2012: A Y2K for the New Age
'Around … 2012, a large chapter of human
history will be coming to an end, and a new phase
of human growth will commence.'
By: Lisa Miller
From the magazine issue dated May 18, 2009
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