2012 Doomsday Predictions: The “Mayan Calendar” Conspiracy
One of the main reasons December 2012 is linked with a number of doomsday predictions is that many people believe the “Mayan calendar” ends in December of 2012 and they think that was the Maya’s way of predicting the end of the world.
By now, most people have probably heard that the Maya didn’t believe the world was going to end in 2012. But, if the Maya didn’t believe doomsday was coming with the end of their calendar, then why do so many people think they did? What is the origin of this doomsday belief?
The origins of this myth read like an academic soap opera and a conspiracy to manipulate the public for profit that has been building up for over 1,000s of years. Several factors throughout history have perpetuated the myth. To understand them, we need to go back to the year 3114 B.C.
But first, scholars have determined that the correct term for referring to the “Mayan” people when not referring to their language is “Maya.” So the proper way to refer to their calendar would be the “Maya calendar,” not the “Mayan calendar.”
The Maya Long Count Calendar
The calendar causing all of this confusion is only one of many used by the ancient Maya people. Some of their calendars lasted 260 days, 365 days, 584 days, and 780 days. The calendar linked to the 2012 myth measured approximately 1,872,000 days, equal to about 5,125 years, and is known as the long count calendar.
By comparing ancient Maya writing with the modern Gregorian calendar and the Maya’s long count calendar, American archaeologist Joseph T. Goodman decided in 1897 that the beginning of the Maya’s current long count calendar was probably August 11, 3114 B.C. Using that calculation, scholars who agreed with him were able to determine that the long count calendar would likely end in December of 2012 A.D.
Although some experts in the field disagree with Goodman about the beginning and end dates of the long count calendar, Goodman’s conclusions endured and set the stage for later authors to select December 2012 as the timeframe for the Maya’s doomsday.
The specific date of December 21, 2012 became attached to the doomsday myth because that date coincides with a solstice (one of two days during the year when the sun reaches its highest or lowest point in the sky at noon, producing the longest and shortest days of the year). But some scholars believe the calendar actually ends on December 23, and some believe it could end on some entirely different date altogether, since there isn’t unified agreement as to when the long count calendar actually begins.
The Maya chose to start their long count calendar in 3114 B.C., the year they believed their gods created humanity. This, in some ways, is similar to the subjective decision to begin our modern Gregorian calendar in a year of Christian religious significance – the year Jesus Christ was born. The Maya also believed that the gods tried four times to create beings that would worship them – first with animals, then beings made of mud, then beings made of wood. Because the animals, mud people, and wood people could not worship them the way they wanted to be worshipped, the Maya believed their gods allowed the mud people to dissolve and they turned the wood people into monkeys and then proceeded to create humans in their current form.
According to Maya myth, the second and third creations (the mud and wood people) were essentially destroyed or transformed when the Maya’s last long count calendar ended. That led some authors to erroneously conclude that the Maya must have expected the fourth creation (humans) to either be destroyed or transformed at the end of the current long count calendar, even though there is nothing recorded in Maya history that suggests they thought the fourth creation would realize a similar fate as the second and third failed creations.
What Did The Ancient Maya Expect Would Happen In December 2012?
Even though the long count calendar eventually comes to an end, the Maya didn’t expect the world was going to end along with it. At the end of the calendar cycle, they would have started the count over again, much like our modern-day calendar goes from December 31 back to January 1 at the end of every year. Just as with their many other calendars that reset many times during their history, there was no expectation that a global cataclysm would take place at the end of the long count calendar. It was simply their equivalent of the beginning of a new calendar, or what modern scholars refer to as a “Great Cycle.”
According to the article “2012 in Mayan Mythology” on Ancient-Mythology.com, the end of the Maya long count calendar was “celebrated as the completion of a cycle and was not seen as a doomsday event by Mayan culture.”
In fact, the Maya actually had dates recorded to celebrate the anniversary of the crowning of one of their kings that was supposed to take place in the year 4772 A.D. So clearly, they expected someone to be around on the earth to take part in those celebrations.
“Despite the cries of doomsayers, the Mayans themselves don’t expect that the world will end,” write authors Ryan Johnson, Jessika Toothman and Clint Pumphrey in the article “Will the world really end in 2012?” on HowStuffWorks.com. “In fact, they believe it’s a time of great celebration and luck when the planet lasts through a full Great Cycle. Think of it this way: To the Mayans, a Great Cycle is just a really long year. For them, worrying about Dec, 21, 2012, would be like us worrying every Dec. 31.”
If the Maya actually did believe in a doomsday, it didn’t survive in any of their temples, art, or writing, much of which was tied to pagan religious beliefs and therefore destroyed by Catholic missionaries and conquistadors during the Spanish conquest of South America in the 16th century. This caused part of the problem. Not having sources that described what the Maya believed in detail opened the door for some “Maya experts” to publish wild and often unsubstantiated speculation about the Maya and their beliefs.
What Do The Experts Say?
“There are a number of new-age theories surrounding 2012, which predict anything from galactic alignment and solar flares, to alien invasion, to global consciousness,” according to Ancient-Mythology.com. “However, these predictions are not based in or accepted by science, or even the so-called predictions of the Maya themselves.”
John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., an Associate Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Kansas, is an often-quoted source in the discussion of the 2012 Maya myths. He is the author of a paper titled, “A critical history of 2012 mythology,” and has been cited as a source on many websites and in at least three documentaries related to the Maya calendar.
“The ‘prophecies’ about 2012 are best considered a kind of folk mythology of the digital age,” writes Hoopes, “a collection of myths and legends that are spreading via commercial publications, television, and especially digital computer networks. The attention being given to the Maya date (December 21, 2012) is largely the result of persistent folk beliefs about astrology, numerology, mysticism, and revelation.”
“Promoters of the 2012 mythology tend to ignore current academic scholarship and the opinions of professional Mayanists (archaeologists, epigraphers, art historians, linguists, etc.) about what ancient Maya people actually believed,” continues Hoopes. “Their interpretations are based on outdated and antiquated ideas of the late 19th and early 20th century, ideas that are useful for the construction of mythology and ideology but do not reflect contemporary academic knowledge. Mainstream scholars and scientists also view this movement as the source of a great deal of pseudoscience, ignorance, credulousness, and incorrect thinking because it privileges subjective over objective knowledge.”
(Photo: The Aztec Sun Stone – Often Mistaken for the Maya Calendar)
Notably, the photo above that is commonly used in stories about the Maya calendar isn’t even a Maya artifact. It’s the Aztec sun stone, which has nothing to do with the Maya’s long count calendar. This illustrates how inaccuracy with regard to the Maya culture and their beliefs is widespread in the media and goes largely unchecked, even though such a simple error would have been easy to verify. Yet, even Scientific American made this mistake in an article published about NASA debunking 2012 Maya apocalypse claims. (See Scientific American Article.)
“There are currently over 1500 books in English about the ’2012 phenomenon,’ of which only a handful represent the beliefs of academic experts,” adds Hoopes. “Most are written for an audience that is seeking sensational interpretations.”
What Is The Origin Of The Maya Doomsday Myth?
In his article, “What You Should Know About 2012: Answers to 13 Questions,” Hoopes traces the origin of the 2012 doomsday myth back to the late 1800s, when German historian Ernst Förstemann attempted to decipher the Maya hieroglyphs in the Dresden Codex, one of the few existing books of the Maya, believed to date back to anywhere from the 11th to 14th centuries.
According to Hoopes, Förstemann determined that some of the hieroglyphs in the codex were warning of the world ending in a catastrophic flood.
(Photo: The Dresden Codex – The Source of the Original Maya Calendar Predictions?)
“Mayanists disagree about these interpretations,” writes Hoopes, “with some suggesting that the image [originally interpreted as a world-destroying flood] represents the annual arrival of the rainy season, not a cataclysmic flood.”
But Förstemann’s ideas took on a life of their own and inspired many writers since to repeat them, adding their own embellishments.
Hoopes added that in 1915 and again in 1946, archaeologist Sylvanus Morley published works that echoed Förstemann’s findings. And in 1966, Yale University archaeologist Michael Coe published a book that linked the hieroglyphs with the end of the long count calendar, the end of the world, and the Christian Armageddon.
“In the mid-1970s,” writes Hoopes, “Michael Coe’s speculation became associated with pseudo-scientific speculation by bestselling Swiss author Erich von Däniken through a popular made-for-TV program called “The Outer Space Connection,” which claimed that “the ancient Maya had been contacted by ‘ancient astronauts’ or ‘ancient aliens,’” who were expected to return to earth on December 24, 2011.
But the morphing of the myth didn’t stop there.
“In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Maya calendar also caught the interest of counterculture hippies who were using psychedelic drugs such as LSD, DMT, psilocybin, and cannabis and who were also interested in astrology (including the ‘Age of Aquarius’), numerology, Tarot, and the Chinese divinatory practice of the I Ching (Yì Jīng). These included authors Terence McKenna and José Argüelles (one of the creators of the Whole Earth Festival in 1970), who wrote books, taught workshops, and gave lectures describing mystical experiences based on their use of psychedelics. They saw similar patterns in the Maya calendar and the I Ching that suggested to them the 2012 date would be associated with a spiritual ‘transformation of consciousness,’ an idea that became popular among people interested in New Age beliefs.”
From that point on, many other New Age authors hijacked the December 21, 2012 date and changed it from a day of destruction, to a date of spiritual transformation, similar to the Harmonic Convergence, an event held in 1987, during which participants believed that an alignment of the sun, moon, and several planets in our solar system would cause a shift in the world’s energy, leading to a period of universal peace.
The year for the event was selected because it began a 25-year countdown to the end of the Maya’s long count calendar and what organizers believed was the “transition into a new age of peace, harmony, solar energy, spiritual enlightenment, and galactic convergence with other civilizations, all to begin in the year 2012,” writes Bron Taylor, in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature.
(Photo: Harmonic Convergence - New Age Philosophers Linked With Some December 2012 Myths.)
Reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald highlighted the range of wild and conflicting expectations various authors proposed for 2012 in an article for USA Today when he wrote, “Journalist Lawrence Joseph forecasts widespread catastrophe … Spiritual healer Andrew Smith predicts a restoration of a ‘true balance between Divine Feminine and Masculine’ … [and] Daniel Pinchbeck anticipates a ‘change in the nature of consciousness,’ assisted by indigenous insights and psychedelic drug use.”
These theories, according to Ancient-Mythology.com, “are at best misinterpretations of science and myths, and at worst total fabrications. There is simply no evidence that December 2012 will be any more important than the average month, other than the Y2K-like hysteria that has developed since.”
“Since the 1970s, sensational and popular TV programs, movies, books, and magazines have taken advantage of the public’s general ignorance about the ancient Maya to promote nonsense, myths, and folklore that has little basis in academic scholarship,” writes Hoopes.
Hoopes blames several other groups for also perpetuating the doomsday myth and trying to capitalize off fear and misinformation, including New Age book publishing companies, the survivalist industry, mystics, musicians, filmmakers, and even pioneers of the computer industry.
“Since the 1960s, interest in astrology, Tarot, the I Ching, and the Maya calendar had been widespread among programmers associated with the new personal computer and software industry in what was to become Silicon Valley in northern California,” he writes. “So it was only natural that early digital social networks of the mid-1980s … played a role in spreading the word about the Harmonic Convergence and 2012 among psychedelic and computer ‘hacker’ subcultures that frequently overlapped.”
What Do The Maya Believe Today?
Despite popular belief, the Maya people were never wiped out. There are as many as six to seven million people living in Mexico and South America today, who are descendants of the Maya and still speak a version of the Mayan languages.
Today, Maya religions are made up of an amalgam of Catholicism and ancient Maya religious beliefs and traditions.
In an article for Archeology magazine, Smithsonian Institute anthropologist Robert M. Laughlin, who has lived among a Maya community for more than 30 years, was quoted as saying, “Modern Maya see little conflict in merging the two faiths. It is common on feast days for a procession to begin at the Church of San Lorenzo with a mass for Christ the Sun God and his mother the Moon Goddess, and then proceed to a nearby hill for the veneration of ancestors and Maya gods, including Chauk, an earth and water deity.”
But few, if any, modern-day Maya believe the world is going to end in December of 2012.
When asked by NBC News about the 2012 doomsday beliefs, Guatemalan Mayan elder Apolinario Chile Pixtun was quoted as saying, “I came back from England last year and, man, they had me fed up with this stuff.”
But the lack of credible evidence to link documented Maya beliefs with the Maya calendar myths hasn’t stopped many South American governments from trying to capitalize on the 2012 doomsday craze.
“Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are pulling out all of the stops for promoting tourism of Maya sites and other destinations for 2012,” writes Hoopes, “including a government-sponsored documentary on the theme.”
The Consequences Of The Maya Conspiracy
Even though the belief is widespread and the end of their calendar has caused many to question whether they will live to see 2013, the notion that the Maya predicted the world would end in 2012 is totally groundless. The myth is being used by people to sell doomsday bunkers, books, trips to South America, and tickets to Hollywood blockbuster movies. But the source of the myth is not the Maya, their beliefs, or their calendars. It comes from inaccurate interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs, New Age authors who get their inspiration from drug-induced hallucinations, and book-publishing companies eager to make a dollar by scaring the public with false information.
But their desire to cash in on the 2012 doomsday phenomenon is already having serious consequences. Although there are many people who dismiss the Maya calendar doomsday myths, there are many who still believe them, and many of those people are frightened children.
David Morrison, Ph.D., is the senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. According to the NASA website, his “Ask an Astrobiologist” website page has received an influx of questions about the Maya calendar and the 2012 doomsday. Questions like this one:
“Is the Mayan Calendar right the world is going to end on Dec 21? I keep on asking my mom this question. She keeps on telling me no but I think she’s lying. I’m so scared that the world is coming to an end. And I am really scared and have watched a lot of videos on Youtube. The Mayan calender videos say they have predicted the end of the world. Is it really going to happen?”
“I am especially concerned about children,” Morrison said in an interview with Rebecca Riffkin from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Parents write saying their child can’t eat, can’t sleep, and cries all the time out of fear that the world will end. It is worth trying to help these victims of the doomsday fear-mongers.”
In a 2009 article for National Geographic News, titled “2012 Prophecies Sparking Real Fears, Suicide Warnings,” Morrison told writer Brian Handwerk, “I’ve had two teenagers who were considering killing themselves, because they didn’t want to be around when the world ends. Two women in the last two weeks said they were contemplating killing their children and themselves so they wouldn’t have to suffer through the end of the world.”
As December 2012 approaches, if fear and panic lead to any mass injuries or losses of life, it won’t be because the Maya predicted it. It will be because of the end-of-the-world doomsayers and the New Age philosophers, who intentionally perpetuated an unsubstantiated myth in order to make a profit at the expense of other people’s lives.
The term “Maya” is used to represent several cultures in Mesoamerican history, many of whom spoke different languages and likely believed different things. So there is no one unified Maya culture.
- Van Stone, Mark. “2012 FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).” Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies.
- Johnson, Ryan. “Will the world really end in 2012?” HowStuffWorls.com.
- “2012 in Mayan Mythology.” Ancient-Mythology.com.
- Hoopes, John W. “What You Should Know About 2012: Answers to 13 Questions.” Psychology Today. December 30, 2011.
- “Maya Calendar” 2012Hoax.org.
- Vergano, Dan. “Newly discovered Mayan calendar goes way past 2012″ USA Today. May 10, 2012.
- Stevenson, Mark. “Even the Maya are getting sick of 2012 hype.” NBC News. October 10, 2009.
- Wolchover, Natalie. “NASA Crushes 2012 Mayan Apocalypse Claims” Scientific American. March 9, 2012.
- MacDonald, G. Jeffrey. “Does Maya calendar predict 2012 apocalypse?” USA Today. March 27, 2007.
- Schuster, Angela M. H. “Rituals of the Modern Maya.” Archaeological Institute of America. Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997.
- Taylor, Brom. “Harmonic Convergence.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. London & New York: Contunuum, 2005.
- Handerwerk, Brian. “2012 Prophecies Sparking Real Fears, Suicide Warnings.” National Geographic News. November 9, 2009
- Riffkin, Rebecca. “David Morrison fights fears of the 2012 doomsday.” American Association for the Advancement of Science MemberCentral. September 12, 2011.