Beliefwatch: The Mayan 2012 Debate

Scholars rarely love popularizers, and nowhere is this enmity more evident than in the battle over 2012—a date which, depending on your view, will coincide with the end of the world, the transformation of global consciousness, the end of the Mayan calendar, the beginning of another cycle of the Mayan calendar … or nothing at all. "I don't pay any attention to this stuff because it's bunk," says Anne Pyburn, an anthropologist at Indiana University who studies the Maya. Among followers of New Age religions, though, and particularly among those who like to celebrate the equinox at the Mayan ruin Chichen-Itza on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula, the belief that the year 2012 will mark a global transformation is widespread. In bookstores, on shelves marked "magic" or "divination," numerous volumes promote this view—and many more are on their way, from publishers as big as HarperOne and as small as Bear & Company, a New Age publisher in Rochester, Vt. Around Thanksgiving, Sony Pictures plans to release "2012." The trailer for the movie shows the oceans washing over mountains that look like the Himalayas while the face of a monk registers terror. One of the most popular authors in the 2012 category is John Major Jenkins, a self-described "independent researcher" whose 1998 book "Maya Cosmogenesis 2012" helped usher in this craze. "Around the year we call 2012," he writes, "a large chapter in human history will be coming to an end. All the values and assumptions of the previous World Age will expire, and a new phase of human growth will commence."

David Freidel is an archeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. He recently agreed to speak at a New Age conference on 2012, he says, mainly because he wanted to deprive Jenkins of the opportunity. "I immediately said yes so I could get to the podium before the charlatans do," says Freidel. He has studied the Mayan calendar (actually, calendars), and while he agrees that what's called the "long count" calendar does end in 2012, he believes that the Maya—were they still living by their ancient system of dates—would not have seen it as any kind of cataclysm. The year 2012 is nothing more than the resetting of a clock, an odometer reaching zero before it starts again, he says. Freidel accuses Jenkins and other popularizers of inventing a theology to support their view that the world is in decline—and that an external force will soon intervene to set things right. "There is a tendency," he says, "to be wholly naive on the part of individuals who want to see consciousness raised on a global scale." Jenkins defends himself against accusations that he's a fraud, saying, "Read my book, look at the bibliography."

Pyburn complains that the 2012 phenomenon makes exotics out of the Maya. "When people who have been colonized and oppressed decide they want to use their heritage to promote themselves, that's their choice. When it's being done by wealthy First-World nations, I think that's exploitative and I have a problem with it." Her Indiana University colleague Quetzil Castañeda makes a similar argument a different way. "The Maya," he says, is a Western tag for a diverse group of people who lived—and indeed still live—without any unifying language or culture. To speak of any belief as "Mayan" is like saying "all brown people are the same. We obliterate the fact that they speak 28 different languages, there are 8 million of them—today. If they're all called Maya, they must be identical." In Mexico, he adds, the real Maya think of 2012 as "a gringo invention." In America, we have always been uniquely receptive to end-times prophesy—Y2K is the most recent example. What's unique about 2012 is that it appeals not to fundamentalist Christians but to the New Age set.

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