But what is 2012? Why do people – lots of people, in fact – think the world is going to end on December 21, 2012? It's a fairly popular conspiracy theory, as these things go, right up there with Nostradamus. (And definitely more popular than the guy who believes the world is run by lizard people.) Back it up and let's take an all-too-brief look at the Mayan civilization and religion and why the date 12/21/2012 has got some people nervous.
Who Were the Mayans?
The Mayans were a technologically advanced Mesoamerican culture that lived in the Yucatan Peninsula and parts of Central America. The Mayans truly flourished in the Classic period, which was around 600 years between AD 300 to AD 900. During that time, the Mayans developed a more complex social order, as well as city-states with prosperous trade. There were also plenty of impressive palaces, pyramids, and ceremonial structures, but perhaps the most significant aspect of the Mayan civilization is their discoveries about science and astronomy, which led them to develop a sophisticated series of calendars. One of those calendars just so happens to end on December 21, 2012.
The Mayan Calendars
The Mayans actually have several kinds of calendars, but I'm only going to discuss three of them, since those are the ones most important to the 2012 theory.
One kind of calendar the Mayans created, the Tzolkin, reflected the approximate cycle of a human pregnancy, 260 days; the different deities and astrological positions associated with each day of this cycle was thought to influence each person based on their birth date. It was a sacred calendar, whereas the other calendar, the Haab, was based on the sun cycles. It lasted 360 days, plus an extra five that were unlucky -- sort of like five Days of the Dead in a row. What's interesting is that the Mayans found a way to make the two work together so that they created one bigger cycle that was perfectly synchronized every 52 years. The combined calendar, also known as the calendar round, is represented by a symbol that looks like gears with interlocking teeth. By adjusting and consulting each "gear," the Mayans could calculate days, dates, eclipses, agricultural events, and the like. (If you look at the 2012 website, the animated image on the first page is a combination of the various Mayan calendars.)
But the one that has everyone nervous is the long count calendar. The Mayans used the calendar round to predict the near future, but the long count calendar is used for more far-reaching predictions. In a nutshell, without getting into the various units of time for the long count, the long count cycle consists of thirteen baktuns, or 1,872,000 days, or about 5,125 years – the last day of the long count is December 21, 2012.
So What's So Big About December 21, 2012?
Two Mayan prophecies, one in The Book of Chilam Balam and one inscription on a monument in Tortuguero, sort of imply that the long count cycle bodes the end of times – if you want to read them that way.
Because the Mayans were so advanced in astronomy and science, among other things, the fact that their calendar abruptly ends has some conspiracy-minded folks more than a little nervous. New Age-y peeps have managed to connect 2012 to crop circles, the Age of Aquarius, Terence McKenna's LSD-laced visions, changes in the climate, and shifts in the Earth's north and south poles. There are also end-of-world prophecies from Nostradamus and the Pythia, otherwise known as Oracle at Delphi, among others. (As it turns out, the cave at Delphi might have, uh, been filled with trippy vapors that "inspired" the Pythia's prophecies.) Newsweek calls it "Y2K for the new age." TV shows like The History Channel's "Decoding the Past: Doomsday 2012 - The End of Days" also spread the gospel of 2012. A cynic might say it's a cottage industry.
Modern-day Mayans are not having it! According to the AP,
"Apolinario Chile Pixtun is tired of being bombarded with frantic questions about the Mayan calendar supposedly "running out" on Dec. 21, 2012. After all, it's not the end of the world.
Or is it?
Definitely not, the Mayan Indian elder insists. 'I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this stuff.'"
Neither are astronomers, archeologists, and many other people who discredit the theories – and in some cases attribute the 2012 phenom to Westerners.
"'If I went to some Mayan-speaking communities and asked people what is going to happen in 2012, they wouldn't have any idea,' said Jose Huchim, a Yucatan Mayan archaeologist. 'That the world is going to end? They wouldn't believe you. We have real concerns these days, like rain.'"What might happen on December 21, 2012? We won't know until we get there. Maybe a paradigm shift in consciousness. Maybe the end of the world, Roland Emmerich-style. Maybe we'll be saved by John Cusack. Or maybe nothing.
See ya then!