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2012: The Emperor of All Calamities

2012: The Emperor of All Calamities

2012: El emperador de todos los cataclismos

Stephen Houston

In commenting on the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “[n]ever was any such event so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.” By contrast, the prophecy, dread, even hope, that attend the “2012” phenomenon lack, by scientific consent, any basis at all. So far, this date, December 21 or 23, 2012, depending on the correlation between Maya and European calendars, has inspired many dozens of books, a loud CG-drenched movie, rather pricey tours with “wisdom keepers,” and, for a moment, a rare opening in which scholars might just be heard beyond the academy. The teachable moment will pass at midnight on the appointed day.

We have been through this before. William Miller, calculating numerical clues from the Bible, professed supreme certainty about the Second Coming of Christ in 1843. Notably, he was wrong. The Heaven’s Gate cult was just as sure that a spaceship would let them hitch a ride behind the Hale-Bopp comet, then departing our solar system. Other such fizzles include the Y2K prediction and the fervent declarations of Harold Camping, a Family Radio broadcaster who committed, bravely, to May 21, 2011 as the End of Days. (Poor fellow, his personal fate seemed to have been a stroke, suffered on June 10, 2011.) Then there are imaginative works that yearn for events not yet come to pass. The most prominent are the “Left Behind” novels that ache for the Rapture. A more amusing offering, working both as entertainment and existential treatise, is Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, now a certified New York Times bestseller. Mischievous through and through, it reveals the Rapture to be nearly random. As always, humans careen through events they neither control nor understand.

Adam Gopnik, in The New Yorker, houses much of such desperation in what he calls “declinism,” a disposition holding that things are going downhill and, if we thought about it, were usually much better before. Like Humpty Dumpty, society and its moral underpinnings will soon shatter, not to be reassembled by art or will. What political discourse in the United States fails to proclaim this truth? If Gopnik scratched more deeply, he would uncover similar sentiments at the beginning of Greek civilization, in Hesiod’s Works and Days: “the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness…[today] countless plagues wander amongst men; for earth is full of evils and the sea is full…bringing mischief to mortals.” But human nature being what it is, a commensurate desire exists to sort out which particular torment awaits us and why.

There are secular and occult modes of answering this need to know. The secular evaluates current calamities, vectors in probable courses of deterioration, weighs the likely human response, usually found to be wanting, and ends up with Malthusian tracts like The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich or an equally shocking documentary by the winner of the popular vote in the 1980 US presidential election. The overriding theme is human folly, but with still-extant  hope for future redemption. The occult mode is entirely different. The authorities are not scientists or demographers but divinities and the prophets who speak to them. Knowledge descends to our benefit from signs and revelations, and, in the Maya case, from a supposed source of ancient, mystical, non-western knowledge. The evidence inheres in the authority of the source, not whether it submits to any independent or empirical verification. Occult wisdom is self-referential. It is wise and valid because it is wise and valid because it is… The necessary step is to bow to that authority, by an act of faith. All else follows. The trust that knowledge of the future will come from the deep past, be it the Book of Revelations or Maya glyphic writing, enhances its mysterious, transcendent authenticity. Yet, by plain fact, most people do not believe in fortune-telling. By certain theologies, it might even be a sin, as it credits godly powers to human beings. The allure of the occult is that what lies beyond human ability becomes eminently possible by the operation and perception of sacred and mystical forces.

So to 2012. The claim, found in books aplenty on– many are self-published or issued by New Age presses–is that the Maya calendar will come to an end on December 21, 2012. Very bad events will happen. Or, in one variant, bad things will occur but will segue into very good events that renovate and improve our species. Yet another version mixes secular and occult knowledge by acknowledging Maya predictions along with the probability of solar flares, colliding planets, alignments with black holes, and so on.

This is not the place to review what has been said or proposed. There are superb books on the subject by specialists like Anthony Aveni of Colgate University (The End of Time: The Maya Mystery of 2012) or David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin (The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012). The latter is particularly eloquent in describing the cyclic basis of Maya time as an embodied, living presence. Maya time did not just mark the passage of days. Rather, in ordered fashion, time existed, by units that would be unfamiliar to all but present-day mathematicians. It displayed destinies and personalities, faces and bodies. The days themselves presided as lordly, enthroned entities. Vital and agentive, they were even activated by the blood of primordial sacrifi ce. The role of human was to observe their course, celebrate their passage with concrete memorials like stelae and altars, and, at times, either as covert manipulation or revealed truth, play with time and correlate it with the needs of real, human ambition among sacred kings a thousand or more years ago.

As Stuart points out, there are many confusions among those who dread or welcome the year 2012. Much depends, for example, on the preferred correlation. If we accept a certain tether to the European calendar, December 21 looms large, with all the druidical associations of the winter solstice; if another, then December 23. A few scholars doubt any of the current correlations, but they are in the minority. More telling is whether the ancient Maya ever spoke of cataclysmic endings in their script. Stuart finds the basic problem, a careless, modern blurring of Maya evidence with much later Aztec belief, which does accept ages of world destruction and creation. To be sure, there is a literature of lamentation among the Colonial Maya, couched in terms of cyclic calendars and ill-fortuned destiny. Yet the Colonial Maya were not, because of Spanish abuse, in a very cheerful mood. The imperial heel was heavy, the course of introduced disease calamitous, and the insistent preaching of friars, intent on questioning indigenous belief, made for challenging adjustments. “Declinism” affected the Maya long before it infected our own world, but, possibly, in such severe form, at a relatively late date.

Here are the facts. There is a depiction of cataclysm in the Precolumbian period, on a page in one of the exceedingly rare Maya books, the Dresden Codex. A goddess pours water from a jar. She is linked to creation, midwifery, healing, but also, as with such crones in other traditions, to the ending of life on the deathbed. Above the goddess in the Dresden is a more copious flow of water, vomiting from the mouth of a sky-crocodile. Below, a god associated with trade adopts another persona, as a warrior. The background is unique to the Dresden codex because of its dark red hue, hinting at darkness, gloom, danger. The glyphs above are obscure and poorly preserved, but there is mention of “black sky” and “black earth.” When will this occur? The Maya do not tell us. There are also, throughout this book, descriptions of dread episodes: droughts, bad augury, but good ones too. Certain days or conjunctures of cycles had particular resonances, and might thus guide future behavior on those days. Yet, in all the rich inventory of Maya texts, scholars find no perceptible evidence of prophecy, for all the testimony to such prophecy in the Colonial period and beyond.

True, a composite cycle of the Maya, counted from an enigmatic event millennia past, will come to an end. Depending on correlation, this will happen in AD 2012. The best understanding of the inception of the cycle is that it involves the mounding or replacement of a threestone hearth, much like that used in Maya cooking today. In other glyphic accounts and scenes, gods will gather and “be ordered.” Unlike Aztec creations, which trigger the predations of fierce jaguars or drownings by water, these primal events do not stir much fear as a template for the future. Stuart notes that the composite cycle was one of many, that, in Maya texts, other future cycles awaited humans. To seize on a single cycle is to miss utterly the grandeur of Maya notions of time. The lone, purported example of Maya prophecy, on a monument from the Classic city of Tortuguero, Tabasco, is wrongly interpreted. The baroque structure of the inscription confirms that the “prophecy” relates instead to a time in the Classic period, in the first millennium AD. The event in question pertains to the erection of the text in, of all places, a symbolic sweatbath.

One secure prediction: 2012 will not witness the emperor of all calamities, at least to judge from Maya evidence.

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