News Column

Mayan Doomsday? Neither Mayan nor Doomsday

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If ever a phenomenon was wrongly named, the Mayan Doomsday is it. You can't blame the poor Maya for this half-baked casserole of New Age nonsense and soulless hucksterism.

You've surely heard by now how a certain ancient Maya calendar expires Friday, and how, according to prophecy, the world will expire at the same time.

It's rubbish. Not garden-variety rubbish, but monumental rubbish. It doesn't come from an honest misunderstanding of ancient texts, but from fabrications and willful distortions by Internet fantasists and commercial cynics hawking survival kits left over from the millennium and minister Harold Camping's unfulfilled apocalypse of May 2011.

Who says? Well, all manner of scientists. The good people of NASA. Even the director of the observatory at the Vatican, a place quite accustomed to the coming and going of apocalyptic dates.

"It's not even worth discussing," the Rev. Jose Funes wrote in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, in a general debunking of the hysteria that has grown up around the Maya story.

Like most rumors, the Maya one was born of a truth and grew into something unrecognizable, but extensive and potent enough to give birth to survivalist movements and -- according to The New York Times -- downright hysteria. In a Russian women's prison, for instance, inmates experienced "collective mass psychosis" over the doomsday rumors and had to be calmed by a priest, the paper said.

The Maya civilization, you'll remember from your school days, grew up across portions of present-day Mexico and Central America, beginning around 2,000 B.C. and reaching its peak across the span of the third to eighth centuries A.D.

The Maya developed an extensive written language. They were also mathematicians and astronomers and created advanced calendars that reckoned time across eons.

That's where Dec. 21 comes in.

"The date that will come is the completion of a very large cycle in the Mayan calendar. Everyone agrees with that," said Loa Traxler of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where an exhibit on the Maya Doomsday is scheduled to run until Jan. 13 -- well past the date when anyone is supposed to be able to enjoy it.

Indeed, the Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3,114 B.C., before the Maya civilization even came to be. It marks epochs called Baktuns, periods of about 394 years. The 13th Baktun ends Dec. 21 -- or, said Traxler, the 23rd or 24th, depending on the reading of the calendar.

Traxler, who is curator of the exhibit -- "Maya 2012: The Lords of Time" -- said the end of the cycle has no more significance than your own desk calendar running out.

"They didn't see [the cycles] as points or predictors of destruction," she said. "They certainly didn't see them foretelling things for the 21st century and American culture. Yet many people over a couple of decades have been using this coming event as an equivalent to end of days. They associate it with it all manner of cataclysmic events in the natural world, devastating fire-and-brimstone events."

That's part of the problem with the whole story: Which apocalypse is the right one?

Do you hold with the Nibiru camp, which claims a dwarf planet called Nibiru -- or, sometimes, Planet X -- that has been hiding behind the sun will emerge and collide with Earth?

Perhaps you're a shifter and expect the magnetic poles to abruptly switch places --or, perhaps, the poles themselves, with the Arctic and Antarctic abruptly relocating. The latter idea has been around since the 1960s and became the plot line of a popular 1970s potboiler called "The Hab Theory."

Maybe your sympathy lies with the galactic alignment crowd, who say the solar system will align with the center of the Milky Way in such a way that the sun will erupt into megaflares that will toast the Earth, or at least its electronic grids. (Like some of the other scenarios, this one plays off the real phenomenon of coronal mass ejections, sunbursts that can disrupt man-made satellites and electronics).

Wait, there's more. A fair handful of people are anticipating the arrival of extraterrestrials, returning at last after seeding the planet with humanity a few millennia ago. The ETs are supposed to pick up catastrophe survivors atop a French mountain called Pic de Bugarach. Local officials, anticipating an invasion of kooks, if not aliens, have banned visitors to the mountain on the 21st.

Still others say the date is not apocalyptic at all, but transformative. They expect the date to usher in a new age of consciousness that will lead the world to peace.

"It verges on propaganda," Traxler said. "These ideas are pulled together from an eclectic array of sources -- some from long-standing world religions, but opportunistically, threads from other sources."

Indeed, a broad survey of the predictions reveals a genuine mishmash: a bit of Christian Rapture theology, in which true believers are privileged to escape the catastrophe of the end times; a dash of alien ancestor beliefs; a jigger of crystal-power optimism.

There is also a strain of belief from Mesoamerican culture, but it's not the Maya, said Traxler. It's the Aztecs, the people of ancient Mexico who believed in cycles of creation and destruction.

For the Maya, "the most elaborate of all the calendars, the Long Count, was to give this tremendous sweep of time as a framework in which their own lives were situated," Traxler said. People who claim it means something more, she added, "are just making it up."

Even some so-called "preppers" -- survivalists preparing shelters and food supplies for impending disaster -- have little patience with the Maya scenario. One Lehigh Valley prepper called "Mike T," reached by email through an online prepper bulletin board, called the prediction "craziness."

"Most preppers I know are professional, military or business people who understand that the financial and spending policies of the [U.S.] government are unsustainable," he wrote. "We believe that significant civil unrest is on the shortages, massive unemployment and the most incredible and difficult times any of us has experienced in our lives."

That's scary enough without adding Planet Nibiru into the bargain.

In the past, Traxler said, apocalyptic movements tended to be localized or restricted to particular sects. These days, they can spread virus-like across the Internet and infect the world, appealing to the deep human desire to know what the future holds.

Traxler, consulting neither calendar nor crystal ball, ventured a prediction of her own.

"Don't horde Lipton Cup O' Soup," she said. "We'll all be here in January."

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