OPINION:If the Mayans were not predicting the end of the world, why has this myth lasted, asks DAVID ROBERT GRIMES
Predicting the end of the world is a tricky business. Since Roman antiquity, scholars and prophets have predicted cata- clysmic events and lamented that we are living in end times.
Just last year, American preacher Harold Camping gained international notoriety for stating the world would end on October 21st. Given the inescapable fact the human race still exists, these harrowing predictions could charitably be said to lack accuracy.
Unlike these fringe ideas however, the 2012 phenomenon is a different beast; a pan- global apocalypse fear that transcends national and cultural boundaries.
According to an Ipsos poll for Reuters , 8 per cent of people worldwide have admitted “experiencing anxiety or fear” about the world ending this month.
In Russia, the figure is 13 per cent, while in the US, where the fear rate stands at 12 per cent, there has been a marked increase in bomb shelter sales.
Astronomers worldwide have received frantic calls from anxious folk desperately seeking clarification – Nasa has received more than 5,000 queries on this since 2007, including from some asking whether they should kill their children or pets.
Much of these this grim prediction involves the Mayan calendar. We set our dates from the year we assume Christ to have been born, which leads to a pretty daft oversight – our calendar goes disjointedly from 1 BC to AD 1.
This is in part due to the fear in early Christian minds of the number zero – the early church adopted the philosophy of Aristotle, who associated zero with the void of nothingness.
The Mayans were clever enough to include it. Instead they started their count from when the feathered serpent created the world, according to their religious teachings, a date we would call August 11th, 3114 BC, or 00000 to the Mayans.
This included a unit of time known as a B’ak’tun, about 394 years. At dawn on December 21st, 2012, the Mayan date system will move from the 12th B’ak’tun to the 13th in much the same way as we change calendar at the end of the year.
The Mayans did not associate this date change with any apocalyptic tidings. Indeed, they would have been pretty perplexed by the very suggestion the world was ending.
Mayan prophesies, indeed, make predictions far beyond the 13th B’ak’tun – one date refers to a time corresponding to October 21st, AD 4772; another nonchalantly refers to a date 41 octillion years away.
Yet in the Ipsos poll, 7 per cent of respondents in Britain and 10 per cent in France agreed with the statement: “The Mayan calendar, which some say ‘ends’ 2012, marks the end of the world.”
Even if the Mayans had predicted Armageddon, subscribing to this belief would be misguided in the extreme. While the Mayans were mathematically advanced for their time, they also performed regular human sacrifice to ensure the sun kept rising.
This type of activity is generally frowned upon these days and demonstrates that while the Mayans were good star charters, their grasp of astronomy and science was somewhat lacking.
Claims about ominous galactic alignments that will sling us into a super-massive black hole are equally fallacious. Others still worry the magnetic poles of Earth will suddenly flip, causing havoc.
So if the Mayans weren’t predicting the end of the world and the hypothesised extinction events are non-existent, where did this myth come from and why does it endure?
Broadly speaking it can be traced back to New Age spirit- ualism in the 1970s. Authors like Erich Von Daniken popularised the idea that extraterrestrials had imparted ancient people with secret knowledge. Mayanism became a mixture of spiritual and theological beliefs, one of the more prominent being that mankind would receive “enlightenment” at the end of the current cycle.
Through conflation with other mysticism and eschatological thinking, this mutated to a forecast of doom, perpetuated through the internet and in popular culture over the years. Heartfelt beliefs, perhaps, but founded on little more than superstition.
This panic over the world ending will inevitably pass when the date has come and gone and civilisation continues, but history has taught us there will always be another doomsday panic to replace it.
We worry about instant Armageddon, but global catastrophe is far more likely to occur slowly in the form of climate change. This is a process we can still mitigate.
Rather than worrying about dramatic destruction, perhaps we should try to understand the world based on evidence rather than superstition.