2012: The Good, the Bad, and the Apocalyptic

January 4, 2010

Reading Time:
Word Count:

Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Vanderbilt University, teaches at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and focuses on Science Fiction and Native American Studies. An award-winning scholar and journalist, she is the author of four books and over fifty essays. In addition, Sturgis contributes regular “Looking Back in Genre History” segments to the Hugo Award-winning StarShipSofa podcast and serves as Editor-in-Chief of Hocus Pocus Comics. Her official website is amyhsturgis.com.

Few if any end-of-the-world scenarios can claim a longer history; none has more diverse roots. Depending on where you look, you may find prophecies about 2012 linked to everyone from the ancient Maya, Egyptians, and Hopi to the mysterious prognosticators Nostradamus and Edward Cayce, with helpings of the I Ching, reports from cutting-edge geophysicists and geologists, and various New Age self-realization texts thrown in for good measure. Self-styled 2012 experts have emerged from fields as varied as art, theology, psychology, archeology, astronomy, and ethnobotany; some claim that life as we know it will end in December 2012, while others believe the year will be one of tremendous opportunity for humanity. In the meantime, Hollywood promises to fuel the public’s fascination with 2012, producing orgies of CGI explosions and implosions in its name.

Before we decide whether to embrace the future with open arms or run away from it screaming ourselves hoarse, we should sift through and consider the different ingredients that combine to create the popular culture phenomenon surrounding 2012.

The Maya

At the heart of 2012 predictions lies the Long Count Calendar of the Maya of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, which in turn was based on the astronomical insights of the earlier Olmec system. This calendar measures cycles, or ages, each of which lasts approximately 5,126 years. Today we are living in the final days of the fourth age, which began on August 11 (or, by some reckonings, 13), 3114 BCE. (To put this in perspective, this is roughly the time of the rise of early dynastic Egypt and the first construction at Stonehenge.) The fourth age will end on December 21 (or 23), 2012.

But what does that mean, exactly? Expert Mayanists disagree. In his landmark study The Maya, scholar Michael D. Coe suggests that the Maya might have expected the end of the fourth age to be deadly: “Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation.” This fits with the “idea of cyclical creations and destructions” apparent in Maya legend. For example, according to Maya mythology, we represent the gods’ third attempt at creating humanity. The gods made people first from mud, and those creatures disintegrated. The gods then made humans from wood but were displeased with them and destroyed them. The fate of today’s humans, the people made of corn, remains to be seen.

Other scholars emphasize that the fourth age, and not the calendar itself, ends in 2012. Sandra Noble, executive director of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, told USA Today that for “the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle.” Perhaps the ancient Maya would have used this moment of transition from one age to the next to party, as it were, like it was 1999.

Part of the confusion comes from the fact that historical Maya sources beyond the calendar itself are scarce. The only Maya text that clearly refers to 2012 is a 7th-century inscription in Tabasco, Mexico known as Tortuguero Monument 6. Unfortunately, it is now defaced and incomplete, so no thorough, definitive analysis will ever be possible. What remains of the text seems to describe the descent of the god (or gods) B’olon Yokte’ K’uh in 2012. B’olon Yokte’ K’uh usually is associated with war, strife, and the underworld–not the most promising of signs. Yet scholars such as Marcus Eberl and Christian Prager focus on the positive connotations of the verb used to describe the descent, claiming that this means the Maya viewed the event as a positive rather than a negative one.

What do the Maya today think of 2012? Some leaders today claim that apocalyptic thinking is more an Anglo trait than Maya, and that the panic about 2012 tells us far more about Western fears–and, quite possibly, spiritual bankruptcy–than Amerindian cosmology. When asked by the Associated Press what he thought about the 2012 phenomenon, Guatemalan Elder Apolinario Chile Pixtun admitted in disgust that he was “fed up with this stuff.” Ceremonial priest and spiritual guide of the Eagle clan Don Alejandro also dismisses doomsday predictions: “They say the world will end in 2012. The Mayan Elders are angry with this. The world will not end: it will be transformed.” This transformation, Alejandro explains, will be anything but terrible: “We are at the cusp of the era when peace begins, and people live in harmony with Mother Earth.”

Galactic Alignment

The Maya Long Count Calendar nonetheless continues to capture the popular imagination, not only for its mythological significance, but also for its potential scientific value. The ancient Maya possessed a sophisticated understanding of astronomy, and it informed many aspects of their lives, from their religion and architecture to their calendric system. Knowing this, some 2012 enthusiasts look for connections between the Long Count Calendar’s end date for the fourth age and significant astronomical events.

Independent researcher John Major Jenkins has made a career out of this pursuit, authoring books such as Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. He also coined a term to describe what he views as the astronomical inspiration behind the Maya calendar: galactic alignment. Jenkins and his supporters claim that the end of the fourth age as marked by the Maya will correspond with some rather remarkable developments in the heavens. For example, December 21, 2012 coincides with the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere–and not just any winter solstice. Approximately every 2,160 years, the constellation that is visible in the early morning of the spring equinox changes. This signals the end of one astrological age and the beginning of another, a phenomenon also known as the precession of the ages of the zodiac. On December 21, 2012, the Age of Pisces will end. The Earth will move into–yes, you guessed it–the Age of Aquarius. Pull out your old albums by The 5th Dimension.

But wait: there’s more. During the winter solstice, Earth comes into alignment with the sun and the galactic equator. In other words, the sun sits directly between the Earth and the very center of the galaxy. If cosmic energy flows from the galaxy’s center, as some claim, the Earth will be blocked off from it.

Furthermore, for a 36-year period already underway–a period that includes 2012–the sun at this time appears to fall within the Great Rift, the dark band of dust clouds in the Milky Way, or what the ancient Maya called the “Dark Road.” (The most precise alignment occurred in 1998, but this does not dissuade believers from making the 2012 connection.) In a leap away from strict science (and, let’s be honest, proof of any kind), Jenkins speculates that this positioning of the sun in the Great Rift held great significance for the ancient Maya, who interpreted it as a sign that humanity would experience a profound and fundamental transformation.

The galactic alignment theory has found advocates beyond the Maya calendar camp, as well. For instance, some researchers–including Audrey Fletcher, author of Ancient Egyptians and the Constellations–claim that the most precise view of the winter solstice convergence will be at Latitude 30 degrees North, which just so happens to be the location of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The ancient Egyptians, they assert, built the pyramid as an observation deck from which to witness the galactic alignment. To such authors and their advocates, this implies that the Egyptians believed December 21, 2012 will bring more than simply a novel and fascinating view of the cosmos; somehow, it will have a lasting impact on humanity. Like Jenkins, many of those who claim an Egyptian connection for galactic alignment adopt an unabashedly mystical and hopeful tone when discussing 2012, imagining that it may represent a new age of enlightenment for the planet.

I Ching

Another thread in the 2012 tapestry relates to the ancient Chinese text known as the I Ching, or Book of Changes. The exact age of the text is uncertain; the earliest surviving copy dates back approximately to the mid-4th to early 3rd century BCE. The I Ching teaches about the inevitability and acceptance of change, and the achievement of dynamic balance through opposites. The text includes a series of hexagrams. From one perspective, these are shortcut understandings of larger philosophical principles; from another, they are the foundation for a system of divination.

Ethnobotanist, metaphysician, and icon of the ’60s counterculture Terence Kemp McKenna–a man once described by Timothy Leary as “one of the five or six most important people on the planet”–made the connection between the hexagrams in the I Ching known as the “King Wen sequence” and the year 2012. With the assistance of psychedelic drugs and mushrooms, McKenna devised what he termed novelty theory: the idea that “novelty,” or the interconnectedness of the universe, ebbs and flows over time. Peak moments signal an evolutionary leap forward for humanity.

In the effort to predict these moments of novelty, McKenna devised a computer program based on his interpretations of the I Ching hexagrams. He claimed the program produced a time wave, which he termed “time wave zero.” McKenna’s program highlighted November 2012 as a potential turning point for humanity, during which an instant of infinite complexity would occur, and all things imaginable would take place at the same time; scientists and science fiction authors might term this as a singularity. According to McKenna, this is an endpoint of sorts because, after this date entropy would no longer exist. What would that mean for humans? For the Earth? It’s impossible to imagine.

McKenna published his findings in his book The Invisible Landscape. Later, he became convinced that his work supported the predictions of others who focused on 2012, and in revised editions of the book, he adjusted his findings to echo the popular December 21, 2012 date. As McKenna’s work crosses the line between science and pseudoscience, statistics and numerology, his conclusions remain controversial in the extreme; ironically, they are embraced by many in the New Age movement with which McKenna himself had little patience. (McKenna was immortalized in the Twin Peaks series through the character of Dr. Jacoby; unfortunately, he died in 2000, a dozen years short of testing the accuracy of his prediction.)

Other Voices from History

As if the ancient Maya, Egyptians, and Chinese were not enough, others point to additional voices from history that may have anticipated great change or catastrophe in 2012. In the lead in this effort is The History Channel in the United States, which continues to delve into doomsday scenarios with a zest that borders on the disturbing. (At least it gives the network executives something else to do beyond filming one more special on Hitler. Or UFOs. Or Hitler and UFOs.)

The prophecies of the ancient Hopi are encoded in what is today known as the “prophecy stone” as well as in the recorded words of White Feather of the Bear Clan. In recent years, they have been expounded upon by Hopi elders Thomas Banyacya and Dan Evehema, as well as author Frank Walters in The Book of the Hopi. According to some Hopi beliefs, the Hopi have the responsibility of keeping the world in balance through their faith and ceremonies. They cannot single-handedly save the Earth; however, people of the world have the choice to follow a positive path (the “Red Road”) or a destructive one (the “Black Road”). Thomas Banyacya even addressed the United Nations, offering a final warning to fulfill what he deemed to be his responsibility to the prophecies. Despite this, it seems that materialism and greed have firmly planted modern cultures on the Black Road; according to some interpretations, eight of the nine Hopi prophecies that foretell the end of days have already been fulfilled. After the ninth occurs–when a “blue star,” a “dwelling place in the heavens,” falls from the sky–the Hopi ceremonies will be stopped, and the world will lose its balance. Although the prophecies specify no particular dates, some 2012 devotees consider it additional compelling evidence for 2012 as the end of days.

Of course, no doomsday scenario would be complete without invoking Nostradamus, the 16th-century French apothecary and visionary, or Edgar Cayce, the 20th-century “sleeping prophet” and psychic from the United States. Neither man specified the year 2012 when recording his visions of the future, but those interested in 2012 have noted similarities in the men’s prophecies–similarities that seem to support immediate scientific concerns today. Cayce’s writings are quite specific; Nostradamus’ notoriously mysterious quatrains remain far more open to interpretation. However, both seem to refer to catastrophic disasters brought about by a shift in the Earth’s magnetic poles, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods, and extended drought. According to Cayce, and some readings of Nostradamus, the very shape and substance of the continents will be forever changed. Moreover, some interpret the illustrations in the so-called “lost book of Nostradamus” (Vaticinia Nostradami) to refer to galactic alignment.

The Freemasons also figure into the mix, inspiring websites and online discussion-group debates. Some 2012 enthusiasts suggest that the Gothic cathedrals built by Freemasons have encoded within their architectural structures mathematical information that foretells the end of the planet; others suggest that the mysterious “Tracing Board” art of the First Degree of Freemasonry visually depicts an understanding of the galactic alignment that will occur on December 21, 2012. On this (as on almost everything else), however, the Freemasons themselves remain silent.

The Scientific Perspective

The 2012 phenomenon isn’t just for conspiracy theorists and The History Channel–it’s also for scientists and The Discovery Channel. The unpleasant fact is that geophysicists and geologists have put forward several ways in which 2012 might spell doom for the planet Earth.

Mioara Mandea, a geophysicist at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany, and Nils Olsen, a geophysicist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, have published research suggesting that the Earth might soon experience a magnetic reversal. The last time the north and south poles flipped polarity was approximately 780,000 years ago. It seems clear to researchers that the Earth’s magnetic field has weakened at least ten percent over the last century and a half. If the trend continues, this might signal an upcoming magnetic reversal; it certainly will spell trouble for satellites and electronic equipment, since the magnetic field is what protects them from the dangerous and disruptive radiation from the sun.

Added to this peril comes news from the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that solar activity will continue to climb until it peaks at the “solar maximum” around 2013, which arguably is close enough to December 21, 2012 to cause alarm. This rise in solar activity promises an increase of sunspots and possibly solar flares, both of which disrupt our satellites, radio, and communication systems, among other things. They may even affect the global temperature of the Earth, according to geologist Don Easterbrook of Western Washington University.

Geologist and mineralogist Alexei Dmitriev of the Siberian Department of the Russian Academy of Sciences goes further. He says an interstellar energy cloud with charged ions is currently “donating” extra, unstable energy to our galaxy, impacting all of the planets as well as the sun. He explains, “Effects here on Earth are to be found in the acceleration of the magnetic pole shift, in the vertical and horizontal ozone content distribution, and in the increased frequency and magnitude of significant catastrophic climatic events. There is a growing probability that we are moving into a rapid temperature instability period similar to the one that took place 10,000 years ago.” And what will this mean for the planet? Dmitriev suggests these changes may lead to a “total global revision of the range of species and life on Earth.” To the lay reader, that certainly doesn’t sound good.

Fortunately, the direst of predictions is also the one with the least scientific proof. The idea of the planet Nibiru–a theoretical world in our solar system that follows a highly elliptical path around the sun, making one full orbit roughly every 3,750 years–originated with ancient astronaut proponent Zecharia Stichin. The planet was adopted by and incorporated into the message of Nancy Lieder, founder of the website ZetaTalk. Lieder claims that she receives messages from extraterrestrials living in the Zeta Reticuli star system–not exactly the kind of source that gets one published in refereed scientific journals. Lieder claims that her alien contacts have warned her that Nibiru will pass close by the Earth soon, and its gravitational pull will cause a pole shift that will eradicate most of humanity. Certain adherents to the Nibiru (sometimes called Planet X) theory make predictions even darker than Lieder’s, asserting that Nibiru will, in fact, collide with the Earth and destroy all life. They also fine-tune Lieber’s timetable for the disaster, which she sets at approximately 2010, in favor of the more popular date of December 21, 2012.

The Not-So-Scientific Perspective

It should come as no surprise that the subject of 2012, with its relationship to various world religions and mythologies as well as environmental and space sciences, has attracted members of the New Age movement. One of the first leaders to tackle the issue was spiritualist and metaphysician José Argüelles, who was one of the organizers of the Whole Earth Festival in 1970 and the Harmonic Convergence event in 1987. He has predicted that runaway technology, materialism, aggression, and environmental abuse, coupled with the fast pace of daily life, may lead to the destruction of the United States by 2012. He considers that year to be a “cosmic juncture,” “a collision of different realities,” and “a collision of different dimensions.” In books such as The Mayan Path Beyond Technology and Time and the Technosphere: The Law of Time in Human Affairs, Argüelles explains his vision for creating through art and peaceful cooperation a positive expansion in human understanding and a shift toward “galactic consciousness.” Although his judgments against contemporary society are harsh, Argüelles believes we can prepare ourselves to become better through a transformative community experience of 2012.

A related figure in the New Age movement is Daniel Pinchbeck, author, vocal advocate of the use of psychedelic substances, and founder of the online magazine Reality Sandwich (which, according to its tag, is devoted to “evolving consciousness bite by bite”). In his book 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, Pinchbeck covers topics as diverse as ESP and crop circles. His guiding message is that, as we approach 2012, humanity will experience an accelerated process of consciousness expansion that will allow us to cast aside materialistic attitudes and, quite literally, “think globally.” This is not a new path for humanity, he explains, but rather the return of an ancient one. Pinchbeck’s insights are guided by his belief in shamanistic and mystical ways of knowing and the conviction that he receives messages directly from the Mesoamerican god Quetzalcoatl. Like Argüelles, Pinchbeck views 2012 with hope.

So, too, does author and metalworker Semir Osmanagić, who first came to world attention for his promotion of the so-called Bosnian pyramids. In works such as The Cosmic Mission of the Maya and The World of the Maya, Osmanagić describes the ancient Maya as the descendents of the inhabitants of the fabled lost lands of Atlantis and Lemuria, the ones responsible for harmonizing the frequencies of the Earth and Sun. He also views 2012 as an opportunity for human growth and evolution: “When the ‘heavens open’ and cosmic energy is allowed to flow throughout our tiny Planet, will we be raised to a higher level by the vibrations.”

The list of those who have embraced a contemporary, New Age form of “Mayanism” could go on and on. Works of a similar optimistic tone include Worldshift 2012: Making Green Business, New Politics, and Higher Consciousness Work Together by Ervin Laszlo (with introductions by odd bedfellows Deepak Chopra and Mikhail Gorbachev), Beyond 2012: A Shaman’s Call to Personal Change and the Transformation of Global Consciousness by James Endredy, and The GAIA Project 2012: The Earth’s Coming Great Changes by Hwee-Yong Jang, among others. They prove, if nothing else, that there can be more to 2012 than doom and gloom.

The Fictional

With this rich fodder for creative minds, it is no wonder that filmmakers and authors are turning to the subject of 2012. A thorough survey of fictional interpretations of 2012 would require a separate essay, but a few examples are in order. Roland Emmerich’s big-budget film 2012 is eco-disaster porn at its most digitally enhanced, complete with volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis. 2012: Doomsday depicts the Earth facing a catastrophic polar shift, while in 2012: Supernova a nearby star goes supernova and threatens the planet. I Spit on Your Rave links 2012 to a zombie apocalypse. Blood of the Beast imagines world war, chemical weapons, and clones for 2012, and RahXephon imagines an alien invasion.

Novelists likewise have found 2012 inspiring. Eric and Todd Gregory link 2012 with a disastrous turn in the war on terror in America 2012: A Novel. Stel Pavlou’s Decipher has it all: the sunspots, the Sphinx, the rising of Atlantis, and the threat of eco-apocalypse. In 2012: The War of Souls, Whitley Strieber tells of an invasion by aliens who wish to eat human souls. Juliann Farnsworth links the Bermuda Triangle, the Devil’s Triangle, and the lost continent of Atlantis to 2012 in Time Storm 2012: Atlantis and the Mayan Prophecy. Gregory Bernard Banks focuses on the panic that ensues when world leaders admit their helplessness to stop doomsday in 2012: Seeking Closure. John P. Cater’s The Endlight Event posits a catastrophic eclipse of the sun in 2012 that may spell extinction for life on Earth. You get the idea.

In fact, 2012 has influenced some of the most celebrated fictional texts of recent years. Fans of The X-Files will not forget that, in the two-part series finale, “The Truth,” the Cigarette Smoking Man hid out in the New Mexico desert to avoid the alien colonization scheduled for December 22, 2012. This issue of Apex Magazine offers proof that 2012 continues to inform excellent science fiction and horror.

It’s The End of the World As We Know It: Do You Feel Fine?

Will 2012 yield horrors unimaginable, a transformed and bettered world, or simply an anticlimax after so much anticipation and fear? This introduction to the different ingredients that inform the 2012 phenomenon reflects barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Enthusiasts tie 2012 to everything from reported crop circles to alleged alien abductions, from Stonehenge to the Bermuda Triangle. Scientists investigate concerns about photon belts, black holes, and asteroids, and note the fact that the Pleiades will conjunct with an eclipse of the moon by the sun twice in 2012. Millennialists from some of the world’s major religions seek for–and are finding–reasons to take 2012 seriously in their study of Kabbalah, the Bible, and the Qur’an.

You may laugh. You may pray, meditate, and seek to expand your consciousness in preparation for inheriting a transformed and uplifted world. Or you may pick up a copy of Patrick Geryl’s How To Survive 2012 or Janice Manning’s Planet X Forecast and 2012 Survival Guide, just to be on the safe side. Whatever you choose to do, keep this in mind: you might not have long to do it.

© Amy H. Sturgis


Submit a Comment