Despite all the predictions of Mayan apocalypse, the world will probably not end by December 22. How will the believers cope when life carries on?
The clock strikes midnight, the hallowed date arrives and, once again, the apocalypse fails to turn up on schedule.
For such a cataclysmic event, the projected end of the world has come around with surprising regularity throughout history.
Each time a group of believers has been left bewildered at the absence of all-consuming death and devastation.
If they’ve taking the warnings seriously enough, they will have sold their homes, abandoned earthly civilisation’s material trappings and braced themselves for the arrival of a new era.
The latest date to herald widespread alarm is December 21, which marks the conclusion of the 5,125-year “Long Count” Mayan calendar.
Around the world, precautions are being taken.
Panic-buying of candles has been reported in China’s Sichuan province. In Russia, where sales of tinned goods and matches have surged, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has urged his countryfolk to remain calm.
Authorities in the French Pyrenees are preparing for an influx of believers to the mountain Pic de Bugarach, where rumors have spread that UFOs will rescue human gatherers.
And one doesn’t have to belong to a sect to find these predictions compelling. Humankind’s ongoing fascination with the apocalypse is evident in mainstream popular culture.
Films like 2012, Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow all packed out multiplexes by depicting threats of global catastrophe. The Left Behind novels about a “post-rapture” world have reportedly sold more than 70 million copies.
If precedent is any guide, however, December 21 is likely to prove an anti-climax. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have often been gripped by certainty that the world was about to end.
The Romans panicked at predictions their city would be destroyed in 634 BC. Millennial fears gripped Europe ahead of the year 1000 AD. During the English Civil War, groups like the Fifth Monarchists believed the end was nigh.
More recent apocalypses have panned out in much the same way. Followers of Nostradamus braced themselves for the arrival of the “King of Terror” in “1999 and seven months”. US television evangelist Pat Robertson forecast that “something like” a nuclear attack would occur in late 2007.
The California radio preacher Harold Camping set a date for the end of the world no fewer than six times, settling on 22 October 2011 – a day which, historians may recall, was distinguished by an absence of fire and brimstone.
Despite all the predictions of Mayan apocalypse, the world will probably not end by December 22
For those who paid heed to their dire warnings, learning that life will in fact carry on as normal might be expected to be a deeply traumatic experience.
Surprisingly, however, groups which predict the end of the world have quite a good record of carrying on after the world is supposed to have ended, says Lorne Dawson, an expert in the sociology of religion at the University of Waterloo.
“The vast majority seem to shrug off the failure of prophecy fairly well,” he says.
Of 75 groups identified by Dawson which predicted the apocalypse, all but six remained intact after catastrophe failed to materialize.
Indeed, many have gone on to flourish. Jehovah’s Witnesses are viewed as having predicted some form of end several times and yet still have more than seven million followers.
The Seventh Day Adventists, who have an estimated 17 million members, grew out of the Millerites, whose failed apocalyptic forecast in 1844 became known as the Great Disappointment.
The seminal study into this phenomenon came in the 1956 text When Prophecy Fails, in which psychologist Leon Festinger recounted how he and his students infiltrated a group who believed the world was about to end with members being rescued by a flying saucer.
When both the apocalypse and the UFO failed to materialize, Leon Festinger found, the leader declared that the small circle of believers had “spread so much light” that God had spared the planet. Her followers responded by proselytizing the good news among non-believers in what Leon Festinger saw as a classic case of cognitive dissonance.
In a similar exercise, psychiatrist Simon Dein spent time with a small community of Lubavitch Hassidic Jews in Stamford Hill, north London. For years many Lubavitchers had believed their spiritual leader Menechem Mendel Schneerson, known as the rebbe, was the messiah.
According to their theology, he would herald the end of civilization and usher in a new age. Their faith was tested, however, when the rebbe passed away in New York in 1994.
“I was there at the time he died,” says Simon Dein.
“They were crying. They were mourning. There was a great sense of denial – he couldn’t die. Would he reveal himself?”
But, Simon Dein says, these Lubavitchers did not give up their belief system. Very quickly, they took up the idea he was still alive and could not be seen, or that he would somehow rise from the dead.
“There are very heated tensions between those who believe he’s alive and those who believe he’s dead, but his death doesn’t seem to have diminished the number of people in the group,” Simon Dein says.
According to Dawson, the 200 Lubavitcher families in Stamford Hill had the most crucial trait necessary to keep a group together after a failed apocalypse – a strong sense of community.
“If the group itself has been pretty cohesive, it’s been free of schism and dissent, they can get through,” he says.
Also important, he believes, is the presence of a decisive leadership who can offer a swift explanation.
“If rationalization comes quickly, the group can withstand ridicule from outside,” he adds.
Some leaders, such as Camping on several occasions, simply offer a new date for the apocalypse. Others apologize to their members for getting the scheduling wrong.
Tragically, some take more drastic action. The bodies of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found in 1997. They had taken their own lives in the belief they would reach a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet.
Most, however, find a peaceful way to adjust.
“When you have invested so much in a belief, you have a very strong interest in salvaging something from it,” says Philip Jenkins, a historian of religion at Baylor University in Texas.
For Philip Jenkins, the appeal of leaders preaching the impending apocalypse down the ages has always been about far more than the specifics of their prophecies.
“It’s a kind of rejection of the order of the world as it is,” he says.
“It’s to do with imagining something far better. After it becomes apparent that the new order isn’t going to come, there are ways of adjusting the message.”
For true believers, the saga is only just beginning when the clock hands reach 12.
One in ten of us is said to be anxious that December 21st marks the end of the world. The Ancient Mayans predicted this doomsday, and the press is eating it up. But where are all the believers?
That the world will end in 2012 is the most widely-disseminated doomsday tale in human history, thanks to the internet, Hollywood and an ever-eager press corps.
Recent hurricanes, unrest in the Middle East, solar flares, mystery planets about to collide with us – all “proof” of what the ancient Mayans knew would come to pass on 21 December 2012.
According to a Reuters global poll, one in ten of us is feeling some anxiety about this date.
Russians have been so worried that the Minister of Emergency Situations issued a denial that the world would end.
Authorities in the village of Bugarach in the South of France have barred access to a mountain where some believe a UFO will rescue them.
And survivalists in America – many of whom use the term “prepper” – have been busy preparing for all manner of cataclysm.
In 1987, Jose Arguelles, a man who devoted much of his life to studying the Mayan Calendar, organized what was called the Harmonic Convergence, a sort of post-hippy Woodstock. It attracted tens of thousands around the globe.
The event was an attempt to “create a moment of meditation and connection to the sacred sites around the earth,” says Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Year of the Mayan Prophecy.
It was also the beginning of what many in the loosely-defined New Age movement regard as a process in the transformation of our consciousness – a transformation that goes into full effect at the end of this year.
Daniel Pinchbeck calls 21/12/12 the “hinge point” of the emergence of a new, more enlightened age – not an ending point for all civilization.
“It is quite clear that the Mayan system envisages a new cycle of the calendar beginning on the 22 December 2012,” says Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods, and something of a rock star in the world of ancient mysteries enthusiasts.
He says the ancient Mayan culture was a shamanic one. Those who left us the calendar were visionaries who were providing clues to this ending of one cycle and the beginning of another.
Recent hurricanes, unrest in the Middle East, solar flares, mystery planets about to collide with us, all proof of what the ancient Mayans knew would come to pass on 21 December 2012
That is not to say that New Agers do not see catastrophic events as necessary in some way to this new birth.
In fact they tend to embrace eastern faiths and native cultures with their cyclical views of time. In these visions, the world has been and will be destroyed – to some degree – and we start anew.
Accordingly, some believe the Mayans were sending us a warning for 2012.
“We may see a lot of destruction,” says Daniel Pinchbeck. He points to Hurricane Sandy, which recently hit his home city of New York.
Many, including the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, linked that hurricane to global warming, which tends to be seen by New Agers as the main threat to our planet.
However, the New Age movement is full of optimists. Crucially, they say we have a choice in how this story ends.
“We do not have to step over the edge of the abyss into darkness and destruction,” Graham Hancock says, calling this point in time a “cusp moment.”
“It’s up to us. It’s totally up to us.”
Morandir Armson, the Australian scholar, says the belief that 2012 marks a positive shift is one also shared by UFO groups, such as the Ashtar Command and the Ground Crew. These groups have no headquarters but for internet sites.
He says they refer to themselves as “lightworkers” who believe a fleet of alien space ships hover around our solar system.
“By doing good works on earth [they believe] you can speed up the consciousness of our humanity,” says Morandir Armson.
In many ways, they emphasize the more positive aspects of the traditional Christian Apocalypse. The fire-and-brimstone part gets downplayed in favor of the glorious Kingdom to come.
Some 20% of Americans believe we are in the end times, and that they will see the return of Jesus Christ in their lifetime.
This month marks Advent in the Christian Calendar, during which Christians are encouraged to read from the Book of Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of St John the Divine.
“It’s full of gory and grotesque detail of how the wicked are going to be punished,” says Ted Harrison, author of Apocalypse When: Why We Want to Believe there Will Be No Tomorrow.
The twenty-first of December, however, is not on the biblical calendar and few, if any, believers in the traditional Book of Revelation are attached to this date.
The supposed date of the coming apocalypse, 21 December, also marks the Winter Solstice, symbolic in many cultures of the end of darkness and the renewal of the light.
It might, suggests Harrison, focus our minds on how we have been treating the planet and those on it, and how we could mend our ways.
In this respect, he says: “It might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s one hope. A remote one, but it is one hope.”
On December 21, 2012, the apocalypse foretold 5,125 years ago by the ancient Mayans will come to pass and the world will end.
Meanwhile, Harold Camping, an American radio preacher, got thousands of followers worked up when he predicted the Second Coming of Jesus Christ on May 21 last year.
When that didn’t happen, Harold Camping said the world would end on October 21. And then he quietly retired from his radio show.
But the “2012 phenomenon”, as it is commonly known to its legions of internet followers, is different.
For the Mayans, a famously wise and advanced civilization which was at its height between 250 and 900AD in the present-day Mexican state of Yucatan and Guatemala, have grabbed everyone’s attention.
The evidence boils down to one simple fact: their 5,125-year calendar – the one used across Central America before the arrival of Europeans – runs out on December 21 this year.
The point is that the Mayans were noted for their extraordinary astronomical observations and mathematical powers.
And if they didn’t think it worth taking their calendar beyond December 2012, they must have had a reason.
Public concern is so high that NASA, the U.S. space agency, even has a section debunking the theories of impending doom on its website.
NASA says it has taken more than 5,000 questions from people, some asking if they should kill themselves, their families or their pets.
Archaeologists who have studied the Mayans have been downplaying the apocalypse theories, insisting that the only surviving Mayan reference to any dreadful significance attached to December 21, 2012, was contained on a single ancient stone tablet found at ruins in Tortuguero, southern Mexico, in the 1960s.
Mexico’s tourism agency hopes the 2012 phenomenon will draw 52 million visitors to the region - more than twice the number the whole country normally receives
According to an inscription on the tablet, a fearsome Mayan god of war and creation may “descend” from the sky on the appointed day.
But then, a few weeks ago, archaeologists had to admit they had found a second piece of evidence – a 1,300-year-old carved brick fragment at a temple ruin in nearby Comalcalco.
The brick, now kept in a vault at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, has an inscription on its face which also refers to the date.
The fact that the face of the brick was probably laid facing inward or covered with stucco – suggesting it was not meant to be seen by the Mayan population who visited the temple – has only added to the hysteria of modern doom-mongers.
Scientists insist there is no dire threat on the horizon, while Mayan experts stress that the ancient civilization’s legacy has simply been misinterpreted.
“Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012,” says NASA on its website in the reassuring tones of a parent dealing with a frightened toddler.
“Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than four billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”
Of course in these conspiracy-obsessed times, there are thousands of cynics who are not convinced.
David Morrison, senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, said he had been receiving about ten emails a day from worried members of the public who are “seriously, seriously upset”.
A young woman from Denmark wrote to him saying: “Mother of one daughter and another coming.
“Yesterday I was considering killing myself, the baby in my stomach and my beloved two-year-old daughter before December 2012 for fear of having to experience the Earth’s destruction.”
A 13-year-old American, wrote: “I am considering suicide. I am scared to tears . . . I don’t want to live any more, I deserve an explanation.”
Another wrote: “I am so scared. My only friend is my little dog. When should I put her to sleep so she won’t suffer when the Earth is destroyed?”
Worried Americans are rushing to buy everything from $27 survival guides to $50,000-per-person places in bunkers that are marketed as being both nuclear bomb and asteroid-proof.
Robert Vicino, a Californian businessman who is building the luxury bunkers in secret locations asked on his website: “What if the prophecies are true? Which side of the door do you want to be on?”
The businessman says that he has more than 5,000 Americans booking places, and is now building bunkers in Europe.
Steve Cramer, one man who has reserved his place, insists: “We’re not crazy people: these are fearful times. My family wants to survive. You have to be prepared.”
Jason Hodge, a father-of-four who also counts himself a “future survivor”, to use the jargon of the apocalypse industry, adds: “It’s an investment in life.
“I want to make sure I have a place I can take me and my family if that worst-case scenario were to happen.”
Mayan apocalypse converts have started flocking to Bugarach too, a tiny hilltop town in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
The 200-strong local community has had to contend with 20,000 visitors since the start of last year, and the French government is worried about the threat of mass suicides.
Believers say a magnetic force surrounds the town’s “mystical” mountain where the top layers of rock are older than the lower ones.
(Geologists say that soon after the mountain was formed, it exploded and the top flew into the air, before landing upside-down).
People claim the magnetic force will protect them from the apocalypse to come.
Others who have flocked to Bugarach insist the mountain is a gateway to another dimension and may contain a secret alien base.
Unhelpfully, the Mayans did not specify exactly what would happen when the world ends. But that hasn’t stopped believers from letting their imaginations run riot.
Many of their 2012 doomsday scenarios involve astronomical phenomena – a rogue planet hitting Earth, fierce solar storms, a galactic alignment in which the Sun’s gravitational effect combines with that of a huge black hole to create havoc. The gloomiest think we may get all three.
A particularly popular theory is that a rogue planet called Nibiru is lurking behind the Sun and will collide with the Earth next December, destroying it. Some believe this rogue body is Eris, a dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune.
The idea of a planet creeping out from behind the Sun and smashing into Earth provided the depressing backdrop to last year’s Lars von Trier film Melancholia, starring Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland.
Another theory, also involving the Sun, predicts that a huge solar flare – called a “solar max” – will destroy the Earth.
This notion has already inspired Hollywood in the 2009 disaster blockbuster 2012, in which the flare caused catastrophic earthquakes. The film also made reference to the Mayan calendar.
Finally, no apocalypse would be complete without at least one alien invasion.
This time last year, reports emerged suggesting the U.S. Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) had detected three large spacecraft due to arrive at Earth in 2012. SETI rejected the claims, to which those who wanted to believe the reports replied: “Well they would, wouldn’t they?”
Another alien theory doing the rounds among conspiracy theorists is that the authorities will stage a fake extra-terrestrial invasion at next year’s closing ceremony for the London Olympic Games so they can declare martial law and introduce a new world order.
Academics and scientists dismiss all of these theories as wild hysteria, of course.
But the fact is that Mayan scholars have been bickering for years over what the end of the Long Count Calendar actually signifies.
The Mayan calendar began in 3,114 BC – believed by Mayans to be when the current “world order” was created – and progresses in 144,000-day cycles (a little more than 394 years) known as baktuns.
The 13th (a sacred number for Mayans) baktun runs out on the 2012 winter solstice, December 21. After that date, the “Great Cycle” is completed and the calendar sequence simply ends.
In 1957, respected Mayan scholar and astronomer Maud Worcester Makemson wrote that the completion of a “Great Period” of 13 baktuns would have been “of the utmost significance to the Maya”.
In 1966, Michael Coe, another prominent Mayan anthropologist and a former CIA agent, went much further and concluded there was a “suggestion” among the Mayans that the final day of the Great Cycle would see “Armageddon overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation” and “thus . . . our present universe would be annihilated”.
Experts had tended to agree with Michael Coe’s interpretation until about a decade ago when the academic world started to insist the Mayans had meant nothing of the sort.
The Mayans believed the end of the 13th baktun would indeed be significant, say academics now, but in a good way.
There will simply be another cycle and it will be a cause for celebration not desperation.
This optimistic message has been championed by many in the New Age movement, which is obsessed by the idea that cultures such as the Mayans had a secret spiritual knowledge that we might tap into if only we knew where to look.
Whatever the truth, hundreds of books have already been published on the subject, not to mention dozens of television programmes and films.
For the most reliable indication of the future, we should perhaps head for the heart of Mayan territory in south-eastern Mexico.
There, locals aren’t running for the hills at all, and don’t seem worried.
In fact, quite the reverse. After suffering years of a tourist industry badly hit by the violence of warring drug cartels, they are looking forward to an economic boom.
Mexico’s tourism agency hopes the 2012 phenomenon will draw 52 million visitors to the region – more than twice the number the whole country normally receives.
And the town of Tapachula, on the Guatemalan border, has already started a countdown to December 21 on a giant digital clock in its main park.
Quite what will happen on the day it runs out remains the subject of feverish debate around the world.