12/21/12: A lot of Hype - or Dawn of a New Era?

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by Katherine Porter Gregory

What do indigenous people say, what do astronomers say, and what does it mean for us?

“What’s the deal about 2012, anyway?” my teen asked me back in 2010. “A bunch of kids at school say it’s supposed to be the end of the world or something.”

Apocalypse around the corner? I told her yes, some people were all fired up and preparing for the destruction of the world as we know it — especially since the debut of the Hollywood movie, 2012. But many others were focused on predictions that 2012 would be a time of great spiritual transformation for humankind.

“So which is it?” She sounded as if she expected a definitive answer.

For all I knew, any significance to the December 21, 2012, end date on an ancient Maya calendar could well have little or no basis in fact. So began my quest for answers.

Were the ancient Maya trying to tell us something by ending their calendar on 12/21/12?

To explore this question is to plunge into the midst of controversy and heated debate among Maya scholars. One certainty is that for the Maya, time is cyclical rather than linear. The end of one cycle always marks the beginning of the next. In fact, many of their artifacts refer to dates thousands of years beyond 2012. Only one Maya calendar ends on 12/21/12, and questions abound most likely because, although the date is clear, the text associated with it is damaged.

The idea that this date marks the “end of the world” probably originated with misinterpretations by anthropologists. In his book, The Maya, first published in 1966, Yale anthropologist Michael Coe notes that regarding the end date of that particular calendar, “there is a suggestion that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and our present universe would be annihilated…” Leave it to Hollywood to cash in on that one. According to anthropologist Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta of Chiapas, Mexico, Coe and others were misled by the poetic nature of the Maya text. Murrieta believes the real meaning was something more like “the god is going to come down and start a new cycle and the old world is going to die and the new world is going to be reborn….”

The Maya were avid observers of the night sky; modern astronomers praise their skillful tracking of Earth’s 25,625-year orbit in relationship to the background of stars. The “Long Count” calendar that ends on 12/21/12 covers an approximate 5,125-year cycle. Most experts believe this calendar’s start date is August 11, 3114 B.C. Astronomer and expert in the field of archaeoastronomy, Dr. Ed Krupp, says that for the Maya, this is the “creation date of the present world order. The date 12/21/12 also marks the close of the 25,625-year cycle. Many scholars agree the ancient Maya believed the end of each astronomical cycle and the beginning of the next coincide with a time of transformation and spiritual growth for humanity.

What do contemporary Maya say about the calendar end date?

In the documentary, 2012: The True Mayan Prophecy, Co-founder and Executive Director of PeaceJam, Dawn Engle presents viewpoints from modern Maya and their elders along with astronomers and other scientists. The film features 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Maya descendent, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who shares her vision: “According to our Mayan ancestors, a new time is drawing near. So it is important to maintain the light shining in these days. Our personal and also our collective light… An era of 5,125 years is coming to a close. It will launch a brand new era.”

Maya elders believe, Engle tells us, that rather than approaching a significant event on one particular day, “We are passing through an era of disordered time that began in 1992 and will last for 40 years.” In her documentary, scientists confirm that we’re in a time of increasing crisis — with no clear solutions for problems like climate change and increased consumption of resources.

Tum says, “The tragedies are already occurring. We call them natural disasters…” Engle adds, “The Maya say that if we do not take the right actions today, as many as one quarter of the people on planet Earth could perish.”

What about reports of a galactic alignment and other unusual astronomical events?

Astronomers, including Dr. Nick Snieder (interviewed in Engle’s documentary), and Colorado State University professor Dr. Roger Culver, agree that various alignments are occurring over a period of years; however, the Maya calendar 2012 end date can’t be specifically linked to any of them.

Dr. Snieder explains why astronomers also debunk many other imagined scenarios for 12/21/12. For instance, solar flares can cause havoc, but recur every eleven years and will not peak until 2013.

Dr. Culver points out, “that’s not to say something unexpected won’t happen.” He emphasizes the urgent need for environmental stewardship and says, although more likely to be caused by crises on Earth such as overpopulation, “a new era is possible.”

In the midst of possible crises and/or transformation, what can we do?

In the documentary, Rigoberta Menchú Tum joins with two Maya elders and two fellow Nobel Peace Laureates, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to give us recommendations. The first is to “Resist the swirling vortex of fear, anger, hate and negativity.” [See sidebar.]

Among other indigenous people, the Hopi are especially known for their prophecies, including the “Message to Mankind,” delivered by Hopi Elder, Chief Dan Evehema, in 1999 when he was over 100 years old. [See sidebar.] Like the Maya, Chief Dan predicts that those who put aside fear — and instead, ride the fast-moving river of change — will find cause for celebration.

By the time the year 2012 actually appeared, my daughter wasn’t asking questions about it anymore. During high school graduation ceremonies, she and others stood up and spoke to the crowd about what it means to them to be the class of 2012.

One of the valedictorians, Arun Chandra, used the Maya Long Count calendar as the core of his speech, ending with the words: “We, the class of 2012, are leaving high school and entering the world, and a great transformation is to take place… We are the transformative change of the future, and we will illuminate the areas yet to be explored.”

Katharine Porter Gregory is a freelance writer and student of integrative approaches to wellness. She and her husband live in cohousing (a neighborhood designed for community interaction) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Their daughter is now launched into university life.