronomer Anthony Aveni (Colgate University); 2012: Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya, by epigrapher and art historian Mark Van Stone (Southwestern College); 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse, by ethnohistorians Matthew Restall and Amara Solari (Pennsylvania State University); and The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012, by epigrapher David Stuart (University of Texas). Several papers from the 2011 "Oxford IX" International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy have been published in Volume 7 of the Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy: Building Bridges between Cultures.
2012: Decoding the Counterculture Apocalypse, edited by Joseph Gelfer, has just been released by Equinox Publishing. It provides several scholarly essays on the origins and expressions of contemporary beliefs associated with interpretations of the Maya calendar.
Forthcoming publications in 2012 will include special issues of the journals Archaeoastronomy and the Zeitschrift für Anomalistik dedicated to academic scholarship on 2012 as both a historical and pop culture phenomenon.