A misinterpretation of a Mayan prophecy says that the world will end next Friday. Are we sure about that?
Doomsday scenarios have always had cultural and commercial appeal. Recent years have given us the chilling individualism of The Road, the blockbuster cheesiness of The Day After Tomorrow and the huge commercial success of Roland Emmerich’s disaster film, 2012. But while popular culture comes and goes, there’s one plot that hasn’t gone away yet: the belief that the world will end next Friday.
The village of Bugarach, in France, has been batting away publicity and assertions that it is a home of extraterrestrials who are going to reveal themselves on December 21st.
In Omutninsk, in Russia, a local newspaper article, headed “Prophecies of a Tibetan Monk”, has alarmed some people enough that they are stockpiling food.
The scenario is based on a supposed “prediction” by the ancient Maya people in Central America that the world would end on December 21st, 2012. There’s just one problem: no such prediction was ever made. The Maya’s sophisticated calendar measured a vast scope of time, far beyond their own civilisation. It divided time into baktuns, which are periods of 144,000 days or 394.26 solar years. According to the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the Maya, on December 21st, 2012, the calendar shifts into a new baktun but is not ending.
Misinterpreting the Maya
Theories about the significance of the winter solstice of 2012 arise from a misinterpretation of Mayan beliefs. The more extreme offshoots of the prophecy include Earth’s collision with a mysterious planet , Nibiru, which does not exist.
David Stuart, a professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas in Austin, traces the doomsday theory to a 1975 book by the novelist and mystic Frank Waters, Mexico Mystique: The Coming Sixth Age of Consciousness. In 1987 José Argüelles picked up the theory in his book The Mayan Factor: Path Beyond Technology, which Stuart calls “insanely misguided but influential.”
There are other references, including a hint at Armageddon by the Maya scholar Michael D Coe in his 1996 book, The Maya. And as the date draws closer, the obsession has intensified, despite experts consistently refuting the theory.
Astrologers would say we are moving out of the age of Pisces and into the age of Aquarius. Kate Arbon, an astrologer based in west Cork, says, “Without a doubt, it seems that there’s a cycle ending. The Mayan calendar was a very precise system that tapped into thousands of years in cycles. Part of it is to do with the precession of equinoxes and that we’re moving from one age into another.
“From an astrologer’s point of view, this happens all the time. December 21st is the end in the same way that the winter solstice is the end of the year . . . that’s what this is about; it’s the end of one era and the beginning of another. There’s no catastrophic event.”
So why the obsession with the doomsday scenario? Rev Pádraig Corkery, the dean of the faculty of theology and a lecturer in moral theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, says, “There is a fundamentalist element in politics and religion, and people always want easy answers to difficult questions.
“So if you ask, ‘When is the world going to end?’, and there’s your date, then people feel certainty.”
Corkery says he hasn’t given much thought to such predictions. “I haven’t reflected more deeply on it. But if you reflect on the rise of political and religious fundamentalism, we live in a dynamic and uncertain world where things have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. That unnerves people, and they seek certainty.
“Fundamentalist religion offers answers: you know what’s right and what’s wrong and you’re certain of it. Political fundamentalism offers answers, too; you’re told unemployment happens because of this, or immigration is bad because of that, and you become certain of such things.
It’s the same with wanting to know when the world is going to end: searching for certainty in a dynamic world.”
Doing doomsday: What would you do if the world ended?
Maeve Higgins, comedian and writer:
“I would march to the closest hairdresser or barber shop and plead with the scissors-holder to give me a full, heavy fringe. Predictably, they would refuse, telling me my face was too roundy. I’d tell them I didn’t care, I’m tired of living on my knees, and I want to go out with a bang, plural.”
Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, broadcaster and PhD candidate at Trinity College:
“I’d make sure I was with my mates and my brothers in a pub that serves really good Guinness, a bit of trad in the background, and I’d probably stay there. Wouldn’t that be a nice way to finish up?”
Michael John Gorman, founding director of the Science Gallery:
“I’d build a time machine out of the parts of Ernest Walton’s atom-splitter hidden deep within Trinity’s physics department and escape through a wormhole.”
Mark O’Halloran, writer and actor :
“There are two ways of dealing with impending oblivion: 1. You go bananas. 2. You accept it with grace and dignity. Personally I’d go bananas, get totally drunk and attempt to fornicate my way into the next world.”
Niall “Bressie” Breslin, musician:
“I’m going in for surgery on the 21st, so I have been watching 28 Days Later to get some tips in case I come out of the anaesthetic and all of you have turned into flesh-eating zombies. Shaun of the Dead too. Aim for the head, by all accounts.”
Diarmaid Ferriter, professor of modern history at University College Dublin:
“Honestly, I’d go to bed with my wife, Sheila, and, under the duvet, forget the world altogether – and after that share a large bottle of bubbly and a cannabis joint with her and laugh uproariously.”