Apocalyptic anxiety is, if anything, reassuringly familiar. This most recent phenomenon taps into a well-established tradition in our society. Just this past year, religious broadcaster Harold Camping took two swings at predicting doomsday, pinpointing one date in May and, when the world emerged unscathed, one in October.
What makes 2012ology different is the starring role it gives to the ancient Maya. Among numerous native cultures in the Americas, the Maya seem to have captured the popular imagination. They are cast as a mysteriously wise civilization, one that disappeared into the tropical forests of Central America, taking with it a sacred knowledge that has only recently started coming to light.
Although the disaster flick “2012” — early to the game in 2009 — featured no Maya priests and portrayed largely tongue-in-cheek science, its promotional tagline succinctly captured the assumptions underlying 2012ology: “First, the Mayan calendar predicted it. . . . Now, science has confirmed it.”
The only problem is, the ancient Maya predicted no such thing. Nor has anything been confirmed by science.
During the heyday of their civilization, circa A.D. 250 to 900, the Maya produced thousands of artworks and hieroglyphic texts, a dazzling legacy of literature and learning, art and architecture. But they weren’t preoccupied with apocalypse. Maya creation mythology recorded tales of a past world, but it did not detail how and when the current world would end — or even if it would.
Instead, the Maya appear to have been particularly fascinated with re- creation, as it figured prominently in myth and in ritual performance. The Maya perceived time as a complex set of infinite cycles, not a clock ticking toward doomsday. One of these cycles, known by scholars as the Maya Long Count, consisted of more than 5,000years. In our calendrical system it began in August 3114 B.C. and is due to end on Dec. 21, 2012 — or, in Maya numerology, 18.104.22.168.0.
But there is nothing to suggest that the Maya thought this date would be the world’s last. If anything, they might have worried a bit about the roundness of the number, like we did about Y2K. But 22.214.171.124.0 was not the end.
One glyphic text that records the date 126.96.36.199.0, a carved stone plaque from the Mexican site of Tortuguero, was ambiguously read by Maya scholars in 1996 as possibly predicting an ominous event — the “descent” of a deity associated with the underworld. The scholars posted their interpretation online, and that reading spread rapidly across the Internet in the following years, promoted by 2012ologists as evidence of a specific Maya prophecy. Meanwhile, epigraphers — those who study the glyphs — gave the Tortuguero plaque a closer look.