Mayan Apocalypse Myths: December 21, 2012 Doomsday Debunked; Why We Want To Believe The World Will End [VIDEO]

By Anthony Smith on December 17, 2012 9:58 PM EST

Mayan Apocalypse Myths
Mayan Apocalypse Myths: December 21, 2012 marks the most compelling apocalypse myth that many have ever seen. Here's why so many believe the world will end, and even more, why many people want to believe in the end of the world. (Photo: Melancholia)

Mayan Apocalypse Myths: December 21, 2012 marks the first apocalypse myth that, for reasons that aren't exactly clear, is so completely and utterly compelling that even your friends and loved ones who aren't prone to superstitious chatter seem to have a quiet acknowledgment of the possibility that the world could end at some time on Friday, leaving families clutching their loved ones close and the more paranoid amongst us constantly searching through the news for anything that could confirm the belief that December 21, 2012 is humankind's last day on earth, and that the world will end. For some reason, the Mayan apocalypse myths hold a power over us that no other doomsday prophecy until this point ever has. Here's what the Mayans said, exactly, and why we want to believe they're right about whether or not the world will end.

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It's our understanding of the Mayan Apocalypse Myths that has those of us familiar with the tale of an alleged doomsday picking out our coffins even as, save for a little weather trouble in the Northeast, there hasn't been a single cosmic sign that the world is coming to an end. According to the myth, December 21, 2012, aligns itself perfectly with the end of the 13th cycle of the ancient-yet-trusted Maya Long Count Calendar. The calendar is of note to scholars and pseudoscientist alike due to the fact that four-hundred year long cycles, or b'ak'tuns, don't end very long by virtue of their massive length. To put four hundred years into context, remember how long your last business week felt. Now multiply that by fifty-two. Now multiply that by four-hundred. Pretty soon, you're crossing your fingers and hoping that the December 21, 2012 Mayan Apocalypse myths we've all been chattering about all year will come true. And yet, not even the Mayans were willing to go that far. According to the oldest Mayan calendar ever discovered, there are calculations of approximately 17 cycles. And we're just at the end of the thirteenth b'ak'tun! And according to Texas Maya hieroglyph scholar David Stuart, "the Maya had 24 units of time they included in their calendar... with b'ak'tuns representing only one unit. In other words, the Maya were well-prepared to record thousands upon thousands of years of time."

So who took these Mayan Apocalypse myths and turned them into secular doomsday panic? According to Lorenzo DiTommaso, a professor of religion at Concordia University, rumors that the world would end on December 21, 2012 came into fruition as recently as 1980, when Westerners got their hands on the Mayan calendars and began to speculate that the dropoff date of the b'ak'tun corresponded with a potential end for the human race. But because these people either misunderstood or, possibly, intentionally ignored the fact that the Mayans' have a cyclical view of time, they placed the context of the ending of the b'ak'tun cycle "in a Biblical [context]" according to DiTommaso in a talk with LiveScience. Broken down in a way we can understand, whereas our calendar that marks the year moves ever forward, from 2012 into 2013 this December, and so forth and so on, we have a cyclical calendar of months. If, 3000 years from now, another culture were to find our calendar and see that one of our cycles ends on December 31, and deduced therefore that all of humankind were being extinguished on that date, it would be akin to what we were doing now with our cultural clinging to this Mayan Apocalypse Myth.

And yet, in spite of the fact that our better, more rational faculties guard against it, there are many that are taking these Mayan Apocalypse Myths-- especially those concerning the abrupt end of the human race on December 21, 2012, very, very seriously. "The apocalyptic version got out on the Internet, and people started talking about it and modifying it and proposing things that could be added to it," DiTomasso said. Because of the way that the internet disseminates information and creates panic due to the opinion-based nature of content, doomsday ideas run the gamut from the optimistic (world peace and shifts in consciousness!) to the cataclysmic (a shift in Earth's poles, or a planetary collision a la Melancholia).

What is it about these Mayan Apocalypse myths that are turning otherwise rational people into believers? December 21, 2012 is akin to last year's big doomsday scare, when Harold Camping told everyone that Judgment Day would come in May, and so many of his church dumped their savings and waited with open arms for God to call them up to heaven. We've lived through many an apocalypse before, some of us without even knowing we were doing so. Perhaps it's the non-religiousness of this theory that has so many believing. After all, the Mayans had some pretty good star charts. If they were good at knowing where the stars were with primitive technology, maybe we should take teem seriously about this end of the world stuff, too?

All that sounds well and good, but these Mayan Apocalypse myths don't hold sway because, well, this isn't the first time that humans have lived through the end of a b'ak'tuns. And chances are it won't be the last.

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