Or why you shouldn't stop contributing to your 401k plan
The ancient Mayan people, whose empire extended across much of Central America from late-antiquity to the 1500s, maintained a complex system of calendars -- which, oddly enough, ended with this year, 2012. This anomaly in Mayan timekeeping has caused many today to wonder whether the great calendar-makers foresaw an apocalypse in our era. The truth is more complex. Here are today's top 10 myths about 2012.
1. OK, it's past 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2012. Why didn't anything happen?
Actually the great endpoint of the Mayan Long Count calendar is winter solstice 2012, which falls on Dec. 21 of this year. Keeping counting.
2. Is the world really going to end on winter solstice? Yikes.
Not according to most people who've recently written on the topic. Author John Major Jenkins has tracked some remarkable astronomical phenomena due to occur this year, in particular a "galactic alignment" of the earth, sun and a black hole at the center of the galaxy. While that may sound ominous to people who follow portentous signs, Jenkins finds nothing in Mayan literature to suggest an apocalypse. Ditto for writer Daniel Pinchbeck who, like Jenkins, envisages a shift in consciousness rather than a global meltdown. An earthly sign of what these and other writers have in mind, perhaps, is the worldwide protest/Occupy movement.
3. But the Mayan civilization DID predict the world's end, right?
The truth is: We don't know. Virtually no surviving Mayan carvings or documents make any reference to 2012, beyond the calendar system. Conquistadors and missionaries destroyed vast amounts of Mayan records and scholarship beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1500s. We are left today with just remnants of Mayan thought. Hence, what these ancient mathematicians and calendar-makers actually believed would happen in 2012 remains a mystery of the antique world.
4. But other signs in the environment point to something creepy happening, don't they?
Actually, one legitimate cause for environmental concern that is sometimes tied to 2012 is the problem of solar flares, which could disrupt electrical grids. Author Lawrence Joseph, a 2012 theorist, has written very ably on this question -- though he doesn't necessarily pinpoint the issue to the calendar year 2012 itself.
5. I should stock up on water and provisions just in case, right?
Well, Napoleon put it this way: "Every plan immediately fails upon contact with the enemy." Hence, it's really difficult to say whether generators, freeze-dried food or the massive jug of water that leaked in our kitchen last night (this is true) will make any difference for anyone, anywhere, on Dec. 21, 2012, or any other day. Ethical living, on a personal and global level, takes precedence any day in my book.
6. The famous early-20th century psychic Edgar Cayce foretold bad tidings for 2012, didn't he?
No. While this rumor widely circulates on the web, and while Cayce did forecast earth-change prophecies for the late 20th century, he never uttered a word about 2012.
7. But the soothsayer Nostradamus warned us over 2012, right?
Again, no. While this is another rumor that makes the rounds online and in tabloid weeklies, the Renaissance-age seer never mentioned 2012. Of course, many analysts of Nostradamus would find that debatable. Nearly all of the middle-French quatrains produced by Nostradamus were imbued with ambiguous, shadowy images and language, which led to the profitable development of a cottage industry out of their interpretation and translation. But the best scholars in the field, which include Stephane Gerson (author of a monumental forthcoming biography of the seer) and Richard Smoley, who has recently retranslated the middle-French quatrains, find nothing in the work of Nostradamus that deals specifically with the year 2012 (or with the events 9/11 either, for that matter).
8. Didn't a computer program called Web Bot predict a 2012 apocalypse?
The Web Bot Project is a program that scans the Internet for repeat phrases to search out cultural and business trends. Its findings are broad and widely open to interpretation -- and some do use its data for prognostication. But it hasn't pinpointed anything that plainly speaks to 2012.
9. I've heard the earth's magnetic poles could shift in 2012.
This too makes the rounds online. If the magnetic poles suddenly shift our climate and environment could be thrown asunder, according to theorists. The author John White has written an authoritative book on this very question and finds little evidence for a sudden, contemporary pole shift.
10. OK, so this is all a bunch of hooey from a backwards primitive culture, right?
Again, the truth is more complex. The Maya were an extraordinary civilization, possessed of a greatly intricate and multilayered system of calendars, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, geometry and religion. They were a truly great civilization, on par with other ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. The fact that they abruptly ended their calendar on winter solstice 2012 is a historical mystery. Did they believe this year marked a great transition? An endpoint of some sort? Or were they merely taking a break in their vast system of time-keeping? We really don't know. But anyone who is fascinated with the philosophies of the ancient world has a legitimate interest in wondering what the Maya had in mind.
Mitch Horowitz is the editor in chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of 'Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation' (Bantam). He is writing a history of the positive-thinking movement, forthcoming from Crown.