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The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012

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December 21, 2012. The Internet, bookshelves, and movie theaters are full of prophecies, theories, and predictions that this date marks the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it. Whether the end will result from the magnetic realignment of the north and south poles, bringing floods, earthquakes, death, and destruction; or from the return of alien caretakers to enlighten or enslave us; or from a global awakening, a sudden evolution of Homo sapiens into non-corporeal beings - theories of great, impending changes abound.

In The End of Time, award-winning astronomer and Maya researcher Anthony Aveni explores these theories, explains their origins, and measures them objectively against evidence unearthed by Maya archaeologists, iconographers, and epigraphers. He probes the latest information astronomers and earth scientists have gathered on the likelihood of Armageddon and the oft-proposed link between the Maya Long Count cycle and the precession of the equinoxes. He then expands on these prophecies to include the broader context of how other cultures, ancient and modern, thought about the "end of things" and speculates on why cataclysmic events in human history have such a strong appeal within American pop culture.

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1. Introduction: How Dylan Got Me Started

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On December 21, 2012 (or December 23, 2012, depending on how you align their ancient calendar with ours), the odometer of ancient Maya timekeeping known as the Long Count will revert to zero and the cyclic tally of 1,872,000 days (5,125.3661 years) will start all over again. When I first became attracted to Maya studies over forty years ago I could not possibly have imagined that I would write a book about this event. Blame Dylan.

Three years ago I began receiving e-mails from a troubled Canadian high-school student, Dylan Aucoin, from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He had been reading Web articles about the end of the world that would supposedly fulfill the Maya prophecy about what might accompany the Long Count’s great turnover in 2012— or Y12 as I have come to call it. Dylan confided to me that he was worried—at times even horrified—by the predictions he had come across: apocalypse, holocaust, world destruction. After encountering one particularly frightening doomsday article, Dylan asked me: “Is there anything to fear about 2012 and the New Age ideas of destruction and consciousness shifting? I thought I had it all figured out but this article has brought it back like gangbusters. I ask you, is it worth fretting about? Is there really any validity?”

 

2. What’s in Store? A User’s Guide to 2012 Maya Prophecies

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Metaphysical travel—also called sacred travel—is a burgeoning branch of today’s tourist industry. Popular destinations tend to be mysterious places, especially those many of us have difficulty believing could have been constructed by an ordinary human labor force. Egypt’s pyramids, Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu all come to mind. “[W]hoever built them built them on places that were already places of power on the earth—the acupuncture points on the earth’s body that hold powerful energies,” notes the proprietor of Body and Mind Spirit Journey, a travel outfit based in Sedona, Arizona.1 People who sign up for these journeys of recreational self-discovery say they do it to connect with the unique spiritual energy or higher knowledge they believe they will find at these universal sacred places. For example, metaphysical travelers seek the accumulated wisdom of the advanced civilization of Atlantis, thought by some to have been secretly deposited on the site of the Great Pyramid of Khufu.

To be effective, metaphysical appointments need to be kept on time— and you must be in the right place. Historians of religion call them hierophanies, or manifestations of the sacred. They can be good, such as the Virgin Mary appearing on the wrinkles of a plate glass window or a weeping statue, or evil, such as the plume of smoke in the shape of a devil that many saw issuing from the destruction of the World Trade Center. Hierophanies can be great crowd pleasers. They invite participation; they evoke a feeling of being connected. Some witnesses feel as if their participation actually helps bring about the event.

 

3. What We Know about the Maya and Their Ideas about Creation

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“And then when the destruction of the world was finished
They settled this [land] so that Kan Xib Yui puts it in order
Then the White Imix Tree stands in the North
And stood as the pillar of the sky
The sign of the destruction of the world…”1

The Maya thought a lot about the creation of the world, as this passage, one of many from the colonial Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel, exemplifies. But who were they and where did they come from? The Maya lived—and still do—in the peninsula of Yucatan, which encompasses portions of Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador and all of Guatemala and Belize. They inhabit the southern end of Mesoamerica, a common culture area that exhibits a long tradition of a shared set of symbols and ideas, as well as social customs and material forms of expression. This larger cultural area stretches roughly from the Tropic of Cancer, just south of the U.S. border, all the way to the middle of Central America. The more we learn about expressions of Maya legitimacy—their art, architecture, and calendars—the more direct ties we find with the other cultures that made up ancient Mesoamerica, such as the Olmec, the Zapotec, the Aztec, and the people of Teotihuacan. Our own studies of ancient Mesoamerican calendars reveal specific attributes that cross over between the codices from the highlands of central Mexico and Maya Yucatan.2

 

4. The Calendar: Jewel of the Maya Crown

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Western civilization is not alone in seeking its origins in deep time. We bundle our years into decades, our decades into centuries, and our centuries into millennia. Our ages—the Age of Reason, the Age of Enlightenment, the Middle Ages—are packaged into eras, such as the Christian and pre-Christian eras. For the believer, the Christian era will end with the second coming of Christ, for in the Christian historical view all things were made by God expressly for the ends they fulfill. The new era that will follow will constitute a timeless eternal existence to be experienced only by the true believer. Philosophers call such a temporal concept a teleological timeline, because it is dictated by things that happen at the end, which are responsible for propelling time’s arrow forward.

Before Christianity introduced this linear concept, “big time” in the West was based in the pagan tradition of the Classical world. Time was made up of rhythmic, repetitive events centered on the return or reenactment of earlier events often reckoned by celestial cycles, such as planetary conjunctions. (Recall our definition of the two kinds of time in the Preface—historical-linear and mythic-cyclic.) Crossings of Jupiter and Saturn were popular choices in the ancient Chinese calendar, whereas the Chaldeans of the Middle East favored the assemblage of all the visible planets in the constellation of Cancer. The Hindu calendar, on the other hand, was a purely mathematical contrivance based on 1,000-year multiple cycles of years, called yugas. The grandest cycle of time measured in yuga lengths was thought to be a “day” in the life of Brahma. The bigger the tree, the deeper the roots. One way or another, all complex civilizations ultimately establish their origins in the very distant past.

 

5. The Astronomy behind the Current Maya Creation

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In Chapter 2, I noted the number of astronomical and other natural events conjured up by the Y12 prognosticators. To summarize, here is a short list of the most common questions I have been asked about possible natural events that might have something to do with December 21, 2012:

• Is there a unique galactic alignment that will take place in 2012?

• Could the Maya have known about it?

• Special or not, what effect can such an alignment have on the earth?

• Will a solar maximum occur in 2012?

• Might there be a cataclysmic effect on earth as a result?

• Will there be increased solar activity in 2012?

• Is there a connection between solar streams and unusual weather patterns on earth and could such a correlation produce cataclysmic effects?

• Is the earth’s magnetic field weakening?

• Can this, perhaps together with any increased solar activity, wreak adverse effects on the earth?

• Is there a precedent for a magnetic pole reversal on earth and are we due for one?

• Might this have any cataclysmic terrestrial effects?

 

6. What Goes Around: Other Ends of Time

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The Maya were not unique in their creation of ever larger time cycles that transcend seasonal years; for example, we reckon the ten years of a decade, the hundred of a century, the thousand of a millennium, each seeming to take on a character of its own. The Maya thought of katuns as we think of our decades, as a way of labeling patterns of social behavior. In America, the 1890s were gay, the 1930s depressing, and the 1960s revolutionary and marked by idealism, yet marred by assassinations. On a larger time scale we speak of the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial Age, and so on. Then there is deep time.

Eras are even longer than ages. We think of a chronological era as a succession of years that proceeds from one fixed point in time to another, often commenced by a seminal event. The birth of Christ, for example, gave rise to the Christian era. For the staunch believer, the end of this era will arrive with the second coming of Christ, an idea bolstered in the early Christian mind by the belief that all things happen expressly for the ends that they fulfill. Time pulls us forward into the future. For the Christian, the end of the old era will culminate in the arrival of the kingdom of God, which will initiate a new era—a timeless eternal existence to be experienced only by the devout believer.

 

7. Only in America

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Novus ordo seclorum.1 Inscribed on the back of U.S. dollar bills below a mysterious-looking eye perched on top of a pyramid, this statement declares the advent of “a new order of the ages.” America always was a birthplace for new ideas—new beginnings. As Thomas Paine put it, “the birthday of a new world is at hand.”2 To understand how and why this image of America was cultivated and why the United States has become the spawning ground of so many contemporary apocalyptic theories, including Maya 2012, we need to examine developments in apocalyptic creation history discussed in the previous chapter.

Martin Luther, the famous leader of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, made frequent use of apocalyptic rhetoric in his sermons (he was fond of calling the Pope the Antichrist). His words spawned a millennialist movement that developed sturdy roots in England, from where the Pilgrims and Puritans, who settled in the New England, came. Diggers, Levellers, Ranters, all were early seventeenth-century cults who claimed that the descent of a New Jerusalem from heaven was just around the corner. In anticipation, colonists patterned their cities after the New Jerusalem described in Revelation (21:2, 16, 18):

 

8. Epilogue: Anticipation

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Preparing this manuscript during a period of world history that some pundits have described as the greatest economic collapse in the lifetime of most Americans has elicited a number of comments from family, friends, and colleagues. Some say, “Too bad the Maya got it wrong by four years” or “Maybe they made an error?” (Oddly enough, Bishop Ussher’s calculation of the start of creation necessitated a four-year correction.) Others ask, “What if the great economic downturn is just the beginning of the downslide of a roller-coaster ride that will lead to doom—or Rapture—in 2012?” I cannot speculate except to predict that the dismal outlook forecast by some economists will only exacerbate the feeling of catastrophism that has accompanied the passage of civilization across the millennial divide and toward Y12.

Also at this writing, three years have passed since my e-friend Dylan sent me that alarming missive. Then a frightened young man, he told me of the articles he had read online about great cosmic shifts and the end of the world in 2012. He was particularly concerned about the earth’s magnetic field flipping, Yellowstone’s geysers erupting catastrophically, and colossal solar flares damaging the earth. I remember Dylan admitting to me that out of fear he initially accepted the idea of consciousness shifting as a way to avert human disaster because, as he put it, “it’s better than the end of the world.” I agreed with Dylan’s opinion that the articles he came across on the Internet focused on New Agers, astrology, and cosmic telepathy “because people think it’s more interesting than true, mundane facts.” But then my eyes brightened when he told me that when it comes to the Maya, “the facts are already fascinating!” You were right, Dylan. The ancient Maya do not need us to dress up their culture in the garb of Western ideas.

 

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