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You will be surprised to know that this myth is actually a myth itself.

The Myth of 2012 and the Mayans

The “2012 Doomsday/Apocalypse” (shortened: 2012) prediction that many cranks and doomsayers hang their hat on is actually a part of a eschatological (dealing with the end of the world) myth that originated with Christopher Columbus and Franciscan missionaries, and not the ancient Mayan calendar. It was Columbus, and not the Mayan Calendar, who connected Mayan culture with the Apocalypse. Of course, there are those who say that the Mayan calendar ends on 2012, which seems to imply that it is the source of the prediction, and there are also those who say the cycle that the calendar is based on merely continues (like a new year). But, as we will see below, though the Mayans and their calendar have now been twisted and contorted to fit Columbus’ early writings, they are not the origin of this myth.

Planets align all the time and nothing happens

In a paper presented in January at the Oxford IX International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy in Lima, Peru, University of Kansas anthropologist and Maya scholar John Hoopes tracks the 2012 Maya myth origins through various revivals into the 21st century. The myth is rooted in an early 16th-century European combination of astrological and biblical prophecies to explain the new millennium. It may not be surprising to find out that these cultist musings are the product of religious reasoning. Christopher Columbus believed that his discovery of the world’s “most remote land” would lead to Spain’s re-conquest of Jerusalem and fulfill world-end events described in the Book of Revelations.

To validate his convictions, Columbus wrote his own “Book of Prophecies” that included an account of his interview with a “Maia” leader in 1502. The reference inspired early speculation by explorers and missionaries, indirectly influencing crackpots as well as scholars to link ancient Maya, before any contact with Europeans, with the astrological and religious beliefs popular in Europe in the 1500s.

Misinterpretations and distortions flowed with each revival of interest in Maya culture. It was again deployed in the 1960’s, with the “Age of Aquarius” movement, and again recently as “New Age” delusions surrounding “consciousness” took hold in American culture.

With every distortion, the myth mutated from just being a rambling from the pages of a religiously inspired Columbus to eventually become the cultist 2012 prediction that it is today. It has nothing to do with the Mayans or their calendar; it is magical thinking propelled into mythical legend.

Myths and Pseudoscience Abound

More than 1,000 books have been published on the 2012 myth, not to mention thousands of Web sites on the topic. When people are scared or unsure, the doors for claims that fit their beliefs, even tangentially, swing open. Everything then falls into line with their motivated reasoning. It’s hard to get out of conspiracy-style thinking such as this because every piece of evidence against the conspiracy is considered part of the conspiracy. We fear death, and so often our minds try to ease the burden of a realized mortality by conjuring up fanciful tales that have no basis in reality. The 2012 myth, not to mention the recently publicized prediction failures by Harold Camping, is no different.

End-of-the-world and transformative beliefs are found in many ancient cultures but have been a fundamental part of modern times since 1499, Hoopes point out. Modern America is no stranger to such beliefs. The fundamental value of religious freedom has opened up the spectrum of beliefs for cults, the occult, and pseudoscience to thrive.

Astrology, Ouija boards, séances, channeling, spiritualists, extraterrestrial visitors and a host of pseudosciences all have had acceptance in parts of America. Mary Todd Lincoln used séances to contact her son. Nancy Reagan consulted astrologists. Parents sometimes refuse to vaccinate their children. People fight disease with homeopathy. Many think that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. You name it, we’ve got it. If we are trying to establish a track record of sorting bunk from truth, we are off to a bad start. That is to say, doomsayers do not realize that 2012 is myth because they have poor bogus-detectors as it is. This is where skepticism comes in.

Wishful or magical thinking help perpetuate myths and beliefs that have no basis in science. First recognizing that the “2012 Apocalypse” is a myth then becomes a teaching tool for learning how to think critically and to distinguish science and nonsense.

Finally, consider this: if the Mayans actually could predict the end of the world, why couldn’t they predict their own demise at the hand of the conquistadors only a few years in the future? That’s a pretty huge oversight, don’t you think?


11/11/11: Anthropologist debunks doomsday myths