News Column

Mayan Doomsday Won't Interrupt Your Weekend

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You should probably be reading this story a little faster.

According to the ancient Mayans, the world was going to end today. In fact, it may already be gone, since it's Saturday in Australia. So don't be surprised if you step out the door and see nothing but smoking ruins and -- if you live in Coral Gables, where strict zoning laws prohibit the apocalypse -- municipal code inspectors frantically writing citations.

OK, before we go too much further with this, it's possible that the ancient Mayans didn't actually prophesy doom for the world on Dec. 21, 2012. "They absolutely never said any such thing, nothing like that, nothing at all," fumes a frustrated Marta Barber, who is (or, possibly, was) vice president of the Miami Science Museum's Institute of Maya Studies.

Most scholars of Mayan history and culture agree with Barber that the idea the Mayans circled the date on their calendar and penciled in "apocalypse coming, don't forget to buy milk" is a crackpot New Age misinterpretation, a cynical ploy by doomsday merchandisers, or both.

But that hasn't shaken the firm conviction of millions of people around the world that Friday's the day to link arms and sing a chorus of Turn out the lights, the party's over.

--So many religious pilgrims were trekking to Uritorco, a sacred Indian mountain peak in Argentina's central Cordoba province, that authorities blocked access to it earlier this week for fear of a "massive spiritual suicide." The mayor of Bugarach, a tiny mountaintop village in the French Pyrenees believed to be a frequent rest stop for alien spacecraft, banned end-of-the-world UFO watchers who were streaming into town, but undaunted local farmers continue renting out their houses for $2,000 a night.

--Tikal, a large Mayan archaeological site in northern Guatemala, is awash in not only New Age spiritualists but Star Wars geeks who believe the fact that scenes from their favorite movie were shot there mean it's certain to play a key role in the Mayan spectacular. "Something big is going to happen," businessman Ricardo Alejos, the vice president of Guatemala's Star Wars fan club, told Reuters. Cops have been generally tolerant, but did eject 13 naked women dancing and chanting around a fire near temple ruins last week.

--If you were planning to wait out the apocalypse on Rtanj mountain in eastern Serbia, where space aliens concealed a protective pyramid during a secret visit more than a thousand years ago (oops, guess that cat's out of the bag now), better forget it. All the mountain's hundreds of hotel rooms are booked. Serbian tourism officials, though slightly abashed, aren't giving any of the money back. "Our official stance is not to support such mythology," tourism boss Sandra Vlatkovic told Agence France-Presse.

--In China, the Christian group Almighty God, in somewhat contradictory proclamations, told its followers that Friday is the apocalypse but also that they should overthrow communism. Chinese security decided to take the second proclamation seriously just in case the first one is wrong and have jailed more than 1,000 Almighty God members.

--Various cities throughout Russia and Lithuania have suffered survivalist runs on everything from salt to candles to vodka. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in a televised plea for everybody to calm down, probably didn't help matters when he said he didn't believe the world was ending but then added gravely: "At least, not this year." Then, under the cataclysmic misimpression that he was off-camera, he (apparently) joked to reporters that the first things presented to a new Russian president are a briefcase with nuclear launch codes and a folder identifying all the secret space aliens hiding out in the country.

--Another politician who picked this month to reveal a misanthropic sense of humor was Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who made a satirical but straight-faced video in which she turned the end times into a campaign rally. "Whether the final blow comes from flesh-eating zombies, demonic hell-beasts or from the total triumph of K-pop" -- the Korean pop-music genre that produced the Luciferian hit Gangnam Style -- "if you know one thing about me, it's this," Gillard told viewers. "I will always fight for you to the very end."

That raises the obvious question: If Russian and Australian leaders are on the apocalyptic case, what about our guy? Happily, the Internet provides the answer, in the form of a 140-minute YouTube video entitled Government Secrets -- What Obama Knows About Dec 21 2012. It starts out with a photo of an Egyptian hieroglyphic "which looks eerily like Barack Obama," then adds ominously: "For those of you who are into reincarnation, it does make one wonder."

The video was produced by a New Mexico Maya-calendar enthusiast named Richard C. Hoagland, who is mildly famous for starting the 1976 letter-writing campaign that convinced President Ford to name the first space shuttle after the Star Trek spaceship Enterprise. Somewhat less celebrated is his theory that President Kennedy was assassinated as part of a coverup of the existence of life on other planets.

It's the attachment of people like Hoagland or the proponents of another theory often yoked to the Mayan calendar -- that a mystery planet called Nibiru is streaking toward Earth on a collision course that will conclude Friday -- that frustrates other scholars. (Nibiru, supposedly a discovery of the ancient Sumerians, was previously scheduled to obliterate the earth in May 2003, but apparently got caught up in intergalactic apocalypse traffic.)

"Everything just got so corrupted, I gave up," says Larraine Tennison, a Fort Collins, Colo., researcher who used to organize conferences around the country on the Mayan calendar. The problems began, she says amiably, "when the mainstream media got hold of it. Absolutely, it's your fault. All of a sudden everybody was going on the Internet to say, "Oh my god, the Mayans said it's going to be the end of the world!' And of course there were a lot of people who hoped to make a lot of money off it."

It's pretty hard to argue about the money part when the Internet bristles with ads like the one that offers, for just $27 (marked down from the original $99 now that time is short) a list of "37 things you should start hoarding NOW." ("With these 37 items you'll be in place to attract like-minded Americans to rebuild our nation based on the Constitution -- without all the liberal crap....") For the carriage trade there's the survival-condo company offering refurbished units in abandoned underground missile silos in Kansas. Earlier this week there were still spaces available at prices from $750,000 to $1.5 million.

Interestingly, what might be called the mainstream survivalist community mostly sneers at the Mayan calendar crowd. "Some of our customers mention it, but it's never their main thing," says David D'Eugenio, who runs the survival-training HomeSafety Academy in North Palm Beach. "If somebody really seriously asked for my advice, I'd say, "Go home and kiss your wife and your children, and see if you can get a home-equity loan so you can spend money like a crazy person. Because if the world is really going to end, I don't know what good training is going to do you."

In fact, if you put in a quick call to Bryan Smith, who owns a printing company in Altamonte Springs, Fla., he'll loan you his survival bunker. It's so sophisticated that it will be featured in an episode of National Geographic Channel's reality series Doomsday Preppers that airs next year. "It sleeps 12 but could do 36 if it was really raining fire and brimstone from hell outside," says Smith. But he's more worried about conventional geopolitical crises down the road that will bring on hyperinflation and food rioting, so he's not using the bunker this week. "As long as you clean it up on Saturday when you move back to the world, it's yours."

Americans mostly seem to be manifesting their interest in the calamitous calendar-calamity by looking at the Internet -- a NASA debunking site drew 4.6 million views in less than a week. (Though the New York Post did devote its entire Thursday front page to a photo of bosomy model Niki Ghazian, clad in a severely overworked red bra, who has been sending out wistful Twitter messages about her wish "to have a lot of sex" before the world ends.)

But Stuart Z. Charme, a religion professor at the Rutgers University campus in Camden, N.J., says apocalyptic mania is worrisome even when it appears to be a harmless diversion. Charme, who's been tracking doomsday themes in religion and popular culture in a course he teaches called "The End of the World," says it's a recurring American fascination.

"Watching zombie movies may be fun, but this can get a lot more serious," he says. "One problem is that some people take it so seriously that they harm themselves: Waco, Jonestown, the Heaven's Gate group who all killed themselves so they could board a spaceship they thought was following behind the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997."

The other, he believes, is the possibility that apocalyptic beliefs could influence political decisions. "I've got a whole shelf of now-obsolete books that argue Saddam Hussein was the anti-Christ and his sudden prominence in world politics was a sign that Armageddon was near," says Charme. Now, it's one thing to say that Saddam might have weapons that could harm us and we should go to war against him. We can argue about that.

"But it's another to decide that he's the anti-Christ and declaring war on him will help bring about the return of Jesus. That's, to me, very alarming."