For those of us who hate Christmas, it’s kind of comforting to hear that the world is going to end on December 21. If the jig truly is up, there’s no need to go through the tedious holiday rituals of shopping, making travel arrangements and festooning the boughs of doomed evergreens.
What a wonderful life that would be. But alas, the apocalypse is not coming on the third Friday in December.
To be fair, most of the originators and/or perpetuators of the 2012 prophecy, widely publicized by movies, books, TV documentaries and of course the Internet, don’t claim the world is going to end December 21. Their contention is that the ancient Maya, who were great prognosticators of the future and just possibly in communication with supremely intelligent extraterrestrials, predicted an apocalyptic transformation of humanity on or around that date. The world’s people, or maybe just a select few enlightened ones, would elevate themselves from this corrupt, materialistic existence to a state of harmonious enlightenment.
This is all complete hogwash. But how anyone came to believe it does tell us a lot about the need of all humans, ancient and modern, to mark the passage of time.
Our tale begins way back in the middle of the 20th century, when some serious scholars did indeed hypothesize that the Maya believed the world would end in 2012. The Maya were excellent astronomers and prolific calendar makers, with different systems used to schedule day-to-day affairs, religious rituals and so on. One of their more sacred calendars, the Long Count, was made of nested cycles: 20 days made a winik, 18 winik made a tun, 20 tun made a k’atun and 20 k’atun made a bak’tun.
Thirteen bak’tun made a Great Cycle, a period of roughly 5,125 years. Maya creation myth could be interpreted to suggest that we are living in the fourth Great Cycle, the first three having resulted in failed worlds. More than a century ago, scholars were able to calculate that the Maya put the beginning of the present Great Cycle at August 11, 3114 B.C. Which puts this Great Cycle’s end on December 21, 2012 (though for calendrically arcane reasons some people argue it should be December 23). The Maya wrote the date this way: 188.8.131.52.0.
Certainly, such a round date would have been important to the Maya. And if they believed that the previous three worlds went kaput after 5,125 years, some mid-20th century researchers reasoned, maybe the Maya thought this one is headed for a similar fate.
Since the 1960s, however, scholars have been able to decipher the ancient Maya’s written language. Copious translations of carvings, wall paintings and bark-paper books have yielded no evidence that the Maya thought the world was going to end on a particular date. Most of the Maya’s writing, in fact, had to do not with the future but the present and immediate past: It was history, not astrology.
When the Maya did refer to future dates, usually it was in the context of commemorating a coronation or some other significant event from their own experience. And those mentions stretch well beyond 2012. In one spectacular painted room at the site of Xultun in Guatemala, researchers observe in the May 11 Science, there are references to dates thousands of years in the future.
That’s nothing. There’s a stela at Coba in Mexico that refers to a date 41 octillion years in the future. Maybe a Maya stone carver was just having a bit of fun, but there it is.
The only solid evidence for what the Maya thought would happen this December 21 comes from a site in southern Mexico called Tortuguero. A stone inscription there says something along the lines of, “It will be completed, the 13th bak’tun … and it will happen a seeing. It is the display of B’olon-Yokte’ in a great investiture.”
B’olon-Yokte’ was a god of war involved with the creation of the world, so maybe that does sound a little ominous. But modern scholars don’t see it that way, and the ancient Maya almost certainly didn’t either. 184.108.40.206.0 would have felt like a big day to them, sort of like January 1, 2000, was to all of us who anticipated its approach wondering if the global computing infrastructure was going to self-destruct.
On Y2K the calendar was rolling over in a big way. With all those zeroes it just felt significant, like a car’s odometer going from 99,999.9 miles to 100,000.
To the driver and passengers riding in a car when that happens, it feels momentous. But to the car, it’s nothing. The engine and transmission and suspension and wheels and all the other parts are doing exactly what they’ve always done. It’s just this one little wheel on the dashboard (well, before digital odometers it was) rolling forward one increment and pulling all the rest of the wheels with it.
For a moment, everybody in the car gazes in wonderment and takes note of where they were when it happened. And then that moment is over, and the car keeps moving down the road.