Not Quite the End of the World; The Maya 2012 Phenomenon

In 2009, Roland Emmerich directed the action-disaster movie 2012. The movie focused heavily on themes of apocalypse and the way that people can and should treat each other in times of crisis. Little attention was paid to science and even less to the purported origin of the 2012 phenomenon, the end of the Mayan Long Count. This movie, with its awe-inspiring depictions of disaster and almost complete separation from history, represents the pinnacle of the 2012 phenomenon: a worldwide sensation based more heavily within Western ideals of apocalypse with little to no connection to the Mayan culture that supposedly birthed it.

The roots of the Mayan portion of the “Mayan Doomsday” are twofold. The first centers on the Mayan Long Count, a cyclical calendar system that lasts for millennia. Much like the Gregorian calendar, Mayan culture used cyclical calendars that revolved around either the moon cycle or the sun-cycle. The tun, a 360-day cycle, could be grouped together in sets of 20, their base unit of counting, or katun, similar to Western cultures divide their years into decades. While the counting system is different and their methods of measurement are slightly different, little about the Mayan calendar system is dramatically different from Western calendar systems until it broaches the Long Count.

Used to depict dates that go beyond the more localized time or to depict dates in a manner that was more grandiose for historical purposes, the Long Count represented a span of time that was approximately 5,126 years long with the starting year of 3114 BCE and the end year of 2012 CE. Created in the middle of this span, many archaeologists believe that the beginning and end dates of the Long Count were arbitrary. Using the winter solstice as an end date brings a neat and tidy ending to a millennia-long stretch so it makes sense that they chose that date rather than it happening by coincidence. Yet, it was this fact that made up much of the heart of the phenomenon. Surface level schooling left many Westerners with only the knowledge that the Maya were great astronomers. For them to “end” their Long Count on a day that has astronomical significance gave more meaning to the general populous that was content with their level of understanding.

The end of a calendar, however, could not be basis alone for so much sensationalism. Children understand the cyclical nature of calendars and know that when one ends, another begins. The second basis for the Mayan component of the phenomenon centers around a partially destroyed passage found on a destroyed Mayan monument. The site, destroyed during construction without archeological exploration or recovery, is now known as Tortuguero. The site workers that found remains of broken tablets and monuments collected them and sent them to interested parties. The remains of the now-famous Monument 6 went largely ignored until strides had been made in the ability to read the Mayan language. At this point, the various pieces of the monument were collected from different museums and private parties to put together a passage that was still partially destroyed and unreadable.

This partially broken monument stands at the heart for two main reasons. The first is that it is one of a very few that actually reference the end of the Long Count. The second is largely because of its incompleteness. The decipherable aspects of the text indicate that at the end of the Long Count, the God of the Nine will descend to Earth. The problem, however, is that the reading is unclear due to the destruction of some of the important glyphs. What could be read as “spectacle” could also be read as “blackness” and what could be read as “in a grand investiture” could also be “to the red”. One interpretation of these phrases seems to indicate the appearance of a god to his chosen people while the other paints a darker picture of imminent doom. Regardless of the reading, the passage is incomplete giving doom seekers a tantalizing indication of prophecy without describing an end.

Still, the idea of apocalypse was also not entirely foreign to the Mayan culture. Within their writings, there are references to multiple creations that took place after great destructions. The Long Count’s start date even references the beginning of the current creation. However, the emphasis was not on an End of Days style apocalypse, but rather a cycle of death and rebirth, destruction and creation. Thus, even if one were to stretch the meaning of the translation of Monument 6 to speak towards an upcoming period of destruction, that destruction does not translate to an apocalypse in the way that the 2012 phenomenon ascribed to it. If anything, it indicates the end of one era and the start of another.

The idea of a true apocalypse must then come from an entirely different source. Christian written tradition speaks of the End of Days and the coming apocalypse in which the righteous will be saved and the evils of the world will perish. Largely Christian in culture, the Western world has become obsessed with the idea, often looking to other cultures to find more concrete versions of the apocalypse where the Christian Bible lacks certainty. This pervasive culture of apocalypse followed the Spanish across the ocean as they began to colonize the New World and evangelize its native populations.

It is during this period that the Maya began to describe their cultural version of the apocalypse. Oral traditions, passed down for generations, began to be written down, often by Spanish scribes who then placed their own connotations on the mythology as they viewed it from their personal cultural lenses. Some anthropologists even theorize that it was the influence of the Spanish that created the Mayan version of apocalypse in the first place through cultural influence. It is impossible to know for certain, but it is definitely true that the core of Mayan mythology was not comprehensively written down until after years of Spanish colonization. It is likely, then, that the idea of apocalypse was borrowed from Spanish culture or from the very real destruction of their culture that they experienced during colonization. Yet, for all that Mayan apocalyptic writing does exist, still founded in a cyclical rather than Doomsday scenario, it does not give any clear indication that the next great destruction would fall in 2012. How, then, did vague descriptions of a possibly borrowed idea of apocalypse become the center of a worldwide phenomenon?

The answer to this is twofold. First, Western civilization has a long cultural obsession with the idea of apocalypse. While Judeo-Christian texts provide the basis of this obsession, they are also vague and offer little concrete information about when the End of Days is set to happen. It has thus been a growing habit to look to other cultures to find that information. Yet, there have been many prophecies made by various cultures throughout the world that did not begin to make waves within even those groups that were actively looking for them. The second cause, then, for the Maya 2012 phenomenon came into fruition due to the growth of mass media that coincided with the rapidly expanding field of Mayan studies.

Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, Mayan experts began to publish their findings on the various archaeological digs and translations from what was becoming an increasingly popular field of study. As these findings were published, documentaries began to be created introducing the general public to the various aspects of Mayan culture. Some of these documentaries focused on the writing of the Maya and their mathematical system, noted for possessing a zero when many comparable societies lacked it. Famous archaeological sites like Chichen Itza possess observatories cementing the idea in popular culture that the Maya, unlike their violent Aztec neighbors, were educated and capable of higher learning born from science and math. This vague and surface-level knowledge of the culture did little to educate the masses on the actual culture of the Maya. What it did, however, was set out a foundation of respect for their intellectual abilities. This, in turn, became the kernel of truth that was then exploited by proponents of the Maya 2012 phenomenon.

In the decade leading up to 2012, the world experienced a series of natural disasters that caused what seemed like an unprecedented amount of destruction. The year 2000 had come and gone without incident, despite many fears to the contrary, but clearly there was still disaster just on the horizon. It was then that the history of the Maya, the supposed apocalypse, and the end of the Long Count began to surface as a real phenomenon. The Maya spoke of destruction by natural causes and one natural disaster after another seemed to prove that their theory was correct. From there, the phenomenon snowballed. From being a Mayan prophecy of the Doomsday, the spectacle grew to include numerology, cosmology, and any other sensationalized prophecy from any other culture that could be made to fit the now historic date. The climax of this mass media came in the form of the summer blockbuster 2012, which borrowed more from pseudoscience than the Mayan prophecy and only mentioned the culture of the phenomenon’s genesis in barest passing.

When 2012 passed without incident, as Mayanists and astronomers knew it would, the world was hardly any different than it had been before. Mass media changed its focus to include topics on why it never was going to happen in the first place and the present-day Mayans made money off the tourism industry that profited greatly from the entire event. In the end, the phenomenon ended not with a bang, but with a whimper. However, despite the hysteria of the time, at least one good thing came from the event. Through the extra media coverage, both sensationalized and legitimately investigative, the entire world sought to learn more about the Maya. Because of this, the Mayan people, who had been consigned to non-existence by many, and their rich cultural history were introduced to the world. While the world looked at 2012 as an End of Days, the Maya people themselves were given a new cycle of creation.

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