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The end is near — for Mayan calendar myth

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Citizens of the world, exhale. Contrary to a ballyhooed ancient Mayan prophecy that has spawned everything from Chinese doomsday cults to Hollywood special effects extravaganzas to dire warnings that Earth is on a collision course with the mystery world of Nibiru, our planet will not come to an apocalyptic finale Friday.

At least, that's how the Mayans saw it.

"They never said it," said Walter R.T. Witschey, a Maya researcher and professor of anthropology and science education at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. "Some of the Mesoamerican history and artifacts in that region talk about new worlds and new eras, but the people carving all these [archaeological] inscriptions really were not forecasting the end of the world at all. To the contrary, their calendar keeps right on rolling past this date."

This much is certain: According to archaeologists and scholars, the end of a particular Mayan 5,125.37-year calendar cycle likely falls on Dec. 21. That date, in turn, has spawned something of a global pop-culture panic, a not entirely tongue-in-cheek belief that Friday will not only mark the end of the world as we know it, but also be a terrible day to drop off your dry cleaning. Consider:

• In Russia, there have been runs on candles, matches, salt and torches, prompting government officials to call for calm and the nation's deputy emergency situations minister Sergei Anikeyev to proclaim, "We don't believe in the 'end of the world' fable."

• In China, the state press reports that a fringe Christian group has been predicting that "the sun will not shine and electricity will not work for three days." Other reports say worried citizens have been purchasing mass quantities of candles and that apocalypse-themed websites peddle canned food, gas masks and fiberglass "survival pods."

• The mayor of a Brazilian mountain town, San Francisco de Paula, urged local residents to stock up on food and supplies in anticipation of the worst.

The government of Guatemala — home to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal — forecasts a record number of foreign tourists in December.

• The Turkish village of Sirince, population 600, expects up to 60,000 visitors this month, largely because New Age spiritualists believe its location has a "positive energy" that will protect the area from global catastrophe.

A springtime poll of more than 10,000 adults in 21 countries found that 8 percent had experienced fear or anxiety over the world ending in December, with Chinese (20 percent), Russian (13 percent) and American (12 percent) respondents being most likely to agree with the statement that the Mayan calendar "marks the end of the world."

"In our society, there is a certain fraction of people who are doomsayers who will take their own belief that the end of the world is at hand and hang it on any convenient hook," Mr. Witschey said. "For the Maya calendar, the rollover of this cycle is a neat hook. We also have the connection with Dec. 21, which is also the winter solstice. They've also conjured up an imaginary planet that is going to strike the Earth. NASA assures us that this is not going to happen."

Indeed, NASA released an entire video Tuesday debunking the notion of a Mayan doomsday. Forward-dated Dec. 22 and titled "Why the World Didn't End Yesterday," it notes that none of the thousands of Mayan ruins discovered and translated by archaeologists discuss the end of the world; that contrary to speculation, the sun is not threatening to envelop the globe; that no known asteroids or comets are on a collision course with Earth; and that if Nibiru -- or any other planet, for that matter — were about to slam into ours, it would be the brightest object in the sky and visible to the naked eye.

The space agency is not alone in pooh-poohing an apocalypse. Scholars of the Mayan culture — like, all of them — consider it balderdash. Even modern ethnic Mayas, who ought to know, have publicly said that the end of the calendar has nothing to do with the end of the world.

Just who started these rumors, anyway?

Blame Maya researcher Michael Coe. In 1966, he wrote in a book that "there is a suggestion that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day" of the Mayan calendar.

Blame 1970s New Age authors, who spun Mr. Coe's minuscule thread of archaeological speculation into Armageddon whole cloth.

Blame self-proclaimed "channeler" Nancy Lieder, who came up with the Nibiru idea (and also claims to have a brain implant capable of communicating with space aliens from the star system Zeta Reticuli).

Oh, and blame everyone else, too, for lapping up this stuff.

In reality, the Mayapocalypse is roughly 90 percent unabashed hucksterism and 10 percent cultural mistranslation. Regarding the latter, the Maya really did exist. Between about 250 and 900 A.D., they built a sprawling Central American civilization known for large temples and cities with the population density of contemporary Los Angeles County. They were keen astronomers, too, and invented what NASA calls "the most complex calendar system ever created."

One of the Mayan calendars, dubbed the "Long Count" by scholars, was a cyclic calendar of five periods written as five separate numbers. Calendar cycles were divided into "baktuns" — periods of 144,000 days — and Dec. 21 marks the day when the Mayan calendar rolls into its 13th cycle, with a date of "13.0.0.0.0."

"The date 13.0.0.0.0 was just a marking place in their cycle, like our calendar rolling over from 1999 to 2000," Mr. Witschey said. "And there's evidence from the calendar itself indicating that the Maya intended things to keep going. There are some inscriptions that have many more higher-order places for numbers, like having a car odometer that would read out to 10 million miles."

As for the significance of the cycle rolling over? Mr. Witschey said the 13.0.0.0.0 date appears in only two known Mayan inscriptions — one in a set of ancient ruins in Mexico, another in Guatemala.

"When you look at the inscriptions next to those dates, they're talking about contemporaneous kings," he said. "Not the end of the world. In one case, they're talking about a king who has ruled for 13 years, and it basically says, 'Oh, we'll still consider him great when the 13th cycle rolls over.' Like saying George Washington is so great that we'll still be talking about him in the year 3,000."

The Mayas did believe that gods created three worlds before placing humanity on a fourth, and that each of those worlds lasted for 13 baktuns. Much like modern-day societies, they also were fascinated with calendar dates featuring zeros.

"Every 20 years or so, the Long Count calendar would come back to three zeroes, and the Maya king in the great city of Tikal would put up a special architecture," Mr. Witschey said. "Stuff for priests, pyramids, a sacred area the size of half a football field. So zeros were important to them. But several lines of science say that the Maya never wrote about, talked about or associated the end of days with any date on the calendar."

While some prepare for the Mayapocalypse regardless, others are having fun with — and profiting from — the cultural phenomenon. Watchmaking company De Bethune created a special "Ninth Mayan Underworld" watch to mark the occasion. A Turkish businessman in the Sirince area is selling a special "wine of the Apocalypse." Hotels near the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala — also the location-shooting site of the rebel alliance base on the planet Yavin 4 in "Star Wars" — are fully booked.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard recently made a spoof television appearance in which she proclaimed, "It turns out the Mayan calendar was true. Whether the final blow comes from flesh-eating zombies, demonic hell beasts or from the total triumph of K-Pop I will always fight for you to the very end."

Mr. Witschey plans to be at a holiday party Friday night.

"And Saturday night, Sunday night, and Monday and Tuesday night, too -- I have lots of kids and grandkids," he said with a laugh. "Who knows, maybe even a small, quiet recovery party on Wednesday night. I suspect everyone else will enjoy a full and delightful weekend as well."

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