Who would you call if you thought the world was ending? For many people the answer appears to be NASA, who have set up a special web page reassuring people that the world is not going to end in 2012. Apparently the movie has caused a fair degree of panic. Since it’s a saturday, and the rain is putting my garden designing plans on hold, I thought I might explore the end of the world a little further.
If you’re not familiar with the 2012 scare, it’s a long running theme among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-archeologists. The world will apparently come to an end, either through solar storms or meteorite strikes, or a switching of the earth’s polarity. The date comes from the Mayan ‘long count’ calendar, which runs until 2012. “Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31,” NASA are quick to point out, “the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then — just as your calendar begins again on January 1 — another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.”
I refrain from boring you with it here, but theories of time is a minor obsession of mine, and one of my books on the anthropology of time suggests NASA are being disingenuous here. Yes, another long count begins, but according to their tradition 2012 would be the ‘resting point’ between the ages, when “the universe is destroyed and reborn anew.”
The Mayan long count was developed in the second century AD. Mayan culture coupled a deep superstition with sophisticated astronomy and an impressive understanding of mathematics, and the long count was the pinnacle of their intellectual achievement. Seeking to understand their place in time, they counted the cycles of Venus backwards to the very beginning of time, and then forwards to the end – not that ‘beginning’ and ‘end’ meant the same thing to the Mayans. For them, history was cyclical, with the past visible in the future and the future embedded in the past, all existing simultaneously with the present.
The long count guided certain cultural and religious rites, but it also served a convenient political function in Mayan society. The patterns showed how their ruler’s lineage went right back to the birth of the Gods, and continued forwards into the next age. By placing themselves in the middle of the cycle, they mythologised their hierarchies into a divine story, permanent and beyond questioning. It was a legitimising construct that served the power structures of the day (like our voting system is for us, some might say.) We know it was political because as classical Mayan culture waned in the 11th century, they abandoned the long count at the same time. When the dynasties failed, the long count fell by the wayside, its mystical metanarrative discredited.
The cycle lasts around 5,000 years, give or take, and supposedly ends on 12th December 2012. That end was not really important to the Mayans, it was just derived from the beginning. The world began, apparently, on the 11th of August 3113 BC. The Mayans knew this because they counted back the generations of their kings, and then the stories of the Gods, and back through their legends into their creation myth. “The ancient Mayas of the New World dated the last creation from 11th of August 3113 BC for reasons we cannot yet grasp with certainty” writes Anthony Avenis in his book Empires of Time, “but which likely possessed celestial guidance.”
For 2012 to have any significance at all, you would need to accept that the world began in 3113 BC. You’d need to accept the Mayan creation myth, the horoscopes and all the associated Gods. It would also help to believe in divination through shark entrails, which is how the shaman made his prophesies of the future. If you hear anyone talking seriously about 2012 and the end of the world, ask them how old the earth is. Ask them what the headlines are in Shark Entrails Weekly.
Of course, all of this would be rather amusing if we weren’t actually facing some pretty serious crises – real ones, that involve actual people, science, the hard stuff of reality. Climate change, the AIDS pandemic, 2 billion people in poverty, that’s plenty to be getting on with. 2012 is “a huge distraction”, as Rob Hopkins wrote recently. It can lead to pointless fretting (as if even NASA can do anything about the actual end of the universe), but more importantly to a false confidence that all will be well. Surely not many people are genuinely panicked by 2012 doom scenarios, but even for them to be discussed undermines all the real problems we’re facing. All the ‘doomsters’ get dismissed together, and we end up with that ‘keep calm and carry on’ message, so British and so complacent, that’s become something of a cultural meme in the last year.
In conclusion, let’s not panic at 2012, but let’s not laugh it off either. Our industrial culture is facing a series of ends and new beginnings, some of them traumatic. Let’s not be like the Romans, who turned out to watch the staged violences of the circus while the real danger crept ever closer to their city gates.