News Column

After Mayan Calendar, the Age of We?

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The Penn Museum exhibit on the Mayan calendar is scheduled to run into January.

"We are quite confident that the world will still be with us in 2013," said Loa Traxler, curator of "Maya 2012: Lords of Time" and an archaeologist of the ancient Maya.

The Philadelphia museum, however, will hold a $40 fundraiser, Maya 2012: The Final Countdown, at 9 p.m. Friday. The invitation says, "Time to party like it's the end of the world!"

Some enthusiasts believe the calendar does predict the world's end that day.

It's true that the Mayan "long count" cycle of 5,125 years is slated to end, she said. But the ancient Maya no more expected it to mark the end of the world than modern people expect a car to break down when its odometer rolls over, she said.

"There are hundreds of thousands of years still to come in the Maya long count calendar," she said.

Nevertheless, a Reuters survey of more than 20 countries in May found that 15 percent of Earthlings believe the Maya may have predicted the end of the world. Belief was highest in the United States and Turkey, with 22 percent giving it at least some credence. Fear that asteroids or deadly solar flares will arrive Friday led NASA to create an online page last month called "Why the World Won't End" (key in "Beyond 2012" in the search box at www.nasa.gov).

There are two schools of thought among those who believe the calendar is prophetic. The doomsday scenario envisions planetary destruction, though methods vary from a strike by a rogue planet to getting sucked into a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. The peaceful scenario -- which has an organized following in Pittsburgh -- envisions a "planetary shift" to an age of compassion.

Vikki Hanchin, a psychotherapist from Swissvale, is involved in a small but growing Peaceburgh movement that heralds Saturday as the dawn of a new age when peace and unity will become reality if people try to live that way. Rather than Earth getting sucked into a black hole, she said, an alignment between the center of the Milky Way and Earth will open a portal of positive energy.

"The Maya see that there is an intelligence to the source of the galaxy that gets magnified and directed to Earth to assist us if we are willing to be open to it," she said.

If people tune in to that energy this weekend, "we will be less attracted to act out of exploitation and greed and it will be more inviting and natural to act in cooperation and generosity," she said. "It will greatly assist the evolution of the planet."

She is concerned that TV shows -- some from supposedly staid outlets such as the National Geographic Channel -- hype the doomsday scenarios. She works with a group of ethnic Maya shamans from Central America who say that their teachings have been distorted to take the focus off real threats of environmental destruction in favor of mythical planetary collisions.

"They are very perturbed and upset that their messages have been co-opted and drowned out by sensationalism," she said.

Locally she's been called on to speak to groups worried about predictions of disaster.

"The important thing for people to know is that the indigenous wisdom of the Maya says that the world is on a nonsustainable course. This is about destructive human behavior, not about the Mayan calendar," she said.

"The message of the Maya elders is that all of us need to make a conscious choice at this time to remember the greater good and remember that we are co-creating divine beings. We create our world by our intentions and our choices, so we have to make good ones."

Pittsburgh connection

Ms. Hanchin and others in the Peaceburgh movement believe that Pittsburgh has a special role in the new age that they expect to dawn on Saturday.

They believe that the confluence of Pittsburgh's rivers is depicted on the Mayan calendar, and aligns with the center of the Milky Way. Their theory is that the ancient Maya, who flourished in Mexico and Central America from 2500 BC to 900 AD, had ancestors here who migrated south, carrying their image of home with them. This connection would make Pittsburgh an especially powerful portal for the energy they expect to flow to Earth.

Part of their prophecy, which has been public since at least 2007, was that the water in the Point State Park Fountain, which comes from an underground aquifer that they say is featured in the calendar, would develop miraculous healing powers before 2012.

The fountain has been shut for renovation since April 2009.

That prediction "is sort of in limbo," Ms. Hanchin said.

While some people hold End of the World parties Friday, Ms. Hanchin plans to meditate quietly, then celebrate the dawn of a better world on Saturday.

"The people in my circle want to be very quiet and listening and receptive," she said.

The website www.heartofpittsburgh.com lists local events. They range from a Worship Jam at 7 p.m. Wednesday in First United Methodist Church, Shadyside, which will offer a Christian interpretation of the solstice, to a blessing by members of the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation at a riverside labyrinth by the Homestead Waterfront at 3:30 p.m. Friday.

The Peaceburgh group is loosely affiliated with a Birth 2012 movement led by New Age teacher Barbara Marx Hubbard. The movement is celebrating Saturday as a symbolic birthday of a new humanity, with gatherings in nearly 400 sites worldwide. The www.Birth2012.com site will have 33 hours of live streaming video starting at 3 p.m. Friday.

An oddly shaped mountain in southern France is a focal point of expectation. Devotees of peaceful theories expect Pic de Bugarach to be rich in positive energy, while some on the doomsday camp believe it will be the only safe place on the planet. Some expect an alien spacecraft to launch from inside the mountain and rescue people.

So many people have swarmed to the nearby village of Bugarach that late last month the French government banned access to the mountain for safety reasons. According to British press reports, the mayor of Bugarach ordered the village temporarily barricaded to prevent its 200 residents from being overrun by tens of thousands of outsiders.

The "Why the World Won't End" article from NASA addresses many of the doomsday scenarios -- such as an alleged rogue planet Nibiru, the reversal of the Earth's rotation and monster solar storms -- and debunks them all. (Nibiru is an Internet hoax and any such object would already be clearly visible. Earth aligns with the center of the Milky Way every December and can't reverse rotation. Solar storms are active, but tame compared to past cycles.)

The agency recently held a webcast intended to calm fears. The scientists involved expressed concern about teens who are suffering severe anxiety and even threatening suicide because of the prediction.

No doomsday for Maya

Ms. Traxler at the Penn Museum believes the ancient Maya would be as appalled at the predictions as the scientists are.

The Maya were brilliant astronomers who devised three calendars. One had 365 days and tracked the seasons. A 260-day religious calendar assigned sacred meanings to various days. Shared dates between those two repeated once every 52 years.

The Maya used the calendars together, much as many Christians note a saint's day on a certain date as a sign of favor.

"If a king was going to have an inauguration or a celebration, they looked for an auspicious date within the cycles," she said.

The long count calendar, she said, "was a framing of their lives and histories in a much longer time frame. They wanted to show themselves in this enormous span in this enormous cosmos."

All of the world-changing ideas about Friday come from "a very modern pastiche of ideas," she said.

Popular interest began in the 1970s with published correlations between the long count and the Gregorian calendar, she said. It was driven by American religious teachers who tried to associate dates on the calendar with devastating events, such as earthquakes.

"They have nothing to do with the Maya Calendar. The idea of cataclysmic world destruction really comes from Aztec culture," she said, adding that the theories also draw on images from the Bible's Book of Revelation.

"Many authors and bloggers who are looking for ancient wisdom from other cultures have pulled ideas from all these different sources and attributed them to the ancient Maya," she said.

Humans have an innate obsession with predictions, said Rebecca Denova, a lecturer in the religious studies department at the University of Pittsburgh who teaches a course on apocalyptic movements in the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, as well as in the movies.

"Look at all the polls in the political campaigns. It drove me crazy with all these people constantly predicting everything," she said.

The news media tend to focus on people who predict catastrophe, even when they're clearly from the lunatic fringe, and the publicity creates a larger following, she said. Then people look for evidence for the prediction, whether that means relating Bible passages to recent events or claiming solar flares are tied to an ancient Mayan prediction.

"There has always been a core group of believers who view this world as so totally corrupt and evil that it cannot be fixed by human beings and that there has be divine intervention," she said.

She doesn't worry about believers becoming depressed or suicidal if the predictions fail. Studies show that believers in such prophecies attribute failure to miscalculation and redouble efforts to convince others.

"It motivates them to go out and save as many people as possible. It doesn't destroy their faith at all," she said.

Ms. Hanchin of the Peaceburgh movement believes that both the archaeologists and the religious skeptics are missing an aspect of Maya life that can't be dug from the ground or found in textbooks. Today's Maya elders, she said, mystically communicate with their ancestors to learn the secrets of the calendars.

"The calendar wasn't just a counting device, it was really tracking the evolution of consciousness," she said. "So much of the technology that the Maya created was destroyed. But these people are able to communicate with their elders in the shamanistic tradition that never died. They have a spiritual technology that would become available to all of us if we were open to it."

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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