What Have the Mayans Got to Do With It? A Brief Guide to the Apocalypse

by Matt Sheedy

According to the Mesoamerican long count calendar, which has been closely associated with the Maya civilization, the end of the fourth world or conclusion of a b’ak’tun (roughly 5,125 years) will take place today, on December 21, 2012. Among the most popular contemporary interpretations of this phenomenon is that it marks either a period of renewal or apocalyptic disaster. That I have chosen to include the word “apocalypse” in the title of this post no doubt indicates which of these two options that I find most interesting.

While I am not a scholar of the Maya civilization nor an authority on the Popol Vuh, one does not need to be an expert to generalize about the social interests involved in the cosmology of this or any other group. As Burton Mack observes in his book Myth and the Christian Nation, whether we are talking about the Aranda, the Amerindians or the Japanese, such stories are not really “creation myths,” (or myths of renewal) as if these were the best these groups “could do to explain how the universe came into being.”

They are stories that create an imaginary beginning of a world in which the people, their activities, their predecessors, and their land can all come together in a set of relations appropriate for their place on earth… The events recounted are imagined far enough in the distant past so as not to get in the way of the work at hand, but enveloping enough to count on being understood when used as metaphors or reminders when talking about their projects among themselves and telling others who they are… (57)

In short, such cosmologies were created in the interests of those involved. More interesting than this, however, is how the persistence of such myths often reflect the interests of other groups and individuals that, while not necessarily a part of or even supportive of the tradition in question, will nonetheless draw upon it as a discourse in the construction of society. This recalls a further point by Mack, when he writes,

Myths and rituals are not only generated by social interests, they are the ways in which social interests continue to be shaped, criticized, thought about, and argued over in the ongoing maintenance of a society. (81)

To consider one such example, the opening lines to an article in the LA Times from September 17, 2011, reads as follows:

The ancient Maya calendar ends Dec. 21, 2012, and Hollywood has wasted no time portraying the coming date as the trigger of a worldwide cataclysm.

But in Mexico, where drug violence has hobbled the nation’s $70-billion tourism industry, government leaders hope to counter Tinseltown’s doomsday scenario by promoting 2012 as the year of the tourist.

Here we find an instance of how the same myth is drawn upon differently and, not surprisingly, in the interests of those concerned. In the case of Hollywood, sensation is a box-office virtue, as seen, for example, with the 2009 film 2012, which grossed $770 million worldwide, making it one of the biggest hits of the year. As an interesting side-note, the release of the film was preceded by a “viral marketing” campaign where the fictional “Institute for Human Continuity” offered advice on preparing for the end of the world, prompting thousands of people to contact NASA in concern.

In the case of Mexico, Rodolfo Lopez-Negrete, chief official with the Mexican tourism board, noted that, “Our interpretation of the Mayan calendar is reverse to what many people speculate,” while adding that, “Our focus will be on growth and prosperity instead of the end of the world.” In an article appearing in the Hindustan Times on December 21, 2011, another Mexican tourism spokesperson, Yeanet Zaldo, also drew upon this narrative of prosperity and renewal when she stated, “The world will not end. It is an era,” while noting that, “For us, it is a message of hope.” Here we find, not surprisingly, that tourist revenues and a desire to counter the pervasive effects of drug violence, guide some of the ways in which the 2012 phenomenon is taken-up within Mexican society.

What I find most interesting about the myriad stories surrounding the 2012 phenomenon is how little most of them have to do with the Maya themselves, but instead serve as a symbolic discourse for a variety of social interests, including political and religious groups, as well as a more latent and diffuse sign of the many uncertainties–environmental, financial, existential, etc.–that are pervasive within the social world.

In the case of NASA, for example, their “Ask an Astrobiologist” website has received over 5000 questions since 2007, with some people even asking if they should end their own lives and those of their children prior to 21/12/12. And while NASA’s response to these fears has been painfully obvious to some and occasionally annoying to others, it is worth considering how their social interests include not only maintaining their legitimacy as a scientific institution, but also in serving to respond to genuine public concerns and allay fears given their own field expertise in relation to the phenomenon in question.

Similarly, in Russia the Minister of Emergency Situations had to declare that their would be no apocalypse on 21/12/12 in light of an upsurge of unrest in relation to the phenomenon, while the state of Michigan closed 33 schools starting December 20, in fear that potential hysteria surrounding the event might trigger a desperate response similar to the tragedy in Newtwon, CT, from the previous week.

While “New Age,” “esoteric,” and “mystic” interest in the phenomenon has also garnered a fair bit of press, perhaps most notably at the Pic de Burgarach, a uniquely shaped mountain in the French village of Burgarach, which has served as a focal point for such groups, one important task for scholars of religion, in contrast to the fear-allaying efforts of various institutions, is to expand the conversation surrounding the 2012 phenomenon toward questions of how symbolic events such as this can tell us much about the social interests of the various groups that take up this discourse and, perhaps more importantly, about our own fragile human condition.

It is a curious fact indeed that a group such as the Maya, who otherwise hold little power or credibility within the broader social imagination, could capture so much interest–however complex and contradictory–around the world for so long. It is no coincidence, despite protests to the contrary from Mayan scholars and Mayan people themselves, that the narrative of apocalypse seems to have trumped that of renewal within the popular imagination. Beyond what I take to be the typical public response to the 2012 phenomenon of either irrational fear or, more commonly in my experience, sarcasm or playful humour, the bigger question that we should be asking is why this non-event that most “rational” people did not take seriously, has nevertheless captured our attention? The reasons are no doubt many and complex, though one that sticks out to my mind is how such a grand non-event, unlike more real and socially divisive phenomenon such as climate change, can serve as a conduit to express our fears and uncertainties in a very unstable world. Much like zombies and vampires, which are linked to such apocalyptic narratives as the 2012 phenomenon, the realm of fantasy provides us just enough safe space to revel in the idea without having to confront the spectre of the underlying reality that it reveals.

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One Response to What Have the Mayans Got to Do With It? A Brief Guide to the Apocalypse

  1. On all thing “planet-wide disaster,” I have been reminded the day is not yet over.


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