The End is … Nah

book cover for 2012 and the End of the World

You’ve heard it all before: The sky is falling! The world is ending! Don’t bother paying that cable bill…

This time, though, the shouting is louder—the loudest it’s been since Y2K, when sandwich-board-wearing zealots paced the sidewalks of major cities, and families fearing techno-meltdown stocked their basements with bottled water and salty snacks. Hundreds of books and thousands of websites trumpet the bad news. A major Hollywood movie, titled, succinctly, 2012, picks up the doomsday theme.

The noise will surely reach a crescendo this fall, as we inch ever closer to December 21, the date that corresponds to the end of the current cycle of creation in the so-called Long Count calendar of the ancient Maya. Doomsday proponents say the Maya had it all figured out, and that they left us an ominous warning.

But did they? In a new book, Matthew Restall and Amara Solari, both specialists in Maya culture and colonial Mexican history at Penn State, hack their way through to the roots of all the fuss. The result, 2012 and the End of the World: The Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse, is, as they write, “a serious look at a potentially silly topic.”

Restall and Solari begin by laying out the purported evidence. In 1996, on the face of a stone tablet recovered at a site called El Tortuguero in southeast Mexico, experts deciphered a date, and with it a short text that some have understood as a prophecy.

The date on the stone corresponds to December 21, 2012. But how is the text to be interpreted? To answer, Restall and Solari offer a quick tour through Maya calendrics and creation myths. They ponder clues gleaned from ruins at places like Izapa and Copán, and from the few surviving Maya codices, one of which, the Dresden Codex, appears on its final page to depict a world consumed by flood.

Maya glyphs carved into stone
Wikipedia

A small section of the Maya glyphs carved into La Mojarra Stela 1, discovered in eastern Mexico in 1986. The left column shows the Long Count date of 8.5.16.9.7, or 156 AD (June 23, 156 AD by one calculation). The two right columns are glyphs from the little-known Epi-Olmec script also known as the Isthmusian or La Mojarra script.

These disparate bits may seem at first to corroborate a doomsday vision, they acknowledge, but not when considered within the broader context of the latest Mayanist scholarship. In this harsher light, they write, the text of El Tortuguero looks less like prediction and more like a building dedication. The start date for the all-important Long Count calendar appears to have been chosen arbitrarily. The Mayans themselves seem clearly to have viewed the completion of the current cycle as a transition, not a final end.

In part, Restall and Solari blame early Mayanist scholars, who, they say, misinterpreted or overdramatized the available evidence. Later seekers have seized on these missteps, the authors say, combining Maya sources with amateur astronomy and New Age mysticism, and mixing pre- and post-Columbian Maya sources willy-nilly.

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto aside, the authors argue, the evidence for a Maya cultural obsession with end times and death is pretty much nil—until, that is, after the arrival of the conquistadors. The Spaniards, on the other hand, were heirs to a long-established strain of millenarianism, the belief in a coming societal transformation. In Western thought, the idea stretches back to early Jewish eschatology and reaches a fever pitch with medieval Christianity.

Inflamed by the hellfire preaching of Joachim of Fiore and Girolamo Savonarola (not to mention the wildly popular woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer), the Franciscan friars dispatched to convert the New World brought their millenarianism along with them, placing a terrifying Last Judgment at the heart of their evangelism.

First, they conquered the Aztecs, touting Cortés as agent of the New Jerusalem. Next, they traveled to Yucatan to missionize the Maya, their early efforts culminating in the harrowing Mani Inquisition of 1562. That millenarian themes pop up in Maya literature of the period, then, is not surprising. The Maya grafted apocalyptic Christian elements onto these colonial-era documents, the authors say, as a way of processing the apocalypse they themselves were undergoing at the hands of the Spanish invaders.

Why does the idea of Mayan prophecy have such popular appeal in 2012? It’s good for tourism, for one thing, the authors note. Beneath that, they suggest, the Maya are merely the latest mysterious “lost civilization” from which we moderns hope to glean a secret wisdom. By 2013, they predict, the Maya will fall out of favor “for their failure to get it right.”

Then the rest of us will move on to the next day of reckoning—in 2015, say, or 2035. Because when it comes right down to it, Restall and Solari suggest, it’s not about 2012 or the Maya at all, but rather “the apocalyptic impulse that lives deep within our civilization.”

Matthew Restall, Ph.D., is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Colonial Latin American History, Anthropology and Women’s Studies; mxr40@psu.edu. Amara Solari, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Art History and Anthropology; als66@psu.edu.

Last Updated August 22, 2012