Thoughts for the curious, on the non-Mayan non-Apocalypse




Apocalypse Whenever!

I’m only partly being flippant. The “whenever” part is actually important. That is, although the 21 Dec 2012 date isn’t itself arbitrary, the fixation on it certainly is. It’s a date that suits, for now. There will be another one.

We might start with four principles:

First, there are different kinds of time: we might think, coarsely speaking, of “culturally constructed time” and “real time”.  Days and years are real: they are the result, respectively, of the rotation of the Earth, and the orbit of the Earth around the Sun.  Months are reasonably real: they reflect lunar cycles, albeit imperfectly.  Hours are not real. Minutes are not real. Decades are not real. Centuries and millennia are not real. These are arbitrary units of time. These arbitrary units are real to us because they structure our lives in profound ways and are deeply imbued within our culture, but they are not evidence of anything that exists in the observable world. The end of a decade or century may be profound to us culturally, but others who use a different calendar will simply not notice, because nothing actually happens.

Second, cultures have different ways of reckoning big-picture history. Some consider history to be a long, linear trajectory with occasional ruptures or course corrections which obliterate some people or groups while others survive. Others have considered history to be truly cyclical, with complete destruction and rebirth of the world – either in this same realm, or on another level.  N.b. It’s often quite unclear with ancient beliefs, whether these things were meant literally or metaphorically.

Third, people have to reckon with death – their own, and that of others. Many cultures include a belief in some other dimension to which the dead go – that is, the body might stop breathing and decompose, but the person’s essence lives on in another place, either in an ethereal or re-embodied form. The dead may have considerable powers, and may indeed be something like gods.

Fourth, religions often include a sense of order and a principle of judgment and even enforcement – i.e., there are rules that must be obeyed, and a judgment by a higher power that determines the eventual fate of the individual or of a society. (This can be evident in a sort of post-hoc reasoning, in the sense that if something bad happens to a person or a society, it is assumed to have resulted from divine judgment on the basis of the violation of rules.) Religions also frequently include revelations from another realm, and prophecy, i.e. foretelling of the future. 

Given those principles, let us think:

At times in history when a group of people has been cornered and oppressed by enemies, the group might hope for divine deliverance – for help from their ancestors, gods, or a singular god. They might make a deal with these beings from another dimension. If the people play by the rules of those ancestors or gods, i.e. if the people give the ancestors or gods what they are assumed to want – whether that is faith, offerings, or specific rituals – then the people (the logic goes) will be saved from their enemies. Order will be restored.

Now, what if there was a religious system that emerged at such a time, and survived for many centuries to the present day, splitting into multiple faiths and denominations?  What if all the variants included a sense that the course of history is already charted, and that the world is inherently out of order, and will inevitably become acutely disordered, and then will eventually be put right through a specified process of cataclysm and divine judgment, and the rule-abiding will live happily ever after on another plane?

Then people who grew up with such an idea at the core of their society – whether they personally believed it on a religious level or not – might look for, and focus disproportionately upon, signs of disorder. They might invent such signs, or even, perhaps, try to actually hurry the process along. They might have a perpetual sense that something is always just around the corner. It might seem intuitively right to them that “something big is coming”. They might almost look forward to a cataclysm that sorts everything out. And whether they were ambivalent about the original religion, or rejected it, or were looking for convergences with it, they might seize upon alternative ancient texts – revelations from another realm – to tell them exactly when that end of days will be. And they might easily confuse “culturally constructed time” with “real time”, take another culture’s calendar literally, and expect its turning points to prophesy some actual observable disastrous event.  

And perhaps every time a prophecy failed, another would rise in its place.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the form of the “Maya apocalypse 2012 predictions”.  As some commentators have remarked, it says more about US than it does about the ancient Maya. The addition into the mix of mythicized astronomy says something, perhaps, about our efforts to assimilate elements of modern science into an ancient worldview. And its widespread popularity says something about the compelling form of stories of doom.

For the Maya, the end of a calendar cycle did not, and does not, signify the end of the world, merely the end of a unit of time – not unlike midnight, Saturday night, or New Year’s Eve, or a decade, albeit writ large. The next moment does come, and life goes on, and that is, in fact, cause for celebration.

Happy New Year, World!

K. Denning, 4 Jan 2012



Some Links and Works to Explore are below.



My own commentary on apocalyptic ideas



On TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 4 Jan 2012:   An interesting conversation with some fascinating thinkers.

Oakland Ross, Toronto Star, “Welcome to the Apocalypse – Again”. 30 Dec 2011.



1999   “Apocalypse past/future: Archaeology and folklore, writ large.”  Chapter in Archaeology and Folklore, A. Gazin-Schwartz and C. Holtorf, eds. London: Routledge. pp 90-105.  This was an element of my doctoral dissertation. My analysis has evolved since then regarding the particulars of the Easter Island example, but the general point holds, I think.


Some Links and Works to Explore

Leonzo Barreno, Global Chair of Journalism at the University of Regina, is trained as a traditional Mayan timekeeper, and makes some salient remarks: he notes that there were multiple intersecting Mayan calendars;  that “Maya 2012” predictions never seem to interview actual Mayan people; and that Mayan elders don’t think of the end of this Long Count round as the end of the world, just the end of this particular cycle of 5 125 years, the start of a new era, and actually, cause for celebration. He also makes the point that it’s irresponsible to promote ideas that cause fear in this way.

As for the film 2012, ,  well, it is a pretty great filmic cataclysm (what a trailer), but … it’s fiction. It’s fiction of that particularly clever sort that implies some underlying truth, but fiction nonetheless. It also bears remembering that the director Roland Emmerich specializes, for some reason, in cinematic epic disasters:  Independence Day, Godzilla, Day After Tomorrow, 2012.

Archaeologist Anthony Aveni does a nice job here:

As for Planet Nibiru and various cosmic theories: the NASA Astrobiology Institute has a good 2012 page:

And here’s astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson:

National Geographic has a nice little feature:

Don Yeomans promises that truly, there are no NEOs you need to worry about: 

John Hoopes has a useful page here:

Margaret Atwood’s books Payback and Negotiating with the Dead aren’t about the Maya 2012 phenomenon per se, but they explain, beautifully and concisely, the underlying cultural logics that I mention above.

Top Ten End of the World Predictions!,28804,2072678_2072683_2072697,00.html 

Oh dear: Rapture Profiteers 


Calendars though the Ages: 

A very nice site from PBS in 1999 -- the last time there was a big apocalypse scare... 

Similarly, another nice site from PBS on the historical context for the emergence of Christianity: 

Smithsonian: Ten Notable Apocalypses that Obviously Didn't Happen: