If there's one thing that we can bank on in this New Year (and the solvency of banks isn't one of them), it's that we'll be subjected to a flood of stories speculating on whether Dec. 21, 2012 will bring about the end of the world.
According to popular belief, the primary reason the ancient Mayans built one of the grandest civilizations of the Mesoamerican world -- with its intricate calendars, advanced astronomy, and the only fully developed written language in the Americas before Columbus -- was because they were obsessed with us. A deluge of books and documentaries about 2012 insist that the Mayans were apocalyptic visionaries who spent their days thinking up complex ways to warn us that a terrible catastrophe or a shift in consciousness would arrive on Dec. 21, 2012. As the psychedelic thinker Terence McKenna wrote, "It was our time that fascinated the Maya. It was toward our time that they cast their ecstatic gaze."
The problem is that none of this is true, and the Mayan doomsday industry reveals more about our own historical narcissism (that great cultural contribution of the Boomer generation) than it does about the beliefs of an ancient people. The society whose "ecstatic gaze" is focused on the apocalypse is ours, not the Mayans'.
Let's start with the actual date: there's no incontrovertible evidence that the winter solstice in 2012 accurately correlates with the end of the Mayan Long Count calendar. That date was chosen by scholars of Mayan history in the 1930s, who needed a standard correlation between Mayan calendars and our own Gregorian calendar in order to compare their academic notes. But the scholars may well have gotten the math wrong. Indeed, some believe that the end of the Long Count already happened, on Oct. 28, 2011. Still others predict the Long Count won't end until March 31, 2013. (Like all good apocalypses predicted to occur on a certain date, there's some wiggle room.)
Whichever date correlates with the end of the Long Count calendar, the bigger question remains: Did the Mayans themselves believe the end of the Long Count represented the end of the world? There's very little evidence to suggest that they did -- and quite a bit that suggests they didn't. A panel at the Temple of the Inscriptions in Palenque, for example, bears a date that correlates to Oct. 21, 4772 CE -- just one of many inscriptions suggesting that the ancient Mayans didn't expect the world to go kaput in 2012, any more you expected the world to end when your desk calendar recently read Dec. 31.
Nor do many of the modern-day descendants of the Maya believe this coming winter solstice will mark the end of the world -- a fact that is conveniently overlooked as tourist bureaus from Mexico to Guatemala prepare for the coming apocalyptic travel boom.
But we've been here before. Remember the Hopi? In the early 1960s, an anthropologist by the name of Frank Waters visited the Hopi and revealed that they had a secret prophecy for the end of the world -- and that eight of the nine criteria for that end had already been met. Whether Waters's account is accurate (and many Hopi dispute it) or exploitative, the fact that he heard the story in the early 1960s tells us nothing about what ancient peoples believed. After all, the myths of contemporary native peoples don't exist in isolation from the modern world. It's no surprise that after nearly 500 years of Christian influence and the arrival of the nuclear age that even the Hopi would have caught the apocalyptic bug.
Instead of apocalyptic visionaries, the Mayans, like the Hopis before them, are simply the latest in a long list of cultures on whom we've projected our own Western apocalyptic expectations, which are in overdrive in these tumultuous times. From gushing oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico to nuclear disaster in Japan, from the collapse of the Eurozone to the skyrocketing national debt, everywhere we look there's a horseman -- dressed as a warrior, ecologist, economist, or preacher -- to herald that the end is near. Thus we find ourselves turning increasingly to the apocalyptic metaphor to understand a world that looks radically different from just a decade ago. The apocalypse offers the promise that our chaotic times will eventually prove to have some kind of redemptive meaning -- or that, according to ancient cultures, it was all somehow inevitable, anyhow.
But the anticipated apocalypse never comes. Our hope for the New Year shouldn't be that "the Mayans Were Wrong" (as the Drudge Report blared on New Year's Day), but that in 2012 Americans will come to better understand why we keep returning to doomsday thinking -- and to ultimately reject it.