Monday, February 16, 2009

It's the End of the World

For a number of years now, we've heard rumors about how the world is going to end in the 2012.  December 21, 2012, to be exact.  12/21/2012.  One of the best known, and obviously least understood, reasons behind this prediction is the Mayan Calendar, which, according to popular belief, is slated to end that very day.  New Age followers point to the end of the calendar as an accurate prediction of the end of the world.  Fortunately, if one looks at the entire Mayan system, the mistakes and assumptions of those who believe the Mayans had it all figured out becomes pretty apparent.

According to Wikipedia's page on Mayan timekeeping, what we call the "Maya calendar" is more of a system of several different, interlocking, and complimentary calendars, each having a distinct role to play.  The most important was the 260-day calendar, which is probably also the oldest of the calendars used in the Mayan system.  This calendar is used in conjunction with another 365-day calendar to create a cycle called the "Calendar Round", which lasts around 52 solar years.

Since the "Calendar Round" system only measured around 52 years, the Mayans developed another system, which present-day scholars call the "Long Count" calendar, to describe longer stretches of time.  The Long Count calendar can be used to measure times up to roughly 395 solar years.

Which brings us to the New Age 2012 problem.  The idea that the world is going to end stems from the belief that the Mayan Long Count calendar is going to come to an end on December 21st, 2012.  It also hinges on the idea that the Mayans were counting down to an event, rather than up from an event, as we do with our modern calendar.  Mayanist scholars agree that the New Age interpretation of the Long Count calendar is incorrect, stating "For the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle." (Sandra Noble via

If you look at the problem in terms of our own calendar, you'll realize just how unlikely it is that the Mayan people were calculating the end of the world.  Just like the Mayan Calendar, the modern calendar is cyclical.  When we come to the end of it, we start over from the beginning.  We don't expect doomsday every December 31st.  The same thing applies to a century or millenium.  It is a joyful occasion, a milestone, not something to be dreaded (aside, perhaps, from the Y2K bug).  This is not to say that the Mayan people didn't think about their destiny as a race, just as we do.  But just as we, as a people, don't claim to know all the answers, they most likely looked on every day as a new day, and hoped for the best out of every new calendar cycle.

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