2012: Prophesy or Symbol?

Maybe it’s a sign of how dramatically movies drive popular culture but a number of folks deeply steeped in the meaning of the Mayan Calendar and the Mayan writing system—as well as numerous scientists—are coming forward to reassure us that the world is not in actuality coming to an end on December 21, 2012.

By way of example, a Mayan tribal elder is quoted recently as saying that the idea of the calendar predicting a catastrophic doomsday springs from Western ideas and not Mayan.  This has been followed up even more recently by a Washington Post article approaching the matter from a scientific perspective, in which the astronomical basis of the movie 2012 is viewed as sensationalizing for profit.  That article does not take Sony Pictures to task strongly enough for its setting up a phony (and very hi-tech) website called Institute for Human Continuity, whose goal is Ensuring the end is just the beginning and where you can vote for who ought to lead humanity in the post-2012 era.  Sane and caring people everywhere ought to boycott this film just to protest this kind of commercial exploitation.

Think none of this matters?  Think everyone knows its entertainment?

According to the Post article, David Morrison, the author of an online feature called Ask an Astrobiologist, has “gotten nearly 1,000 e-mails from people who think something dire is about to befall the planet. One teenager wrote to Morrison that he’d rather commit suicide than see the world destroyed.”

An even more recent Los Angeles Times article entitled, Scientists try to calm ‘2012’ hysteria, notes:

Morrison says it’s hard to know whether the people who have written to him with their fears represent a fringe or a larger cross-section of Americans who, distrustful of traditional sources of information and the authorities behind them, are falling victim to the Internet’s snake-oil salesmen.

In such an environment, the viral marketing campaign for the movie “2012,” which encourages people to “Vote for the Leader of the Post-2012 World,” can seem like confirmation of the apocalypse, rather than of an upcoming 90-minute entertainment vehicle.

A spokesman for Sony Pictures, Steve Elzer, said: “We believe consumers understand that the advertising is promoting a fictional film.”

Morrison said the movie’s distributors are feeding the “panic” by creating some of the fake science websites. Most of the sites, Morrison said, are full of misinformation and speculation, often by people who have written books they are trying to sell.

But scientific and ethical considerations aside for the moment, let’s return to the source of the 2012 phenomenon, the ending of a 5,128-year cycle of time as marked by the Mayan Calendar.

Drawn away from purely academic writings for the moment, David Stuart, arguably the foremost expert on Mayan glyphs in the world,  spoke his own words of reassurance for informed lay readers, in which he clarified his previous statements regarding the now-famous Monument Six of Tortugero, one of the few surviving Mayan texts that actually seem to predict events—and that specifically mentions the December 21, 2012 date.

Or does it?  Stuart references an article by his colleague Stephen Houston, who points out greater ambiguity in the reading of Monument Six than previously recognized.  The date may not reference any objective date but rather be ceremonial, having to do with the consecration of a particularly sacred building.

Great pains are being taken by such noted experts and the Mayans themselves to point out that the misconceptions about the world ending simply because the Mayan calendar turns over and begins another 5,128-year cycle are based on exaggerations and decidedly Western apocalyptic myth-making.  Why?  Well, obviously, the release of the special effects extravaganza 2012 may push already-anxious men, women and children into fear overdrive.

At Cornell University, Ann Martin, who runs the “Curious? Ask an Astronomer” Web site, says people are scared.
“It’s too bad that we’re getting e-mails from fourth-graders who are saying that they’re too young to die,” Martin said. “We had a mother of two young children who was afraid she wouldn’t live to see them grow up.”

Few people, after all, are well-versed in Mayan calendrics and astronomical cosmology, especially of the type that purports to deal with phenomena that recur only every 26,000 years or so.  Enter the infotainment industry with its conscience-less view on sensationalizing the latest world-ending fad in order to increase revenue.  There is apparently no end of people willing to come forward with their direst interpretations, selectively citing facts that bolster their theories.  The more shocking and attention-getting the better.  And the public good be damned.

A comprehensive and up-to-date review and criticism of the whole gamut of speculations related to the 2012 phenomenon can be found on Wikipedia.  Its clear-eyed evaluation of the phenomenon is augmented with useful research into the history of its ideas and the personalities of its proponents.  Bottom line?  There is nothing to any of the claims of the world ending in 2012.

Likewise, there is a lengthy and very informative article here that discusses the particular difficulties of interpreting specific dates and meanings of Mayan calendrics, especially related to the problem of exactly where the Mayans envisioned their calendar starting over.  This is the rather abstruse but fascinating issue of whether a pictun occurs after 13 baktuns or, as is favored by many specialists, after 20 baktuns.

And so, in that vein, I would like to add my voice to that of responsible folks in the Mayan and academic communities, attempting to inform in a useful and meaningful way.

The date December 21, 2012 falls on a day called 4-Ahau in the Mayan calendar, which corresponds to the day 4-Flower in the similar ritual calendars of the indigenous peoples to the north of the Maya, such as the Mixtecs and Aztecs.  All of these civilizations had a schema of recurring Ages (or Suns) that ended on one of the 20 days of their calendar and was accompanied by the numeric coefficient “4”.  On the famous “Aztec Calendar Stone”, for example, the Ages are seen as ending on the days 4-Jaguar, 4-Wind, 4-Water, 4-Rain, and 4-Movement.  Obviously, each of these Age-ending dates is succeeded in turn by another, new, Age.

The essential point is that these dates commemorate and celebrate the creation of the world.  They are life-affirming, a philosophy of history that takes into account the periodic transformations of civilization, each one better and brighter than the last.

These are symbolic dates, in other words.  Not world-ending events.  World-beginning events.  Metaphorical.  Not literal.  Symbolic.

But we are symbolic creatures, are we not?  To such an extent that the great anthropologist Mircea Eliade called us homo symbolicus.  The use of artifacts as old as 75,000 years points to the origins of language, imagination and spirituality in this creature we call human being.  We have a sea of symbols inside us and we seem predisposed to connect those symbols to people, things, events or ideas that infuse our lives with extra meaning.  Not all meaning needs be positive, however.  Fear can add meaning, even if it increases distress and distrust.  And drama.  Especially if it seems to bind us closer to others.

And as has been noted, we are herding creatures, after all.  Beyond some threshold point, we move and act in a more collective manner than we generally recognize.  Presidential elections, real estate bubbles, groupthink, the list is as long as it is embarrassing.

In the present case, the 2012 phenomenon finds itself in the company of other symbolic world-ending predictions:  the end of the millennium, Y2K, biblical prophesies, Nostradamus, and a host of others that various people interpret as coinciding with this date.  Beyond the purely unethical behavior of using technology and the resources of the media to instill fear in people for profit, we as a culture need to question the wisdom of rewarding those whose use shock for personal gain:  The more shock is used on us, the more inured we become to it, so the more has to be administered in order for us to feel shocked.  Yes, it’s like a drug.  And we ought to know enough by now to stay away in droves from those who peddle it.

We also ought to know by now that human nature possesses a self-defeating, self-destructive side that justifies greed, exploitation, and narcissism.  Is it that we, as individuals, can become so mesmerized by our sense of self-importance that we cannot imagine the world going on after our death?  Is it possible for us to prefer that the whole world end than that it might go on without us?

My take on the 2012 phenomenon is that the facts have become irrelevant.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

There is currently a mood toward anticipating something dramatic happening on the Winter Solstice of 2012 and, even if it amounts to nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy, this mood is likely to provoke some profound inner changes in those people who take it seriously.  In this sense, it is not so different than contemplating one’s own death:  it brings about a reconsideration of one’s life, how it is being spent, what is really important, what true purpose should be, and so on.  Seriously reflecting on the end of the world has got to impact our inner lives—and perhaps our outer actions.  In this sense, it might not be so different than those who survive a near-death encounter:  It brings about a renewed sense of wonder and reevaluation of what is truly worth preserving.

Perhaps the symbolic end of the world this time around will fuel our collective imagination and inspire our collective heart to renew our desire for a truly benevolent civilization that bequeaths peace and prospering to all our great-grandchildren and their descendants worldwide.

Not the end of the world, then.  But the end of a world view, maybe.

A celebration  of creation-in-the-making.

Perhaps the symbolic end of the Age this time around will convince us that the Golden Age of Humanity is within our reach if we but dare hold out our hand.


The Toltec I Ching, by Martha Ramirez-Oropeza and William Douglas Horden has just been released by Larson Publications.  It recasts the I Ching in the symbology of the Native Americans of ancient Mexico and includes original illustrations interpreting each of the hexagrams.  Its subtitle, 64 Keys to Inspired Action in the New World hints at its focus on the ethics of the emerging world culture.

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5 Responses to 2012: Prophesy or Symbol?

  1. cecilia says:

    I must agree with you that 2012 is a symbolic ending of a stage in the evolution of human consciousness but I also think that there will be physical changes on the earth itself. Our collective consciousness seems to me to be attached to the physical events of our host planet.

    Our fingernails grow in the same rate the tectonic plate moves, did you know that? This I feel will be how the earth will change, it will do so at a rate that we will hardly notice. It’s just like how science and technology transformed our understanding the world. It didn’t happen overnight. We are already in the fifth sun. The disasters are coming, relentlessly along the same time our collective consciousness are ending our old world views.

  2. William Douglas Horden says:

    Cecilia, thank you for your thoughts on this matter. I agree with you when you say “our collective consciousness seems to me to be attached to the physical events of our host planet.” I would only add to this that it does not necessarily mean that our collective consciousness only follows those physical events–we ought to consider that if they are truly attached, then there is the very real possibility that those physical events can follow our collective intention…..

    With this in mind, I ask you to consider helping to prevent any possible disasters by joining your intention to those already doing so.


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  4. Sibel says:

    Constant dropping wears the stone.

  5. Thank you for this blog post, it was just what I was searching for. There is so much information here, so I thank you so much for enlightening my mind.

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