What's interesting is why so many people seem to be buying into it so wholeheartedly. Millenarianism is nothing new, of course. Heck, barely a decade ago people were in full hair-on-fire panic about the catastrophic implications of Y2K — a harmless flipping of the seemingly self-perpetuating Gregorian calendar.
Why do we continue to work ourselves up about this stuff? Is apocalyptic anticipation hard-wired into humans? Do some people simply crave the excitement? Or do certain folks deal with the psychic stress of bad times — like, say, the ones we're currently muddling through — by looking for an "escape" on the horizon, by craving oblivion?
Comedian Patton Oswalt has a great bit about witnessing the apocalypse firsthand. The downside is obvious: a fiery, white-hot death. The upside? A table reserved in the "VIP section of eternity."
Everyone up there is like, "Hey, how'd you die?" And they're like, "Bus accident," and "How'd you die?" And they're like, "Fire ants." Then they go, "How'd you die, man?" "How'd I die? In the fucking apocalypse! Oh my God, it was awesome!"
Fun times! And, hey, it still could happen. But if so it's more likely to come about thanks to policy hangovers from the Bush administration than because of any Mayan prophecy.
"We have reams of things the Maya wrote about their calendar and considered significant," says Zender. "They don't talk about the 2012 date. It's not surprising, because it was so far off that it wouldn't have meant anything to them, really. There's no indication whatsoever, on any of the stone monuments or any of the texts, that 2012 was a matter of concern for them."
Okay, then. But some have posited that the switchover of the Long Count calendar presages not an end times, per se, but more of a spiritual upheaval — mass change in consciousness. Did the Mayans say anything about that?
The Mayan calendars are complicated, Zender explains, and there are many of them, all basically cyclical. "There are sacred calendars that are seven days in length and regularly repeating" — a week, in other words — "but there are many other calendars, too: there's a nine-day calendar, a 13-day, a 20-day . . ."
The Long Count calendar in question here literally predates the existence of the Mayans themselves. They conceived its start to a "sort of arbitrarily designated Day Zero, their equivalent of a creation date," says Zender, which corresponds to 3114 BC on the Gregorian calendar. The Long Count is a cycle, too. It's just that its cycle is so long — 5125 years — that it doesn't turn over ("like an odometer clicks over in a car") until AD 2012.
At which point, says Zender, it's simply going to "restart and circulate around again. But it gains the patina of all that time, and it achieves a sort of cultural significance in the same way that our millennial endings achieve cultural significance. People thought there would be devastation or significant changes when Y2K hit, too."
Simply put, ancient, mysterious, jungle-dwelling cultures just seem to lend themselves to all sorts of projection in the modern mind. We see what we want to see. (Just look at Mel Gibson's nauseating Grand Guignol epic, Apocalypto.)