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Just to put things in perspective…

Yesterday was the start of the new year 2012… in the current version of the Gregorian calendar used in much of the world.  In the old Julian calendar, yesterday was December 19, 2011.  In the Hebrew calendar, we’re about three months from the end of the year 5772.  In the Indian civil calendar, we’re a similar distance from the end of 1933 Saka Era.  In the Islamic calendar, we’re early in the second month of 1433 AH.  To astronomers, yesterday was the Julian day 2455927.  In the traditional Chinese calendar, we’re a few weeks from the end of the year 28 (Year of the Metal Hare) of Cycle 78 (or Cycle 79 depending on whether you date from the beginning or the end of the reign of Emperor Huangdi).

The point is, calendrical divisions are arbitrary human constructs.  The Earth just moves continuously through its rotation and orbit from one moment to the next.  Some people make a huge deal out of the start of a new year in their particular calendar.  That’s fine, but it’s just an excuse for a party, not something that has any objective significance where the universe — or even the entirety of the human race — is concerned.  Worth keeping that in mind just for a sense of proportion.

Now, about this silly Mayan meme that’s going around… I wish we would stop blaming the Maya for this dumb apocalyptic prophecy.  The Maya (a more proper term than “Mayans”) had no apocalyptic tradition of any kind.  What they had was a calendar that worked very well, and that they used to date events in their own lives and up to a few generations in the future.  They probably never gave much thought to the year we call 2012, although they had a couple of written predictions/prophecies about events taking place long after that date.  A lot of the jokes and cartoons you see circulating posit that the “Mayans” actually manufactured calendars going up to this year and then stopped.  That’s not so.  They didn’t bother making calendars more than a few centuries ahead.  But the thing about calendars is, they’re cyclical.  They can easily be extrapolated forward indefinitely.  And the Maya calendar was really cyclical, since that was their view of time, that everything was a series of nested cycles that continued forward indefinitely.

So what happened was this: the actual Maya/Mesoamerican calendar fell into disuse many centuries ago.  More recently, in the mid-20th century, Western researchers reconstructed it and projected it forward into their own era, something the Maya themselves didn’t really bother to do, since why would they need to?  Those modern researchers discovered that one of the longer cycles of the Mesoamerican calendar, the 13th baktun cycle, would come to an end within their lifetimes, in the year 2012.  In 1966, a guy named Michael Coe wrote a book wherein he interpreted that as a Maya prophecy of what he called “Armageddon.”  But of course Armageddon is a Biblical concept, and later scholars have consistently debunked Coe’s interpretation.  There was nothing in Maya writings to suggest they saw the end of the 13th baktun as the end of the world — merely as the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next.  In other words, New Year’s Day writ large, an excuse for a huge party but nothing more.  Coe had imposed his own Western religious traditions onto his interpretation of a foreign culture — an elementary mistake for an archaeologist.  But that didn’t stop other 20th-century Westerners who believed in a looming Apocalypse from latching onto Coe’s mistake and building a whole eschatological cottage industry out of it.

So there is no “Mayan” prediction of the end of the world.  They don’t deserve the blame.  End-times theology is a distinctly Christian belief system and has been for thousands of years.  Many Christians since Biblical times have been convinced the world would end in their lifetimes, and they’ve always looked for “evidence” to justify the latest eschatological forecast.  The Maya calendar just had the bad luck of getting co-opted by that process and misinterpreted to fit it.  So please, let’s stop blaming the Maya for our own Western preoccupations.

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