Almost 5,126 years have passed since the date the ancient Maya marked as the beginning of creation: August 11th, 3114 BCE according to the modern Gregorian calendar. This is also approximately the length of time measured by the Mayan Long Count calendar, whose five millennium-long span comes to a close on December 21st, 2012 (Rivet 2008). A date that might have only been an occasion for festival among the indigenous highland Maya has, in the last twenty years, been transformed into a harbinger of either doom or salvation by millions of people in the Western world. For every person who believes that the Mayan calendar’s end portends worldwide destruction, there are others who welcome the coming solstice as the beginning of a new age of global consciousness and enlightenment. This article will not attempt to answer which camp, if either, is right about 2012. Rather, the question I will examine is, “Just what is the 2012 phenomenon and how did it explode into global consciousness?”
Are the Mayans to blame? The ancient artifact on which speculation about 2012 hinges is often called the Mayan Long Count Calendar, although it was used by multiple Mesoamerican cultures besides the Maya (Schele 1992). The reason for the Long Count’s existence has to do with the system the Mayans used to measure time. Mayan culture was very involved in tracking different cycles of time, and they used both a solar civil calendar (the Haab, with a year of about 394 solar days) and a ritual calendar called the Tzolk’in. Together, the Haab and the Tzolk’in can be used to measure a much longer cycle of about 52 solar years (Schele 1992). This is where the Long Count comes in: when Mayan timekeepers needed to find a date occurring before or after the 52-year cycle (the date of a legendary coronation, for example) they would use the 5,126-year Long Count calendar to calculate the date (Rivet 2008, Schele 1992).
The Long Count period of 5,126 years is divided into 13 bak’tuns, or ages, of about 394 solar years each. We are currently living in the last, 13th bak’tun. Counting up from the beginning date of the Long Count—August 11th, 3114 BCE—Mayanist scholars concluded that the date for the end of the 13th bak’tun was, approximately, December 21st, 2012 (Schele 1992). And for many scholars, publication of these findings was where the trouble began.
Western society is curiously susceptible to the idea that the world will end. This is in large part because our idea of how time progresses has been influenced by teleology—the notion that the universe has an inherent purpose, and is moving toward a definitive end point. Before tackling the Western viewpoint, it’s important to note that the Maya themselves did not and never have embraced the idea that the world will end, whether in 2012 or any other time (Authentic Maya.com 2011).
Unlike Christianity with its one-way flow of time and history, Mayan myth supposes that there have been several universes, and that we are living in the 4th universe. After December 21st, 2012, we will be living in the 5th universe (MacDonald 2007). This cyclical vision of time is similar to the Hindu concept of successive ages of the world, called Yugas (Morford 2012). According to the Popol Vuh, one of the few indigenous texts to have survived pogroms against the Mayan religion by Spanish missionaries, the gods created three universes before ours. After these first three creations failed to coalesce, the gods tried a fourth time, and it was this fourth, successful creation that became the world of humans:
“Here is the story of the beginning, when there was not one bird, not one fish, not one mountain. Here is the sky, all alone. Here is the sea, all alone. There is nothing more, no sound, no movement. Only the Creators, only Heart-of-Sky [a single deity with three aspects], alone… How should it be sown, how should it dawn? And then the Earth arose because of them, it was simply their word that brought it forth. For the forming of the earth, they said, “Earth”. It arose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist… The sky was set apart, and the earth was set apart in the midst of the waters.”- Popol Vuh
The language in the Popol Vuh describes the separation of the earth from the sky and waters in language that is quite similar to the beginning of Creation in Genesis. The concept of the gods creating matter out of language is also found in the Bible: the Christian God begins creation by saying, “ ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light” (Genesis 1:1). Finally, as a creator god with three aspects, Heart-of-Sky has probably made more than a few Christians do a double take because of his similarities to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost trinity that makes up the Christian God.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that many Christians have wholeheartedly transferred the expected date of the Biblical apocalypse to the end date of the Mayan Long Count calendar (Morford 2012). After all, doesn’t the calendar’s end reflect the end of the fourth universe, the world of humans? And wouldn’t it make sense to assume that the calendar’s end thus portends the End of Days?
Well… no. Because these interpretations fail to take into account what the Mayans themselves believe will happen at the end of the 13th bak’tun. Contrary to popular belief, there are still indigenous people of Mayan descent living in the highlands of Guatemala (Authentic Maya.com 2011). Rather than the approach of doomsday, for them December 21st, 2012 will be a cause for festivals in celebration of our entrance into the 5th universe. Many modern Maya believe this new age will usher in a better world for all (Authentic Maya.com 2011), as the end of the 13th bak’tun is succeeded immediately by the 14th bak’tun—the first bak’tun of an entirely new Long Count.
Like their modern descendants, the ancient Maya seem to have believed that time operates according to cycles, meaning that we are living in one universe in a series of successive universes. A closer look at the structure of the Mayan Long Count calendar reveals this: Mayanist scholars like Linda Schele have discovered prophetic inscriptions that refer to dates far in the future of the world’s supposed end on December 21st, 2012. For instance, in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, there is a relief that commemorates the ascension to the throne in 615 CE of a Mayan king named Kinich Janaab Pakal (Schele 1992). The year inscribed in the commemoration is approximately 4772 CE, almost three thousand years after the world supposedly ends on December 21st (Schele 1992)! The Maya also used even larger measurements of time to predict events far ahead or behind the current bak’tun. In fact, there are 19 Mayan time measurements larger than the bak’tun (Schele 1992).
What is the Apocalypse? Many people are surprised to learn that the word “apocalypse” has nothing to do with the cataclysmic end of the world. The English word apocalypse comes from the Greek “apokalyptein”, meaning to uncover, discover or reveal. In the Christian sense of the idea, the Apocalypse actually meant the time of revelation—the time when God’s plan would finally be revealed and come to fruition on Earth (Coats 2010). Of course, for many, this still makes the apocalypse a kind of “end of history”: a point in time past which human beings cannot predict what our world will be like. In this way, the Christian apocalypse shares surprising similarities with New Age philosophies that claim December 21st, 2012 heralds a cosmic shift in the structure of reality, past which we cannot imagine, let alone predict, what will happen (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
Both the optimistic and dire predictions about 2012 share a teleological view of history. Teleology is the philosophy that final causes exist in nature—in other words, that the universe operates according to a final purpose or design, much as human actions do (Hanke 2004). Teleology is often informs the thinking of people who conflate scientific and spiritual findings, such as those who support the intelligent design model as an alternative to the theory of evolution. The idea that developments in nature such as the evolution of different species have a purpose behind them has even leaked into the work of hardcore philosophical materialists like Richard Dawkins (Hanke 2004). While he vehemently denies the existence of God, Dawkins has no problem using purpose-driven language to describe how relatively simple species have evolved over time into “higher” forms, as though their evolution were purposely directed toward increasing complexity (Hanke 2004). This is not a critique of Richard Dawkins’ work per se, but an illustration of the power of teleological, purpose-driven, models of the universe in Western thought.
The world wasn’t always going to end on December 21st, 2012. The Apocalypse has had many dates, including most recently October 28th, 2011. Part of the reason for this muddle is that the ancient Maya weren’t the only cultural group with a fondness for prophecy: Christian scholars have also indulged in prophesying events of universal significance, including the end of the world. December 21st, 2012 is just the latest date to be conflated with the Christian Apocalypse in its modern form—as an end of the world where the righteous will be physically translocated to Heaven in an event called the Rapture, while non-believers will be left to suffer through cataclysmic tribulations (Coats 2010).
Many of our visitors may be surprised to learn that the Rapture is a newish concept in Christian thought, and is not part of Biblical canon (Coats 2010). The idea that Christian believers would be physically translocated to Heaven at the End of Days has roots in the work of English clergyman John Nelson Darby, who in 1830 selected passages from Daniel, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Revelations to support his claim that the righteous would immediately ascend and be spared the hardships of the Apocalypse (Coats 2010). Darby went on a tour of the United States from 1859 to 1877 to promote his concept of the Rapture, which was picked up and widely disseminated by true believer Cyrus Scofield, author of The Scofield Reference Bible, which cemented the narrative of the End Times as most modern Americans know it (Coats 2010). Theologically inspired works of pop culture such as the fictional Left Behind series draw much of their source material from the work of Darby and Scofield. In this way, the Rapture is just as much a product of modern cultural concerns as is the apocalyptic version of the Mayan Long Count calendar.
What is Timewave 0? Let’s turn now to the optimistic side of the 2012 phenomenon, one which arguably has its roots in a little known book called The Invisible Landscape, written by two brothers, Terence and Dennis McKenna. In this unique document, the McKennas postulate that the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination tool known in English as the Book of Changes, is actually a forgotten lunar calendar that can predict earthly and cosmic events with great accuracy (McKenna and McKenna 1993). The McKennas demonstrated that events such as lunar cycles, solar sunspot cycles, and the precession of the Equinoxes could be accurately predicted by computing different permutations of the basic I Ching hexagram, a figure consisting of six stacked lines called yao (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
At a recent reading event at Ship in the Woods, an art house and performance space in Del Mar, California, Dennis McKenna discussed the model he and his brother created in The Invisible Landscape: he pointed out that had he and Terence stopped there, they may have gotten some acclaim for resurrecting an ancient lunar calendar; a few Chinese scholars would have taken notice. However, in classic McKenna fashion, the brothers took their model a leap farther by claiming that the structure of the King Wen arrangement of the I Ching could be plotted on a graph, in a wave that described the structure of time itself (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
This graph of time, called the Timewave, was the basis for Terence McKenna’s idea that novelty erupts into regular time at the beginning of new epochs in history. These transitions are signaled by novel “events” such as the evolution of life, the advent of human intelligence, the development of organized society, and so on. Astute readers will recognize a problem with this model right away, as it takes developments which progressed over thousands or millions of years and describes them as distinct “events”. Even more relevant to the current polemic about December 21st, 2012 is Terence’s claim in The Invisible Landscape that his and Dennis’ graph of time has an end, which they called Timewave 0 (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
Timewave 0 is a kind of Mysterium Tremendum—a point of greatest novelty past which we, as time-bound humans, cannot guess what will happen. As Dennis McKenna explained during his reading, Terence postulated that the wave of time is fractal: it is mathematically divided up into epochs that are getting shorter and shorter as we approach the zero-point of history. The second to last epoch lasted about 2,000 years and is roughly synonymous with the Christian era. The epoch we currently live in is defined by the last 67 years that have elapsed since the end of World War II and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events momentous enough to have ushered in the modern world according to the Timewave model (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
The Invisible Landscape predicts that both our current epoch and the Timewave itself will come to an end in 2012, originally sometime in late November of 2012. Terence later changed the date of the end of history to coincide with the end of the Long Count calendar on December 21st (McKenna and McKenna 1993). Perhaps wisely, the McKennas shied away from making any solid predictions about what might happen when we reach Timewave 0, except to speculate that the final moment of history will be one of liberation from old paradigms of reality: a transition into a new epoch as different from the current one as the transition from an inanimate to a living world, or from a world of unaware life to one of conscious intelligence (McKenna and McKenna 1993).
Though they may be the most well-known voices promoting an optimistic vision of 2012, the McKennas were not the only ones who fixed on the coming solstice as the transition point to a higher plane of awareness: radical scholars such as Daniel Pinchbeck and John Major Jenkins have also joined the chorus for an optimistic vision of 2012, one in which the old world will not be destroyed so much as left behind for greener cosmic pastures.
However, even the optimistic prophets still suffer from teleological thinking: at Ship in the Woods, Dennis McKenna pointed out that Terence took what may be a cyclical Chinese calendar based on the I Ching and used it to predict the end-date of history, in exactly the same way that today’s self-declared prophets have taken a cyclical Mayan calendar and used it as a vehicle for prophecy!
Is 2012 a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? Pop culture has done much to flesh out the Apocalypse: such memes as global climate change, conflict in the Middle East, and even the semi-humorous “zombie apocalypse” are often featured in the premises of movies and television shows. Narratives that predict the end of the world followed by some kind of hardscrabble post-apocalyptic existence often say more about ourselves and the problems facing the modern world than they do about the validity of any ancient prophecy. For instance, filmmaker Roland Emmerich has tackled issues surrounding global warming and environmental collapse in his two most recent films, The Day After Tomorrow and the straightforwardly named 2012. “Zombie apocalypse” narratives such as the AMC show The Walking Dead also shine a light on social concerns such as rampant consumerism, xenophobia and our fragile dependence on technology, examining what the world might look like if our technological society ended tomorrow.
The current spate of apocalypse narratives gives me hope, for a very basic reason: it seems as though human beings may finally be warming to the idea that our world is in trouble—there is definitely a growing sense of urgency, a feeling that Earth is in peril due to the effects of global warming, environmental devastation, and a pattern of overuse of Earth’s resources that has been going on since the Industrial Revolution. We are finally learning the limits of what the planet can provide for us, and I believe that the widespread perception of 2012 as a kind of tipping point reflects this perception. It is a perception that The Invisible Landscape portended more than thirty years ago, when the McKennas concluded their speculations with the thought that human agency might have more than a token part to play in the transition to a new epoch:
“May it not be that the Tao leaves creation unfinished, and humans… are given further levels of creation to weave—the mode of the completion of each level more and more a matter of human decision, of the decisions of visionary humanity?… the manner in which we present ourselves in that culminatively intense final moment may well be a personal decision. Time grows ever more short; in the cosmic year-day of history, dawn is already breaking over Jerusalem” (McKenna and McKenna 1993: 205).
They make an intriguing choice to end on a Biblical reference to the holy city of Jerusalem, located in Israel, a country that has become a focus for those who believe that the Rapture will be preceded by an irreversible escalation of conflict between Jews and Arabs over Israel’s disputed Palestinian territories (Coats 2010). While the Rapture has no traction in ancient Christian thought, the mythos does illustrate an important new development in thinking behind the 2012 phenomenon: the idea that human agency may have a role in bringing about the transition to a new world (Coats 2010, McKenna and McKenna 1993).
It is true that the world is facing a time of great change: political and economic upheaval, shifts in climate and weather, environmental crisis. But there are beneficial aspects to change too: the worldwide web and interactive social media have given ordinary people a voice in global affairs, while hidebound institutions of power such as the Catholic Church find their influence waning for the first time in hundreds of years (Morford 2012). If there is a cataclysmic change sweeping the Earth, it’s one that we, humans, have set into motion and that we are responsible for stewarding in the direction of greater awareness, choice, freedom and sustainability in nature and human society. In its most encouraging sense, 2012 is not a date on the calendar—it is a movement, a worldwide will to make our world the better place it can be through collective human action before it’s too late. The urgency inherent in the 2012 phenomenon is well-placed; we have to move fast, while the options for change are high and the will to action is strong.
Dawn is already breaking over Jerusalem. It’s up to us to face it.
Coats, John R. September 16th, 2010. “What’s real about the Rapture?” The Blog: Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-r-coats/whats-real-about-the-rapt_b_716688.html.
Hanke, David. 2004. “Teleology: The explanation that bedevils biology”. In: John Cornwell (ed.) Explanations: Styles of Explanation in Science. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.
“Maya Cosmology”. Last modified January 28th, 2011. Authentic Maya.com. http://www.authenticmaya.com/maya_cosmology.htm
MacDonald, G. Jeffrey. March 3rd, 2007. “Does Maya Calendar predict 2012 apocalypse?” USA Today.
McKenna, Terence, and Dennis McKenna. 1993. The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens and the I Ching. New York: Harper Collins.
Morford, Mark. December 11th, 2012. “Your Own Personal 2012 Apocalypse”. San Francisco Chronicle Online Edition. http://blog.sfgate.com/morford/2012/12/11/personal-2012-apocalypse/
Rivet, Ryan. June 25th, 2008. “The Sky is Not Falling”, New Wave, Tulane University.
Schele, Linda. 1992. “A New Look at the Dynastic History of Palenque.” In: Victoria R. Bricker with Patricia A. Andrews (eds.). Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 5: Epigraphy. Austin: University of Texas Press.
The Official King James Bible Online. “Genesis 1:1”. Last Modified 2012. http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-1/.