Counting down the days until December 21, 2012

What if you knew the world were going to end? Next week. On December 21.

By now, every Mayanist scholar in the world has tried to clarify how the doomsday soothsayers have misunderstood the Maya calendar. At best, the date Dec. 21, 2012, signifies the end of a cycle of 394 years, known as a bak’tun, in Maya culture. When one cycle ends, another begins. Just like your calendar on Dec. 31. At worst, the date means nothing because interpreting the hieroglyphs of an ancient civilization leaves a lot of room for interpretation.Mayan calendar

In the cartoon version of Dec. 21, two Mayas are staring at a large chiseled calendar. One asks, “So how come it ends in 2012?” The other Maya replies, “I ran out of space on the rock.” That’s the story Religious Studies Professor Andrea Seidel tells when she’s asked about the Mayan calendar.

“They conceived of the universe in cosmic cycles,” Seidel says. “The worlds spiral toward progressive perfection.”

The Maya calendar prophecy has been further confused by mass destruction tales of a less spiritual and more galactic sort. There’s Planet Nibiru, which emerges from ancient Sumerian texts, that is supposed to collide with Earth on Dec. 21. Except, Nibiru doesn’t exist. Then there’s the universal alignment that will plunge Earth into darkness forevermore. Fact is, alignments do occur, have occurred and none of us noticed. NASA has a site explaining it all: Beyond 2012, Why the World Won’t End.

“There is really nothing at all here,” says FIU astronomer James Webb. “It’s amazing it gets so much press and so much attention.”

1.-The-End-of-the-World-on-December-21-2012-jpgScience and reason, of course, have very little to do with the End of Times. The Maya calendar is but the latest apocalyptic frenzy. We’ve had — or not had — the Rapture, Nostradamus and asteroid scares. We’re still here, at least for the moment.

The Maya calendar prediction has played out in countless news reports, books, late night TV shows and websites. Some of the 2012 sites attempt to debunk the myths, while others dole out warnings and advice. The website eHOW offers a five-point plan on what to do if the world is about to end. Things you will need: small waterproof container, emergency supplies and important documents. “If December 21, 2012 is truly the end of the world, having important documents ready may seem silly,” the site explains, “but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”

Sony Pictures fired up the mania three years ago with its $200 million movie “2012” starring John Cusack and complete with Cusackasteroids crashing into the planet, temples of human civilization crumbling and continents sinking into an angry ocean. The trailer warns us: “Mankind’s earliest civilization warned us this day would come.”

The day now is right around the corner. And even though we might know better – the Mayas never predicted Armageddon– it’s hard to resist contemplating one’s own personal stake in the annihilation of humanity. What would you do if you knew the countdown had begun? Perhaps we are drawn to these myths, movies and stories because, in fact, they are not so far flung. We don’t need ancient oracles to tell us that one crackpot with a red button could, conceivably, destroy  mankind. Or maybe we will suffer a slower and more painful end that makes strange bedfellows of prophecy and science. If there is anything to be learned from the Mayas, Seidel says, it is their notion of keeping humanity in balance with the environment.

“There is a reality to it,” says Seidel, who specializes in indigenous religions and has studied the Maya. “I have my days when I weep for my great, great, great grandchildren. We have to be terrified at the plight of the planet.”

Webb worries about the planet too. There are real threats to the universe out there in the universe. With the dismantling of space exploration programs, how will we protect Earth from an asteroid if no one is looking?

Still, the social scientist and the scientist have no plans to start hoarding pork & beans. On Dec. 21, Webb will be playing basketball, if the gym is open. Seidel will be preparing for Christmas.

“The notion of a 2012 apocalypse comes from our own culture, not from anything the ancient Mayas said or believed,” Webb says. “That’s the great irony.

So what would I do?

If the world were going to end Dec. 21, my only concern would be for my son. And since he is in kindergarten, his only concern would be, “What about Santa coming?” While I contemplate the end, he’s bouncing off the walls with excitement as he marks the days on his Advent calendar. Definitely, I would let him open his Christmas presents early. I would tell him Santa came early so the magic would last until the very end.

–Deborah O’Neil MA ’09