current affairs

The end is (not so) nigh…

The end of the world? To understand the Mayan long count, it's worth looking at its role in Mayan culture and politics.

The world ends next Friday, in case you hadn’t heard. December 21st is the end of the Mayan long-count calendar, source of plenty of conspiracy and fear. As the big day approaches, sales of candles and survival equipment have soared, and those Y2K shelters are being dusted off and restocked. And I’m dusting off my post about it from 2009.

The internet loves this kind of thing of course, and there are endless websites dedicated to ‘the truth’ about 2012. Rumours abound, including the one about Bugarach, a small French village that is apparently the only place destined to survive the coming destruction. Another concerns Nibiru, a astronomical object of some sort which is supposed to collide with the earth, although NASA say they’ve never heard of it.

Actually, NASA have an interesting role here. When the 2012 disaster movie came out in 2009, plenty of people were scared by it. Since the predictions had something to do with planets and space, they turned to NASA for reassurance. They got so many queries about the end of the world that they put up a new section on their website to deal with it. “Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31,” they say, “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.”

Mayan experts are divided on this, but there’s a chance NASA are being optimistic 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.” So while the world would carry one, there’s still a pretty cataclysmic event due next week, if you accept the calendar.

But to understand the long-count calendar, you need to know a little about Mayan culture and politics. The 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. The past is visible in the future and the future is 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, a tool of the Mayan 1%. 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 5,000 years, give or take, and supposedly ends on 21st 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 for you, you would need to accept that the world began in 3113 BC. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest it didn’t, which pours cold water on the end of the world theory. And if you’re prepared to accept that the world is only 5,000 years old, you’d also need to accept the Mayan creation myth and the lives of all its associated Gods before the 2012 prophecy makes sense. It would also help to believe in divination through shark entrails, which is how the shamans came to their prophecies in the first place.

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, over a billion people in abject poverty, that’s plenty to be getting on with. Our industrial culture is facing a series of ends and new beginnings, some of them traumatic. In that sense, you could read a symbolic meaning into 2012 if you wanted to. Or you could just take it as an opportunity for half baked PR campaigns and viral videos.

I fully expect to wake up on the morning of the 22nd of December and find things more or less the same. Because I know that the real end of the world happens on May 27th 2013


  1. I am pretty impressed – this is a well researched article on a completely different topic (and yet not so different). Is it only me or do the apocalyptic prophecies appear ever faster? Lately I, personally, become a bit disillusioned with the Internet and its power as an information tool. Here in Germany a recent non-fiction bestseller titled “Digitale Demenz” (Digital Dementia) sets a tone quite different from the previously optimistic hopes for an information and education revolution. It could easily be dismissed if id hadn’t been written by a famous neuro scientist, Manfred Spitzer, one of the leading German experts on the neurology of learning. Another exploration of the alleged “information age” is by Robert Laughlin in “The Crime of Reason”. His critique is that the information revolution is only apparent and in fact the information that really counts has become more difficult to access – and more expensive – than ever before. Thus the internet is mostly white noise and opinion. On top of that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish white noise/opinion/crack pot content from actual facts. Even professional journalists and scientists occasionally get confused with all this overload and the myriad of half truths leading to occasionally quite intricate conspiracy theories (a few of which, to make it worse, even may be true). And it seems to be human nature that we all think our conclusions are right. Recently I was basically accused of inter-species breeding by an American White Supremacist who is convinced to have science on his side when he not only speaks of different human races, but even claims white people belong to another species. The internet provides a platform for all and everything, and somehow all those contradictions seem to average out and annul each other. And then it turns out that the real life happens elsewhere, after all, in our families (a wonderful sight, those beautiful tropic island faces of my daughters with their clever black probing eyes!), at work, with our colleagues, out there in the real world where real things happen. Perhaps we, the citizens of NetUrbia, all occasionally need a month off in a monastery, contemplating, calming down, getting real. And perhaps society should send off white supremacists to Africa for a while, all alone in an African village. Or a Samoan one. Getting real. Getting in touch with reality.

    1. I did my university dissertation on theories of time, so I have a lot of interesting books on the subject. It’s nice to dust them off and write something a little different.

      There is another side to the internet that isn’t really talked about much. There’s been a string of books on it, The Shallows, Digital Vertigo, and The Cult of the Amateur have all raised important new angles on it. It’s definitely something worth exploring. The internet is not a mature technology, and it is proving disruptive in ways we didn’t expect.

      But as you say, real life happens elsewhere, and there’s nothing like children for keeping a sense of perspective.

  2. Oh Jeremy you had me worried there, but having checked with my church (The Church Flying Spaghetti Monster) all is well and I can’t see any due date for me to meet my maker. Isn’t it great to have faith.

  3. Invite them to become your buddy and throw a party at each other’s house in Disney style.
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