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."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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